We missed our port day yesterday at Mystery Island in Vanuatu due to uncooperative weather. The captain had to pull the plug on departing via tender boats with continuous high winds and rain making it unsafe for the passengers and the crew. So we were left with one day, 8 hours really, to get to know this little island nation in the South Pacific. Hardly sufficient but we will try our best to walk away with a small glimpse of it. Our port today is Port Vila on the island of Efate, the third largest island in the Vanuatu group.
Having spent enough time with our fellow shipmates, we skip the cruise-sponsored land tours and walk straight off the boat through a local arts and crafts market bursting with locals selling all sorts of touristy clothing and a plethora of Port Vila stamped dust collectors. Making a quick pass we walk straight for the gates to exit the wharf. A hundred drivers pressed against a chain link fence vie for our attention to book a ride into town. As soon as we depart in our cab the driver pulls off the side of the road to tell us about the turtle feeding, waterfall swimming and shopping that we could experience with him as a guide if we hire his services for the day. No thank you, we repeat many times, before he submits and drops us off at a strip mall a few minutes down the road.
We want fun and spontaneity to lead us beyond what the tourist-map checklist has to offer. We hire a car at a local Avis in town and after chatting up the salesman we find out the ring road only takes about two hours to complete. Sweet, we are off and running with no plan at all except to make it around the island and back before we need to board the ship at 5:30 this evening. We have a map to follow that gives us some indication of what lay ahead. So many of the places that look intriguing, like thermal pools and beach cafes with a view, look boarded up as we approach. All of the places are located off the main road and are commonly reached by a muddy, pot hole laden dirt road. Our car creaks and squeals with each dip and bump. We wonder what parts we could be leaving on the path behind us?
We strike gold when we catch sight of a simply written red sign pointing to a chocolate factory. Do we even bother we wonder as we speed by the turn off in our little white Corolla? I step up and say decidedly “Yes, a chocolate tasting would be a fab way to start our day.” We turn around and immediately question the decision as we are crawling down another tiny dirt lane, gently coaxing the car in and out of the divets. We park and are immediately welcomed by a wonderfully warm woman and introduced to Aelan Chocolate.
What a find! We all learn a lot about cacao beans and the islands they are grown on around Vanuatu, how they are processed, the awards they have won, and of course we sample the wonderful cocoa nibs and chocolate. Aelan is the Bislama word for “Islands” and appropriately named as the beans come from many of the islands of Vanuatu, like Santo, Malo and Epi. Each having their own unique flavour characteristics. It is unanimous that the salted dark chocolate dotted with large grains of sea salt is everyone’s favourite. The shop is also stocked with crafts and homewares made by local women. We enjoy peeking at it all but are not here for stuff. The Bolinger focus is solely on chocolate. What a nice, warm and sweet introduction to Vanuatu.
What else would we find? We are now all very excitedly curious. One thing is consistent on our entire circle around Efate: the smiling faces of the locals. Kids walking home from school in their uniforms smiling and waving at us. Families working on their gardens, many with helpful sons handling machetes, all stop to wave to us as we pass by. Pick-up trucks packed to the brim with people out the back waving and smiling. It was contagious, before long our kids had the windows down and were waving back. I hear one girl yell out “I like you!” as we drove by, so sweet.
There are many chickens and cows wandering alongside the road. We cross several creeks and rivers over small concrete bridges. Detours take us off the main paved road onto side dirt lanes where roads have been washed away. The rain and clouds play a game of hide and seek with the sun. The colours are so vibrant from the rainy season as the hillsides reflect what looks like hundreds of shades of green especially when the sun wins out.
Looking for lunch and a swim to round out our day, we see a boutique hotel on our map not far away that welcomes day trippers. The picture of the hammocks over the water wins us over. It’s a resort on a private island and we wonder if there will even be a boat heading over there without advance notice. Another long-ish drive down a dirt lane dead ends in between a small community of simple homes. There are many ni-Vanuatu residents hanging out along the tiny dock. Stephen approaches and enquires about a ride out to Moso Island. They offer to take us for $25-30 AUD roundtrip in one of their little tin boats. It turns out it’s only a short 6-minute ride. We grab our things and pile in to the vessel hoping it stays afloat across the channel. The water between the islands is warm and glowing turquoise. The dense green hills clustered with palm trees come into view as we depart the coast, it’s all so picturesque.
The first thing we see as we approach Moso are those fabulous hammocks over the water. They look so inviting, what a clever idea! The kids are anxious to get themselves a spot on one. The Moso Resort is cool, laid back and hip. It’s owned by an Aussie who greets guests upon arrival with champagne and warm conversation. There are many sweet resident dogs that are lounging around and looking for cuddles. Caroline is terrified and scares some of the once relaxed guests into moving to a seat further away from us. Poor Caroline, not too long after sitting down the gecko on the ceiling above targets her forearm for a bowel movement. We can’t help but laugh.
We have the most delicious and colourful lunch of locally sourced whole foods. A freshly shredded coconut salad with mint, orange slices and pineapple that I will definitely be making when I get home. Green papaya salad, pea and mint croquettes, spring rolls, a platter of nuts, cheese and fruits and some refreshing lemon – lime bitters to remind us of home. It’s a very cool place and we are glad we took the chance to venture out here and off the beaten path. It would be a great place to stay to disconnect, it feels very remote without having to sacrifice too much, maybe just air con as I notice all the open walls and large fans.
The conclusion of lunch leads to a down-pouring of rain and a quick swim out for those gorgeous hammocks. I mean you’re going to get wet anyway, right? As long as that lightning stays far enough away. It turns out it’s not as easy as you would think to enter a hammock from the water. The comic relief the kids provide makes it worthwhile standing in the rain for the photos. We are grateful our boat hasn’t arrived just yet to return us to Efate and our car.
The sky is grey and there are far off rumbles of thunder although the rain is suppressed for the time being. We quickly board our boat when it returns for us. No sooner do we pull out then the rain pummels down again. Our captain warns us to hold on as he accelerates to make it across the channel more quickly. We are thrashed with darts of rain and cold as we bump across the water but can’t help but laugh all the while. What a great adventure!
We return absolutely drenched and overpay our captain as we rush to run back to our car and make a haphazard attempt to dry ourselves. The drive back to town is supposed to be 30 minutes but with heavy rain, flooding roads, diversions, traffic and missed turns it takes us closer to an hour. A little bit of panic sets in thinking of delaying or missing our boat but we make it back with a small amount of time to spare. The ship sets sail towards New Caledonia as the most dreamy purple and pink sunset sees us on our way. A farewell bid from Vanuatu I think. We have loved our day of surprises here, the memories of all those smiling warm faces and that deliciously, decadent dark chocolate. Bon voyage, Vanuatu!