In Port Vila on Independence Day, if you wanted to know where the party was all you had to do was follow the people with flags in their hair.
On July 30, the whole town was snaking its way up to the slopes of Independence Park high above the town; those with thick, curly locks just popped the red-yellow-green-and-black national flag into their 'do, the more follicular-challenged (like me) tucked it into a cap. At the park there was a flag-raising ceremony, speeches and food stalls selling local staples such as fried fish and fritters made of yams and taro root. To add to the festive vibe a cruise ship was in port adding another few thousand to the island capital's party population.
There was plenty to celebrate on Vanuatu's 36th birthday, the island nation had declared itself open for business after the devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam more than a year earlier. The tropical storm was the worst natural disaster in the history of Vanuatu with winds of up to 250km/h flattening several of the 83 islands in the archipelago, including Efate, home to Port Vila.
There are still reminders of the tragedy around – defiant graffiti and piles of roadside rubble – but there is no doubt the island paradise is back, and one of the last pieces of the recovery puzzle was the opening of the Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu, just a short walk from the centre of Port Vila.
The Holiday Inn is a mix of double rooms and themed family rooms as well as a series of overwater villas that allow guests to step off their balcony into the resort's tranquil lagoon.
On a tip from a staff member I rise early on my first day and tackle the lagoon at sunrise for an early morning kayak. The lagoon is peaceful in the early morning, with a veritable constellation of plump thorny starfish on show. My only company is a local fisherman who cranks up an old radio playing Polynesian tunes that float across the water; tiny silver fish leap ahead of the bow on my canoe like tiny dolphins ahead of a boat.
It is a far cry from the chaos when Pam hit, and when the Holiday Inn played an integral role in keeping its staff and surrounding residents safe. The main building is a solid, concrete affair built in the '70s and it was able to withstand the cyclone, so it became a haven for anyone who could make it there. But it was far from unscathed and when the storm had passed there was plenty of work to do, which only finished in July. Buildings were reinforced, beaches cleared and the whole resort given a facelift.
The Holiday Inn is just a short walk from Port Vila, so after my kayak and a big breakfast in the verandah restaurant overlooking the waters I had recently conquered, well floated along, I take a walk into town. It is a 20-minute wander past front-porch barbers and bantams tightrope-walking along thatched roofs.
My first stop is the Port Vila Market House, a bustling market selling local fruit and vegetables. Post-Pam this cacophony of sellers touting their baskets full of root vegetables was reduced to just a single table sitting alone under the huge, arched roof but now it is once again packed, with music blaring from the carpark, locals dancing by the sea – and it is even a Pokestop (hey, I have kids).
Further along the main road is Brewery Bar & Restaurant, a recent addition that brews its own boutique beer Nambawan, which also means "very good" in the local language, Bislama. It is a great place to sit, sample a beer – draught, gold, bitter, porter or reserve – and listen to Something for Kate as you watch utes go nose-to-tail down the Kumul Highway like metal elephants on parade.
Later that night I have dinner at a Port Vila institution, L'Houstalet, a French restaurant that has been on the island for four decades. The house speciality is flying fox, a local delicacy stewed in red wine, but as a recovering vegetarian I opt for the garlic coconut crab, a local crustacean that looks like an armoured version of the Facehugger from Alien, and it's as delicious as it is messy. I finish with profiteroles, because France. It's seems it is always 1970 at L'Houstalet and if Port Vila had hipsters there would be queues around the corner
I sit down later with owner Clement in a white dining room with works from local French painter Aloi Piliol on the walls (he is responsible for the colourful front wall of the Port Vila post office) and we talk about the cyclone.
"This time I have been saved by the gods, but in 1987 I was ruined by Cyclone Uma," says Clement. Uma was a similar strength to Pam and wiped out all four of Clement's restaurants. He only rebuilt this one and made it cyclone ready. After Pam, L'Houstalet was without power for three days but on the fourth day they opened, ready to feed hungry volunteers who were starting the lengthy clean up.
Giving me a lift back to the Holiday Inn, Clement talks about his love of Vanuatu, on the challenges of perfecting his fruit bar recipe and the resilience of the people who live there. "You can't lose every time," he laughs as he bids me good night and disappears into the darkness. That is a sentiment well worth celebrating.
Air Vanuatu flies from Brisbane (2½ hours) and Sydney (3½ hours); airvanuatu.com.
After an 18-month refurbishment, the Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu is welcoming guests again, with a special emphasis on families with a host of activities and a complimentary kids club for kids three to 12 years. There is a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and a gym plus nightly entertainment that includes local fire dancers and dinner under the stars. Doubles in a king bed garden view room start from VUV17,860. See vanuatu.holidayinnresorts.com
Grab a pizza at the Brewery Restaurant & Bar, Kumul Highway, Port Vila; have a French meal at L,Houstalet, Captain Cook Avenue, Port Vila.
Paul Chai was a guest of Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu and Air Vanuatu.
See also: Port Vila, a three-minute guide