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Vibrant, Vivacious…Vanuatu: The Happiest Country in the World

Posted by on Feb 21, 2012 | 0 comments

Vibrant, Vivacious…Vanuatu: The Happiest Country in the World

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By the time my 3-hour flight from Sydney touched down on the island of Vanuatu it was approaching midnight. Despite the late hour and the almost total darkness outside my airplane window, the 30 or so people on our flight were greeted at the tiny airport by live island music played by a smiling group of locals.

I just love landing on tiny islands where you get a reception like that. No matter how tired you may be after the flight, it always gets you right into that island spirit.

Like in Tasmania, I’d procrastinated about booking a hotel in Vanuatu and only in the past few days had confirmed where I would be staying. My top choices were the Erakor Island Resort and the Hideaway Island Resort, both on their own separate islands reachable by jetty.

I ultimately decided on Erakor Island, but since I thought it might be difficult to reach at such a late hour, I booked a hotel in the main town of Port Vila for my first night.

After searching the Trip Advisor reviews, I went with the Traveller’s Budget Motel which gets top billing for budget properties. It was close to the airport, walking distance from town and the price was right. The owner, Jack, had even arranged an airport transfer for me.

With only a few people on my flight from Sydney, I was through customs and on my way to the hotel just minutes after landing. My driver pulled up to the gate of the tiny hotel and we quickly discovered it was locked. Pretty much all of the lights were off except for the small office but we couldn’t get anyone’s attention and didn’t want to wake up the entire place.

After a few minutes of trying to get someone’s attention to let us in, we accidentally woke up one of the other guests and he went to wake up Jack. I felt terrible and apologized profusely for waking him up but he didn’t seem to mind.

It turns out Jack had set an alarm to wake up to greet me but never expected me to get to the hotel so quickly. Apparently, it usually takes at least an hour for guests to get through customs, get their bags and make it from the airport to the hotel after landing (I’d managed all that in about 20 minutes, plus the flight had landed a bit early).

He was very apologetic but I was just happy to get to my room before being awarded an island name that translated loosely as “she who arrives in the middle of the night and makes lots of noise.

My room was quaint and all I needed for my first night on the island. It had air conditioning, a private bath and free wifi – my only real musts in a hotel. After a decent night’s sleep (despite awakening a few times to address work-related emails), I awoke late morning and went out to the hotel’s breakfast area to seek out Jack and get some island advice (since I hadn’t planned where I was going to sleep, I certainly hadn’t planned what I wanted to see on Vanuatu).

Getting Around Vanuatu

Vanuatu bus system
“B” for bus

Jack was extremely helpful with advice on what to see around the island. And he gave me my most crucial bit of information for my stay, how to use the local bus system to get around.

Now, many small islands use kind of a loose bus system that doesn’t operate on any kind of schedule. For example, last year on Rarotonga I mastered the clockwise and anti-clockwise bus system around the island which was cheap and easy to use once you knew what you were doing. But I have to say, Vanuatu’s “B for bus” system really takes the cake for a loose operation.

The “buses” are actually independently-owned mini-vans (7 passengers or so) and you just look for one with a “B” on the license plate that’s going in your direction and flag it down. If it has space, it’ll pick you up.

For destinations within the main town of Port Vila, you can get almost anywhere for 100 to 200 vatu (a dollar or two), but for areas further away on the island it might cost as much as 500-1000 vatu ($5-$10). There are hundreds of these buses operating on the island and there always seemed to be one where I needed it.

It was extremely helpful that Jack had given me an idea of what to pay for certain destinations because negotiating a price with the driver first is an important part of the process. Not to mention when he said bus I was thinking large 50-passenger bus and was surprised when he flagged down a mini-van for me (pointing at the “B” in the license tag) for my ride over to Erakor later.

Port Vila

After piecing together a loose game plan for my 3-day stay with Jack’s help, I decided to walk into the capital of Port Vila to see a little of the town before transferring out to Erakor Island for the rest of my stay. But before I fill you in on my day, I realize most of you probably don’t have a clue where the South Pacific island of Vanuatu even is…so a little background first.

