We kicked off a new series in January featuring traveling photographers from around the world (most recent feature here; to date, the list includes Italy, Canada, United States and Australia). We make no secret of the fact that we love travel. We love learning about other cultures. We love contributing to a smaller, more interactive space. With this in mind, we are going to be sharing local stories by local photographers from around the world throughout our posts this year.
This month takes you off-the-beaten track to Vanuatu of all places! A little backstory from the Lonely Planet: “Vanuatu is a Pacific island adventure far beyond any notions of cruise-ship ports and flashy resorts. Deserted beaches, ancient culture, remote and rugged islands and world-class diving are just a small part of the magnetism of this scattered 80-plus island archipelago”. (You will find an interesting interactive map on this web page.) We have mentioned previously that we love getting to know the photographers behind the stories. Valerie, from Valerie Fernandez Photography, is lovely to converse with; you can be forgiven for thinking that you are on island time, too, as her warm, relaxed nature is contagious (the thought of living somewhere where you can forget to bring your phone with you? Yes, please - sign us up!). Since the flight time from our hometown to Vanuatu is less than 3 hours, you can bet that we have added this slice of sand, sea & sun to our bucket list. Thank you for joining in, Valerie, and for sharing stories from your part of the world with us! Enjoy!
Tell us about where you live?
I live in Vanuatu, a tiny island country in the South Pacific. It is about three hours flight away from Australia and New Zealand. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel a lot in my life and live in different places. I absolutely love discovering new places, cultures and people; however, I am also always happy to return home at some point. Beyond my obvious biases, there is something truly special about this country - something very raw, very simple and, to me, very authentic. I have found balance here between a life, passion and job that requires me to be connected at all times - as well as the need to actually not be connected at all times. It’s just easy to leave your phone at home around here. It’s easy to still connect with people face to face and not through some device. It’s easy to be spontaneous. I love that.
What makes your town/state/country unique?
Kava. Around 5pm here, most people are done for the day and usually gather in what we call “Nakamals” - a sort of outdoor version of a bar where one drinks “kava” (or other regular soft drink or beer). That’s probably the heart of the nivan culture and something unique. Kava is a drink extracted from a root with a very earthy, peppery taste. It isn’t alcohol. It is not a drug. However, it does have a relaxing effect (that turns to numbing if you abuse it). So everyday around 5pm, people gather for an hour - or two or three (it’s up to them) - and sit down outside. You will find some under majestic banyan trees or by the beach or wherever their favourite nakamal and crowd is. They just chat, catch up, connect. I love this about our culture. I love taking that hour of time to just be a human and connect with other humans, talking about everything and anything. Not knowing whether the conversation today will be silly and witty or deep and meaningful. I love that our lifestyle allows us be dedicated parents & committed business owners but still allows us time to be part of a community and see our friends almost every day. It gives us a wonderful balance. It allows us to transition nicely between our working day and our life at home, blow some steam, have a laugh, and still be back home early enough for family dinners, playtime and cuddles with our bub, and bedtime stories. Both my husband and I have spent years in cities like London and Paris where the everyday rhythm is crazy. Therefore, we appreciate time as our most treasurable thing today.
If I traveled from the opposite side of the world, what should I visit in your country?
Tanna definitely. 100% Tanna. Vanuatu has about 80 islands. That’s a lot of tropical paradise to offer but Tanna is so special, it is actually, truly worth coming all the way from across the globe. Tanna is home to the world’s most accessible active volcano. By that, I mean that you can actually sit on its crater rim. As you watch the sun set over the ocean, you can witness the pure, raw force of nature. You will feel, hear, and see the volcanic eruptions and the sky and stars turn red (check out some footage here). If that’s not enough, Tanna has landscape like the moon, tropical beaches, lush green jungles, pristine waterfalls and blue caves all along its coast, accessible only by swimming in from the ocean. It’s a land for the old souls and the children at heart, the adventurers, & the wanderers.
Coffe or chai/tea?
Personally, coffee AND tea. ☺ I don’t know that I can shoutout for a fav coffee shop as that’s actually one of the things I miss about big cities… especially after 8 years spent in Paris where there are probably as many coffee shops as inhabitants. That isn’t to say we don’t have nice little coffee shops around here. We do but I can’t think of one that stands out particularly. What I can say, however, is that we have our very own coffee - 100% Vanuatu coffee. It is grown and harvested in Tanna and processed in Port Vila. That should be enough to make any coffee lover happy, don’t you think? And if that’s not enough, you could pair Vanuatu grown coffee with a Vanuatu tree to bar Gaston Chocolate, for example. ☺ Yes, we have that too. The cacao beans are grown and harvested in the outer island of Malekula, the chocolate bars are made in Gaston’s cute little shop downtown… and you can sip a cup of Tanna coffee while actually watching the chocolate being made!
Best breakfast café?
Hmmm… my loyalties are torn apart! I would say Jill’s Café for a typical homey feel. K2 for several reasons: amazing & healthy breakfast with a twist, traditional recipes revisited with local products & a creative flair, and wonderful coffee & fresh juice. Chantilly’s on the Bay, finally, for amazing breakfast with a view.
Three reasons for why someone should visit your country?
To unwind, stay in a heavenly resort away from it all and let the crystal clear waters and light palm breeze rejuvenate your soul and reconnect you with yourself and your loved ones. To go out of your comfort zone, experience a destination where twenty-first century lifestyle and traditional culture overlap, where you can have access to international standard comfort, or choose to be adventurous and go completely off-the-beaten tracks. Slow yourself. Come back to a rhythm that is healthy. Learn patience.
Any local legends?
None that come to my mind particularly. Having said that, the nivan culture is very, very mystic. Some of the most remote islands are known to be home to actual sorcerers and black magic. This is actually something that is taken seriously around here. As far as I’m concerned, well, just in case, I prefer to respect these beliefs. ☺
Train, bus or walk?
Bus. Our buses don’t follow a given itinerary. You stop them anywhere you would like a cab. Hop in, tell the driver where you are going and he will take you there. Bear in mind, though, that this works on a first come, first serve basis so it is worth making sure the bus you’re hoping on is going your way if you don’t want to end up going all over town before you reach your destination! ☺ (I suppose this could also answer your question about a local quirk! ☺)
There are so many options! Erakor Island is a small islet reached by a five minutes ferry ride over crystal clear blue waters with star fish all over the seabed. Breakas Resort for the surfing. Eratap and The Havannah for a truly romantic getaway. Ratua Island and Tanna Rockwater for absolute barefoot luxury, for a honeymoon or a quiet retreat.
Must see vantage point?
Clem’s Hill overlooking far into Port Vila, the harbor, Mele Bay, villages, coconut tree fields, Hideaway Island… there is so much of what is typical of Vanuatu in one panorama.
Most colorful character in your hometown?
Clement Martinez is maybe not the most colourful character in town but he is definitely worth visiting and chatting with. He is the friendly owner of “L’Houstalet”, a French restaurant he opened over forty - maybe even fifty - years ago now. And almost nothing has changed in the restaurant over the years. Clement and his restaurant are a part of Vanuatu’s history and have been the witness of it as well. They were here before we became an independent country, and they stay even after. If history isn’t your thing, he serves delicious pizza - as well as less ordinary dishes, such as lobster and flying fox. ☺
Number one thing you miss when you’re away?
My loved ones and my dogs. Also, the sights. I love the fact that I can see the ocean from almost everywhere, that nature is so present around us, & it makes me feel like I can just breathe better. I miss that when I’m away, for sure!