South Pacific Islands Adventures

7 January 2015
Read Time: 4.7 mins

“People say I look and sing like Ricky Martin,” says Thomson, confidently, as he ushers our group on to the tour bus.

It’s hard to spot the resemblance. A short, stocky Ni-Vanuatuan wearing a bright-red island-style polo, a black baseball cap and board shorts, topped off with a toothy smile. His only connection with the Puerto Rican pop star is a battered guitar and assurance from his sidekick, Annie, that he could indeed hold a tune.

 Everyone, even the kids, seem happier in their island paradise

It’s early afternoon in Port Vila and we’re heading out on a light-hearted bar crawl of the Vanuatu capital. Thomson and the perpetually giggling Annie are escorting us to four popular watering holes in the area, three of which have spectacular views of Port Vila’s natural harbour.

After several rounds of Tusker, the local brew, we discover there’s nothing quite like a few drinks to loosen one’s inhibitions, and we join Thomson in a hearty rendition of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” on the bus back to the ship.

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Casting Off

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Days before, P&O’s Pacific Dawn pulled away from the cruise terminal, leaving Brisbane’s glittering city skyline in her wake. As the high-energy music rocked on deck, you could almost hear the collective sigh among our 2000-odd fellow cruise passengers; we were finally heading off on an 11-night cruise to the idyllic islands of Vanuatu and New Caledonia.

 There's a different way of life in the South Pacific

Just across the Coral Sea, the fascinating archipelago is Australia’s most popular cruise destination – and for good reason.

Along with endless summer warmth and famously friendly locals, they’re a world away from everyday urban life.

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Cosmopolitan Port Vila

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The main aim of most passengers on this cruise is to kick back and enjoy some of the South Pacific’s most pristine beaches, but we discover Port Vila is the kind of place that can tug anyone out of ensuing beach-snorkelling-sunbathing stupor. It’s one of the more attractive South Pacific settlements, with a cosmopolitan atmosphere set against the backdrop of a beautiful natural harbour.

 Heading into Port Vila

Vila, as the locals call it, has resorts dotted along the waterfront and in the hills behind, and it’s a haven for duty-free shopping, with attractions including an authentic French Quarter and a bustling waterfront market.

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View From The Sky

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The best way to savour Port Vila’s spectacular landscape is to take to the skies for an eye-popping scenic flight. We are accompanied by two guests – a retired Australian Air Force pilot called Nev, and Cheryl from Perth. “I’ve never flown in a helicopter before ... I’m absolutely petrified,” she whispers to me as we wait to board the chopper.

Minutes later we swoop into the sky and, like the rest of us, Cheryl quickly becomes intoxicated with the scenery revealing itself below. Our 20-minute jaunt offers a bird’s-eye view of millionaire villas, luxury resorts and even a lavish “captured by police” mega-yacht rumoured to have been used for illicit trade.

 Aerial view of New Caledonia

New Caledonia’s capital, Noumea, is a world-famous sailing hub that attracts yachts from all over the globe. It’s also a place where Gallic meets the Pacific, a heady mélange of frangipanis, boulangeries, palm trees, short black coffees, mangoes and baguettes.


Find more Pacific island adventures Taking The Wheel On A Vanuatu Jungle Safari

New Caledonia has more to offer. Paradise Unknown: Discover New Caledonia


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Glittering Yachts

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Add a harbour where glittering yachts moor lazily on a mirror-finish lagoon and the air of the French Riviera is unmistakable, if a little sweeter.

The town has plenty of appeal for visitors, from charming areas such as Place des Cocotiers with its old-time bandstand to panoramic views of the lagoon from Ouen-Toro lookout. Also essential is a visit to the small beach community of Anse Vata at sunset, where local men wearing berets play pétanque under the shade of the palm trees most afternoons, the gentle thud of silver balls on the grass echoing in the breeze.

 New Caledonia's Isle of Pines is a popular South Pacific destination

We soon find out that Noumea is only a small part of what there is to love about New Caledonia. The next drawcard on the itinerary is the spectacular Isle of Pines.

