“How was your trip?”

That’s the first question out of my friends and coworker’s mouths after “Happy New Year!” when I arrived back in Australia.

In a word: Amazing.

I didn’t really know what to expect when we landed in Vanuatu just after midnight on Christmas Day. I walked off the plane and onto a muggy tarmac and smelled… mud. Good, clean, wet earth. It was an absolutely gorgeous smell, which didn’t translate when I whispered to the English Muffin: “It smells like dirt.”

A van ride down dark streets seen through bleary eyes didn’t do much to acquaint myself with Port Vila, the capital town on Vanuatu. But I couldn’t resist dipping my hand into the warm water of Mele Bay as the boat ferried us and about a dozen sleepy guests over to Iririki Island Resort. On our way to our room, a hermit crab the size of my hand and stars that looked close enough to touch were our welcoming party.

The next day was Christmas on Iririki Island, which we spent listening to a children’s choir of locals sing carols while we feasted on a buffet lunch of every imaginable Christmas dish under the sun (turkey, ham, roast beef, you name it) and had more than our fair share of wine with a lovely couple from Brisbane. The rest of the day was spent tipsily swimming in the ocean and various swimming pools in our resort (as did the majority of the days we were in Vanuatu).

By way of adventure we rented a quad bike from On Wheels, a rental shop run by a couple of friendly Frenchmen (as the French and English were the primary colonizers of Vanuatu before their independence). We used this to do a full loop around the main island of Efate. A short and scary detour down a very steep slope led us to a village full of friendly faces and waves as the two foreigners whizzed through, scaring the pigs, chickens and puppies.

On the Road!

On the Road!

A quick pit stop for a Tusker (the local brew of Vanuatu) and some just-caught-this-morning Yellowfin sashimi at Wahoo Bar led to a delightful conversation with George, the bartender who lived just across the water in a small village on the island of Lelepa. He mentioned that a friend of his does tours of Lelepa by boat, if we were interested. We’d been in Vanuatu for long enough to know that this place hasn’t yet been spoiled by tourism, and that the locals were friendly and trustworthy people who seem genuinely happy for the visitors that flock to their island paradise. So we got George’s number so we could organize the tour a few days later.

Our quad tour of Efate included a stop at a deserted reef spot where were free to snorkel to our hearts content and feed the bold and bright fish that swarmed under the crystal clear waters of Undine Bay on the north side of the island. We also stopped at the Blue Lagoon, an inlet of the ocean that was the deepest blue you could possibly imagine, where we watched local and tourist kids alike swing from rope swings and plunge into the deep blue depths from the highest tree branches they dared to jump from. And a roadside sign for hot springs found us covered in mud just 15 minutes later, then testing our capacity for heat in water that was well over 100F.

Little Piggies, Feeding the Fish, Eton Beach, Mud Pits and the Blue Lagoon

Little Piggies, Feeding the Fish, Eton Beach, Mud Pits and the Blue Lagoon

A couple of days of lounging around had us itching for adventure again, so we called up George and arranged our tour of Lelepa with his neighbor, Terry. We jumped on the boat from Wahoo Bar and jetted directly across the water to a deserted beach made up of broken pieces of reef, where we snorkeled and scared ourselves out of the water by asking about sharks (which weren’t in the bay at all but were suddenly top of mind as we swam deeper). We stopped off at the beach where Survivor: Vanuatu was filmed for more snorkeling and lounging in the sun (which turned out to be a bad idea), then around to a hidden cove where dangling a piece of bread in the water would have fish of all sizes, shapes and colors eating directly from your hand. To close out the tour, Terry took us into the village where he lived, and we met his neighbors who were making cava and going about their business. Seeing their simple way to life brought the complexities of our own into sharper focus, and we talked about how simple life could be if you just didn’t need so much stuff. We finished the day at Wahoo Bar with a couple of Tuskers, salty, sunburned, and exhausted.

On the boat, hiding from bats in a cave, the beaches, feeding fish and cava making in Lelepa village

On the boat, hiding from bats in a cave, the beaches, feeding fish and cava making in Lelepa village

New Year’s Eve was shared with just the English Muffin, fireworks on our hotel balcony and a couple of bottles of Moet. We grudgingly left the following afternoon, vowing to come back and explore more of the islands in the archipelago and return more of the beautiful smiles from the friendly Ni-Vanuautu.

In a word: Amazing.