Luxury travel once had a fairly universal definition: High-end indulgence in an exotic destination, usually requiring a long flight.
In a post-COVID world, where we’ve had to recalibrate and redefine many of our values, ‘luxury’ is a far more slippery concept. Either way, none of the descriptors, old world or new, define Luganville, the raffish capital of the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu.
Just under three flying hours from Australia’s east coast, the town’s beauty begins and ends with the uplifting harmonies of the singers who welcome tourists outside the airport.
A minibus, dodging the worst of the potholes and stray dogs, drops us at a jetty, where a sign in English and Bislama outline some fairly exacting regulations. There are nine in total, from: “No leaning on cars” (no tajem o lenlong teak plo nafala man) to “no drunken disorderly behaviour” (No trong kranky long eria ia). Ten minutes later, we are in a small, flat-bottomed boat, skimming across the deep blue channel that separates Aore Island from Espiritu Santo.
As we approach land, the water becomes shallow, changing from inky to aquamarine; still and glassy. The motor is cut and conversation halts as we dock at an island that looks photoshopped: palm trees bowing over crushed coral sand, glimpses of thatched roof visible among fuchsia bougainvillea. A man strolls down the jetty to meet us – owner of Aore Island Resort, Brad Gray, who with wife Lisa bought the resort and moved his family to Vanuatu from Australia eight years ago.
The picture-perfect foreshore of Aore Island Resort. Photo: Supplied
Due to the timetable of the direct flight in and out, I will spend an entire week on Aore Island, which is unnerving. I can’t remember the last time I stayed in one place for a straight seven days.
My bungalow is the last in row facing across the water towards Santo, separated from its neighbours by thick tropical vegetation. There’s a king bed below a ceiling fan, a small tidy bathroom and door to a veranda with a few steps leading to the sand. My first act is to sit in the deck chair, close my eyes and listen to the sea – a swish, followed by a gentle tinkle as the waves rock the coral rubble.
There’s no air conditioning or TV in my room. No phone signal at all. Meanwhile, the internet only exists via a small and not particularly stable connection in a corner of the reception – an open-sided area called the ‘nakamal’, which translates roughly to ‘meeting place, sometimes with drinks’. I lecture my panicky self-important self about the triviality of my social media feed and the fact my emails will not be going anywhere.
I replace screen time with low-fi activities; from palm-leaf weaving to kava tastings. I join everyone else in the namakal and dance to that night’s traditional musicians or watch in awe from the beach as a local women’s water drumming group, submerged to their waists, create complex rhythms using just their voices and the percussion from slapping the water. I ride a bike for the first time in years – down the rough dirt road that rings the island, the sun beating down, the jungle humming on either side past a coffee plantation and a tethered bull feeding off verge-side vegetation, returning to fall into the sea, then swing in the hammock for a bit.
The view from one of the resort’s bungalows. Photo: Supplied
I am utterly alone on one of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen. The turquoise water has a milky opaqueness to it. There are the ubiquitous palm trees at each end of the crescent of sand, created from millennia of crushed coral exoskeletons, but also shady fish-poison trees, their solid branches bending low. The water is perfect, a shade below tepid, apart from a patch at the far end of the beach, where a spring releases tiny bubbles of effervescence into the sea, giving it the name Champagne Beach. I spend an hour or so dipping in and out of the water and reading my book under a tree.
Mornings and afternoons, I immerse myself wth a snorkel and mask in the giant aquarium just steps from the shore. Fish are multi-hued, and there are violet-tinged soft corals and bombies with beige patterned starfish clinging to their sides.
One day, I take the boat across to Santo to visit the Riri Blue Hole. A guide paddles us in an outrigger up the eerily beautiful river, overhung with vegetation and utterly silent but for the splash of the paddle and birdsong. At its end, fresh water bubbles up through limestone karst, which is responsible for the colour of the otherworldly Riri Blue Hole. Climbing down metal ladders, we snorkel in water that is deep, cold and fresh, with astounding clarity.
Riri Blue Hole, with its crystal-clear waters. Photo: Supplied
I’m yawning as I farewell my dining partners. The menu at the resort is a mix of cuisines; hearty rather than haute. I’ve swapped my usual wine for margaritas – the sharp bite and touch of salt seems an appropriate sundowner here.
After a day spent snorkelling, hanging in a hammock, cycling, or perhaps taking a local water taxi, known as a ‘turtle boat’ to a neighbouring island, I am done by 8pm. I return to my bungalow to read the same three pages of my book, falling asleep to a lullaby of whirring fan and swishing waves. I sleep more deeply than I have in decades, waking at sunrise, to enjoy a cup of tea while watching the tide change from my veranda.
For someone whose travel MO is usually fast and furious – cramming in the experiences and moving on – I feel, surprisingly, like I’m not quite ready, as I pack to make the journey home from Vanuatu the following week. My own perception of luxury has altered substantively. Now I understand true luxury is bumping along dusty roads to reach a beach where the sand glitters like diamonds, the sea is opaque blue and you are all alone. It’s going to bed early with salt still in your hair. It’s waking to birdsong and waves instead of the ping of emails. It’s forgetting what it feels like to wear shoes. It’s earthy and authentic rather than high-end, and it can be found closer to home than you imagine.
Air Vanuatu (code-sharing with Air Solomon on this route) fly direct to Santo weekly via Brisbane. Other cities fly to Port Vila with an onward connection to Santo, but the consensus is, for reliability reasons, it’s better to use Brisbane as your departure point.
Natascha Mirosch was a guest of Aore Island Resort. Studio Beachfront bungalows start at $340/night, including breakfast, return airport transfers and all entertainment.