UN­TOUCHED BEAUTY

STUN­NING AORE IS­LAND IS A GEN­UINE BACK-TO-NATURE ES­CAPE FOR VIS­I­TORS WHO ARE A LIT­TLE AD­VEN­TUR­OUS

Life & Style Weekend - - MAGAZINE | ESCAPE - WORDS: SHAN­NON NEWLEY

Crowded re­sorts with jam-packed swim­ming pools. Beaches cov­ered in deck chairs. Cocktail wait­ers. Tourists. Cruise ships.

That’s what I imag­ined I would ar­rive to af­ter my two-and-half-hour flight to

Van­u­atu.

What I got was a barely touched is­land with no elec­tric­ity, no shops and no public trans­port.

Port Vila is the more pop­u­lar stop for tourists head­ing to this part of the Pa­cific but I’m on the tiny Aore Is­land via Espir­itu

Santo.

We fly into the Lu­ganville Air­port, di­rect from Bris­bane, and meet a driver to take us into town.

From this dusty, third-world town, we get a 15 minute “wa­ter taxi” to Aore, said

“Our-ray”.

There’s no wharf or jetty upon ar­rival. Our tinny driver pulls up at a small beach at the back of an un­in­hib­ited block of land.

A young, lo­cal bloke is wait­ing to take us to our pri­vately-owned ac­com­mo­da­tion, Is­land View Cot­tages, which backs on to a beach and reef.

There are two ba­sic but com­fort­able self-con­tained cot­tages on this per­fectly man­i­cured block and it’s sur­rounded by thick

bush. There are no neigh­bours, no pass­ing boats and apart from our prop­erty man­agers, we wouldn’t see any­one else for the week if we didn’t leave the cot­tages. It’s the per­fect place for daily swims, to catch up on read­ing, snooze in a ham­mock and en­joy a dig­i­tal detox.

Snorkellin­g is the go-to ac­tiv­ity with stun­ning fish zip­ping in and out of beau­ti­ful coral for­ma­tions at a small reef. For a novice snorkeller, it’s a great in­tro­duc­tion. And of course there’s fish­ing and kayak­ing.

A con­ver­sa­tion with some lo­cal res­i­dents re­sults in an in­vi­ta­tion to the is­land’s school fundraiser. It shows how ba­sic the ameni­ties are on Aore. It’s a few flat-topped build­ings and a small make-shift li­brary. The stu­dents are cu­ri­ous about us, cir­cling with shy smiles as the adults per­form tra­di­tional dances and songs.

A rus­tic bar­be­cue spread of chicken, pork, beef, salad and sweet potato, served on a large leaf, is pre­sented specif­i­cally for vis­i­tors’ tastes. We con­vince our hosts to let us try the lo­cal food – mainly fish – and en­joy it much more. It’s a cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ence you can’t ex­actly book.

That’s how things work on the is­land – ca­sual con­ver­sa­tions and word of mouth.

And if you are flex­i­ble and pa­tient, is­land life is re­lax­ing with un­ex­pected ad­ven­tures.

If cabin fever is set­ting in, Aore has a cou­ple of small pri­vately owned and fam­i­lyrun re­sorts that of­fer some so­cial in­ter­ac­tion. For lunch, good cock­tails and a mas­sage, head to the Fresh­wa­ter Plan­ta­tion Re­sort – a small and sim­ple open restau­rant with a menu cen­tred around pro­duce from the prop­erty, in­clud­ing goat cheese and co­coa.

The main at­trac­tion here is guided bat cave tours that run daily.

For din­ner and drinks head to Aore Is­land Re­sort and or­der the lob­ster if it’s on the menu. Ex­pect to pay Aussie prices for your food and bev­er­ages – ex­cept maybe the lob­ster.

For an ad­ven­ture off the is­land, head back over to Lu­ganville and ne­go­ti­ate a taxi for the day. We pay $A100 for lo­cal driver, Sam, to take us to the Blue Holes, about an hour north. There are few shops out­side of Lu­ganville so make sure to pack a few re­fresh­ments.

Tourism is still ca­sual in this part of the coun­try so make sure you take cash. Don’t trust prices on web­sites as they change and mar­ket­ing is slow to catch up.

We pay 1000 VUV each to en­ter, which is

about $A13. Un­like the warm bath-like wa­ter of the beaches, these nat­u­ral springs are re­fresh­ing and of­fer a re­prieve from the hu­mid­ity. De­spite be­ing one of the more well-known at­trac­tions, we’re the only tourists there.

With our ice-cooler of beers, we jump back in Sam’s van and head to the north­ern part of Santo to Port Olry, a small re­sort of a cou­ple of cab­ins, a shack-like cafe and a few beach huts.

It’s worth the ex­tra hour north to en­joy the co­conut crab.

Apart from a small group of young Aussies danc­ing on the white sand and in the warm aqua wa­ter, we’re the only tourists here. On the way back, the Black Pearl is your must-do din­ner-stop.

While other re­sorts are still ca­sual or lit­tle more than shacks on the beach, the Black Pearl is more of a first-world op­er­a­tion. It’s a high­light of our trip thanks to the hos­pi­tal­ity of the own­ers, fan­tas­tic live mu­sic, the in­cred­i­ble seafood and well thought-out wine menu – some­thing ne­glected at other re­sorts where cock­tails take pride of place.

But back in the third world as you jour­ney to­wards Lu­ganville, don’t for­get to stop in at a kava bar and have a drink with the lo­cals. Though rarely more than a small open shack on the side of the road, you’ll spot them eas­ily thanks to flash­ing red lights. For less than a $1 you’ll get your muddy-look­ing kava served in a small plas­tic bowl. It’s a strange night-cap that may leave you feel­ing a lit­tle numb in the lips for your taxi to Aore Is­land.

With cheap, short flights, stun­ning and un­touched nat­u­ral beauty and po­ten­tial for ad­ven­ture, this lit­tle part of Van­u­atu will no doubt be­come a favourite among Aussies look­ing for an is­land hol­i­day with a dif­fer­ence.

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