One of the popular things to do while at Sanddollar, is ‘Around the Island’ (Efate) which depending on how your approach it can take as little as a couple of hours, through to a whole day. Efate Island like most islands in Vanuatu, has flatter coastal fringes and a higher hilly interior (which has fewer villages, and consists mainly of dense bush). There is little of no reason to have roads winding their way into the interior, so unless you have a specific reason, it is little explored. The coastal road meanders around the perimeter of the island, but not always along the coast as you might think, and large sections duck into inland, with nothing but dense bush on either side.
I have been to quite a few food markets in both the Pacific and Asia, and the central Port Vila Market is up there with the best of them. Not having the rich cultural history that has infused Asian cooking, there is not the array of spices and exotic greens present. That being said, Vanuatu is a country that is covered in lush vegetation and generous yearly rainfall, and as a consequence has areas of deep loamy soils ideal for the production of just about anything you want to grow.
The traditional island stables of kmala, taro and coconut are always ever present and dependable, along with about thirty different varieties of island cabbage. However, this is greatly expanded by both normal and red cabbage, lettuce, carrots, normal potatoes, along with aubergine, capsicum, cucumber,tomatoes and lettuce. There are also a variety of fresh herbs including mint, parsley (flat and normal), and coriander. As far as fruit goes, every type of banana, cooking through to ladies fingers, pineapple, oranges, lemons, limes and of course papaya which grows like a weed in Vanuatu.
However, the amazing thing is that, even though it is warm all year round and there is essentially the ability to grow anything all year, there are definite growing seasons for pretty much everything. There will be times when there are masses of bananas, but no pineapple, or anything else for that matter. As the photo shows it can at times make the term “seasonal produce” seem ridiculous, although even in the worst of times, there is always a combination of produce that can be prepared into a delicious tropical meal. Most of the time there is both a awesome variety and abundance of vegetables and herbs. Due to the french influence in its cooking, there is generally available, various types of garlic, ginger, nuts and plenty of the main herbs to be had.
As always, the lasting memories are the people. Often the sellers arrive late evening or early morning with their produce, to make sure that they get the best spot. Generally whole communities combine to ensure that they have a bench constantly occupied and roster all the farmers to suit. Sometimes they are there for days, sleeping on the hard concrete floor, and occupying their time by making leaf baskets or cleaning and trimming the vegetables for the best presentation. Seeing so much freshly grown organic food is pretty amazing, but even better is watching all the sellers in action.
To many, it seems that Vanuatu is one of those places that is difficult to get to, but a little bit of investigation proves otherwise. Most visitors to Vanuatu come from either Australia or New Zealand and a substantial number of flights are dedicated to these to countries. Increasing however, travelers from both North America and Asia are finding that Vanuatu is a great country to visits. Having flights coming in from Australia, new Zealand and Fiji, makes it relatively easy for anyone from other countries to get to Vanuatu, with only one stopover from their main port of departure.
Australians and New Zealanders are the lucky ones, as flight times are generally about three hours. It seems somewhat surreal that in the morning you could be sitting shivering over a heater due to the whims of a changeable temperate climate to being in a tropical paradise by lunchtime. This compares favourably to those that have batches and holiday homes in their own country – but are really only available to them in the warmer summer months. the short flying times means that a long weekend is very much an option for that ‘getaway’ and recharge.
Airlines which have routes to Vanuatu include, Air Vanuatu, Virgin Australia, Air New Zealand, Air Pacific, and Aircalin. As a generalization, the national airline has the most number of flights and a significant portion of these are to Australia, supplemented by flights by other carriers from their own countries to a much lesser extent. With the exception with two flights a week from Brisbane to Santo, all flights are to the Capital Port Vila. Where flight schedules are detailed below, these were correct at the time of writing this post, but are subject to change , and anyone thinking planning their trip should consult the airlines directly.
Firstly, why Vanuatu ? The South Pacific has a way of enticing you back, again and again.
We spent four or so years in Papua New Guinea in the 1980′s, and thoroughly enjoyed our time there. Unfortunately, while it has some stunning sights and possesses some of the most isolated cultures on earth, it can be extremely dangerous and the value of life is quite minimal. It is not a place to be taken lightly and the risk of misadventure is high.
