Island Paradise
since topping a poll of the world’s happiest countries, Vanuatu has begun attracting the attention of the outside world
By: Jeff Hammond | Jun 28, 2007 | No Comments | 3,200 views

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Located 1,750km east of Australia, Vanuatu is a land of verdant jungles and forests dotted with unspoiled rivers and waterfalls and encircled by white-sand beaches.

Among the country’s 83 islands, the third largest is Efate, which houses the country’s capital, Port Vila, where well-to-do expats make up a third of the population. The city boasts luxury hotels, duty free shops, golf courses, casinos, import supermarkets—and an amazing variety of restaurants, some considered among the finest in the South Pacific. My favorites are Iririki, offering superb European and pan-Asian dishes served in a very stylish atmosphere, and Flaming Bull, whose steaks are the stuff of legend and whose Vanuatu-themed décor includes tam-tam slit drums.

Away from the capital, on the outer islands, the fare consists of simpler but nonetheless hearty meals, and freshness is guaranteed—several times we spotted our hosts picking or buying the vegetables and killing the main course in the garden before being cooked and served. When traveling around the island of Malekula, I had the job of doing this in order to prepare our main course one evening, coconut crab—so-called because it feeds on coconuts, which gives it the smooth, creamy texture and delicious taste it is famous for. At Hideaway Island, a few minutes by boat from Port Vila, Bruce from New Zealand cooked us a feast of original curry and fresh sashimi. We also tried several versions of the national dish: laplap, mashed steamed meat, fish or vegetables wrapped in banana leaves.

Since a number of the islands are of volcanic origin, the minerals that seep into the soil allow for mangos, pineapples, papaya, tomatoes and coconuts to grow—treats that I made sure to indulge in for breakfast each morning during my recent vacation. 
On Vanuatu’s more rural outer islands, electricity and running water are the exception, not the rule. We soon acclimated to cold showers and bumpy truck rides as we toured some of the simple villages where the majority of the country’s population, estimated at just over 200,000, reside. When island-hopping, there are boats that can provide transport, but we took advantage of the local commercial aircraft, as these offered spectacular views of lush nature and the sea. 

Until recently, the only asphalt in the country was in and around Port Vila, but more and more roads on the country’s largest island of Espiritu Santo are getting the same treatment. The main attraction here is Champagne Beach, which may be the most beautiful beach in the world. Looking from above at the island’s jungle carpet, it made perfect sense when I learned that Steven Spielberg chose these islands to film parts of Jurassic Park—the land has largely remained untouched since time immemorial.
The variety and abundance of nature in Vanuatu means that several outdoor sports are available, including scuba diving, trekking, fishing and horse riding. Vanuatu is also a mecca for divers, with the world’s biggest shipwreck accessible to recreational divers. On Pentacost Island, tourists can watch the type of bungee jumping that originated there as an initiation ceremony for young boys, before it became popular worldwide as an adrenaline rush.

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Wherever we went, we could rely on the friendliness of the ni-vanuatu, the people, who often greet each other with a smile and a wave as they pass by. Unhurried and largely stress-free, the ni-Vanuatu live with love and respect for mankind. Although proud of their culture they are also genuinely interested in outsiders. We were told that a ni-Vanuatu down on his luck will always have a door to knock on and a place at the table.

The people of the country are also considerably healthy; regular exercise is a part of daily life and a variety of fresh vegetables, fruit and fish keep most of the population trim. Worth noting is how smoking never seriously caught on here.

The main “substance” enjoyed by the populace is kava, a communally taken drink, bitter and made from a tree root. Traditionally used as a way to lower inhibitions so people can talk freely about local issues, kava can now be found in special bars spotted around the country, its presence signaled by a red lamp hanging outside the door. The drink is also becoming known around the world as a stress-relieving compound, and is even used worldwide, including in Japan, as part of a treatment regimen for cancer. Although a wonderful relaxant, be careful not to overindulge—too many sips can lead to wobbly legs and sleepiness, as some members of our party soon found out.

The quality of Vanuatu’s kava makes it the most sought-after across the South Pacific and the country’s noni, a fruit popular in Japan as a health drink, is giving producers from Tahiti and Hawaii a run for their money.

