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Return To The South Pacific

October 19, 1986|JAMES A. MICHENER | James A. Michener is a well-known Pulitzer Prize-winning author.

My work as a naval officer in World War II enabled me to serve on 49 different South Pacific islands, so that I came to know the area about as well as anyone. Obviously, I grew to respect and love it, and my first writing dealt with the men and women who lived on its remote islands.

When peace came in 1945 and I returned home after a double tour of duty, I suspected that some lucky day I would go back to see how things were working out in a part of the world I had chosen for my own. And that's what happened. On some half-dozen occasions I was able to revisit the scenes of battle, hitting such memorable spots as Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Manus and Rabaul. For several years I lived in Hawaii, and on four trips I made it back to the gorgeous isles: Tahiti and Bora Bora.

So I kept in touch, for I was always ready, even on short notice, to scurry back to the islands, which happened last year. Hawaii, Fiji, Port-Vila in the New Hebrides--these were the way stations on this trip, and each was a place of the most powerful meaning to me. In Hawaii I had written one of my best books. In Fiji, with its population half Asiatic Indian, half black Melanesian, I had spent some of the most meaningful days of the war. And in the New Hebrides I had lived for three years, familiarizing myself with all aspects of that curious French-English condominium, the only instance I know of in which two major powers shared the government of one territory.

Now let's get down to the nitty-gritty. Hawaii and Fiji are two of the best island groups in the world to visit as a vacationer. The great hotels, the fascinating local people, the exciting history of the two contrasting island groups, and the unmatched scenery make these two of the most enticing stopovers. If you've never been to Hawaii and Fiji, go now. The rewards will be magnificent. The flight from Honolulu to Nadi is somewhat shorter than the one from Los Angeles to Honolulu, and the differences between Hawaii and Fiji make the trip worth the extra effort.

But it was Port-Vila, the capital town of the new nation of Vanuatu, which was the biggest surprise on this return to paradise. In 1980 I had served in Port-Vila as the official American representative of President Carter when my former home, the New Hebrides Condominium, gained its independence as the nation of Vanuatu. I had known the area for about 40 years, and I was charmed by the way in which this little seaport with the simplified name of Vila, population 15,000, had become what many, including me, consider the finest spot in the South Pacific to visit if you want to see the islands as they were in the great days at the beginning of this century.

Honolulu is a metropolis. Papeete in Tahiti has traffic lights and overpasses. Suva in Fiji is a bustling, modern city. But Vila, situated on the shores of a heavenly bay in Vanuatu, preserves the best of the old traditions. It has good hotels, excellent small restaurants, complete medical facilities and a competent, stable local government. It represents, I believe, one of the best values in Pacific tourism, and from the airport the traveler can fly by short hops to many islands that are completely primitive. When I first pitched my Navy tent on the island of Espiritu Santo to the north of Vila, the natives on nearby Malakula were cannibals. Today they have representation in the United Nations.

In praising Vila as highly as I do I am not overlooking other attractive tropical towns in the area, Noumea in French New Caledonia and Honiara on the island of Guadalcanal in the free nation of the Solomons. I lived in both these areas during the war and have visited them as capital towns in the postwar period. They're exciting and rewarding with fine hotels and restaurants, but Honiara has recently been devastated by a hurricane and should be avoided for the time being, while New Caledonia has for some years been disrupted by its struggle to establish itself as a nation freed from French supervision. Both towns should be visited some years from now when the dust has settled. Vila, having put down its own revolution some years ago, is a haven.

The highlight of my most recent return to the South Pacific came when I flew to Espiritu Santo, a big, unruly jungle island in the northern portion of the Vanuatu island group. There we visited two French plantations that had played a crucial role in my life, and I was pleased to find that one still prospered, saddened to learn that the other had vanished.

The first, to the west of the principal town of Luganville, had been owned during the war by a fine French copra planter named Aubert Ratard, who became my good friend and who introduced me to the complexities of life within a condominium: "They grant any newcomer a grace period of some weeks . . . to look around . . . listen to gossip. Then you must elect which body of law you are going to live under, French or English. Most people think French is best."

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