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Notes From a Small Island: The Innocents Abroad Part 3

John always loved to travel but until recently most of that has been within Australia. A recent cruise has ignited a flame to see more.

Tatum Pole at a resort on the Lagoon, Port Vila

Tatum Pole at a resort on the Lagoon, Port Vila

From Lifou to Port Vila

At the end of the last chapter, I had sadly bid farewell to Lifou and returned to the ship. We had been through the itinerary and chosen a few activities to fill that afternoon and night, before our ship docking at Port Vila, Vanuatu, the next day.

Kathy had booked into the Elemis Spa for a manicure and pedicure because she wasn't able to go on the Shore Tour at Lifou. While she was there I went to see a show highlighting the hidden talents of the ship's staff, in the Marquee Theater.

This was very entertaining and some of the general staff (not entertainers) are very talented indeed. It included singing, dancing, and even a magician.

When Kathy was finished at the spa we went to the Shore Tours desk to book a tour at Port Vila. I needed to ask what tour would be suitable due to Kathy's restricted mobility. The barge cruise up the Lagoon was recommended and so we chose that.

Then, off to dinner at The Waterfront Restaurant again, followed by a movie 'The Mountain Between Us." We both enjoyed this movie very much. It stars Idris Elba (from the popular British TV drama Luther) and Kate Winslet. It is the love story of two people brought together after surviving a plane crash.

Then it was time for bed, to rest before an early start the next day and disembarking in Vanuatu.

Port VIla, Efate Island, Vanuatu

Port VIla, Efate Island, Vanuatu

Port Vila has seen more history and change than many towns ten or even a hundred times its size. When it comes to culture, tradition and history, this is a city with an incredible depth of each.

Day 5. Port Vila: Part Port, Part Village, Part Paradise

Port Vila is the capital and chief trading centre of Vanuatu. It is perfectly located around a beautiful harbour on the south-western coast of the island of Efate. The cultures are mixed and varied and here you will find - Melanesian (indigenous Ni-Vanuatu), French, English, Chinese among others.

  • Population: 44,000 approx (2009 census)
  • Language: English, French, Bislama
  • Currency: Vatu
  • Climate: Tropical (wet season Dec. to March)

We rose early and gazed out our cabin window to see the ship already having docked at Port Vila main wharf. We took in breakfast, and then made our way to the disembarkation area. This went much more smoothly than it did at Noumea, probably due to passengers now knowing the routine and not to crowd trying to be first off the ship.

We were to meet our tour at 10.15 am so were on sure by 9.30 so we could check out the local markets located on the wharf. Everywhere we went on this cruise, Noumea, Lifou, and Port Vila, accepted Australian dollars so there was no need to do a currency exchange. Kathy bought a sarong, scarf, and shoulder bag and we purchased a number of souvenirs for family members at home.

While at the markets you are constantly approached by taxi drivers asking if you need a lift into town. there is obviously huge competition for these services and it is advised to make sure to negotiate the fare before you accept the lift. Fortunately, we were booked on a tour so didn't require one.

Port Vila Lagoon Barge Cruise

The tour buses in Vanuatu are similar to what we call maxi-cabs or people carriers (7-8 seats), in fact, many taxis are the same so the best way to differentiate a taxi from a bus is by their number plates. Taxi's have plates starting with "T" and buses' plates start with "B."

We met our friendly driver and boarded the bus that would take us to the beach where the barge would leave from. We drove along unsealed back roads and past very rustic homes, seeing some of the 'real" Vanuatu. The driver explained that the island had suffered extensive damage inflicted by Cyclone Pam in 2015 and was still recovering. Much of the land we passed was owned by a wealthy local businessman who arranged to relocate (at his expense) many homes up onto higher ground out of the tsunami zone.

Cyclone Pam

Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam was the second most intense cyclone of the South Pacific Ocean in terms of sustained winds and is regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in the history of Vanuatu.

  • Total fatalities: 24
  • Highest wind speed: 280km/h
  • Damage: $360.4 million US
  • Date: March 2015
  • Category: Category 5 Hurricane

The bus stopped at a small parking area above a walkway down to the beach. There was a sign in front of us saying Warning: Tsunami Zone!

We only waited a few minutes before the barge bulled up and lowered a ramp to the beach. It had a flat floor/deck built on a catamaran base and was quite adequate to accommodate a dozen or so guests with a few tables chairs and stools and a bar, and room to walk around.

Our tour guide was an indigenous Ni-Vanuatuan lady named Miriam. She was very welcoming and friendly and we were all entitled to a complimentary drink (cocktail, local beer, kava etc.)

The Tourist’s Vanuatu

Miriam started by giving us a brief history of Port Vila, and then told us about the various lavish homes along the lagoon banks, where the original owners were from: usually Australia, Britain, France, but increasingly, now being purchased by Chinese.

The Vanuatu government encourages property investment from outside the country and offers dual citizenship to anyone investing $60,000 or more in property there. For this reason, many foreigners purchase property then travel back and forth without needing to pay to constantly renew a passport. Many of these luxury residences sit vacant for months of the year, other than to be maintained by servants.

Looking over the side of the barge, the water was so clear that we could observe numerous starfish and other sea life.

The Real Vanuatu

However, alongside the oppulance, seemingly hiding from view is the real Vanuatu. We were shown one small stretch of coastline, between two luxury homes, where 200 indigenous people were living in huts, tents, etc without electricity or running water.

Miriam said that If her boss was conducting the tour we would not be told of these things. I told her that this is the type of information we would prefer to hear rather than who owned the mansions and how much money they were worth.