An archipelago made up of 83 islands, the island nation of Vanuatu is about a 2 ½ hour flight from either Brisbane, Australia or Auckland, New Zealand making it one of the most easily reachable South Pacific islands for both Aussies and Kiwis (and they account for almost all of the visitors).

Erakor Island Vanuatu
Erakor Island Vanuatu

In 2007, it was named the Happiest Country in the World by the New Economic Foundation’s “happy planet index” which has helped to promote their tourism industry (who wouldn’t want to visit the happiest country in the world?).

And after just a few hours on the main island of Efate, it’s easy to see why everyone’s so happy here. After all, what’s not to be happy about when you live in paradise?

Vanuatu is blessed with fertile soil and excellent growing conditions which allow the local population (called Ni-Vanuatu or just simply, Ni-Van) to live well off the crops that they are able to grow themselves. Just how much food is readily available on the island is on display daily at the lively outdoor market in Port Vila.

After walking along the pretty waterfront of Port Vila and stopping to watch a bunch of happy locals playing with their children in the city park, I made my way over to the market to check out the offerings.

Filled with women in brightly-colored island dresses selling their fruits and vegetables and impromptu restaurants with grills cooking up fresh island treats, the market is a feast for the senses. It was a fascinating look into the daily life of the ni-Vans and I walked around for more than an hour visiting all of the stands.

Port Vila Vanuatu market
Vanuatu’s lively outdoor market

After that, I changed some money, stopped for lunch along the water and then wandered in and out of a few shops before walking back to the hotel. It was time to change hotels over to the Erakor Island Resort for the remainder of my stay.

I packed up and Jack walked me out to the street and quickly flagged down a “B for bus” for me. He confirmed the price to the Erakor jetty with my driver and I was on my way.

The Erakor Island Resort

When I arrived at the jetty, the ferry was waiting for the quick 10-minute ride across the channel to Erakor Island. As we got closer and closer to the island I was blown away by how beautiful the resort was. I felt like I’d stepped out of the boat to a remote tropical paradise.

The Erakor Island Resort encompasses the entire island so it’s about as private as a hotel gets, yet within easy access of the main island by 24-hour jetty. Remote…yet connected.

Erakor Island Resort Vanuatu
First glimpse of Erakor Island

I was quickly checked in and shown to my spa waterfront bungalow. It was absolutely beautiful with a big jacuzzi tub and a lovely deck right on the water. The only problem (for me) was that it wasn’t air conditioned and I wondered if I’d be able to sleep (I did, but not especially well).

Erakor Island Resort Bungalow
My bungalow at Erakor

After settling in, I changed into my swimsuit, grabbed my book and headed right back to the island’s main beach where I took advantage of the rest of the afternoon to just relax and swim in the water with the island’s hundreds of resident starfish. I had a full day planned for the next day and wanted to spend the rest of my second day just enjoy doing nothing on Vanuatu.

Learning Bislama

That afternoon I got a little introduction into the local language, Bislama. The language was developed in the late 19th century when thousands of Ni-Vanuatu were forced to work on plantations in Australia and Fiji. With several languages spoken on the plantations, a form of pidgin English was developed combining English words with grammar typical to other parts of the region.

At the turn of the 20th century when these workers began to return to Vanuatu, the language was retained and spread through the islands since it allowed for better communication with European traders and settlers. Over the years, the Ni-Vanuatu added in their own words and pronunciation and the result is a language based 95% on English but with a little French and island language thrown in.

A few interesting examples of Bislama:

Water: Wota

Ocean: Solwata

Thank you: Tankyu

Thank you very much: Tankyu tumas

And my favorite, on the sign next to the bell you had to ring on Erakor anytime you wanted to take the boat back over to the main island: “Sipos yu wantem ferry yu kilim gong.

Bislama language Vanuatu
Just “kilim the gong” when you’re ready to go somewhere!

Love it! I briefly considered adding Bislama to my facebook page under “languages spoken.”