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Unique Marine Habitat

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Captain James Cook discovered it in 1774 and named it for the predominance of Araucaria conifers in its otherwise tropical setting of deserted white-sand beaches.

To the northeast of the island is Oro Bay, home to La Piscine Naturelle, a natural salt-water lagoon hidden inside the reef and fed by a narrow channel to the open ocean, providing a unique habitat for hundreds of tropical fish and coral.

 Colourful marine life under the ocean

To get there, we wade for 15 minutes through sea water from Oro Bay, which can range from easy ankle-deep to a more challenging waist-high.

What awaits us is more than worth the effort; a white-sand lagoon filled with clear azure water, teeming with a psychedelic variety of marine life, from angelfish to banded sea snakes.

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Paradise Preserved

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Pacific Dawn also explores Vanuatu, dotted with remote and fascinating tiny islands, the waters between which are a biodiversity hotspot known for manta rays, clown fish, turtles, billfish and sharks.

Mystery Island is an uninhabited islet off Aneityum that has remained virtually unchanged over time; it has no phones or electricity, just pristine beaches and a few walking trails. Early in the morning, keen to explore, we are greeted by a group of enthusiastic Ni-Vanuatu locals, some dressed in warrior gear, complete with spears.

 Unspoiled Mystery Island

They’d ‘captured’ a handful of bemused passengers and ordered them into a large, black cooking pot beneath the palm trees. “You are tasty ingredients for a special stew,” says one of them, menacingly pointing his spear at the hapless group while circling the pot. The group looks nervous, and I wonder if they know that cannibalism was a feared practice on some South Pacific Islands, including Vanuatu, until the 19th Century.

Eventually one of the warriors bursts into laughter, giving the game away.

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Famously Friendly Vanuatu

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As the group hops out of the pot to pose for photos, we venture away to go snorkelling. A fish-fattened tabby appears from nowhere, so we pause to say hello to the friendly feline.

When a ship visits Mystery Island, a flotilla of boats packed with Aneityum locals arrives to serve drinks, sell crafts from makeshift stalls and hang out. “That’s Tiger,” says a local man in broken English, appearing behind him. “He’s my kids’ cat. He loves exploring with guests.”

 Traditional Vanuatu boat

Wala is another unspoiled islet, and home to some 300 Ni-Vanuatuans. Its white-sand beach fringed with palm trees has spectacular coral gardens just offshore, leaving visitors with the choice of going for a walk, snorkelling or just lazing on the beach.

Even with 1500-odd excited cruise passengers ashore, there are plenty of quiet spots to claim, and for a group of kids from the ship, it provides a unique opportunity to play with local children. Although they are from very different worlds and don’t speak the same language, they chat, play chase and bury each other in the sand.

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Ultimate Escape

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There’s also Champagne Beach, located on the northeastern coastline of the island of Espiritu Santo, famous for its pinkish sand, sparkling lagoon and movie-set mountain backdrop.

It’s named so because of a natural phenomenon; at low tide, the shallow waters appear to fizz like champagne, caused by gas escaping from volcanic rocks on the sea floor. It’s another idyllic spot where there isn’t much for passengers to do, beyond deciding which patch of sand to lay their towels on and venturing into the clear azure water for a refreshing dip.

 I'll miss all those friendly faces

Heading back to Brisbane – or, as one guest describes it, the “real world” – offers time to reflect on our South Pacific island adventure. It is a cruise offering the ultimate escape – a way to kick back from the stresses of everyday life while briefly dipping your toes into the culture of a place of true natural beauty.

All you have to do is let the captain steer the ship and allow life to tick by in no great hurry.

Joanna Hall

Joanna Hall is a journalist, editor and author with almost 30 years experience under her belt, and specialises in luxury travel and cruising. A self-proclaimed cruise addict, when she's not at sea, Joanna enjoys the great outdoors and the beach, living in Sydney's Northern Beaches.