Sunday, September 14, 2008

Vila: The happiest place on Earth

A hammock strung between two palm trees (tick), some wild concoction in hand (tick), kicking back and watching the palm fronds sway in the breeze (tick): a tropical island getaway a little over three hours from Australia? Confirmed.

Recently voted the happiest place on Earth, it’s no wonder that Vanuatu draws more and more visitors every year. This little South Pacific gem is truly beginning to come into its own, and it’s a pleasure to watch the developments progress.

Most international travellers will spend much of their time in Vila, the capital city as this is where all the international carriers hub through, though there is a movement to begin to draw travellers out to experience further out in the archipelago – after all there are 65 inhabited islands to choose from.

Vila though, has its own charm, while its roads may not be graded and the cars travelling along them have seen much better days, the town centre is relaxed and doesn’t incorporate any pretentions of grandeur.

Here’s a tip, hit the markets in the morning or in the late afternoon, it’s almost like all the 40,000 locals are out loading up on their supplies of coconut, grapefruit, taro, papaw and the like. Feeling adventurous? Join in the fray and grab some fruit, just remember there’s no bargaining so the figure the shopkeeper throws at you is it.

After the sweat and activity of the markets, check out the surrounds, many of the general stores in the area are actually owned by Vietnamese and Chinese traders who’ve been on the island for decades, and the many of the goods themselves in the store have French labels – harking back to the joint French and British rule earlier in the century.

Of course one of the best things about staying in Vila is its proximity to everything, nothing is too far and everywhere needs ten minutes to get to – at least it does if you speak to a local. And catching the local bus is a must, while slightly more costly for tourists it still ends up being between $1 and $3. Flag one down where ever you see a minibus with a red ‘B’ on the licence plate, and if they have a spot (and are going in the direction you are) they’ll stop, if not, they’ll at least wave back.

This just touches on the charm of the local Melanesian people. While they may not have an 80" flat screen television or ultra fast broadband, they’re ready with a smile and a greeting when you walk down the street or need some directions.

And if Vila isn’t enough, day trippers can take advantage of various even smaller islands nearby for a day trip, such as the privately held Iririki, which was leased to the British for 99 years in 1913, or Hideaway, the location of the only known underwater post office in the world, where you put on flippers and a snorkel to post your postcard.

For those with even more time, Vanuatu can only be really understood if you move beyond the island of Efate. Walk up the edge of an active volcano, dive into reef-filed oceans, or simply sit back and watch the land-divers plummet down an assembled wooden tower attached only by the vines on their feet. Of course it’s not perfect, after all it still is a third world country, but take the time to get to know this little nation, and you may just find the secret to happiness.

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