Pauline Webber discovers that a perfect tropical retreat in Vanuatu is not just the playground of the rich and famous
NCE upon a time, a wealthy entrepreneur discovered a tropical island surrounded by beautiful coral reef. He decided to buy the island and turn it into one of the world’s most exclusive resorts. Everything would be the height of luxury. Guests would arrive by seaplane or helicopter. They would stay in exquisitely designed villas, enjoy fabulous food, swim, snorkel and dive among turtles and dugongs in the tranquil turquoise sea.
And, most important, they’d have absolute privacy guaranteed. No paparazzi here. The cost of all this: just $45,000 a night. For the Tom Cruises of the world, an absolute bargain.
It was just one of the entrepreneur’s many great ideas, all of which he set about turning into reality. Unsurprisingly, he soon found he had rather overextended himself. The entrepreneur was sure he could find a way around that little difficulty but, after many adventures in the world of finance, was obliged to take up residence for a time in somewhat less luxurious surroundings at the expense of the US government.
So the busy builders on the tropical island downed tools and walked away. And that was the end of that. Well, not quite . . .
The little island of Kakula is off the north coast of Efate, Vanuatu’s main island. It’s a grey, steamy day in the rainy season when we set out from the capital, Port Vila, to brave the unsealed, rutted and potholed highway that will take us to Undine Bay, where we are to meet Andy Birtles, manager of Kakula resort.
Eight of us clamber aboard a sturdy ute (four inside and four standing in the back, Ni-Vanuatu style) for the 90-minute journey. With little traffic and few roads, Vanuatu has a relaxed attitude to traffic regulation. The fun of riding in the tray of the ute is a seemingly inexhaustible source of delight to our children.
The road winds through hills affording spectacular views of Mele Bay and Eretoka Island, known locally as Hat island because of its distinctive chapeau-like shape. We reach the northwest of the island and lovely Havannah Harbour, home to the US fleet during World War II. To our right, honey-coloured cattle graze placidly amid plantations of tall, swaying coconut palms. We stop at a coastal village where roadside stalls display wartime memorabilia — the wing from a crashed fighter plane, Coca-Cola bottles — alongside giant clam shells and fresh pawpaws.
The sun is shining when we arrive at Paonangisu, where Birtles waits with a boat. Kakula nestles between the mainland and the island of Nguna, home to an extinct volcano that rises before us now, shrouded in misty haze. This protects the pristine waters around Kakula from the fierce weather that can lash the north side of Efate, making a safe haven for reef creatures and other marine life. As we speed across the water, I spot a couple of turtles making their leisurely way over the reef.
With my family ensconced in shaded sun lounges at the edge of the white sand beach, I settle down, grapefruit spritzer in hand, for a chat with Andy and his Italian wife, Fabiana Viani. How, I wonder, did a Manchester lad and a girl from Rome find their way into managing what was intended to be one of the world’s most exclusive holiday destinations?
I spent seven years in the Maldives and Zanzibar, running dive schools,’’ Birtles tells me. Then, a couple of years ago, Fabi and I were asked if we’d like to take on this project. At that stage it seemed quite possible it would come off. There are other examples of this kind of thing that have been successful, like Necker [Richard Branson’s luxury resort island in the Caribbean] that cost about $50,000 a night. So we thought, why not?’’
The present resort is housed in what was intended to
Shore bet: The attractions are obvious at Kakula Beach
Vital signs: The appeal of Kakula is its privacy be quarters for the fetchers and carriers the glitterati were sure to bring along with them. Furnished and decorated in beachcomber style, the building is comfortable with a simple charm reminiscent of coastal holiday cottages of the 1950s. Five bedrooms lead off the central sunken living and dining areas.
The house works best as a private rental, perhaps for a small wedding, a birthday get-together or just a few days with family,’’ Birtles says.
Everything you need is here: kayaks, diving gear, even a kite-surfing instructor. This is one of the best places in the Pacific for kite-surfing.’’
The resort is popular with Port Vila expats and I can see why. There’s a relaxed informality and unpreten- tiousness about the place that is a contrast to the usual infinity-pool-wet-bar-island-feast experience. But what gives Kakula its special aura is the ghosts of developers past. I ask Birtles why the ruins were not just bulldozed. Well, he says, as soon as you see them you’ll understand why we’ve kept them.
A 10-minute walk takes us to the opposite side of the island where the crumbling edifice of the first luxury villa squats on the sand. My first thought is: Who would think to put a Moorish mini-palace on a tropical South Pacific island? It looks like a cross between a tiered wedding cake and the Taj Mahal, only in concrete instead of marble. The vast rooms, with their arched windows and doors, gape open, exposed to sun and sea. The wooden
The island can be rented for $2700 a night based on 10 people sharing and including all meals and transfers from Port Vila. There is a service tier system based on the number of guests; for example, for a party of four guests, the tariff is the same but extras include premium dinners of lobster and transfers by sea plane rather than road. Standard rooms are $185 a night. www.kakula-resort.com www.vanuatu.travel www.airvanuatu.com