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