A couple’s retreat may seem logistically impossible for new parents but is well worth the investment (and wait!), as Ellie Gwilliam discovers.
It’s a strange feeling – dropping your children off at school, waving goodbye to the grandparents and then heading to the international airport. Any guilt we were feeling was niggled even more as we casually rolled our carry-on bags (yep, just the one small bag each) up to check-in behind two couples juggling five small children between them. One of the dads was wearing a baby in a front pack and a toddler in a backpack. We tried not to get in their way, attempting to look encouraging and empathetic, as opposed to smug.
To fully appreciate something, you need to know its value. Josh and I were off to The Havannah – an adults-only resort in Vanuatu. Our children were going to be fine, happy in the care of Granny and Grandad, and probably wouldn’t even miss us with all the fun planned for the three days we would be away. Yes, our ‘couple’s retreat’ was to be a three-night escape, a chance to step out of routines and recharge the batteries. And while three nights abroad sounds tantalisingly short, it makes for manageable childcare arrangements, and – let’s be honest – we’ll take what we can get!
Touching down in Port Vila and walking across the tarmac to the terminal sets the pace for holidaying in Vanuatu. While the rustic airport is bustling with people, the tropical air is thick and warm, and you can’t help but start to relax.
We found the Adventures in Paradise kiosk where we met our driver who would take us on the 25-minute shuttle ride from Port Vila to the Havannah Harbour. The drive allowed us to take in the sights of island life. Happy kids ran along the roadside past humble homes and well-intentioned businesses. Life appears basic, Vanuatu seems on the cusp of development, but resources are obviously limited. The devastating effects of Cyclone Pam, which smashed into the islands of Vanuatu in March 2015, will long be evident. However, people smile with the warmth and genuineness of those not affected by consumerism, chronic schedule overload or Auckland traffic. There are plenty of good reasons why Vanuatu Tourism invites travellers to “slow down, immerse yourself and be in the moment, discovering what matters most”.
Our shuttle bumped over a hill and down through a valley towards the Havannah Harbour. The area felt remote – we drove past simple villages and the odd roadside stall selling firewood, vegetables or hand-woven baskets, but that was the extent of retail options. We pulled into a driveway, through an impressive entrance and into The Havannah resort. This was clearly some place special.
The resort is set on a sandy point overlooking the harbour. A lush tropical garden fringes a tennis court and hides a row of accommodation villas. The pearl in the crown is the resort reception area and restaurant, right on the beachfront with uninterrupted views to the water, a stone’s throw away. We were met by friendly staff but it was Frederick who fully enveloped us in welcome, his French accent beckoning us to sit in a warm spot with a view overlooking the bay. Our official welcome included introductions and explanations of how the resort operated (do as much or as little as you like, basically; and anything you needed/wanted, staff would happily oblige), welcome drinks and refresher towels. We could get used to this.
We were then shown our garden villa. It had all my favourite things (aside from my three children, of course, but for three days I’d cope!) – a daybed in the sun, a private garden featuring our own little faré with a table and chairs, divine toiletries handmade on the island, and local coffee. It was beautifully appointed and totally private, designed so you could open the doors and feel like you were sleeping in your own tropical garden.
We wandered about the small resort (it takes a maximum of only 34 guests) to get our bearings then settled into loungers on the front lawn to watch the sun set over the bay (early, being winter), leaving us plenty of time to do absolutely nothing before dinner.
Determined to make the most of the time available on our itinerary, we woke early the next morning and headed to the tennis court before it got too hot to move, let alone run after a tennis ball. I don’t think we’ve ever played tennis together before, and we’re probably unlikely to pop down to our local court once back home, but experiencing new things together is what a trip like this is all about. Once we had lost two out of our three tennis balls in the bougainvillea, we headed over to the pool to cool down before breakfast. Juice, coffee, pastries, plus a menu of cooked options – in other words, breakfast perfection. I hoped my parents were enjoying a plunger of coffee back at our house, after feeding our girls toast and rice bubbles and shipping them off to school. Josh sipped on fresh coconut water and gazed out to sea. I read a book while finishing my coffee. I know, who actually ever does that?
Snorkelling and sleeping were notable highlights of the rest of the day. We had hoped to join the sunset cruise that evening, alas it was fully booked so we took a stroll to the nearby Tanoliu village. Missing the boat, which only has room for three couples, was a result of indecision (Josh’s). He said I could blame him but seeing as this trip was really all about ‘coupleness’, I didn’t really think I could justify a sulk. Besides, it was just far too hot. We did, however, manage a slight communication breakdown and took a wrong turn (near impossible to do this) on our way to the village so walked the really long way in the baking heat. It was worth it though. We were already pretty sure our resort was a privileged place to be, and life beyond its manicured gardens was somewhat different for local people. It’s good to get out and reinforce this reality.
