January 14, 2011 / 11:01 AM / 7 years ago

Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Port Vila, Vanuatu

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Reuters Life!) - Welkam long Vanuatu, paradise blong yumi is how you will be greeted when you step foot on this South Pacific island.

And paradise it is.

With jungles, emerald lagoons and coconut groves, Vanuatu is an exotic postcard, little changed from when U.S. author James A. Michener penned "Tales of the South Pacific" in the 1940s.

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help you make the most of a short stay.

FRIDAY 4 p.m. - First, slow down. Really slow down. Vanuatu likes living in the slow lane. To get your bearings, stroll through the cafe-dotted downtown of the capital Port Vila.

A stop at the central markets is a must. Chances are that you won't recognize much of the produce you'll see. Vanuatu's cuisine consists mostly of root vegetables -- a seemingly endless variety -- and locals claim to consume 250 kg of roots per person a year.

6. p.m. - Head to Nambawan Cafe on the harbor for a bite and, its real charm, the open air movie theater. It's just a makeshift movie screen, but given Vanuatu's very loose copyright laws, you're sure to see one of the year's blockbusters. It's worth booking a table on movie nights.

The menu may be a real shock. Vanuatu is a third world country with first world prices. Most ingredients are imported and energy prices are outrageous, so your pizza will cost the same as in Sydney or Paris.

Some restaurants serve coconut crabs or bats disguised as local dishes but the people of Vanuatu rarely eat these, either due to a thin wallet or a lack of appetite.

9:00 p.m. - After the movie, take a stroll on the hill above downtown, toward Erakor Lagoon. Port Vila feels like a hybrid of a town and a village. Blocks are often structured like a village with living quarters, community areas, possibly a small church and even a shop.

On many nights, the community will get together with Ni-Vanuatu men playing the ukulele or guitar and others singing.

Although these communities are not enclosed, they are private, so don't just walk in. But locals are friendly, so if you like the music, ask the first man that comes by if you could join. Chances are you'll be welcomed with open arms.

SATURDAY

7:30 a.m. - Vanuatu is a former British-French condominium -- a political territory in which powers formally agree to share dominion -- the only one of its kind, and the European influence is most obvious in food, such as cafe Au Peche Mignon, a lively French cafe smack in the middle of Port Vila. Have a coffee and don't leave without trying a breakfast pastry.

8:30 a.m. - Book an excursion with French-born Pascal at Ecotours. A real outdoors man, Pascal organizes jungle, biking and kayak tours around the island and takes tourists into the jungle like nobody will. It really will feel like an Indiana Jones episode, except that, in Vanuatu's jungle, there's nothing that wants to kill, bite or maim you.

12:30 p.m. - Pascal will drop you off downtown. Chances are you'll be starved from the exercise, so head to Jill's Cafe. It'll feel, smell and taste like an American burger joint. The abundance of staff ensures quality service and the chili rocks.

2:00 p.m. - It's time for the beach -- after all, this is what Vanuatu is all about. Take a 10 minute bus ride to Erakor Island. But which bus goes there? All of them. Flag down a bus (any minivan with a red B on the license plate) and tell the driver where you want to go. The driver decides who is dropped off first, so be patient. If there are many on board, you may be given a tour of the city first. But generally, foreigners get preferential treatment.

The ferry at Erakor island is free and so are the beach chairs. Most beaches in Vanuatu are private and an entry fee is charged. Stroll through the coconut groves, lie on the beach, rent a kayak and sip a cocktail.

6:30 p.m. - Stay on the island for dinner at the resort's cafe on the lagoon. You can't go wrong with the crab and their local dishes will have a nice Indian-like taste.

SUNDAY

9 a.m. - Take the 15-minute bus ride to the Mele Cascades, one of Vanuatu's must-see natural treasures. (Don't forget your swimming gear!) The 15 minute walk from the parking lot will take you through a lush jungle, past a scenic lookout and several smaller falls.

11:00 a.m. - Take a 10 minute walk to the Secret Garden, Vanuatu's version of a zoo, a botanical garden and an ethnographic museum. The walk gives a glimpse into rural life.

At the Garden, read as many of the folk stories displayed as you can -- especially about the boy whose mother was a snake.

13:00 p.m. - Take a bus back to Port Vila and hop off at the Beef House. It's easy to guess their specialty. Vanuatu's organic beef is a valued export commodity, and unlike local cocoa, it's also available locally.

14:30 p.m. - Vanuatu's national museum gives a good overview of Vanuatu's culture and its history since independence in 1980. Importantly, it's the place to pick gifts. They are authentic and unlike most of Port Vila, reasonably priced.

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