NC and Vanuatu 2011

Two weeks in Paradise

For our first vacations in 8 months, we had to come up with something truly spectacular. And as Paula had allowed me to pick the destination this time, there was no doubt that we would be traveling south-east from Korea. When I found a newly established direct flight from Seoul to Noumea, the dice were cast. Off to Melanesia we were!

The Hibiscus - symbol of New Caledonia

Spectactiful New Caledonia

We were off to a slow start. Considering that we were on our way to Paradise on Earth, we were somewhat disappointed that the ride included a 16-hour delay in Seoul! Most people on the flight were worse off than us though, as for them this was the last leg of a series of flights from France. No sleep and no food for I don't know how many hours. And as the airport personnel didn't do a very good job to accommodate the passengers during the delay, we were expecting the French Revolution right there in Incheon Airport. But how wrong we were ..... I guess that Island life had taken off the sting from these frenchies, because after all they had gone through, they still, incredibly, took it all with a laugh and a smile! Paula and I didn't understand much of what was happening as all information took place in French or Korean, but some of the other passengers took us under their wings and helped us along when we were transferred to a hotel in Incheon for what remained of the day, until the new expected departure of the flight at midnight. In the bus to the hotel we shared our Chilean chocolate bars with Alexandra and her son Benoit, who were disappearing into thin air from the effects of abstinence. That earned us our second translator/guardian angel of the day!

Paula ready to put her teeth into Marlene's farewell gift ... a Chilean Super 8 chocolate bar ! Incheon Airport

After 16 hours of delay, we finally left Seoul at 2 am on a flight full of children. It was school holidays in New Caledonia, so the plane was full of families returning from France. Considering the situation, the children did well though and both Paula and I managed to get a little sleep.

We had booked a rental car on the internet and went to pick it up right after we landed in Tontouta Airport. Unfortunately we had forgotten my DK drivers license (along with diver cert and chargers to the cameras - it had been a bit of a rushed departure from Ulsan), and we were given quite the attitude from the guy behind the Europcar desk. It was our mistake but ...... a bit less attitude, please ! Paula and I were looking at each other, thinking to ourselves that it might not have been such a good to come to New Caledonia if all people were going to treat us like this ! But guess what ? After having heated up for a few minutes, the man ran completely out of steam and turned out to be really nice :-) ...... Island life really does such out all your energy, it seams.

We had also booked our first night in Noumea, but with the delay we had lost that booking. We decided to go there anyway to see if there was something to do about the lost reservation, and good thing we did ... the reservation date was changed without hiccup. And so we finally arrived at the beautiful Anse Vata beach in Noumea. Feeling rather wasted after a long trip but happy to have arrived and the first day was spent walking along the beach, going for a swim and trying out the local cuisine.

The view from our hotel on Anse Vata beach in Noumea

The locals playing petanque on the beach promenade

Next morning we had arranged to meet up with Alexandra from the flight. She had offered to give us some information about the island and we did not hesitate to accept the invitation. After a trip to the tourist information we drove back to Alexandra's house where we had a very rich seafood lunch together with Benoit and her boyfriend Erik (who by coincidence was of Danish heritage). Tahitian marlin salad and tuna sashimi fillets with real baguettes followed by homemade blueberry cake !! Yummy!

Pau, Erik, Alexandra and Benoit at Alexandra's home.

On our guided way out of town (Erik and Benoit showed us the way) we stopped at the Carrefour to try to find a solution to our camera-problem. We ended up buying another camera with replaceable batteries. When we pulled out our other camera to see if the memory card would fit in the new camera, the shop assistant said "beautiful camera" to which we replied with the forgotten chargers story. That was followed by the finger-to-the-temple gesture from the shop assistant! He was right though - what idiots we had been when packing our bags.

From Noumea we headed back north past the airport and on to Plage de Poné. On the way there we passed Roche Percee - a beautiful sand beach bordered by a rocky outcrop to the north. A cave pierces the rock and upon exiting the cave another even more beautiful beach reveals itself. Such perfect beaches are difficult to find in New Caledonia as the island is protected by a big continuous reef (the resulting lagoon is the world's largest lagoon) and the shores mainly are mangrove or shallow water areas. The picture perfect with sand beaches found in the brochures are mainly from the outer islands. As such it is a bit like Tahiti. To us NC came across as a farm country and not as the beach image we had before coming. It is a large island (about 400km long and 50 km wide) and the inland is prime cattle raising ground. The mining industry is strong with nickel taking the prime spot historically as well as in the present.

