Snorkel sa­fari

A re­sort is­land near Vila is the ideal spot to don flip­pers and mask, writes Pauline Web­ber

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Fish bowl: Marine life is at your fin­ger­tips, and an­kles, in the wa­ters around Mele Is­land HERE are lots of fish. That’s the first thing I no­tice when I step from the warm sand into the crys­tal-clear ocean off Van­u­atu’s Mele Is­land. I am in wa­ter barely up to my calves and yet myr­iad colour­ful fish are dash­ing about in the translu­cent shal­lows. They seem quite happy to nes­tle in the shade I pro­vide and even nuz­zle at my legs on the off-chance I am worth eat­ing.

Tiny Mele Is­land is home to Hide­away Re­sort, a scat­ter­ing of bun­ga­lows dot­ted about the dense trop­i­cal jun­gle cov­er­ing all but the fore­shore. But Hide­away is also open to day vis­i­tors who, for about 1000 vatu ($14), can en­joy ex­cel­lent snorkelling and div­ing at a lo­ca­tion no more than 20 min­utes’ drive from Port Vila, the is­land na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

A small ferry chugs back and forth over the 200m stretch of wa­ter from the main­land de­par­ture point at Mele Beach, al­most op­po­site Mele vil­lage, to the is­land. Snorkelling equip­ment is avail­able for hire, and the re­sort runs a restau­rant and bar with ta­bles on the beach where daytrip­pers can re­lax be­tween scenic tours of the reef. There is also a scuba div­ing school of­fer­ing classes from begin­ner to ad­vanced lev­els.

The re­sort is low-key and re­laxed, with the vibe some­where be­tween fam­ily mo­tel and back­packer hos­tel. We are trav­el­ling with our chil­dren and, as none of us is very con­fi­dent in the wa­ter, we de­cide to tackle the sec­tions of reef rel­a­tively close to the beach. We have vis­ited Hide­away once be­fore, about six years ago, and so we know where to look and what to ex­pect but, even so, we are sur­prised again by the abun­dance of sway­ing coral and tech­ni­colour fish.

The whole area around the is­land is a marine sanc­tu­ary. Mele reef, which sur­rounds the is­land in a cres­cent shape, has shal­lows and deep ar­eas to ex­plore. There are high walls of reef laced with colour­ful co­rals, caves and crevices where dark, deep­wa­ter fish lurk, and wide cav­erns where light plays over the sand and the flit­ting fish 100m be­low the sur­face.

I tread wa­ter above one of th­ese vast ex­panses and a huge shoal of elec­tricblue fish swims to­wards me. They don’t de­tour but just flow around me as if I am part of the scenery. They have no fear of hu­mans.

It is a big area and even our cau­tious ex­plo­rations eas­ily fill four hours. From time to time we see the divers’ boat bob­bing far­ther out to sea, where there is a sunken wreck to be ex­plored. We think about try­ing a dive les­son but agree we are not quite coura­geous enough to ven­ture into the real deep. Per­haps next time. Even so, once we mas­ter our equip­ment, we have plenty to keep us busy.

The beauty of Hide­away is its ac­ces­si­bil­ity. It is a per­fect place for the in­ex­pe­ri­enced and the ner­vous to en­joy the won­ders of the un­der­wa­ter world without hav­ing to take a lengthy and ex­pen­sive tour.

A cou­ple of pon­toons an­chored off­shore pro­vide safe havens when we grow tired or our breath­ing pat­terns get a bit er­ratic. Be­neath one of them, the world’s only un­der­wa­ter post of­fice can be found. Spe­cial wa­ter­proof post­cards and pens can be pur­chased at the re­sort. It’s amus­ing to see tourists, pressed into masks, snorkels and flip­pers, plop into the wa­ter clutch­ing a hand­ful of post­cards.

And if you don’t like the idea of fish snack­ing on your an­kles, you can take a trip over the reef in a glass-bot­tomed boat. Tours de­part at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals all day.

Easy ac­cess: Hide­away Is­land Re­sort

But Mele Bay is also re­ward­ing for ex­pe­ri­enced divers. A cou­ple of Cana­di­ans I spot cast­ing off their scuba gear as­sure me they have had a great day. They spend all their hol­i­days in the world’s un­der­wa­ter lo­ca­tions, so they should know.

We de­cide to lunch at the restau­rant, which has a sur­pris­ingly di­verse menu. There are cur­ries and stir-fries, grilled lo­cal poulet fish and a range of teenager food such as toasted sand­wiches, chips and ice cream.

Wait­ing for my lunch to di­gest, I plop down in the shal­lows and re-ac­quaint my­self with the nib­bler fish. Later we have one more snorkelling ex­plo­ration be­fore pack­ing up our gear and tramp­ing back to the ferry. As we pull away, I de­cide I am hooked on this aquatic ad­ven­ture and prom­ise to re­turn.

Check­list

A one-bed­room ocean­side bun­ga­low at Hide­away Is­land Re­sort is $251 a night. A day visit is 1000 vatu a per­son. Mask, snorkel and fins can be rented for 1000 vatu, mask and snorkel only for 500 vatu. Snorkel sa­fari boat trips to the coral gar­dens run ev­ery day at noon and last 45 min­utes; 500 vatu a per­son. A 30-minute, glass-bot­tom boat trip runs ev­ery day at 10.30am and 11am; 1000 vatu a per­son. More: www.hide­away.com.vu. www.van­u­atu.travel www.air­van­u­atu.com

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