It’s 6:03am, barely light and 8 degrees outside. My wife’s already at the gym, finishing the workout she started an hour ago. The dog’s newly formed habit of barking for breakfast has kicked off already (sorry neighbours!) The familiar silhouette of our 7 year old daughter appears at our bedroom door, as rubs her eyes and peers in to see if I am awake. She catches the whites of my eyes, taking that as her cue to enter. ‘Can I please have a hot chocolate Daddy?’
It’s hard to say no.
But hey, the dog did ask first (and his whining is really grating on my nerves) so first, I begrudgingly head out the back door to ease his breakfast anxiety with ration of dried dog food and a customary ‘you may now eat’ hand-shake.
When I turn back to the door, my younger daughter is now accompanying her bigger sister, her eyes in a wide daze and her hair, a wild and tangled mess. ‘Two hot chocolates coming up!’ I declare, and we all make our way to the kitchen just as my wife walks in the front door like clockwork. The coffee machine whirs to life, whole beans are coarsely ground, the milk frother bubbles and gurgles, the toaster pops, the dog is now barking again (must still be hungry!) and the production line of lunchbox-filling is in full swing.
It’s the controlled chaos of a standard morning in our household, and as much as we wouldn’t have it any other way, it leaves little time for adult conversation. It’s time we made some!
So later that day we called on the in-laws for a huge favour, and much to our delight managed to negotiate 5 days of in-home childcare.
Wow. That’s an entire week of packing lunchboxes.
It’s also ten to school and back home again. Another nine kindy trips too, and on top of that, approximately child 23 melt-downs for various reasons I won’t even try to go into.
Yes, when you put it in that perspective the working week is a loooong amount of time….but when it comes to planning an escape that allows a couple of Aussie battlers like us to completely disconnect and reconnect, 5 days is lucky to get you out of the Australia and back! We needed to find somewhere close to home but that also felt like a world away. A place that offered peace, low key indulgence, the opportunity for a few adventures but also the chance to completely switch off.
So we answered the call of Vanuatu. Only 3 hours flight from East Coast Australia, it certainly ticked the box for maximising our time on away, and promised a vista of tropical islands offering everything from still lagoons to fast-flowing waterfalls, earth shaking volcanoes to explosive surf breaks, tree houses to underwater ecosystems. Perfect!
We flew with Air Vanuatu early Saturday morning departing from Brisbane. Would you believe it – by lunchtime we were sipping champagne from the glass, legs dangling from the picturesque wooden jetty at the luxurious Warwick Le Lagon. Holiday mode engaged, in record time!
The luxurious Warwick resort sits on a lagoon that channels out to the open ocean. The shallow blue waters that lap against the sandy edges expansive single-level property are home to more spectacularly large star-fish than I have seen anywhere! When I asked a local boatman why there were so many, he simply replied ‘…because we can’t eat them!’ … a response which I later realised to be exemplary of their attitude towards nature’s provisions.
You see, the people native to Vanuatu openly consume the fruits of their land and the sea, picking what they need from coconut palms, fruit trees and the seas to feed themselves. Freshly picked and freshly caught is simply their way of life…except when it comes to starfish, of course!
As our standup paddle boards (freely available to all guests staying the Warwick) cruised across the calm waters of the lagoon, headed in the direction of the small palm-fringed island in the distance, our daily lunchbox-packing routine felt like world’s away. We were relaxed and happy, just the two of us experiencing our own little adventures in our own time.
Breakfast at the Warwick is a social affair. A large restaurant overlooking the pool and glimpses of the lagoon is the hub for hotel guests to fuel up for the day. It’s hard not to gorge on the freshly-cooked flaky pastries, paying homage to Vanuatu’s French heritage, after the huge selection of fresh fruits and eggs cooked to order. Today I choose a pain au chocolate, justifying my treat as a highly necessary energy boost for our venture to Mele Cascades later this morning.
I was sceptical when arriving at the Mele Cascades. The waterhole near the entrance to the reserve looked a bit too perfect – almost manmade – with a freeflowing waterfall feeding a constant flow of crystal clear water edged by smooth bush rocks and lush tropical gardens. A friendly guide ushered us to the trail which ascends along the hillside where is soon became apparent that this beautiful series of natural waterfalls, cascades and swimming holes was certainly a natural phenomenon – no human hand could create something of this scale and beauty. The trail takes you directly through flowing ankle-deep water, at times lined with guide ropes to assist in slippery areas. After the 20 minute trek up the cascades the dramatic main waterfall appears before you, a 20m spout of water demanding your full attention from the moment you catch your first glimpse over the final ridge. Despite the water being considerably cooler than the ocean, I felt the urge to jump in for a quick dip, the large water droplets making for a soothing organic massage on my arms and shoulders.