The beach at Roche Percée

The cave through the rock outcropping

.... and the beach which revealed itself on the other side

Pit stop

Typical landscape from our first day of driving north - lots of graze land

The beach at Pone was one of the few beaches we found and although it wasn't a swimmer's beach (at least not at low tide) it was a very pretty place. We stayed at a Gite - a B&B without the breakfast, which apart from camping was the only accommodation available at the beach. We were of course eaten alive by the mozzies, but at least we made a few new friends in the house dogs!

The three beaches we saw outside of Noumea were all very low key and accommodation was difficult to come by, so we were happy to have this chance to see the beach, even with the mozzie issues.

Poné Beach at low tide

Enjoying a Number 1 at our Gite in Poné

Princess and her mate

This is why they call them lap dogs !

One of the other beaches we visited - a swimmers beach but in the rain we didn't feel the need.

Next day we were planning to drive to Hienghéne on the North-East coast. We drove through small sleepy villages and beautiful farm country. Never far from the rain. First stop was Bourail where we walked through the small and very good museum. It quickly became clear to us that NC wasn't always the South Sea Paradise it is now. The islands were the French counter-piece to Australia - a piece of land very far from the mother country where undesired criminals could be stowed away and forgotten about. Conditions were harsh and if the jail or the guillotine didn't get you, the jungle would be sure to finish the job. Workers were imported from other Asian countries when more work force was required than what could be provided by the penitentiaries, and as far as I could understand from the french explanations in the Museum, they were treated almost worse than the criminals. And when the second world war broke out, the poor Japanese settlers were all rounded up and shipped to labour camps.

The Museum in Bourail

From Bourail we drove across the mountains towards Hienghéne. The mountains are exceedingly lush and beautiful, but we soon saw the reason for all the lushness. It was POURING ! Paula slept for a great part of the way and when she woke up on the far side of the mountains she must have felt like being inside an auto-wash! Upon reaching the coast we had to turn north for the last 20 kilometers. Here we had to cross several creeks and rivers where the water was already rising above the bridges. We pushed it for about 20 minutes before stopping at a small store to check out the situation. We were worried about getting stuck in this kind of weather for 2-3 days without being able to cross back over the rivers. We can deal with rain for a short while, but weren't exactly looking forward to 3 days of it. Paula went in to the shop to suss out the situation and came back saying that whoever was in there were all buying batteries and telling her to "be careful" ! The paper on the front of the store had "cyclone" written all over the front page (it was in French - a language we don't speak - but we understood the word "cyclone"), so we figured we'd better make a dash for it and retreat to Bourail. After all, our car was made for cities ... not jungles!.

I was crossing my fingers that the rivers hadn't risen too much - we could easily get stuck between two of them as had happened to our Australian friends a few years ago when they were stuck in the outback for 2 days. The water was coming down the mountain and flooding the roads even where there were no rivers. It was unreal ! Back at the most tricky crossing, the waters had risen about 25 cm in the 20 minutes which had passed since we were there last. A van was hesitating at the other side before it turned around. A man was running across the raging river, at least giving us a chance to see how deep the water was. I took a quick decision and drove into the unknown. Water was all around us and the bow wave came over the bonnet and up to the windshield, but the small C1 proved itself quite the swimmer. We made it across safely and hurried on. I think in the nick of time ....

Cyclone on the front page ..... and it POURED !!

On the way back to Koné

We had to drive all the 80km back to Pone before we hit civilization again at Koné. The rain had eased and we found a very agreeable hotel where we soon hit the swimming pool to wash off the rain (?). Even though it was pouring, it was still a very pleasant 25 degrees.

Next day we continued back to Noumea where we at least would have a few more things to fill our days in case of bad weather. The villages outside of Noumea really are villages and there is not much to do there when the weather turns ugly.

Enjoying another kind of water at our hotel in Koné

Reflecting on the rain in a cafe in La Foa, on the way back to the capital Noumea

Noumea was a nice retreat for us. The rain halted a bit and we were able to go snorkeling off the beach and have nice pastries afterward! I considered going for a dive but the conditions still weren't too good, so instead we spent one day in town checking out the museum and the harbour and on the Friday, our last day, we drove down south. First we did a bit of sight seeing at the Mont Dore area and then we continued further south through the red mountains. As a contrast to the wet north it was really dry and barren here. We still had to cross the occasional streams, so we were always aware of what a sudden downpour would do to our escape route .... We drove on for a couple of hours before deciding to turn back, low on fuel and time before our flight to Vanuatu. It was a pretty area but fully void of civilization. This was pure mining country (nickel).

