Ratua's over-the-water spa has uninterrupted views of the Coral… (Amanda Jones )
Reporting from Yakel Village, Vanuatu — — My teenage daughter is standing in a lineup of tribesmen and she is angry with me. As I lift my camera, she says, "I look hideous," unaware of the irony of being surrounded by tribesmen wearing next to nothing.
"Yu, pikinini blong Amerika (You, child belonging to America)," the chief says, introducing Indigo to his grandson, who looks to be a much happier teenager. "Yu gat hamas yia? Yu slip wea? (You've got how many years? Where are you staying?)"
We are in the Yakel Village on the South Pacific island chain of Vanuatu. To be specific, we are on the southern island of Tanna, and the Yakel, who live as they have for 4,000 years, have eschewed Western clothing and most white-man trappings. They speak only their tribal language and Bislama, the pidgin English that unifies the Ni-Vanuatu (Vanuatu people).
PHOTOS: Vanuatu islands
I grew up in the South Pacific. Back then, Vanuatu was called the New Hebrides and was one of the poorest nations in the region, with little to recommend it to tourists. Within the last five years, however, it has become a hot spot for adventure travelers and now boasts several swanky resorts. In 2006 it was voted the happiest place on Earth by the think tank Happy Planet Index. (The U.S. ranked 150th.)
The reason they're happy is not that the Ni-Vanuatu have the most stuff; by U.S. standards Vanuatu is poor. (Subsistence agriculture does not count as wealth on the economic index.) But Vanuatu has idyllic white-sand islands, clear waters, waterfalls, great diving, the world's most accessible live volcano and food that grows faster than it can be picked.
The people don't big-foot on their environment, there's no litter, not much waste, little obesity. They share almost everything and, most important, there's no cultural yearning to keep up with the Joneses. I decided this concept would be good for my family, and so my husband, Greg; daughters, Indigo and Sofia; and I spent 10 days here last July.
Vanuatu is a string of 83 Melanesian islands surrounded on three sides by the Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Caledonia. The islands have a total population of 240,000. We visited three: Éfaté, home of Port-Vila, the capital; Tanna, home to the volcano and the nearly naked men; and Espiritu Santo, where a billionaire's private island resort recently opened.
After several hours with the Yakel, we said "tata" (goodbye) to the tribesmen, and our driver (driving yourself is not recommended because of bad roads) moved on to Mt. Yasur, one of the most spectacularly active volcanoes in the world. If you've ever fancied getting close to a volcano, here's your chance. The bone-rattling two-hour road trip to get there is less spectacular.
We pulled up before sunset, watching as gray clouds, as tall as multistoried buildings, mushroomed from the crater. We climbed its flank and approached the rim. It struck me as odd that there were no railings, no warning signs, no ropes and no rangers keeping visitors away from the edge. A part of happiness, I figured, must be managing one's own fate.
As darkness fell, we could see the gray, ashy plumes turning brilliant scarlet, red and purple, shooting fireball rocks wildly into the night sky. We were transfixed. We had expected to spend two hours there and we spent five, trying, in vain, to capture the exhilaration on film.
I later learned that in recent years three people were killed by flying lava after climbing too low into the crater. Self-determination can be dangerous.
Accommodations on Tanna were basic. White Grass Ocean Resort is as good as it gets and is pleasant and fun, although the rooms are Spartan and small. You don't go to Tanna for luxe digs; our three days there were sufficiently stimulating.
The words "private island" typically mean "out of my reach," but Ratua, a private island off Espiritu Santo, seemed reasonable to me for all that's included. The $430 per person per night (children are half-price) includes the 45-minute transfer to the island, a private villa, all meals, Internet, horseback riding, windsurfing, mountain bikes, snorkel gear and canoes.
In 2004, a French businessman cashed out, bought a yacht and he, his wife and two small children sailed the world looking for their dream island. They spent more than a year looking, eventually wandering into the friendly waters around the large northern island of Espiritu Santo.