Vanuatu - Smiles Ahead
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by Sally Hammond


I must be seeing things, I reckon.

I swear, the fence posts are growing. There are leaves on them. Truly. As the 4WD bumps along the road to the beach, though, there are more of them. In fact every fence post is a wannabe tree.

My guide just smiles when I point out this phenomenon. Dumb tourist, I can almost hear him saying to himself, because to him this is not anything unusual.

For this is Vanuatu. The place that achieved independence on July 30, 1980, emerging relatively unscathed from decades of exploitation, division and violence. Secessionist movements, the French administration, of course, and the many French settlers and French-speaking islanders opposed the move vigorously. Yet it was successful and twenty years later the 14,760 square kilometre Republic of Vanuatu, is flourishing. Just like the fence posts.

You can visit Vanuatu and never think politics at all of course. With a tropical coastline of 2,528 kilometres, countless bays, points and headlands, people's thoughts are more likely to turn to fun and relaxation. Diving, swimming, kayaking and anything to do with the water is most visitor's first choice. That and photography, because everyone, it seems wants some tangible memory of these lovely islands.

In the warm night air though, other things become even more important. Dining with a French inflection is, in many places still, is a premier attraction. And then there is romance, helped along by the heady scents of night-blooming flowers.

Irregularly Y-shaped, this archipelago of 12 main islands, lies in the southwest Pacific roughly in line with the Great Barrier Reef, about 1200 kilometres to the east of Australia. Efate is where the capital Port Vila is situated and there are around fifty other tiny islands, most of them uninhabited.

These islands are mountainous, of coral and volcanic origin, with some volcanoes excitingly still active. Densely vegetated - 75 percent of Vanuatu is forests and woodlands - with narrow coastal strips of cultivated land, these dots in the ocean are the only land before New Caledonia to the southwest, Fiji to the east, and the Solomon Islands to the northwest.

The Ni-Vanuatu people are made up of indigenous Melanesians (the majority) with minorities of French, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Pacific Islanders. Over 130 different languages are spoken among its 146,400 people.

After independence, French was established as one of the national languages along with English and Bislama (Vanuatu pidgin) in which the similarities to English can often be heard.

Port Vila, the capital, has some fabulous restaurants - many on the waterfront, many with French chefs - or, just a two-minute ferry ride away, the five star Iririki Resort, on Iririki Island has top-class a la carte dining too.

This tiny island, formerly the home of the British High Commissioner, is tucked into Mele Bay, and is so close you can hail your ferry from across the water. The resort itself has seventy separate farés, nestled amongst the frangipani and hibiscus, each with a romantic four-poster bed.

Apart from this you could book yourself onto a city or round island tour, go horse riding along plantation trails, swim at the Cascades Waterfall, or go on a river tour. A traditional village tour helps Westerners to see how the Ni-Vanuatu live, explaining something of their native medicines and food preparation.

Even if you miss all of these, make sure that you attend a melanesian feast. Here the food is cooked for hours in a pit oven, covered with leaves and stones. The aroma when the oven is finally opened is something you will never forget. Unless, that is you also take the proffered kava, a numbing, relaxing local drink made from the kava plant.

Fly for just over three hours from Sydney, and you can experience a faintly French-accented island city apostrophied by other islands, so near to the east coast of Australia, that you can literally wing away on Friday afternoon and be back in time for work on Monday, enjoying a romantic long weekend getaway.

In the past thirty or so years, Vanuatu has become its own new nation, growing in confidence and in the eyes of the rest of the Pacific. The time frame is fast, but then you have to remember that this is the place so fertile that green sticks stuck into the ground and told to be fence posts, thumb their noses at fate and turn into trees.


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