A nice place for lunch - Mont Dore

More river crossings

Red soil in the south - mining country without anybody around

Back to the airport and on to Vanuatu !

See a slide show with all the photos from New Caledonia below:

Fantabulous Vanuatu

Ahhh, Vanuatu..... How to describe Vanuatu ?? It's difficult to quite put the right words on Vanuatu. Words seem too bland for this purpose. Yes it's beautiful, but it's so much more. It's friendly, but to the extreme. It's relaxing to the point where you need heart massage to bring you around again. It's culture so diverse that you will struggle to comprehend that this is all just one country.

We have seen only one island of the 83 islands comprising Vanuatu but we can surely say that this is one of the culturally most diverse nations in the world. Countless languages, traditions, religions and tribes come together as what has been crowned the happiest country in the world in 2010. When asked about this, the Ni-Vani (people from Vanuatu) say that it must have to do with the low value of money in the country. People don't really need money as the land will give them everything they need. There's plenty of water, more fruits than what they have names for, fish in the sea etc. So why stress out ?

We arrived to our pre-booked beach club in the evening and was greeted by a very friendly staff. After a nice welcome cocktail we were shown to our cottage. I must say that I don't like booking hotels over the internet as I am always afraid ending up in a dump. This was no dump.

Flowers had taken over our room, sofa table and bed. There were flowers on every available horizontal surface in the room - it was amazing! No tv-channels and no air-con but who needs those things anyway ? Only slight problem was that Paula hates arriving to a beach hotel at night as she needs her escape routes covered in case of a tsunami! So she was wandering around with my mini torch trying to figure out exactly how close to the beach we were. My reassurances made little difference. After about an hour she settled down enough to watch a movie on the computer with me. I figured this would be the best way to distract her. Unfortunately the worst thing happened halfway through the movie ..... a small earthquake shook us for 5-10 seconds and Paula was halfway up the mountain (had she known where the mountain was ... ). It took some persuasion not to have to evacuate our cottage, but I don't think Paula slept much that night. Not a good start in Vanuatu!

Flowers had taken over our room!

Breakfast helped wipe the previous night's adventures off the slate

You see ? Not directly on the beach. More like a little above the beach!

One of the many small beaches at the Beach Club

Next morning Paula was able to relax a little more when she saw that the water's edge was some 10 vertical meters below us. We were on the beach but not actually right there at the water's edge, which was good for our marriage!

I had booked three nights at the Benjor Beach Club and as we pretty much had the place to ourselves, we decided to just chill out and enjoy the beach and garden for the first day. We were in no hurry and the food at the restaurant was delish. The snorkeling was decent right in front of the restaurant and the staff ... well, Vanuatu hospitality !

Beautiful view from the pool

Sunset at the pool

A cold Number 1 after a hard day's work !

Day number two at Benjor we bummed a ride with the manager down to the Mele cascades. These A 20 minute walk brought us up to the bottom of the waterfall. From here we had to walk through the stream to the waterfall proper. At the waterfall we could bathe in the pools, sit and let the water massage our shoulders or walk behind the big-drop waterfall. It was beautiful and a nice cool activity for a hot day. We spent about an hour until we were too chilled - both in terms of temperature and mental state. On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at the Secret Garden, which was actually more of a poster walk through a mosquito-infested garden! There were some really interesting Vanuatu legends and historical facts described on the posters, but our attention turned time and time again towards the flying little buggers! So off we went again along the black sand beach and the local bathers to the hotel 5 kilometers away (once out in the open we were clear of the bugs).

The first of many water crossings

The bottom reaches of Mele Cascades

Paula plotting a plan for proceeding

Water massage!

Paula at the upper falls

After three nights in isolation at the beach club we were ready for a bit of the "real" Vanuatu, so we decided to move in to town. We had had an amazing time at a brilliant hotel but we wanted to know Vanuatu. We ended up at a Korean-run B&B (without the last B) in town. Now Port Vila might be the capital of Vanuatu but you could fool most people, I bet. It's basically an overgrown village with what I imagine is the clearest water of any capital harbour in the world. There are shops and real streets, markets (an amazing vegetable market) and traffic! I do believe there are only two towns in Vanuatu - the rest are villages with capital V. New Caledonia might have been a great place to explore tribal life but in Vanuatu is the real thing. People still life the traditional way in the villages and it is really special to see how the protect their own culture.

