Fan­tasy is­land

Pauline Web­ber dis­cov­ers that a per­fect trop­i­cal re­treat in Van­u­atu is not just the play­ground of the rich and fa­mous

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

Check­list

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

Pic­tures (above and be­low right): John Sta­hel

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