Vanuatu's Efate may be small but it’s big on things to do

As a long-time visitor and part- time resident of Vanuatu, I should be an expert on all the activities, amusements, cultural and culinary highlights, customs and accommodation – but I'm not. Not because I haven't experienced a lot of what Vanuatu has to offer, but because there is so much to see and do. 

And, quite often, I simply do nothing. So, while sloth has slowed my discovery of the country's 83 islands, in Vanuatu I've found peace. I've also found a lively, cosmopolitan social scene, fabulous organic produce, bijoux retreats, large resorts and sophisticated restaurants, unspoiled beaches, pristine reefs, disintegrating underwater wrecks, volcanoes, waterfalls and perfectly formed small islands – and the welcoming local Ni Vanuatu people. 

There really is something for everybody.

Efate is the island which is home to the capital, Port Vila, and the most likely starting point for any visitor. It's the most populous and third largest island, and it can be driven around in three to four hours if you're only interested in doing a fast lap on the ring road. Much better to linger along the way and take in many of the delights that this little corner of the Pacific has to enjoy. 

Before leaving town (or on your return) there's plenty to see and do on the harbour, from restaurants and shops to a visit to Iririki Island Resort: there's a day spa, choice of dining venues and family activities for visitors who purchase a day pass and take the three-minute ferry trip across the bay. 

"Town" is also a stepping-off point for any number of tourist activities including helicopter flights, bus tours, sunset cruises, fishing trips plus water sports outings and dive sites within the harbour or nearby. The Twin Bommies reef dive is only 15 minutes away and there are three wrecked ships and a sunken Tasman seaplane popular with divers within a short distance of the capital. 

Once on the road, about 15 minutes from town, you'll find the departure point for Hideaway Island, the most accessible of the small dive islands. This little gem is a short ferry ride from the mainland and is a perfect destination for family snorkelling and diving, being home to a marine reserve, dive shop, restaurant and small resort, not to mention the world's only underwater post office (really). Farther on, past the black sand beach of Mele Bay at the foot of the very steep Klems Hill, is the Mele Cascades waterfall, where you'll find a series of clear aquamarine pools and a 35-metre waterfall with terrific views.

From here, your trip could be a culinary excursion, taking in any number of restaurants renowned for both their food and proximity to Havannah Harbour, which, along with Undine Bay, dominates the northern side of Efate. Drop into Francesca's Beach Club and dine at the Italian-inspired trattoria under the vine-covered pergola overlooking the small beach below. Next door is another waterfront eatery, the Wahoo Bar, specialising in fish and seafood as well as the famous local beef. 

Here, you can take the daily Turtle Reef cruise in a glass-bottom boat and explore the spectacular eponymous reef.

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A little farther on is the island's multi-award-winning, family-owned boutique resort, The Havannah, on Samoa Point. Here you'll find The Point Restaurant, which sits under one of the largest natangura (traditional Vanuatu thatch) roofs in the region with 270-degree views of the bay. Or you might prefer an intimate meal at the end of the jetty. 

Also along this stretch of road are the launching points for tours to the easily accessible islands across the water. Lelepa Island offers day tours that include the trip from the mainland in a banana boat, a simple lunch in an equally simple open pavilion on a white-sand beach, a snorkelling tour on a round island boat trip and a visit to the traditional owners' village. The next door island of Moso is home to a small, stylish resort that welcomes daytrippers to its waterfront restaurant with tables under the trees and, for post-prandial relaxation, hammocks suspended in frames above the water – indulgent. 

Farther east in Undine Bay is the island of Nguna, home to a protected marine reserve – another popular diving location – an extinct volcano and small villages. The stepping off point is from the Emua Wharf, where you can also take a trip to Pele, the other main island in the north. Day trips can be arranged to all four islands – check the Vanuatu Tourism Office website at vanuatu.travel. 

Alternatively, you could hop aboard the historic Coongoola, a 23-metre ketch that operates tours around Havannah Harbour and takes in a baby turtle rookery, snorkelling, dolphin sightings (if you're lucky) and a beach barbecue on Moso Island.

Back on the blacktop, on the eastern side of the island you'll find Eton Beach, which has a cool freshwater stream feeding into an ocean lagoon. Nearby at Eton Reef sits one of the island's best-kept secrets, Papaya Villa, a small beachfront B&B run by two Australians passionate about perfecting a "no news, no shoes" island experience.

From there, and almost back at Port Vila, a slight detour takes you to Tamanu on the Beach, another small resort that is famous for its long lunches and stylish villas fronting a vast expanse of white sand beach. Fifteen minutes from here, you've completed your loop to arrive back in Port Vila. 

That's just one island among 83, which is why I definitely haven't "done it all" just yet.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale January 26.

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