Vanuatu village girls © Paul Stein
The epitome of the laid-back South Pacific, the island nation of the Republic of Vanuatu encompasses an archipelago of 83 picture-postcard tropical islands, about a thousand miles (1,700km) east of Australia. The islands, originally 'discovered' by Captain James Cook in 1774, were jointly administered by Britain and France after being settled by Europeans in the late 18th century, and gained independence as recently as 1980.
The native Melanesian people, who now proudly speak their pidgin English tongue, are largely dependent on tourism for their livelihood, and the islands are full of natural attractions that make this a very desirable destination for beach-lovers, scuba divers and adventurers.
The islands are part of the Pacific 'ring of fire', volcanic in origin, with plenty of volcanic activity on the go to astound visitors. The last eruption occurred in 1945, but the volcanoes are continually bubbling and spewing out rocks and lava, adding an enticing element of danger to any visit to Vanuatu.
The capital city, Port Vila, is situated on the main island of Efate, the hub of commerce and tourism, and where most of the population live. The town encircles a natural harbour, offering breathtaking views of offshore islands. A pretty town with a neat waterfront area, it is also a stone's throw from the main international airport and gateway to the islands. In recent years a number of luxury tourist resorts have been established close to Port Vila, which has developed a reputation as the gourmet capital of the south Pacific, with its dozens of restaurants and cafes, reflecting a variety of cuisines, from French and Italian to Chinese and Thai.
The rest of the island offers a rugged coastline and verdant, green countryside, bisected by rivers and waterfalls, sporting sandy bays and tranquil lagoons where tropical fish dart among the coral reefs. On the other islands it is possible to play at being Robinson Crusoe, leaving footprints on beaches seemingly untouched by man.
One of the main attractions of Vanuatu is an annual event that takes place on Pentecost Island each Saturday between April and June. A legend sparked the tradition of 'land-diving', where young men test their mettle by launching themselves from towers constructed of branches, tied by vines at the ankles, and plunge towards the ground. It is the original form of 'bungee jumping' and although visitors cannot participate, the spectacle is awesome.
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