We have also been to Fiji, and the Cook Islands, both of which have had a greater interaction with western influences. The typical tourist and resort infrastructure has been installed in Fiji, and while the people are friendly, unless you are out on an isolated island, it all has the same tourist formula. The Cook Islands on the other hand has over the years become another suburb of Auckland, with more Cook Islanders living in New Zealand than in their homeland.
Vanuatu on the other hand, suffers none of the high violence so prevalent in PNG or the Solomon Islands, and appears to be perhaps what Fiji was like fifty or a hundred years ago. On top of this the people are friendly, quick witted and proud of their Country. It has been said that Ni-Vanuatuans are the friendliest people on earth, and in some ways this is true, and you often find yourself waving to strangers for no reason along your journeys, and it seems completely natural.
This resort started out as the‚ “Officers Club” some years ago and is now named ‘Benjor Beach Club’ and facilities have been installed accordingly ( don’t read too much into the ‘beach’ part of the name however). Accommodation wise it offers pretty much the same as a lot of similar mid range Resorts around Port Vila, however it is relatively close to Sanddollar and has a good Restaurant, with friendly staff.
A few years ago it had a rough time with not so many guests, and surviving mainly on its restaurant, but has since developed a marketing plan to increase its occupancy, which seams to have worked for it. However, for locals and travellers staying in the Devils Point Road Area, its main value is a place for everyone to meet and get together, have a few drinks and a meal out. It does have wi-fi which is a benefit for those that really need to keep in contact with the outside world by email.
It provides a selection of meals which are Vanuatuan specialities such as Poulet fish, organic beef and a variety of island recipes. The meals are always good, not too expensive, while the restaurant has been placed in a pleasant setting and has a enjoyable atmosphere. However, try the not so island, and no compromise “kick arse curry” washed down with a few tusker beers. You can also order a variety of lighter meals, lobster when available, and unfortunately coconut crab ( please don’t order these as it can take the crabs 50 years to grow, and sadly are on the decline).
Benjor is close by, has good meals and we have never had anything to complain about in the seven years I have been going to it.
When you leave the customs hall at Port Vila you walk through a corridor which has a number of Car Rental desks and alot of the Resort Accommodation desks on the left hand side as you walk out of the airport. If you are picking up your car from Budget Car rentals, they are the first desk as you come out of the hall. They will show you to your car in the airport carpark.
Firstly, when you get into your car, don’t forget that you are travelling on the wrong side of the road. A good safety tip is to remember to keep yourself (the driver) in the centre of the road.
The summit is located almost opposite “Benjor Resort” on Devils Point Road, and is a unique garden experience which has been developed over 10 hectares of land on the high escarpment above the Mele bay coast. The trip up to the gardens is an experience in itself and involves driving up a series of switchbacks, ensuring one keeps on the two concreted wheel tracks. When conditions are dry this is done easy enough, but not to be attempted in the pouring rain.
When we first took over the property at Sanddollar, we were essentially the only owners in the area, with 4-5 metres high rainforest and tropical bush surrounding us on all sides and as far as the eye could see. Even now there are not a lot of people or buildings in our idyllic piece of the world.
So it was with much interest, that we saw a hive of activity happening next door, with the construction of buildings and landscaping. The Builders (all from the nearby village of Mele), spoke highly of the new owners and worked on the property as if it was their own. It was some time before we met Sharon and Liam, as they were always extremely busy, and as it turns out turning their dream into a reality.
I understand that they had been coming to Vanuatu, off and on for ten years or so, and loved the diving that was available here. A strong friendship was struck up with a number of like minded Ni-Vanuatuan divers and the dream to start up ‘Devils Point Dive’ had begun.
Being on the western side of the island, the sun doesn’t rise blindingly into your fare (bungalow), but instead manifests itself as a gently approaching dawn, which is surreal to see. Sanddollar is nested amongst some of the giant rainforest trees which abound in this tropical paradise. Vanuatu,being near to the equator, the sunrise occurs between 5.00am and 6.00am every day and sets pretty well the same time in the evening.
“The Havannah” is one of only two tourist resorts around Port Vila which can justifiably call themselves four to five stars facilities. The trip out to the Havannah provides a great insight to the landscape of Efate. The drive up the switchback known as Klems hill is truly an experience, and would arguably be one of the steepest roads in the South Pacific. The view is exceptional though and on a clear day one can see right down along the Mele Bay coast, Port Vila and beyond. The road itself has been upgraded as a part of the Millennium project which saw the complete ring road sealed. The drive while steep in part, affords great views of the harbour.