That night I had dinner at the resort’s lovely waterfront restaurant and then headed off to bed. It was still pretty warm in my bungalow and it took me a while to fall asleep but by early morning the temperature was very comfortable so I slept in a little.

Happiest Country in the World – Day 3

I had big plans for my third and last full day on the island. After breakfast it was time to “kilim the gong” and catch the ferry back to the main island.

My plan was to catch a “B for bus” to the other side of the island and check out the Mele Cascades waterfalls – one of the island’s main attractions – and then spend the afternoon at the nearby Hideaway Island Resort where they had the world’s only underwater post office.

When I got off the ferry I was swarmed by several “T for taxi” drivers ready to take me to the waterfalls for $10 -$15 but Jack had told me I should be able to get a bus for $3 -$5. So, I made my way to the main road and within just a few minutes I found a bus willing to take me for $5…good enough.

Cascades waterfall Vanuatu
Part of the hiking “trail” up the waterfall

I arrived at the Mele Cascades waterfalls, paid my entrance fee and was informed that swimming was safe in any part of the falls. I began my hike up to the top on a nice trail through the rain forest along pool after pool of clear aquamarine water.

The water was just too tempting so I did stop a few times to wade in and cool off; it was a pretty hot and steamy day. As I worked my way to the top, the land trail disappeared completely replaced by a “path” through the rushing waters indicated by guide ropes. My flip flops weren’t the best choice of footwear for the occasion – especially since I was carrying camera gear that I didn’t want to get wet – but I took it slow, held on to the guide ropes tightly and carefully made my way to the top.

It was worth the effort as the 115-foot falls at the peak were amazingly beautiful. As I was listening to the thundering water, I noticed that on the falls to the right people were actually up there rappelling down them! I had no urge to try that – it looked very scary – but it was extremely entertaining to watch.

I stayed at the top for a while and enjoyed the incredible views before working my way carefully back down through the rushing water. Somehow I managed to make it all the way up and down without dousing my camera.

The Hideaway Island Resort

Back down at the entrance to the falls, I caught another bus to the jetty for Hideaway Island – like Erakor, it’s a tiny island just offshore which is home to only one resort. The Hideaway Island Resort is known for two things: great snorkeling around a vibrant coral reef and the world’s only underwater post office.

Hideaway Island Resort Vanuatu
Hideaway Island Resort, Vanuatu

The island was total tropical paradise with clear blue waters and bungalows lining the shores. Unfortunately, the post office had suffered some damage in a cyclone just last week (hooray, my weather timing is good for once!) and had to be brought to the surface for repairs. But the actual mail box was still underwater so it was still possible to mail a postcard.

Hideaway Island Resort Vanuatu
Swimming out to mail my underwater postcard on Hideaway Island

The post office is a big hit with cruise ship passengers and on days when there are ships in port, the resort’s manager told me that they actually put one of their divers inside the office to greet those who swim down to mail a postcard. How fun is that?

But despite the fact that there wouldn’t be anyone in the post office, the postcards come with a unique postmark when you mail one from there so I decided to buy one of their special waterproof postcards anyway and send one to myself. How could you not?

After snorkeling for a while until I ultimately came across the underwater mailbox, I mailed my postcard and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging on the beach with a book. It was a completely splendid day.

By late afternoon, I made the jetty-B for bus-jetty return trip to Erakor for dinner and a perfect sunset. It was a terrific way to end my 3-day stay on these spectacular islands. Considering how much I loved the main island of Efate, I can only imagine how wonderful the other 82 islands are.

Vanuatu Sunset
Vanuatu Sunset

Vanuatu just might be the happiest country in the world. One of my favorite parts about it was just how friendly the always-smiling locals were, especially the children who were happy to talk to visitors and to pose to have their picture taken. Not for money (like everywhere else in the world) but I think just because they wanted you to remember them and their smiling faces. There’s little doubt that I will.

The next morning, I was up before dawn to take the ferry back to the mainland for my transfer to the airport. Just one stop left in New Zealand before wrapping up Round the World #7. It’s been an unforgettable month and I can’t believe it’s almost over.

Next stop, Auckland!

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