We stumbled upon Ernest’s WW2 museum, now run by his enthusiastic grandson Mark. Vanuatu played a significant role in the Allied Pacific campaign during World War Two. Efate (the main island of Vanuatu) was a major base for the US Military and warships moored in the Havannah Harbour. The stresses of war clearly outweighed most environmental concerns and the harbour quickly filled up with empty Coke bottles and other tributes to Uncle Sam. This wasn’t all bad, I guess, as locals are still pulling glass bottles out of the sea and selling them to tourists. Ernest and Mark make a living showing visitors the treasures they’ve found in the tide.
Across the road from the museum, kids had just finished school and most were involved in a wild and free game of soccer. Josh joined them and a rugby ball soon appeared (perhaps they mistook him for an All Black?), so he spent the next half hour kicking it “long one” for the kids to catch. Delighted squeals of “Good one, mister” and a steady request for more “long one” kicks made me smile, as I watched from the sideline until Josh retired, drenched in sweat and nearing heat exhaustion.
On our way back, we met Betty and two colleagues who had introduced themselves to us that morning, returning home to their village after work. It felt like catching up with family, as they told us about their children, the effects of Cyclone Pam and the needs of their village. Such is the beauty of staying somewhere small – the holiday is more than just packing a suitcase in order to stay somewhere else. Instead it is an opportunity to connect with people whose lives may only appear different from one’s own. With a closer look, the common ground can resonate rather deeply.
Another of the many lovely things about The Havannah is that guests can choose from a range of dining locations – even design their own options if they so desire! When we saw the staff preparing a bonfire on the beach, we reserved one of the tables being set for dinner on the sand. Yes, yes, a romantic cliché, but it was charming and fun, especially when Josh had to help get the bonfire going after the first attempt all but snuffed out.
To make the most of our last full day in Vanuatu, we took a tour to Lelepa Island. A boat picked us up and we headed across the water to the little island visible from the resort. The tour was well organised but had a laid-back pace – you felt relaxed, yet still slightly virtuous learning about local culture. What’s more, the tour company is run by villagers from the island and profits go back to the local community.
Lelepa Island was used in the filming of the 2004 series of Survivor: Vanuatu Islands of Fire, so it features your quintessential white beaches, sparkling water and the vibe that you are the first to ever set foot on its dry land.
The guides led us along a bush track to the other side of the island, where morning tea was served and we then snorkelled while lunch was prepared. The midday heat was considerable so post-lunch naps were encouraged before we took a walk to an impressive nearby cave – used as shelter in Cyclone Pam and, long before that, as a ‘retirement home’ for the island’s elderly who could no longer tolerate days in the harsh sun. Or so legends would have it.
Then it was back on the boat to head to a little cove for what is reputably some of the best snorkelling in the world. Josh takes to such things like a duck to water. Admittedly I’m less enthusiastic about a plastic breathing tube being strapped to my face. I think it harks back to childhood and an ill-fitting mask and cold New Zealand seawater. Lelepa Island, however, got me back on the snorkelling bandwagon. The water is so clear and so warm you forget you are even in it. There is so much to see, so many varieties of fish, and coral in every colour. It’s an amazing experience, and so easy – all you have to do is float.
The final stop on the tour was the island’s village of Natapao, home to about 350 people. The local women and children spread out handcrafts and souvenirs for sale. It’s a great way for tourists to support the village, while enjoying the locals’ hospitality and observing their lifestyle. Again, the lack of material possessions is evident – the buildings are basic, at best. Currently there isn’t even any running water on the island, it all has to be carried over from Efate, but in general, the Ni-Vanuatu people seem happy without all the consumerist trappings of the western world. Not too difficult, I guess, when you live in paradise.
We motored back to the resort as the sun started to set. In typical ‘trying to do everything’ fashion, we had reserved ourselves a spot on the resort’s sunset cruise for that evening. Alas, that ship had already sailed by the time our tour boat delivered us to the resort jetty. Not to worry, a thoughtful staff member asked his brother – who happened to be captaining our tour boat – to take us back out into the harbour and help us climb aboard the sunset cruise boat. So back to sea we went!
For our final night at The Havannah, we dined by candlelight on the pier. We chatted about the beauty of island living and how wonderful it would be to pay off the mortgage so we could go on holiday (with the children!) more often. We got all idealistic as we imagined volunteering for a village project, kids in tow, and living with the local people. All easy to say while enjoying fine dining on the end of a wharf before retiring to a luxury villa for the night. But this is the essence of a holiday like this – to remove yourself from routine and remember what's really important in life. The tourism brochures were right!
The trip also reminded us that our relationship matters. Hugely. And while our children are our world, our marriage is their foundation. A couple’s retreat is therefore of huge value to family life. It doesn’t have to be extravagant (although if you ever have the opportunity to stay at The Havannah, grab it with both hands); it just has to provide a retreat. “Be alone, together”, I think the premise is. It also doesn’t have to be long. Shorter trips are more manageable and we were back on a plane heading to Auckland Airport before we knew it. And once the obligatory duty-free Beanie Boos had been handed over to the awaiting children, they hardly even remembered we’d been away.
Ellie and Josh stayed courtesy of The Havannah and extend huge gratitude to the resort and all the wonderful staff who made their stay so memorable. Take a virtual visit to thehavannah.com and then book your flights!