It's known as the 'happiest place on earth', but there isn't a pair of mouse ears or a fairytale princess in sight. Instead, you'll find blossoming hibiscus flowers, villas with thatched roofs, and sunken ships that have become home to a colourful array of marine life. It could almost pass for a Disney backdrop, but it's both very real and within reach. It's Vanuatu.
Earlier this year, Flight Centre's National Campaigns Area Leader Sue Johnson embarked on a family holiday to Vanuatu. "Like everyone else it seems, we'd been to Fiji but hadn't been to Vanuatu. I guess I was expecting Fiji, but Vanuatu was completely different," says Sue.
In Sue's own words, "Everything gets painted with the Fiji brush". Fiji, Vanuatu, The Cook Islands, Tahiti... a lot people imagine these idyllic island retreats to be one in the same, despite them being oceans apart.
While Sue ranks both Fiji and Vanuatu equally in terms of being family-friendly, Vanuatu's pleasant lack of big-name chain resorts and smorgasbord of things to do gave it the leading edge, in her books.
"The locals are very friendly; there's no bartering, which appeals to a lot of people; cab fares are set before you go. The taxis aren't Bali-cheap, but they aren't Australia-expensive either," explains Sue.
"It's just such a lovely, relaxed atmosphere. No-one's in a rush, everyone's friendly, you're not getting hassled, and it really is beautiful. The beaches are gorgeous."
"I was just continually surprised by how much there was to do," says Sue. "That was a big thing for me."
Staying seven nights at the Holiday Inn with her partner and two little ones, aged two and five, Sue and co. had a decent block of time to get to know the 'land that time forgot', but still managed to return home with a long list of must-dos for their follow-up visit.
"I wish we'd been able to get out to the volcano on Tanna Island; stay out there for the night and watch the 'fireworks'. We're going to go back to see the other islands, which is unusual for me for do a return trip!" says Sue.
"We didn't get to see the Blue Lagoon or Turtle Bay. I wasn't expecting to get to the end of the holiday and have so much left we wanted to see and do."
Still, they managed to squeeze a lot into their week-long stint in paradise, with a snorkelling day-trip to reefs of Hideaway Island proving to be a major holiday highlight.
"It's a whole day, but it's well worth it. They've got the resort on there so you can get food, go for a swim, and relax on the beach," explains Sue.
"You get a little boat across, but if the tide is down you can actually walk. They've got the reef and the drop-off, and all the things that go along with that, and also the underwater post office, which is a bit of a gimmick but still fun!"
Sue's postcard was, like most things in Vanuatu, on 'Vila time' and didn't beat them home. Aside from underwater pen-pals, the tiny Hideaway Island is also hot spot for keen divers and snorkelers of all levels.
"The little one had floaties on and she loved it. She was just bobbing in the ocean like a buoy," laughs Sue.
For a little 'grown-ups only' time, Sue and her partner visited the serene Mele Cascades. A short but demanding walk ankle-deep up the waterfall itself rewards you with clear pools filled with warm, shimmering water at the top.
If you do decide to lace up your hiking boots and check out this unique Vanuatu attraction, you can safely leave your little ones in the capable hands of your resort's nanny or kids club facilities. "The kids loved all the attention they got at the resort kids club," says Sue.
One thing to keep in mind when planning your itinerary are the peak cruise docking times at Port Vila. "You want to avoid the attractions on a cruise ship days," advises Sue. "The resorts will tell you, 'you don't want to go out on this day, this day or this day'."
"What I also liked about Vanuatu is how close it is," she continues. From Brisbane, Vanuatu is about the same distance away as Melbourne. Price-wise, flights to Vanuatu are comparable to domestic fares as well, making it an easy school holiday option from the east coast, or a consideration for an enviable a long weekend.