Even the fact that there are no deadly poisonous animals here seems less an accident than a sign that the people are blessed to have been chosen to live in relative safety, happiness and good health.

Until 1980, Vanuatu was under joint colonial rule of both Britain and France, when it was known as the New Hebrides. As a result, nearly all ni-Vanuatu speak either English or French—and often both.

Accelerated change came about by way of the Christian church, as large numbers converted. The Vanuatu version of Christianity remains the dominant religion; the locals embraced positive aspects of the creed like kindness and forgiveness, which are already true to their nature.

Strong efforts are being made to ensure that tourism, which is on the rise, encourages the preservation of traditional culture rather than turning it into a tourist attraction or displacing it entirely. For example, all across the country a variety of dances called “custom dances” are often performed for tourists in native attire, with grass skirts and body paint.

The government seems to share the peoples’ concerns that development should take place at a manageable pace, with controls set to protect the country’s nature as well as its culture. In keeping with this desire, the new hotels and restaurants in the capital have been limited to a certain height in order to prevent them from turning into eyesores on the city’s skyline.

A few Japanese companies have their eyes on the country as a potential holiday or retirement location. Masato Sekiguchi of Urban Design System says his company is looking seriously at developing one of Vanuatu’s smaller islands into a resort. “When they retire, Japanese wish to go somewhere with good weather and delicious food, which Vanuatu has plenty of,” he says. “There  is also very little crime, so people can feel very safe.” There are, however, some hurdles to overcome, including securing direct flights from Japan. “We also need to do a lot of PR as, currently, if you tell the average Japanese about Vanuatu they often think it is somewhere in Africa. But as our company believes we can overcome these obstacles we think Vanuatu would be perfect, not only for retirement and holidays but also for weddings.” Port Vila is fast becoming popular as a wedding and honeymoon location with couples from nearby Australia and New Zealand.

In Port Vila modern comfort and convenience is close at hand, but travel just a few miles out and you are already completely submerged in nature—forests, beaches, waterfalls and rivers are but a short drive away. Perhaps with this in mind, a few enterprising Australian and other firms are slowly buying land and promoting areas around Port Vila as an ideal location for private holiday and retirement homes.

For those in Japan interested in such an idea, the place to get more information on the practicalities is the recently established Vanuatu-Japan Friendship Member’s Club. Its president, Ofer Shagan, has spearheaded various projects ranging from providing water distribution systems to supporting the local cultural museum. Behind Shagan’s backing of these projects is his desire to help increase the standard of living of the ni-Vanuatu while preserving their natural resources and cultural heritage.

Membership in the Club currently costs $10,500, which includes a 2,000m2 plot of land located 15 minutes by car from Port Vila. On their plot, members are entitled to build their dream holiday home. Architects have been flown in to look at the topography and the culture of the country to come up with several designs for potential houses, but members are free to use any architect and build their houses in any style they desire, as long as they observe the club’s basic rules. These center on size and height concerns, in order to preserve the natural beauty of the area.

The first site earmarked for development is a 99 hectare area of flat land in southwestern Efate, presently inhabited by grazing cattle (which will go), and tall trees (which won’t) rising up to a gentle hill offering a view of the ocean. Almost 100 Japanese and foreigners living in Japan have already become members, including some well-known names from television and other industries. such as Masako Bando, Peter Frankle and DJ Ziki.

On my visit to one of the monthly member’s parties, I spoke to Hideo Negami, an architect just a few years away from retirement. Negami purchased two memberships upon his return from a trip to Vanuatu and is looking seriously at building his own home there. Negami told me that after researching the market and seeing the growth in land value the country is currently experiencing, he felt that the land offered by the club is both of very good quality and also very competitively priced. His dream, as he describes it, is “simply to enjoy the weather and go golfing, swimming and snorkeling.” Negami also echoes Sekiguchi’s comment on the low crime level. “The people are so friendly, I feel  relaxed there. At the moment we can go once or twice a year for short trips, but once I retire we can go for a month at a time.”

Seeing the excitement in Negami’s eyes, I was reminded of how much I enjoyed my time in Vanuatu—and I began daydreaming of my next visit.

To learn more about Vanuatu, see www.vjf-mc.com or contact the Club’s director, Carlo La Porta, at carlo@vjf-mc.com

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