There’s something in the water in Vanuatu

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.

Photography by Julie Miller.

TRAVEL FACTS

Getting there
Air Vanuatu flies from Sydney to Port Vila six times a week, with three flights a week from Brisbane to Port Vila. There is also a direct flight from Brisbane to Luganville once a week. airvanuatu.com

Where to stay
Espirito Santo
Barrier Beach Resort offers stylish beach bungalows and is totally enchanting. barrierbeachresort.com

Efate
With its beautiful beach and tranquil location, the award-winning Havannah Resort is magnificent for couples. For the ultimate luxury, stay in one of its deluxe waterfront villas. thehavannah.com

Further information
Santo Horse Adventures: facebook.com/SantoHorseAdventures
Vanuatu Tourism Office: vanuatu.travel/en/

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