Vanuatu hideaway delivers the luxe
THE first time I saw Port Vila, it was in a country called the New Hebrides.
Well, it wasn't really a country ... it was a lonely outpost of French/British colonialism governed by something called a "condominium government".
In other words, there were two authorities - each with its own administrator, bureaucracy, police force, post office, schools and so on. How that worked remains a mystery to this day.
The Brits and the French jointly ruling an indigenous population? No wonder a grassroots opposition demanded independence, which finally came in 1980. And modern Vanuatu was born.
Until very recently, "luxury" tourism to Vanuatu was an elusive goal and, even 15 years ago, the country was way behind Pacific Island neighbours such as Fiji and New Caledonia in terms of five-star accommodation, for example.
Backpackers and mid-range tourists, yes. But true luxury, not really.
Some may dispute this (Hotel Le Lagon comes to mind) but effective hospitality industry training, for example, took a generation to flourish.
Today it's a different story. There are several five-star worthy establishments in Port Vila and around the country. And these are by and large the result of sheer entrepreneurial persistence and risk-taking.
One of the best examples we found is a boutique operation just 20km from Vila - Eratap Beach Resort.
Developer and owner Tony Pittard, previously a Sydney accountant and international banker with a dream to start his own Pacific Island resort, took up the challenge with his young family in 2000 and opened Eratap in December 2007. He describes this period as monumentally life-changing, but 11 years later the dream has been realised.
Eratap sits on a finger of land with a lagoon on one side and a small patch of sea that separates it from Eratap Island on the other. It's a brilliant location.
Water sports ranging from surfing to kayaking, snorkelling, SUP-ing and fishing are all on the activities agenda, as are walks around nearby Big Island or tours of the local village and Kalosik's House, where pure coconut oil is made.
The highlight was a short boat trip over to uninhabited Castaway Island (how many of these are there in the world, I wonder), where the snorkelling is superb and you can ask the resort to pack a lunch basket. Swimsuits optional.
The villas, just 14 in all, are simply but tastefully furnished with the features you'd expect in a luxury hotel, such as a large TV with satellite and a movie library, free Wi-Fi, outdoor and indoor showers and a bath, air-conditioning if required, cloud-like king or queen size beds and bathrooms with Volcanic Earth organic soaps.
As if that isn't enough, there's the Etlau Lagoon Day Spa, where you can be scrubbed and polished with treatments like the Yasur Coffee Ash Scrub or a simple Heavenly Relaxation massage from a trained therapist. We found this the perfect antidote to a hard day's work snorkelling and kayaking.
The cuisine is international, presided over by top Japanese chef Kazu-san, whose experience covers Paris, Lyon and New Zealand as well as his native Osaka.
As you'd expect, food and wine are top class with an emphasis on fresh seafood.
Eratap is unpretentious, boutique luxury.
More at vanuatu.travel and eratap.com