We visited three South Pacific Island Nations (Vanautu, Fiji and Tonga). Here is what we did and what we wished we’d done.
We stayed at the Warwick Le Lagoon Resort, just a short drive from the center of Port Vila, the main city on the Island. Taxis are plentiful right outside the resort grounds or you can take the frequent public “shuttles” that pick up and drop off at the hotel’s front door, (VT$1.50 each passenger into town.) We were told that tourists should exercise caution and take taxis especially after dark, but we had no problems, we enjoyed the company of the locals, and we felt safe at all times.
There is no shortage of resorts (or hotels); some are adults only and some are family friendly. Check before you make reservations if you have a preference. A crying baby in the room next door can ruin a honeymoon. Know what I mean?
The Warwick is huge and you have a big range of specific room accommodations to select from. We advise that you pay attention to the “map” of the premises when making reservations there. All are not equal.
If you would like to stay someplace truly isolated try the much smaller and quieter, Erakor Island Resort – a short boat ride across the lagoon. This accommodation is a private island devoted exclusively to the resort. Tiny private bungalows and a very, very mellow vibe.
Two recommended restaurants in Port Vila:
Waterfront Bar & Grill in Port Vila (Great Lobster and New Zealand Pinot Noir on the wharf with wonderful views of harbor). Try the local lobster, the best I’ve tasted.
Chill Restaurant & Bar overlooking the waterfront; fabulous views and friendly service and good food. The fresh fish can’t be beat.
The Warwick resort had an outstanding Asian Fusion restaurant overlooking the lagoon, Wild Ginger.
At the Warwick you can snorkel in the lagoon or check out either a kayak or canoe for free. Don’t miss the starfish fields along the shores of the estuary. (Brilliantly colored starfish bigger than your head!)
Small sailboats and stand up paddle boards are available to rent and lessons are offered but we found them to be a little pricey. US$90/hr. Really? To learn how to stand up on a board? OK. No.
The swimming pool is enormous and even boasts a Vegas style swim up and drink bar. Introductory scuba lessons are offered in the pool each afternoon. (Don’t drink and dive!)
Golfers will be pleased to know that the Warwick also has a driving range and what looked to be some mighty fine links. (We don’t golf so we can’t say for sure.) It’s probably okay to drink and “drive” on the golf course as long as you don’t care about your score.
The usual table games can be found up in the activities center, but try to find somebody who can give you a good game. (Not gonna happen. Pablo kills at table tennis.)
Off campus, Adventures in Paradise offers a half day tour over to the Hideaway Beach and Marine Sanctuary that includes transportation from the hotel and the water taxi to the island. (Alternatively, just take a taxi to the departure dock and pay for your activities directly from the island concession.) Excellent snorkeling (included in the tour fee) and an optional glass bottom boat ride are well worth the trip. (An optional boat trip out to the reef to snorkel off the boat for an hour costs slightly extra. Probably only worthwhile if you are a good swimmer and/or an expert snorkeler. You have to be able to stay in deep water for over an hour.) An underwater post office will post your cards home for a fee (one hour per day). A good bar and bar food restaurant operate at the base of the island hotel but you can also just as easily take your own picnic over. There’s a supermarket in Port Vila and/or lots of take-away shops.
Although many of the hotels and resorts offer the same thing, we highly recommend the Melanesian Feast at Erakor Island Resort. Reservations are required in advance. A five minute walk down the beach from the Warwick takes you to the Erakor Island dock and a light from the dock sends a water taxi over from the resort for the 5 minute boat ride to the island. Music, local dancing and a Superbowl-worthy fire dance (Dallas Cowgirls eat your hearts out!) augment a spectacular buffet of local food. (Eat lap lap!) Top it off with an authentic kava drinking ceremony. There are lots of Aussies around Vanuatu, a smattering of Kiwis, very few Europeans and no Americans at all.
Do not skip the Ekasup Cultural Village – an excellent tour. Part theatre and part Nat Geo anthropological lecture, this is a DO NOT MISS activity. (Also, a fantastic, low pressure artists’ market at the end of the tour made this the best opportunity to buy some real treasures.)
The national museum (Nasonal Miusium blong Vanuatu) is exactly what you will expect of a museum dedicated to the culture and history of a teeny tiny island in the South Pacific and it will not blow your mind, but if you can go when the Sonscrit lecture is happening, don’t miss that. It has garnered the attentions of the UNESCO World Heritage Cultural commission and the demo kind of WILL blow your mind.