Our guide, Miriam, went on to say that Vanuatu gained independence in 1980 and became a republic. Before that, the country had been jointly run by the British and French. We asked if life was better since independence or did she feel it was better before. She said that is a matter of debate, but prior to independence healthcare, schooling etc was free, but now they had to pay for everything.

The country does not impose income tax but there is a 15% GST on everything. Because wages are so low, even as a tour guide, it is impossible to afford foods that we take for granted like chicken and other meat products (unless for a special occasion.) Most Vanuatans have their own fish traps and nets set up, which they check each day, to provide fish, lobster etc to feed their family, as well as grow coconuts for milk and copra.

Many families, sadly, cannot afford to send their children to school as it costs $1.50 per week for exercise books and pencils. Miriam manages to send her daughter to school, but has 5 other abandoned/adopted children that she can't.

As she was telling us this, the barge passed a school on the left bank. There were a dozen or so children gathered on the beach as they saw us approach. We were told that they wait for the barge because the crew usually throw them two cans of coke to share between them. This time, however, it was like Christmas for the kids as a few of us chipped in and bought them ten cans of coke and two large bags of potato crisps.

The goodies were thrown overboard and the children jostled to see who would be first to retrieve the stash. Miriam said it doesn't matter who gets there first, they always share among them all. It was fun to see the happy faces.

Goodbye Vanuatu

Our Port Vila lagoon tour was over much too soon, and we bid Miriam and the crew goodbye as we returned to the beach to meet the bus. We were given a choice of going into town to check out the shops, town markets etc or to return to the ship. Kathy and I chose to go back on board. But, we made a pact with each other to return to Vanuatu again.

There were so many other things we didn’t have time to see and do. Though Lifu was beautiful, this was probably the island the two of us enjoyed the most. We were almost sad to know we’d be soon leaving the South Pacific and Melanesia and setting sail back to Australia.

Back on Ship

By the time we re-boarded the Aria, it was time to eat (again) so we ventured up to The Pantry for lunch to sample a little of everything to offer, before retiring to our cabin for a rest.

That night we attended a Sherlock Holme's Murder Mystery performed by the ship's entertainment crew. It was very funny and enjoyable. The audience were given pencils and paper and had to try to answer questions by interpreting musical clues, and also try to solve who the murder was.

That was followed by dinner at The Dragon Lady, and a stroll along the deck.

Day 6. Full Day at Sea

To keep my word count from getting out of control and so I don't have to add yet another chapter, I will confine the last two sea days to bullet points listing our activities.

  • Breakfast at The Pantry
  • Game of scrabble in the Atrium (a number of different board games available)
  • Trivia in the Marquee
  • Lunch at The Pantry
  • Market Day on Ship: all stalls had items on sale at reduced prices. We purchased costume items for The Great Gatsby theme night, and duty-free alcohol (less than half normal prices)
  • Dress-up for the Great Gatsby evening
  • Dinner at The Waterfront Restaurant (complimentary bottle of wine compliments of P&O)
  • Stage Show: The Velvet Curtain (wonderful)
  • Deck walk, then bed

Day 7. Full Day at Sea

As this was our final full day on the ship we wanted to make the most of it. These listed are only the activities we indulged in, there are so many more to choose from.

  • Breakfast at Waterfront
  • Towel Animal Parade by the Cabin Stewards
  • Cruise director's Farewell Presentation
  • Morning team Trivia
  • Jackpot Bingo (this was expensive at $30 for one book of five games) but $4000 jackpot
  • Lunch at The Pantry
  • Checked out the Dome on Deck 12. A beautiful bar and nightclub with 360o views.
  • Movie: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
  • Put luggage outside cabin door for collection
  • Dinner at Angelo's
  • Stage Show: Off the Charts (a rollercoaster ride through the sash hits of the naughties inc. Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Adele, Taylor Swift etc.)
  • Sit Down Comedy Club Starring Steady Eddy (one of Australia's favourite comedians. He has cerebral palsy and is confined to a small mobility scooter) This was very "R" rated and not at all politically correct, but hilarious.
  • Bed

Back to Brisbane

Sadly, our cruise had come to an end. The ship was due to dock at Brisbane Wharf at 6.30am so we had to be up early. Breakfast was being served from 5.30am and everyone was taking advantage of the last meal before departing the ship.

We, found our room stewards Flor and Maity and gave them a tip for their great service. Maity gave us both a hug and called us Mom Kathy and Dad John lol. They both said they hoped to meet us again on another cruise.

At 6.30 am I had to pick up the duty-free alcohol I had ordered (you can't take possession of it while on the cruise as you may drink it on board lol). We had been issued a de-embarkation number and had to wait in the Atrium until our number was called, but because I had arranged a wheelchair for Kathy we received exit priority.

This is great because there are staff members whose only job is pushing wheelchairs, so they take control and we whizz past the lineup of disembarking passengers. They even take control of showing your paperwork at customs collecting your luggage.

Then it was just a matter of waiting for our son to collect us. Our first cruise had been a remarkable experience, the best holiday either of us had ever had. Kathy and I had already agreed it would not be our last.

Off the Shelf

So, the Off the Shelf series just goes on and on. These articles giving an account of our cruise didn't have to be made a part of it, but I had books on my shelf that suited so I thought, "Why not?"

Here I am introducing you to Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I thought as my article is a travelogue and as Bill writes travel books this was a perfect accompaniment.

Here is part of the blurb on the back cover:

"After nearly two decades in Britain, Bill Bryson took the decision to move back to the States for a while, to let his kids experience life in another country, to give his wife the chance to shop until 10 pm seven nights a week, and, most of all, because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed that they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another, and it was thus clear to him that people needed him.

But before leaving his much-loved home in North Yorkshire, Bryson insisted on taking one last trip around Britain..."

This excellent and funny book is the result.

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson

© 2018 John Hansen

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