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Shine On, Vanuatu

VTO_087_DK_2014_Vanuatu Tourism_David Kirkland
VTO_003_DK_2014_Vanuatu Tourism_David Kirkland
vto103dk2014_Vanuatu Tourism_David Kirkland
VTO_061_DK_2014_Vanuatu Tourism_David Kirkland

Shine On, Vanuatu

story by: Anna Sarjeant

In March 2015 Hurricane Pam swept through Vanuatu, ravaging much of the mainland and islands. But don't cry for Vanuatu just yet. Albeit shaken, it takes more than a storm to unsettle this beauty.

This is a country where the sun shines bright but the people’s smiles shine brighter. A nation on the mend, Vanuatu’s rebuild is predominately cosmetic, nothing can destroy the population’s enviable zeal for life.

Espiritu Santo, the largest island in Vanuatu and the nation’s second biggest tourist area was almost completely bypassed by Cyclone Pam and remains both in-tact and in-credible. Awash with palm-fringed beaches, platinum sand and water so clear it sparkles like crystal, even Pam knew Santo was too beautiful to attack.

Simple, sleepy and charmingly underdeveloped, in Santo there are more cows than people. In fact, if it wasn’t for the cattle idly gracing the shoreline, you’d find yourself alone on the beach. High-end retreats flank the green hinterland but it’s the isolation that makes Santo so attractive. That and the cuisine of course, because Santo (like much of Vanuatu) is a food haven. French colonists gave the country strong coffee and sweet patisseries, while the island’s tropical location and rich agriculture contribute to the exotic fruits and coconut plantations, gooey honey and an abundance of cattle, all of which is fresh and organic. Arguably, Vanuatu’s beef will likely be the best you’ll ever taste.

From Santo you can discover Vanuatu’s war history. As the former WWII military base of the US Army, Hurricane Pam isn’t the sole perpetrator to leave a path of debris. The sunken graveyard of the USA Army, also known as Million Dollar Point is found just off the coast of Espírito Santo. Between the terracotta sand and perennial blue sky there lies a dumping ground of US military equipment, or to put it in better words, a moment of lunacy frozen in time. The submerged junkyard reflects a time in 1947 when, with the war over and Vanuatu no longer US-occupied, American soldiers were instructed to dump all warfare into the sea. Jeeps, trucks, bulldozers, tractors, trailers and all. And that is where they stayed.

Decades on and the rusted, contorted remnants of planes, boats and bulldozers no longer await excavation; now a permanent feature of the Santo scenery, they’ve taken residence in Vanuatu, frequented only by divers, snorkelers and scores of tropical fish that have renovated the twisted wreckage into their home. Not as adverse as it initially appears, the underwater scenery, albeit muddy and mangled, is also beautiful. An interactive history lesson that beguiles visitors with both its eerie neglect and fascinating past, it is undeniably one of the world’s best diving spectacles.

As the most populous island in Vanuatu and the most visited of Vanuatu’s islands from NZ, Efate took a huge brunt of Pam’s wrath and didn’t fare well for it. Months on and a lot of the province has been rebuilt, only two resorts, Iririki Island Resort & Holiday Inn Resort remain closed until May 2016 and a new 80 room self-contained resort, The Ramada Akiriki Vanuatu is readying itself to welcome tourists from 1 June 2016. Included in Vanuatu’s rebuild is the capital, Port Vila. A little slice of France in the southern hemisphere, and well worth a visit for the food alone. French colonists gave the country a taste for European flavours and even the supermarkets are enticing – with French chains selling a medley of continental treats.

From Port Vila, take a 20-minute drive to Mele Cascades, an area of lush foliage intertwined with turquoise streams and foaming rivers. Nature at its very finest, Mele Cascades is the polar-opposite of Cyclone Pam; calm, tranquil and glowing with serenity. Inhale the sweet scent of hibiscus, dip your toes in shallow pools and navigate bubbling creeks, the water reaching high above your ankles. Having clambered over rocks and under low-lying trees, you’ll reach a stunning waterfall and an invitation to swim beneath it. Efate may have taken a battering but its beauty stands strong.

Cyclone or no cyclone, the people of Vanuatu are always smiling. Said to be the happiest souls in the world, making easy and immediate connections with the nation’s people is an everyday occurrence. Travellers are welcomed with open-arms, more so since Hurricane Pam. Tourism plays a huge part in their vitality, credited to 40% of the national income and the stability of Vanuatu’s future, the country fought to bounce back, and bounce back it did. Pam’s long gone – but Vanuatu’s long list of appeals never went away.


*Thanks to Vanuatu Tourism and David Kirkland for the images.

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