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Vanuatu Feels Like Home

Everyone can plan for a raft of adventures and inclusive activities on a trip to Vanuatu, because understanding and respect is always on the itinerary.

Being Polynesian, the South Pacific always called to my two daughters. Vanuatu was the first international destination they wanted us to go as a family, even though it’s not where they are from. One of my daughters, Halia, has autism and the other, Mele, lives with anxiety and PTSD.

Bracing myself for the journey, I did as much pre-planning and preparation I could, notifying places we wanted to go about the specific needs of someone with autism and checking if it would suit us. Sensory issues, crowds, being overwhelmed and changes to plans – all these things throw a spanner in the works when travelling. However, Vanuatu was by far the easiest trip our family has done. 

As we exited the plane, we were warmly greeted by a friend and immediately relaxed. Everywhere we went, people assumed my daughters were half Ni-Vanuatu, enthusiastically welcoming them home and guessing which island their family was from. Loving the attention, Halia and Mele decided not to correct anyone about their true Maori/Tongan heritage. 

Determined to make this holiday everything they dreamed, I was relieved when both girls said they felt they belonged here. The weather, lifestyle, people and amenities are very different to where we lived at the time (Melbourne), and yet Vanuatu felt like home. Within days, the girls wanted to live in Vanuatu permanently. 

A family in harnesses and helmets walking across a suspension bridge above a tropical rainforest canopy
All the work to plan our family holiday to Vanuatu was well worth it.

One of the first things they asked for was to sleep on a beach under the stars. We needed to choose a place that was safe, not crowded with other tourists, locally-owned, and with amenities we needed within easy reach. 

Emaal Beach ticked all the boxes. It’s a little slice of paradise tucked away on the other side of Efate, near the Blue Lagoon which we also visited later. Setting up camp on mats, the girls were excited to finally be experiencing island life with swimming, playing with local kids, cooking over the fire and eating off leaves. There were bungalows close by to use if anyone decided they’d rather sleep indoors. The owners were on hand if we needed anything during our stay. 

After a peaceful night and breakfast of our now favourite food, tuluk (meat wrapped in cassava dough and steamed in banana leaves), we headed off to explore a few nearby attractions.

Climbing to the top of Mele Cascades, a guide looked at my girls and assuming they were part Ni-Vanuatu asked if they spoke Bislama and what their names were. Exchanging sneaky smiles, they told him. 

Surprised, he gasped, “Mele, your name is Mele, as in my village here, Mele?” Beaming, she squealed “Yes!” before jumping into the crystal clear water. 

Sliding down the various natural slides, playing in numerous pools and sitting under the waterfalls was magical. The smiles on my girls’ faces said it all. Because you can only access the cascades with a guide, it is never overcrowded, which meant we could relax in peace. 

Halia and Mele climbing among waterfalls at Mele Cascades Vanuatu
We got away from the crowds for a wonderful day at Mele Cascades.

Right across the street was Samyat’s Wildlife, the only koi ponds in Vanuatu. Run by a local Ni-Vanuatu family who live on the property, we explored the ponds while learning about different local wildlife, fruits that grow there, traditions and how this little wildlife sanctuary came to be. 

Down Devil’s Point Road a little further along was the big adventure for the day – one which both terrified and excited me, the Vanuatu Jungle Zipline. Two hours of ziplining including 6 ziplines, one 300m long plus 2 suspension bridges, and the most spectacular views back across Mele Bay and Hideaway Island. 

While the local staff didn’t know much about autism at first, they were keen to assist in the best way possible for my daughters. The Zipline is a business that supports the Vanuatu Society for Disabled Persons, so they will do what they can to include everyone. 

Halia and Mele showed no fear, zipping everywhere forwards, backwards and even going upside down at one point with the help of staff. I, on the other hand, definitely had some fear.

Mele wanted to spend her birthday at Hideaway Island the next day. A short boat ride from Mele Bay and we were laying back on lounges, sipping virgin Pina Colada’s, enjoying the peace on this tiny island. 

Jumping off the pontoons, freediving as long as they could and visiting the underwater post box where you can send postcards from underwater while snorkelling the reef, is an experience they will never forget. An array of fish, coral and other marine life is abundant just off the beach in the warm, clear water. 

Around sunset, we had pizza and joined the outdoor movie night at The Beach Bar. Settling into giant bean bags in front of the big screen, with our drinks and gluten-free pizza brought to us, Halia and Mele were so full of joy I knew we’d come back.

Kylie and her daughters lying on beach chairs at sunset on Hideaway Island in Vanuatu
Sunset on Hideaway Island is truly spectacular.

For our first trip overseas, Vanuatu was ideal. Full of culture, a tropical climate, crystal clear water, fun adventures, and of course, extremely friendly people. Meeting our specific needs regarding autism and food allergies was easy, and everyone respected our needs and worked with us to ensure we had the best possible time.

Photographs by Justin Saula of Black Beard Photography.

This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

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