Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY JULIE MILLER

While a stay on Van­u­atu’s main is­land, Efate, is al­ways ex­cep­tional, add a few days on Espir­itu Santo for the ic­ing on the cake.

The women from the Banks Is­land group have known it for cen­turies: there’s some­thing mag­i­cal about the waters of Van­u­atu. As they washed their laun­dry in the rivers, the vil­lage women dis­cov­ered if they slapped the wa­ter a cer­tain way, it pro­duced mu­sic – sounds of na­ture, of wa­ter­falls, rain­drops, co­conuts and breach­ing dol­phins, ac­com­pa­nied by a rhyth­mic beat.

This ex­tra­or­di­nary phe­nom­e­non – known as Mag­i­cal

Wa­ter Mu­sic – is best show­cased at the Lewe­ton Cul­tural Cen­tre near Lu­ganville on Van­u­atu’s largest is­land, Espir­itu Santo, the adopted home of sev­eral ex­tended fam­i­lies from the is­lands of Gaua and Mere Lava. Here, they demon­strate their tra­di­tional kas­tom cul­ture in­clud­ing kava mak­ing, cook­ing and danc­ing, cul­mi­nat­ing in an en­ter­tain­ing per­for­mance of the wa­ter per­cus­sion.

Mean­while, the oceans sur­round­ing the 83 is­lands in the Van­u­atu ar­chi­pel­ago have a magic all of their own. Gin-clear and a lu­mi­nous aqua colour where it laps the shore, it’s hard to imag­ine a more pris­tine marine en­vi­ron­ment, boast­ing an ar­ray of wildlife in­clud­ing dugongs, manta rays and tur­tles as well as colour­ful reefs of­fer­ing some of the best div­ing and snorkelling in the Pa­cific.

Van­u­atu’s beaches also ri­val any­where in the world for beauty. The fit­tingly named Cham­pagne Beach on Espir­itu Santo, for in­stance, is con­sid­ered one of the planet’s most stun­ning stretches of sand; a gor­geous sil­ver cres­cent flanked by twisted Ta­manu trees, gnarled trunks adorned with par­a­sitic or­chids cast­ing am­ple shade on the sun-stroked beach.

Nearby, you’ll find even more in­tense shades of blue in Santo’s le­gendary Blue Holes, mys­te­ri­ous fresh­wa­ter pools that form when un­der­ground streams, ris­ing in the is­land’s moun­tain­ous in­te­rior, resur­face as springs, cut­ting deep cir­cu­lar holes in the lime­stone karst. These Blue

Holes, co­cooned amid emer­ald jun­gle tan­gled with vines, tree ferns and mighty banyan trees, are daz­zling in their beauty, the trans­par­ent wa­ter man­i­fest­ing in in­creas­ingly vivid shades of aqua­ma­rine, cerulean and cobalt as the pool in­creases in depth.

As I perch on a wooden deck over­look­ing Nanda Blue Hole – the largest and most pop­u­lar pool open to the pub­lic – I watch mes­merised as sil­ver fish flit through the dap­pled sun­lit shal­lows. The sandy bot­tom, per­haps two me­tres down, looks close enough to touch, and I can’t help but think that surely this heav­enly en­vi­ron­ment must be home to mer­maids and nymphs!

But it’s not just hu­mans and myth­i­cal crea­tures who are en­am­oured with Van­u­atu’s liq­uid charms. One of the most pop­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties in the is­lands is to swim with horses – and the ponies love it as much as their hu­man pas­sen­gers.

“I must warn you,” Santo Horse Ad­ven­tures owner Megan Jane Lock­yer tells me as I mount my pretty palomino mare, Lou-Lou, for a two-hour ride in Espir­itu Santo. “Lou-Lou likes to lie down on the job. She’s a to­tal wa­ter baby!”

Tuck­ing my phone safely (I hope) into my bra, we me­an­der through vil­lages and along jun­gle trails be­fore reach­ing a stream, where a chan­nel has been cut through the man­groves lead­ing to the sea. The tide is high; and the wa­ter is above Lou-Lou’s back as she forges through the translu­cent wa­ter.

Sud­denly I hear a gut­tural moan em­a­nat­ing from deep within Lou-Lou’s belly – a sound of pure con­tent­ment. “The horses just love it,” Megan ex­plains. “The wa­ter is so fresh and cool – I guess it just feels good.”