(Travel tip: As the trail is quite hands-on in parts it’s best to pack light, wear footwear that is water-friendly or easily removed, and avoid bringing gear that doesn’t like to get wet).
After packing our things we headed to the airport to board a domestic flight bound for Tanna, one of Vanuatu’s southern-most islands. Tanna traditional villages are still largely untouched by the Western world, with the island also being home to an active volcano to which the locals have a spiritual connection. We had made plans to walk alongside the crater and look inside the earth’s molten core for ourselves….but first, we had another unique destination on Tanna’s coastline to experience.
Rockwater is a resort like no other. Hand-built from stones sourced from the very ground on which this unique architectural masterpiece now sits, you get the feeling you may be in a cliffside Santorini classic re-imagined by a Moroccan. Large stones walls are offset by impressive hand-rendered columns and huge exposed timber beams, with bougainvilleas adding to the Mediterranean vibe.
It is boutique barefoot luxury, with sand-covered floors in the central dining and bar area and room for no more than 12 guests at any given time. Owner John, an Australian who has many years hospitality experience in Vanuatu, has designed the property to be comfortable, relaxed and inviting, as if you were heading over to a friend’s (very nice!) home.
Following this ethos, John also likes to mingle with guests for an afternoon drink, sharing tales about the island’s history with his wicked sense of humour intact. The accommodation itself is surreal; a dimly-lit entrance reveals a room with hand-laid stone floors meeting curved cave-like walls, with a lavishly comfortable bed seemingly floating on air around one corner.
Around the opposite corner, a natural rock formation larger than a semi-trailer is revealed, acting as the bathroom’s perimeter wall, garnished with the finishes you’d expect in a high-end resort.
The diversity of landscape and vegetation on the 2 hour approach to Mt Yasur, the island’s active volcano is a treat for the senses. Maybe it’s the fact that the soil progressively darkens with rich volcanic ash as the journey progress, however the tropical rainforest plants become vividly greener as we neared the mountain (with the exception of the volcanic rock plain at the base with its reddish tinge akin to a Mars-landing).
Mother nature decided to remind us who was boss and greeted us at the gates with a torrential downpour, however as soon as we started our ascent the rain literally disappeared. She certainly works in mysterious ways. Reaching the peak and our vantage point for the next 90 minutes while approaching dusk, my wife and I spent a few moments pondering what we were doing here – perhaps it was the matching regulation white hard hats and black rain coats we were both wearing, but we shared a chuckle as we looked at each other and the sheer remoteness of our current selves. That thought was quickly forgotten however, when the thunderous sound of lava spurt jolted us to attention. This as the first of many, sending molten rock high above the crater below every ten minutes or so, each one a humbling reminder of who was the boss around here. As the sun disappeared the glow from below dramatically increased, demanding our full attention as darkness set in. We descended the mountain with torchlight, back to the 4WDs and our accommodation.
From lava to kava
We went to Tanna to make lifelong memories together, and with Rockwater and Mt Yasur we certainly did. Now we were ready to make sloths jealous and relax like it was 1999. We hopped on a plane and headed back to the main island, Efate, but this time ventured further afield to the Eretap region. Eretap Beach Resort is a spacious, single-level property established upon an impeccable piece coastline. With open ocean on one side of the resort wrapping around to a sheltered lagoon on the other, plus two uninhabited islands just a stone’s throw away, there’s plenty of nooks and crannies to explore above and below sea level…. that is, if you can peel yourself away from the allure of your secluded beachfront vista! Every luxury bungalow in this resort has a generous private garden that spans to the sandy water’s edge. But the unpretentious decadence doesn’t stop there – whether it be a snorkelling trip on the outer reef, a romantic picnic for two on a remote island, or surfing a nearby reef break, the staff can make it happen within minutes, with your every-friendly boat drivers available from sunset to sunrise on the house.
Here we spent three days, reading books, swimming, lazing by the pool, getting massages and ritually taking midday naps. I even managed to get a few waves in on the right-hand reef break which was a little bonus!
We’d finally managed to switch off our minds, and our phones, and re-connect.
For now, it was time to head back home and share our stories with the kids, over a packed lunch.