vanuatuChilled-out Vanuatu provides the perfect atmosphere to unwind. Nathalie Craig explores the best of Efate and Iririki islands.

YOU know you’ve touched down in Vanuatu when you step off the plane at midnight and can still feel the humid air clinging to you. An island band strums ukuleles while welcoming us to Port Vila with leis, a sunny greeting even in the dead of the night.

After a 15-minute transfer to the local wharf we board our small boat to Iririki Island Resort. It’s an easy few minutes’ ride from Efate, the most populous Island to form part of Vanuatu’s archipelago. We’re greeted with warm smiles and a tropical drink before retiring for the night to our waterfront bungalow.

Few things compare to waking up and drawing the blinds on your first day in Island paradise to discover the azure waters directly in front of your bungalow.

The resort has a free 24-hour boat to take you to the mainland as you please but beware, it wouldn’t be difficult to stay at Iririki for the entire week lapping up the resort’s several pools and complimentary ocean equipment like sail boats and snorkels to help explore your surroundings.

When your curiosity piques as to what lies across the harbour, a visit to the colourful, bustling Port Vila markets is a must. Women in traditional island dresses sell fresh fruit and vegetables. There’s super sweet pineapples, bananas, melons and coconuts. While those cheap coconuts are tempting to buy, see if the stallholder will open it for you before you leave otherwise you may end up like me – helplessly holding a whole coconut until a friendly local offers to break it open on the pavement. The market also has a collection of fun souvenirs, trinkets and clothes.

Another highlight of the mainland is the Mele Cascades. It’s well worth the 20-minute uphill hike through lush rainforest. You may even come across some vegetable plantations. Our tour guide stops to shows us the biggest avocado I’ve ever seen. You’ll pass some slippery streams, just don’t forget to hold onto the strategically-placed ropes! Once at the top, you’ll be blown away by the sound and sight of this powerful 35 metre waterfall. And the best part? You can swim there. Feel the force of nature as you lie under the thundering stream of water or swim around the clear plunge pool looking for hidden caves.

For a cultural experience, a tour of Ekasup Village offers a chance spend time with a community living a more traditional village lifestyle while learning about Vanuatu’s fascinating culture and history.

Daily tours visit the settlement locatedabout three kilometres from Port Vila. Villagers share their knowledge on how to prepare local products like using native herbs for medicine, making hunting traps and weaving baskets.

Stay for their traditional Melanesian feast and try local delicacies like lap lap, a tasty root vegetable cake prepared by pounding taro or yam roots into a paste before cooking them with fresh coconut cream and pork, beef or chicken meat – it’s addictive. Some of these feasts also provide an opportunity to try the narcotic drink, kava. Consuming this muddy looking liquid made from mixing the powdered root of the pepper plant piper methysticum with water leaves you feeling numb around the mouth and brings about a sense of relaxation. It is traditionally served in coconut shells and can be drunk at Kava bars across Vanuatu.

These bars are dotted around Port Vila and visitors are welcome to join in the ritual. Locals tell me many on the islands drink kava in place of alcohol. One of my tour guides informs me people are still free to drive after consuming the sedative-style drink but they are just advised to “drive slow” to avoid any serious accidents. When I tell her I’m from Australia she gives me a cheeky smile and says “Oh, in your country there are so many rules. Here the rule is there are no rules”.

When it comes to communicating in Vanuatu English and French are widely spoken, but Bislama was declared the national language after the island nation gained independence in 1980. Back over on Iririki Island, we were offered complimentary Bislama lessons as part of our stay.

It’s a fun language to try and learn with its roots derived from simplified, phonetic English. Sentences and words sound so familiar that it’s fast to pick up – and we learn all the important phrases for the resort life like mi wantem bia (I’d like a beer), tankyu tumas (thank you very much) and mi glad tumas (I am very happy).

If Vanuatu had a soundtrack it would be one of its locally-produced reggae tunes to accompany the locals’ warm white smiles, friendly hospitality and laid back spirit. After a week I feel blissed out and definitely not ready to fly home.

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