The daily Farmers’ Market in the center of Port Vila is a photographer’s wet dream. You can eat the street food there but we recommend that if you do you take your Probiotics well in advance of your trip and be sure that you have some emergency Cipro at hand…just in case. (Don’t ask.)
If you can arrange to go to Vanuatu around April or May, be sure to book the Pentecost Island to SEE the famous and daring land diving, the precursor to bungee jumping. We don’t recommend jumping.
Another outer island that we highly recommend is Malakula, to see the primitive natives still wearing penis sheaths and practicing black magic. (We know you’re probably expecting a joke here, but we take our penises and our voodoo too seriously.)
Go to the outer islands to experience the beautiful white sand beaches with clear, light blue water and excellent snorkeling. (Sorry Hawaii. Sorry Caribbean. The South Pacific has it ALL over on you.)
We stayed on Mana at the Mana Island Resort. You have to take the ferry over to Mana from Port Denarau in Nadi. Sometimes it doesn’t pay to go first class and sometimes it does. This is one of the latter. First class gets you a comfy air-conditioned cabin, complimentary snacks and beverages and superior seating. You do have to share a common bathroom facility with the riffraff but maybe you can hold it for the 2 hour ride over. The really swell people fly over on the helicopters or take the seaplane (Pacific Island Air) which we did on the way back cause we’re half swell. (Take the seaplane.)
If you fly from Nadi to the island you won’t see Port Denarau unless you make a point to do so and we recommend that you do. It’s a world class port with high end shopping and good restaurants. Upstairs is the Victoria Wine Shop where you can purchase your beverages to take over to Mana. (Great prices, a good selection and extremely helpful staff.) Back in the day (somebody told us) Port Denarau was really seedy and dangerous. Not no more. Now it’s clean, trendy and tourist friendly, crowded even in the off season and busy.
The Mana Resort is an old school island resort that has a loyal clientele. There’s just a hint of mid-century “camp” atmosphere with lots of structured activities, (think: Catskills and Dirty Dancing), but you can avoid all that easily if it isn’t your cup of tea. Accommodations vary greatly from small attached rooms a short walk to the beach all the way up the scale to private thatch-roofed bungalows (called bures) right down next to the water. We stayed in a mid-range room with a private patio just steps from our own magnificent snorkeling beach. You can walk off campus to the village but you have to “sign out” at the “gate” for “security reasons”. A couple of backpackers’ hotels are run just outside the resort grounds on the way to the village, and what looked like pretty good food was available at the restaurant that caters to the young international crowd that stays there. The “concierge” there can hook you up with a local fisherman for an island tour or a little deep sea fishing. (Much cheaper than these same activities offered at the resort.) You can also buy local handcrafted jewelry directly from the locals and get a massage or have your hair braided ala Bo Derek in the movie “10”, but, if you remember that movie you are probably way too old for that hairstyle.
Kni Tinai (+679 934 7876) took us over to the island where the “chief” or headman lives with a couple side trips to other small islands including the one where Tom Hanks shot the movie “Castaway”.
If you want to splurge, consider staying at the fabulous LikuLiku Resort, with houses built on stilts over the water. Or the very small Tadrai Resort on Mana Island, to kick back and relax adults only style.
If you are staying on the main island, consider making a trip to the highlands to visit the traditional village of Navalu, Viti Levu One of the most picturesque villages in Fiji. this one retains the traditional bures (thatched huts supported by center poles) that have been replaced in other villages by prefabricated concrete homes.
Make your way to the small island of Atata and spend a few days at the remote Royal Sunset Island Resort. This place is an incredible find. On a small island 20 minutes boat ride from the town of Nuku’alofa on the main island of Tongatapu. Note the port pick up to get there is about a half hour from the airport. This resort has 16 fales and we were the only guests during our stay there. The first night 5 local musicians played for us and we had a ‘kava’ party. From the resort you can walk to the tiny local village and plantation to get a sense of island life.
Activities include scuba diving (if you are certified), snorkeling (be sure to visit the giant clam beds), kayaking, fishing, stand up paddle boarding (FOR FREE!), and just relaxing. We also took a boat into town and toured the main island of Nuku’alofa (the royal tombs, the blowholes, Captain Cook’s arrival spot, etc., and then we visited the market place and walked around town. We had lunch at Friends Café (great coffee) and bought some authentic art and jewelry at Langafonua Handicrafts center next door.