So far I have man­aged to stay high and dry, but as the ride con­tin­ues onto the sand flats, awash with the high tide, so Lou-Lou’s de­meanour changes, splash­ing out with big, play­ful steps. Sud­denly I feel her knees buckle; and with a leap wor­thy of an Olympic gym­nast, I fling my­self off, hold­ing my phone high in the air as Lou-Lou dunks be­neath the waves, face and all. I can’t help but laugh as she re-emerges sheep­ishly, drip­ping wet – I can hardly blame her for want­ing to cool off in that mag­i­cal wa­ter.

Lou-Lou, like all of Megan’s horses, is a res­cue pony, taken on board by the ex-pat Kiwi af­ter she was found with an eye in­jury, slashed by a ma­chete. Sadly, some of the young cow­boys who work on Santo’s le­gendary cat­tle farms are ig­no­rant about an­i­mal care and wel­fare; and of the 26 horses Megan has res­cued from abu­sive homes, only 10 have been re­ha­bil­i­tated to the point where they can be rid­den again, wear­ing syn­thetic sad­dles and bit­less bri­dles to min­imise pres­sure.

Megan is also a stick­ler for rider safety; all clients must don a hel­met and each trek is con­ducted at a safe pace, un­der Megan’s per­sonal su­per­vi­sion. The re­sult is a ride where both horses and riders are safe and happy, with the swim­ming adding a unique di­men­sion to the ac­tiv­ity.

Lo­cated a short 50-minute flight from the main is­land of Efate, Espir­itu Santo is the per­fect add-on to a re­sort hol­i­day, a blissfully re­laxed des­ti­na­tion de­scribed by au­thor James A. Mich­ener – who lived on the is­land while he was writ­ing Tales of the South Pa­cific – as “lovely be­yond de­scrip­tion”.

Mean­while, the “big smoke” of Port Vila is a tan­ta­lis­ing mix of is­land charm and rel­a­tive so­phis­ti­ca­tion, with a vi­brant un­der­cover pro­duce and craft mar­ket as well as tax-free shops and some sur­pris­ingly good water­front restau­rants and bars,

in­clud­ing a craft brewer, patis­series and cafes, and the classic French restau­rant L’Houstalet, which has served its un­ortho­dox spe­cial­ity, fly­ing fox, for more than four decades.

To ex­plore Van­u­atu’s in­trigu­ing tra­di­tional cul­ture, a visit to the Na­tional Mu­seum of Van­u­atu is a must-do, with one-hour guided tours in­clud­ing a mu­si­cal in­stru­ment demon­stra­tion and sand draw­ing.

But it’s dif­fi­cult to stay in­doors too long in Van­u­atu’s trop­i­cal cli­mate. More magic beck­ons at Mele Cas­cades, a stun­ning wa­ter­fall lo­cated 15 min­utes’ drive north of Port Vila. Like most of Van­u­atu’s beauty spots, the opaque ter­raced pools are pri­vately owned by tribal elders, with a rather steep en­try fee of VT2000 (about AU$23) – but to stand un­der a thun­der­ing nat­u­ral shower, al­low­ing its force to mas­sage your neck, is an in­vig­o­rat­ing, soul-sooth­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

There are a num­ber of out­stand­ing, ro­man­tic re­sorts within easy reach of Port Vila, with stand­outs in­clud­ing The Ha­van­nah, a bou­tique re­sort lo­cated 30-min­utes’ drive from the cap­i­tal on Efate’s north­west coast over­look­ing a gor­geous white-sand beach; and Ta­manu on the Beach, named af­ter the indige­nous coastal tree with heal­ing prop­er­ties.

Mean­while, Ratua Pri­vate Is­land – lo­cated just off Lu­ganville in Espir­itu Santo – has been voted one of the Top 5 Pri­vate Is­lands in the South Pa­cific, a bare­foot par­adise where you can pad­dle a ca­noe to yet an­other blue hole, ride horses bare­back in the ocean or be pam­pered in an over­wa­ter day spa.

I find my tran­quil­lity, how­ever, on a sim­ple tyre swing hang­ing from the branch of a mighty Ta­manu tree at Santo’s Bar­rier Beach Re­sort. As I sway in the balmy breeze, hyp­no­tised by the blue la­goon where a res­i­dent dugong

– or is it a mer­maid? – wal­lows, I am well and truly be­witched, Van­u­atu’s mag­i­cal wa­ter once again cast­ing its spell. •

Open­ing im­age: The blue holes are a draw­card for lo­cals and vis­i­tors alike. Clock­wise from above: Kava sleep­ing in the wa­ter; Rid­ing through the man­groves; Nanda Blue Hole, Espir­itu Santo.

From top: Mele Cas­cades on Efate; Lit­tle boy danc­ing with his fam­ily at Lewe­ton Cul­tural Cen­tre, Espir­itu Santo.

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