It has to be the unluckiest place in the Pacific. In recent years, two cyclones, one volcano and the death of a beloved president have left Vanuatu reeling. The 2015 World Risk Report, compiled by the United Nations and based upon the expectation of earthquakes, storms, floods or drought, rated Vanuatu No. 1, ahead of Tonga, the Philippines and Guatemala.
However there are signs of better times ahead. Vanuatu wasn't even included in the 2018 World Risk Report. And the drive from Port Vila airport past the new $16.5 million waterfront precinct reveals a refreshed landscape. A new walkway straddles markets, restaurants and bars on one side, with kayaks, jet skis and fishing craft on the other.
Our destination is a short boat ride across Mele Bay – Iririki was rebuilt and relaunched in 2016 after the devastation of 2015's Cyclone Pam. Formerly a child-free sanctuary, the resort now welcomes under-12s.
Still, doubts linger. For families, Fiji is cheaper and New Caledonia more exotic. So, why go to Vanuatu? One answer is the country's fascinating history. Despite it meaning "our land forever" in many of the Melanesian languages, Vanuatu has been colonised by the French, Spanish, and British. Vestiges of these foreign powers remain in the form of Parisian-style patisseries and restaurants, and English common law and language. There are more than 100 languages in Vanuatu, making it per capita the most linguistically diverse nation on earth. Then there's the belief in John Frum, a mythical, messianic figure who is the basis for a local cargo cult (cargo cults believe spirits of the dead will one day return bearing treasure, often in the form of industrial-era goods). To this day, John Frum is both a religion and political party.
Much of this history is woven into the fabric of Iririki, which rises like an emerald out of aquamarine seas.
The island once housed the British Residency, built for a visit by the Queen. (Interestingly, this visit spawned The Prince Philip Movement, which worships the Duke of Edinburgh as a spiritual leader.) Climbing the 179 steps to its former site, we're rewarded with 360-degree views. Fortunately, on-call golf buggies transport guests around the vertiginous 30-hectare property.
Eleven-year-old Grace and I dine like queens, courtesy of sous chefs Alick and Alick at the signature Azure restaurant, overlooking Port Vila harbour. The two locals use organic produce from the market garden atop the hill. Think salade nicoise using freshly caught yellow fin tuna with homegrown cucumber, tomato and onion. The kids' menu is equally impressive, featuring favourites such as lasagne and pizza.
After retiring to our enormous over-water fare – with its solid, dark wood furniture and ultra-modern bathrooms and fittings – we want to see the "real' Vanuatu, to escape these (luxurious) colonial trappings.
Our guide drives for 15-minutes through the small city of Vila, the humble outer suburbs and heavy rainforest to Ekasup Cultural Village, which is something of an institution in these parts. When an actor in tribal attire jumps out from behind the bushes, we know we're in for a treat (after our hearts return to their regular rhythm). A stellar cast gives us an insight into traditional hunting, fishing and cultural practices, including which plants to use for medicine and how to preserve food without electricity. A traditional kastom song and dance rounds off the experience, which Grace describes as the highlight of her trip.
Our education continues with a hike to the top of the dramatic Mele Cascades Waterfalls, which are owned and run by locals. About half a dozen villagers are bathing and washing in the lower pools outside the entrance as we arrive, ready for the slog to the source.
The climb is slippery and steep, so bring good walking shoes. But be prepared to take them off, to cross the waterfall at several spots. The good news is there's a rope to cling to when the force of the water is too strong. Once at the top, the sight is breathtaking: torrents of water crashing down to create a thunderous orchestra below. Afterwards, we swim in one of the natural turquoise pools.
While you're in this area of Efate, drive (or hitchhike) a couple of minutes to catch the free ferry to Hideaway Island. Sadly, the spot has fallen into disrepair in recent years, with staff so unfriendly you feel terrible for intruding on their time. However, the world's only underwater post office is a must-see. You can buy a waterproof postcard, or hire one of the many kayaks, snorkel sets or paddleboards to enjoy the marine reserve. Make sure you bring reef shoes – the broken coral on the beach is tough on delicate soles.
The underwater theme continues back at our resort, which is home to the only swim-up casino outside Las Vegas. As children aren't allowed in the casino, we consider searching for the island's resident dugong at Snorkeller's Cove, taking one of the free bikes for a spin, or playing table tennis in the games room. Ultimately, holidays – even family ones – are about relaxing, so we sip mocktails by the infinity pool before heading to the new day spa. I sink into a hot stone massage while Gracie has her hair braided. Afterwards, we watch the sun set over the four-tier cascading pools near the kids' club, on the other side of the island. This is the site of a 2784-strong field of solar panels, which power the entire island.
As I order another Frozen Magic cocktail, containing vodka, Kahlua and Baileys, to drink on our balcony – because big kids deserve treats as well – I reflect on this troubled nation's newfound luck. Tallis Obed Moses has been sworn in as the new president, with a mandate to clean up corruption. Manaro Voui volcano has stabilised, so residents are returning to their homes.
And tourists are slowly returning to this undervalued jewel of the Pacific.
Tracey Spicer travelled as a guest of the Vanuatu Tourism Office, Iririki Resort & Spa and Air Vanuatu.
FIVE MORE FAMILY-FRIENDLY THINGS TO DO IN VANUATU
1. Go to the markets to buy colourful children's clothing.
2. Explore the harbour on the new Adventure Submarine, facebook.com/Adventure-Submarine-Vanuatu-189229661498351
3. Learn some Bislama, one of Vanuatu's official languages, in the Iririki Island kids' club.
4. Take a quick trip on the Vanuatu Jungle Zipline, vanuatujunglezipline.com
5. Learn to scuba dive with Big Blue on the seawall in Port Vila, bigbluevanuatu.com
Air Vanuatu flies six times a week from Sydney to Port Vila, and four times from Brisbane, with a flight time of three to four hours. See airvanuatu.com
Iririki Island Resort & Spa is gleaming after a $24-million makeover. There are many levels of family-style accommodation, ranging from a three-person Island Fare from $360 a night to a four-person Deluxe Villa from $800 a night. Breakfast, Wi-Fi and non-motorised water sports included. See iririki.com