Barefoot Luxury in Vanuatu

This is the quintessential tropical island paradise; an archipelago of 83 islands with white-sand beaches and swaying palms.

The winning smiles of the Ni-Vanuatu people are contagious and, with ancient customs in the mix, the nation offers more than enough to lure visitors.

The good news for tourists looking for a dose of experiential travel is that a growing number of boutique resorts are enabling explorers to enjoy Vanuatu’s natural charms, without feeling like you’re staying at just any five-star resort.

“These days, travellers are seeking a higher level of personalised service, and boutique properties are able to provide unique experiences and genuine hospitality that large resorts can’t,” explains Angele Pisano, manager of Trees and Fishes Private Retreat on the northern coast of Vanuatu’s main island, Efate. Whatever experience you’re after - whether you want to enjoy your catch of the day or drink cocktails overlooking the water - you’ll find it here.

Go Fishing | Trees and Fishes Private Retreat

I’m standing at the stern of an outrigger canoe, gazing into the indigo depths, waiting for the fish to bite. Behind us, clouds hang in the blue sky above the slopes of the extinct Nguna volcano. Fishing lines drag behind the boat as we troll the waters of Port Havannah, which attracts serious anglers for its sailfish, blue marlin, red bass, and dogtooth and yellowfin tuna. “The biggest fish I ever caught was a 250-kilogram marlin,” says skipper Andrea Traverso, an experienced fisherman, who claims the fish took him about 90 minutes to reel in.

Suddenly, a rod is thrust in my hand and I find myself in a tug of war with a big fish. By Traverso’s reckoning, it’s a sailfish weighing about 60 kilograms. I try my hardest to reel it in but I’m not strong or experienced enough. This one gets away but later, I manage to reel in a small skipjack tuna, which we use as bait to catch a bigger fish. At the end of the day, we return with a four-kilogram mahi mahi for the staff at Trees and Fishes to prepare for our dinner. Eating the fish we caught becomes a treasured and memorable moment.

The retreat, located on Rana Beach, Port Havannah, is about a 30-minute drive from Port Vila’s international airport. The waterfront location is tranquil and my favourite spot is a simple hammock slung between two trees by the water’s edge.

Set in tropical gardens with a tranquil lily pond, Trees and Fishes is ideal for those looking for a rustic, back-to-nature ambience. There are just three cabins on the site, with bar and dining cabanas overlooking the retreat’s private beach.

The retreat is booked on an exclusive basis and the three charming timber cabins sleep up to nine people, which means the setup is perfect for families or groups of friends. The cabins feature comfortable king- or queen-size beds and designer bathrooms equipped with huge lava bathtubs. There are no television sets or minibars. All meals are prepared in the on-site kitchen bure by host and accomplished cook Pisano, and are included in the price. The dishes are prepared using fresh organic meat, fruit and vegetables, all sourced locally.

The accommodation isn’t five-star, but its waterfront location, warm service and superb fishing makes it an attractive proposition for travellers seeking a truly unique natural experience.

Into the Blue | The Havannah

In Port Havannah, a few canoe strokes away from Trees and Fishes is The Havannah, a retreat set among tropical gardens that slope towards the water’s edge. The dining and bar area is housed in a striking open-air bure.

There are 16 luxurious villas and each has a king-size bed, flat-screen television, DVD player and iPod docking stations. Top-of-the-range Waterfront Villas overlook the beach and have private plunge pools, while the other villas range from having direct access to the split-level lagoon pool to those set in the resort’s gardens.

During the Second World War, more than 200,000 US marines were stationed at this location. These days, the area’s back-to-nature appeal has enticed high-profile international visitors such as Hollywood stars Cate Blanchett, who reportedly owns a waterfront property nearby, and Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been spotted cruising around Port Havannah on a private yacht.

I soak up the harbour view at The Havannah’s Point Restaurant while nibbling on Asian-inspired chilli beef salad. Across the water, the lush greenery of Lelepa Island looks appealing. Its natural beauty is untampered and not a lot has changed since cannibalism ceased on the island in the 1940s.

This is reinforced with the bumpy ride I take across the bay on a banana boat with local tour guide Albert, who owns Lelepa Island Day Tours. We then hike through the jungle which brings us to a secluded beach, where swimming and snorkelling in the ocean is on the cards. After enjoying a delicious lunch, the boat takes us to another part of the island where we explore a vast, dark cave full of bats before anchoring in a rocky cove nearby for some more snorkelling.

The spot is pristine. The coral formations are eye-catching and I’m surrounded by schools of colourful fish in a stunning underwater haven. The day ends with afternoon tea at Lelepa Village. The happy smiles of the villagers lift my spirits and the sound of children singing ring in my ears as I wander past tables displaying coconut jewellery and other handmade trinkets: these are memories I buy to remind me of my escape.

Scene Stealer | Vale Vale Beachfront Villas

The bumpy potholed road to Valé Valé Beachfront Villas adds to the charm of this new development, which opened in June last year. Tucked among palm trees, frangipani and wild orchids on the shore of the Pango peninsula, south-west of Port Vila, the accommodation offers one- and two-bedroom villas with ringside views of the bay.

Tall timber doors lead to a pretty walled courtyard. Most of the living, however, is done at the back. Here, the floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors open onto a timber deck with a plunge pool. The water views are spectacular and, at high tide, the lapping waves almost reach out and touch the steps of my timber deck.

The living area is open-plan and the high-pitched ceiling gives it an airy island feel. Cool white tiles are complemented by timber and rattan furnishings throughout. Mod cons include a flat-screen television, DVD player, iPod docking station and wi-fi access. My king-size bed with crisp white linen is swathed in mosquito netting.

Each of the villas have kitchens fully equipped with everything you need, and a grocery and market shopping service is offered to guests. A tropical breakfast is delivered each morning by the house girl to your villa, so you can enjoy waking up to the pristine beachfront views while eating at your leisure.

As cooking isn’t on my agenda, I visit a nearby restaurant just a 10-minute bus ride away at a cost of 150 VUV (about $1.50). If you are looking for adventure, you can take a day trip to the Mele Cascades, also known as the Cascade Waterfalls, which are about 40 minutes away (trips can be arranged at reception). At the waterfalls, there’s an uphill hike through the tropical jungle, past ferns, fig trees and strangler vines. The path follows the waterfalls uphill and crosses the flowing stream in several places. In some sections, I wade through knee-high water. The stunning scenery opens up onto an amphitheatre of water tumbling down over pinnacles and spraying out into a series of crystal-clear rock pools. If heaven was a tropical forest, this place in Vanuatu would have to be it.

Words by Christina Pfeiffer - Published in Voyeur January 2013
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 209,000
Area 12,189 km2
Time Zone GMT +11
Languages Bislama, English & French
Currency Vanuatu Vatu (VT)
Electricity 230v 50Hz
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