The view part of Room with a View B&B

After a day of nosing around the market and the harbour we were ready for more adventures, so we booked a daytrip to Tranquility Island. The minibus picked us up at the hotel and drove us the 25 km out to a beach in front of Moso Island. From here we were picked up by Joe and John (the dive shop managers) and the local captain. A short boat ride and we were on Tranquility Island dive base. Such an amazing place - cut right out of the bush and beach. The attraction isn't really the beach - it is good but not amazing, but it's like the "resort" is just part of the landscape. You can hardly see it as you approach from the sea. And it is totally secluded - the only way to get around is by boat. The "resort is quite basic but the price is not ! The price for diving is competitive with the other Vanuatu operators (but still steep!) but the housing was really Vanuatu prices (i.e. very expensive if you can't find a special deal). But anyway - it's an amazing getaway. The diving was good.We dove off the house reef and saw some big fish and three turtles. Paula had a good time snorkeling in the crystal clear water.

After a healthy lunch we went to check out the leatherback turtle rookery. The turtles are sooo cute !

From here we were picked up to go to Tranquility Island

The beach at Tranquility Island

Joe and Paula on the verge of a mental breakdown (or not)

Hmmm - I am sure I fit this suit two years ago !

With a bit of goodwill, it still fits!

Nudibrances are always easy to photograph. The photographer has lots of time to compose his shot before they disappear into the blue !! (they are snails!)

Find the dive resort .....

Paula checking out the turtles .... or the other way around ?

Hey Dude ... get off my back !

Me checking out the dive site map. The dive base is at Moso Island by number 1

Next day we reserved for another walking tour of the village. Unfortunately it coincided with a torrential downpour, but we still made it to the museum and Iririki Island resort - a huge resort taking up all the island of Iririki smack in the harbour of Port Vila.

The rain would not leave us alone. Luckily this shower only lasted about 10 minutes - not like in New Caledonia !

After the rain eased up I took this photo of the thriving metropolis, Port Vila!

We just love the local language. It's pidgin which is a mix of French and English, but very easy to read if you have a bit of imagination.

Slo daon .... brilliant !!!

The fruit market in Port Vila - almost closing time.

With the rain in Port Vila and the sun shine in Tranquility Island, we really didn't need to consider long before booking yet another day trip to the island. Again for diving and this time we went over to the other side of the island for the dives. We had two good dives - one wreck dive and one reef dive - but didn't see any sharks or turtles this time. A tuna was as pelagic as it got!

On our last day in Vanuatu we had booked a round the island tour. It started off on a wrong note as we had understood that the bus would pick us up at our hotel at 8:30. Obviously the tour operator had understood differently, so at 9 we started walking down to the office - Paula preparing a landslide of abuse ! But she didn't get to let it slide as we arrived at the office at the same time as the bus. They had gone to look for us at our hotel, after waiting half an hour at the office. Needless to say, we were not the most popular people in the bus that morning! I still don't think that it was our fault though ! Anyway, we started the tour a bit late but were on our way. First stop was at a traditional village. Now I am sure that this village wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the tourists who come to see it, but even so, the Ni-Vani (people of Vanuatu) show a remarkable sense of tradition and are keen on keeping their culture as intact as possible. It is remarkable and very reassuring to see.

Fire walking !

Paula trying out a local delicacy - plantain and sweet potato in coconut milk. An acquired taste but not too bad!

At this village we were met by the warrior chief as we were getting close to the village on the jungle path and after his acceptance we were allowed to enter the village. Luckily the villager were a lot more friendly than they looked and we were shown bits and pieces of their daily life and survival in the bush. Fake and touristy maybe but this is still one of the places on Planet Earth where this kind of life is best preserved and where what we saw at the presentation was closest to actual life for many villagers.

The traditional village was by far the most interesting part of the tour. We were also shown beaches, an old WWII air field, hot springs and were taken on a very short river canoeing trip, but it was, to be honest, a bit average. Not something that will convert me to a big tour-lover! But OK to fill out our last day before flying back to New Caledonia in the evening and then back to Korea from there.

What will stay with us from Vanuatu is above all the friendly faces we met everywhere but also the lush nature, beautiful beaches and great food. We would love to come back one day to explore some of the other islands away from the hectic (?) capital.

Please check out the slide show below: