Vanuatu alt

 


 

David Whitley heads to Vanuatu and discovers that a unique twist is put on just about everything...

 

Vanuatu is a tremendously odd place. It’s a country where land-divers throw themselves to the floor from platforms, with only vines tied to their legs. It’s a nation where some villages worship Prince Philip as a god. It’s a land in which the only World Heritage site is a mass grave of villagers who sacrificed themselves so that they could be buried with their chief. It’s no surprise, therefore, that this quirkiness extends itself to the range of activities on offer. Even the most ordinary excursion or action sport seems to have a novel twist to it. If you want to do things differently, there’s no better place to come. Boat trips... but with you behind the wheel

 

A classic example of this is the Zego boating safari (Zegovanuatu.com). Forget ordinary cruises; this trip goes out in a convoy of tiny sportscraft to see the highlights of Vila Bay. It’s two to a boat, and after brief instruction on how to use the things, you’re the driver. The Zegos are colourful double-hulled hunks of plastic with a 30hp motor attached. Imagine a newborn baby catamaran with the sail removed and you’re getting close. They’ll hardly beat any water speed records, but they’re tremendously good fun. This is especially the case when the water gets choppy or you cross another boat’s wake. It’s an opportunity to almost take off, and hear the scared woman in the boat behind you yelp in terror. The real joy of the trip, apart from doing the odd hoon-ish figure of eight as you pass around various islands, is getting a proper view of Vila Bay.

 

From Port Vila itself, the bay seems relatively pretty. From out on the water, looking the other way, it’s staggering. The plush resorts, the islets, the vine-covered trees and the hilly interior of Efate island become clear. 

 

Kayaking... but with a glass bottom

 

Another way of getting out on the water for control freaks who like being in charge is, of course, kayaking. There are a few kayaking tours that operate around Efate, but Kayaking Vanuatu (+678 77 54954) has the added gimmick of being able to see through the bottom of the kayaks. A circular glass viewing hole has been cut in between where your legs go. Theoretically, this allows the kayaker to see the aquatic action beneath them in the scenic surrounds of Mele Bay. In practice, it doesn’t work all that well – once some water slops over the side, the view is pretty much the same as you get from looking out of the kayak. Perhaps with this in mind, there is a stop at a sand island just before where the waves break at the edge of the lagoon. From there, the snorkel gear goes on, and it’s time to go hunting turtles, clown fish and other brightly-coloured denizens of the deep amongst the coral.

 

Abseiling... but down a waterfall

 

Just in case you’ve not had your fill of getting wet, there is superb diving on offer around Efate, but a more unconventional water activity is Edge Adventure’s (Edgevanuatu.com) abseiling tour. It takes place at one of Efate’s most popular tourist spots – the Mele-Maat Cascades. However, instead of standing at the bottom cooing at the beautiful pools and falls, you’re shimmying down them. The adventure begins with a hike up a muddy hill, and then the abseiling lesson begins. There’s a ‘training wall’ above one of the higher pools where beginners are taught the basics. It soon becomes immediately apparent that they aren’t lying when they say you’ll get wet: at the bottom of the baby abseil, the only way out is wading through waist high water and clambering up some steps in the middle of the waterfall.

 

Once the boys are thoroughly satisfied that you know what you’re doing, it’s time for the big one. The 50m drop is vaguely tackled in stages, with guides positioned at intervals to check your ropes. They also have a sadistic habit of making you pose for photos at precisely the point where the gushing torrents are piling into your face at their heaviest. Bouncing off the rocks and bounding down the cascades is an awesome experience, and it’s almost better at the bottom, watching the rest of the group come down. It gives a sense of scale to the whole epic mission. Coming down, you’re too busy concentrating on what’s in front of you. Watching others, it’s possible to scope the distance, height and water flow.

 

Eating out

 

After taking on a series of strange adventures, it’d only be fitting to have a bizarre dinner. L’Houstalet is something of a Port Vila institution. It’s been there since 1972, and comes across as very French indeed. That is until you see a true blue Vanuatu dish on the menu – flying fox. It’s served up in a red wine sauce, tastes gamey-but-good and although the head and wings have been removed, there’s no disguising what it is...

 

Hawaii

 

The ancient Hawaiians believed that the sacred waters of Waikiki bay had great ‘mana’ - spiritual healing powers. With a head that still thumped – from a combination of Longboard beer, gin and tequila – I was hoping that there might still be some truth in this. I had been at a party in a house full of students from University of Hawaii.

Even apart from a fairly raucous round of the student drinking game known as King’s Cup it had been a strange evening. The puritanical 21 year-old age-limit on alcohol had led to a couple of unusual (mis-)adventures. Early in the evening the excessively law-abiding staff of a 7-11 refused to sell me beer because I didn’t have ‘the correct ID.’ I pointed to the ample signs of 41 years of hardship and toil in the lines around my eyes and wondered aloud that although I respected their rules ‘was there no possibility whatsoever that common sense might prevail.’ There wasn’t.

An hour later the party was raided by a convoy of no less than six squad cars and most of the drinkers were forced to leave. The few of us who were left in a house full of booze decided to make up for the absence of the others.

It was mid-morning by the time I paddled out into the gently rolling swell for a rendezvous with the spirits of Waikiki. Surfing is perhaps the best cure in the world for a hangover. As the first wave broke over my head I felt it washing my ills away in a rinse-cycle of white-water.

Waikiki is often said to be the birthplace of surfing. Even today, with the busy boulevard and high-rise hotels overlooking the beach, it is still a magical place to surf. An oversized statue of Duke Kahanamoku – the man who took modern-day surfing to Australia and California and pretty much Hawaii’s surfing god – looms over the promenade. He stands with his hands out as if making a blessing, yet it is strange that the Waikiki authorities thought it logical that he would ever have done so with his back towards the sea. Legend has it that ‘The Duke’ once caught a 35-foot wave and rode it a mile and a quarter right across the bay. Looking at the little peelers that roll into Waikiki most of the time this is hard to believe. But, after all, just because Duke Kahanamoku was once a living legend doesn’t mean that all parts of that legend need to be true. The Waikiki waves in general fall far short of the epic proportions of Oahu’s legendary North Shore but for a mellow, hungover longboarding session Waikiki can take some beating.

As I paddled out into the line-up a big turtle – another of the great Hawaiian spirit animals – rolled onto its side and raised its flipper in what appeared to be a greeting. I was still smiling to myself as the shadow of a set of glassy 3-foot rollers cruised onto the horizon. The ten-foot balsa longboard paddled easily and I slipped down the face of the wave, stepping back and dragged a lazy hand into the face to crank the board around and chart a course towards the great volcanic crater of Diamond Head at the end of the bay. The wave walled up sweetly, but slow enough so that you had to milk it for speed: chase the lip, pumping the board as much as possible, but then pull into a big cutback to get back into the inside section.

The ride was only perhaps 50 metres and was never going to make a place among the legends of Waikiki…but by the time I kicked out I was one happy haole. The spirits of Waikiki had done their job yet again.

Captain Cook memorial

 

In some ways Kealakekua Bay has changed remarkably little over the years. Boats bob gently in the still waters while their human cargo enjoys the warm waters that have long attracted curious visitors to this attractive stretch of coast on the west of Hawaii’s Big Island. While dozens of snorkels poke out from the crystal clear water, only a few folks pause to take in the white obelisk on the shore that commemorates one of the world’s most famous explorers.

 

 

 

It was here in Kealakekua Bay that Captain Cook met his end on the 14th February 1779. The memorial erected in his name rather skirts the truth when it informs us that Cook ‘fell’ at this spot; the truth is altogether less benign. At first treated as gods, Cook and his men had gradually revealed their human frailties to the native people (with one of the crew making the fatal mistake of dying). When Cook had been forced to turn his ship the Resolution back to Kealakekua Bay after only a week at sea due to bad weather, his halo had well and truly lost its shine.  Rocks were thrown, a small vessel stolen; things got out of hand. One thing led to another, a failed attempt was made to kidnap the local King and in the melee Cook was struck on the head and then stabbed to death in the shallow waters of the bay.

 

 

 

The land around the spot where Cook died was bought by the British government in the late 19th century and the simple memorial erected. Technically this little corner of Hawaii remains the property of the Crown and passing British ships occasionally help maintain the monument. Unlike most places of interest in the US, you can’t reach Kealakekua Bay by car. The 2.5 mile hike down from the town of Captain Cook (despite stabbing him in the back it appears the local people retained a soft spot for him) is a tough one hour descent over rough rocks; the climb back up is murderous in the midday heat – make sure you bring plenty of water.

 

 

 

More popular is the approach by water, with several local operators renting kayaks to willing visitors in an unregulated free-for-all. Kayaks can be moored close to the monument although there are some strong currents and novices may find coming ashore a tricky task. With several accidents and many near-misses (alcohol and kayaking are eagerly mixed despite being a potentially lethal combination), a local tour operator told me that a ban on all kayaks in the bay is about to come into force. This has created a wave of anger among the local businesses that have sprung up to take advantage of the crowds of adventure tourists coming their way.  More than two centuries since James Cook sailed into trouble at Kealakekua, the waters of this pretty bay are not as calm as they first appear.

You can get Hawaii included in your RTW here

Easter Island



Isolation: If you like the whole middle of nowhere thing, then Easter Island should be your dream destination. It’s the most isolated inhabited island in the world, 2,200 miles away from continental South America, and 1,290 miles away from the next spot where people live. And that’s Pitcairn Island, which is hardly a bustling hub. In other words, don’t think about going for a swim to visit the neighbours.

 

The moai: Say “Easter Island” and the image that will spring to most minds is the moai, the mysterious stone statues that dot the island. There are over 800 of them around the island, averaging four metres in height and around 11 tonnes in weight. No-one really knows what they were supposed to be or why they were constructed. The ones that are standing have been put back up by archaeologists.

 

A warning from the past: The moai were rolled into place using logs. The trees that those logs came from are noticeable by their absence – Easter Island is a warning example of the dangers of deforestation. The Easter Islanders tore so many trees down that the island’s resources were depleted. What’s left now is an eerily barren landscape.

 

Volcano craters: The other look that the island does very well is volcanic. The Rano Raraku crater is the quarry where the moai were made and many of them are still in there in various stages of completion. Arguably more impressive from a natural perspective is the Rano Kau volcano. Standing on the edge of the crater, looking down into the lake is the sort of experience the phrase “awe-inspiring” was invented for.

 

Anakena and Ovahe beaches: Volcanic islands tend not to do beaches all that well – unless it’s black sand you’re after. Easter Island is an odd exception though – Anakena and Ovahe beaches on the north-eastern coast are everything thing that the Pacific Island stereotype promises. Dazzling white sand, clear waters, that sort of thing. Lovely stuff.

 

Action man activities: It may be a long, long way from anywhere, but the diving equipment has arrived on Easter Island. It’s not about the coral and sealife here, but the underwater volcanic landscapes – think caves, arches and cliffs in the ocean. Plenty of other adventures area available too – surfing and kayaking are good bets, while horse riding up to the top of the Terevaka volcano, rock climbing and caving are also options for the more physically inclined. 

 

You can get Easter Island included as a stopover on a number of RTWs. Start planning here

Check out our 4 day Easter Island adventure here

 

Which Micronesian Island?

 

 

 

Micronesia is not the easiest part of the world to visit. With United Airlines currently the only realistic option of getting around the scattered islands of the north Pacific, any itinerary that takes in one or more of the entities that make up Micronesia -Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), Palau and the US territory of Guam - will rely as much on airline schedules as personal preferences.

 

 

But for those who take the trouble to explore this lesser-travelled route across the Pacific there is so much to experience that their time in Micronesia is likely to provide some of the main highlights of their entire trip.

 

 

 

Top attractions

 

The top natural attraction in Micronesia is without doubt the Jellyfish Lake in Palau. Swimming through a mass of non-stinging jellyfish and having the opportunity to hold them in the palm of your hand is something that can only be done in a few places around the world.

 

 

For man-made attractions the ancient stone city of Nan Madol on the FSM island of Pohnpei rivals Easter Island as the most impressive site in the Pacific, yet receives less than 1000 foreign visitors a year.

 

 

 

WW2 History

 

Micronesia was the scene of many bloody battles in the war, with the Japanese occupying the whole region until the American forces overwhelmed them, with massive loss of life on both sides, in 1944 and 1945. Today you can find Japanese tanks, guns and military buildings in various states of disrepair in any of the islands. Perhaps the most impressive and unlikely sight is a row of Japanese tanks, appearing in reasonable condition, lined up behind a hardware store in the main town on Pohnpei.

 

 

The Marshall Islands were chosen by the US as the site for their nuclear testing programme in the years following the end of the war. 67 nuclear bombs were exploded over the outer atolls and you’ll find plenty of history related to the aftermath of these tests, even around the capital Majuro. Make sure you see the film ‘Nuclear Savage’ while there – it’s not easy to watch but provides valuable historic context for the troubles of the Marshallese people today.

 

 

 

Diving and Snorkelling

 

Divers can explore the reefs that are found around any of the islands, but perhaps the best marine life is found around Palau. It is here too the most sophisticated tourism infrastructure exists to take care of divers, with several reputable operators taking groups to the best sites.

 

 

If your interest lies in wreck diving, Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands is home to some of the finest vessels from WW2, including the flagship of the Japanese navy and a US aircraft carrier. Reaching Bikini Atoll, now uninhabited as a result of the American nuclear tests which took place here in the 1950s and 60s, is difficult and very expensive. Chuuk, one of the four islands of FSM, has the highest concentration of wrecks and is far more easily accessible than Bikini.

 

 

Snorkelling is possible off any of the islands, although Palau offers what are probably the finest snorkelling spots, with the added benefit that they are only a short trip from the main island.

 

 

 

Surfing

 

We met surfers at various stops in Micronesia, including a young lad who came all the way from Brazil to surf off Pohnpei in FSM and a group of Hawaiians who joined a couple of Brits on a live-aboard surf trip run from Majuro in the Marshall Islands. All said they came to Micronesia not to catch the biggest waves, but to enjoy high quality surf conditions with an almost total absence of other surfers.

 

 

Guam has perhaps the most popular surf scene in Micronesia and if you enjoy the social side of surfing then it may be the best destination for you.

 

 

 

Hotels

 

Guam and Palau are well equipped with top quality resort hotels that cater primarily for the well-healed Japanese tourist. Prices in both Guam and Palau are accordingly high for accommodation, although in both cases no-frills motel type rooms can be bagged for under $100 a night.

 

 

Choices on the Marshall Islands are extremely limited, with regulars to the capital Majuro listing Hotel Robert Reimers as the only place worth considering (around $100 a night).  The hotel also has the best restaurant on Majuro. We stayed at Robert Reimers and it’s a comfortable place without being in any way luxurious.

 

 

 

Depending on where your interests lie, each destination offers good reasons for considering making it a stop on the trans-Pacific part of your RTW trip.

You can get the Micronesia included in your RTW here