My teenage daughter is standing in a lineup of tribesmen and she is angry with me. As I lift my camera, she says, “I look hideous,” unaware of the irony of being surrounded by tribesmen wearing next to nothing.
We are in the Yakel Village on the South Pacific island chain of Vanuatu. I grew up in the South Pacific. Back then, Vanuatu was one of the poorest nations in the region, with little to recommend it to tourists. Within the last five years, however, it has become a hot spot for adventure travelers and now boasts several swanky resorts. In 2006 it was voted the happiest place on Earth by the think tank Happy Planet Index.
The reason they’re happy is not that Vanuatu have the most stuff. But Vanuatu has idyllic white-sand islands, clear waters, waterfalls, great diving, the world’s most accessible live volcano and food that grows faster than it can be picked. They share almost everything and, most important, there’s no cultural yearning to keep up with the Joneses. I decided this concept would be good for my family, and so my husband, Greg; daughters, Indigo and Sofia; and I spent 10 days here last July.
After several hours with the Yakel, we said “tata” (goodbye) to the tribesmen, and our driver moved on to Mt. Yasur, one of the most spectacularly active volcanoes in the world. If you’ve ever fancied getting close to a volcano, here’s your chance.
We pulled up before sunset, watching as gray cloud as tall as multi-storied buildings mushroomed from the crater. We climbed its flank and approached the rim. It struck me as odd that there were no railings, no warning signs, no ropes and no rangers keeping visitors away from the edge. A part of happiness, I figured, must be managing one’s own fate.
As darkness fell, we could see the gray, ashy plumes turning brilliant scarlet, red and purple, shooting fireball rocks wildly into the night sky. We were transfixed. We had expected to spend two hours there and we spent five, trying, in vain, to capture the exhilaration on film.
Accommodations on Tanna were basic. White Grass Ocean Resort is as good as it gets and is pleasant and fun, although the rooms are Spartan and small. You don’t go to Tanna for luxe digs; our three days there were sufficiently stimulating.
In 2004, a French businessman cashed out, bought a yacht and he, his wife, and two small children sailed the world looking for their dream island. They spent more than a year looking, eventually wandering into the friendly waters around the large northern island of Espiritu Santo. There they discovered Ratua, a 146-acre coconut plantation surrounded by turquoise water, tropical fish, powdery white sand, and abundant plant life.
Indigo and I decided to visit the mainland of Espiritu Santo to explore the Millennium Cave, which, as evidence of Vanuatu’s remoteness, was first explored in 2000. We left behind Greg and Sofia because the trip was labeled unsuitable for kids under 10. I rarely pay attention to things labeled “tough” because it’s often an overstatement, but “tough” in Vanuatu really means, “Holy smokes, what have I done?” After a jarring one-hour drive, a 45-minute walk through a steamy bamboo forest, a stop at a village long house and an incomprehensible briefing from our village guide, we were off.
There was a one-hour trek through knotted jungle and several steep descents on ladders fashioned from branches lashed together with palm fronds before we finally descended into the cave, which stretched, pitch-dark, for two miles. Any pride I had about my fitness was dashed, and I emerged with my legs shaking. Indigo, a sprightly 13, was grinning madly and claiming she wasn’t tired at all.
But wait. There was more.
After a sit-down and a sandwich, we were handed a child’s blow-up swim ring and told to get in the river. The only way out was to swim down a canyon, get out, portage your body around rocks, swim under waterfalls, get out again, climb a cliff and then traipse back through the jungle. I had never been more exhausted, but it was a true-blue adventure and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Back at Ratua, guests were invited to go outside on a deck cantilevered above the lagoon. Below us, a group of women in grass skirts waded into the sea up to their waists. They began to sing and rhythmically beat the ocean with their hands, performing the water music. An ancient ritual performed only by women, this performance seemed to prove that humans will always find a way to make music.
Vanuatu had become one of my favorite places. In a world where most places are thoroughly explored and exploited, it felt untouched, blessed with abundant nature and kind people.
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