The 80 islands that make up the archipelago of Vanuatu lie 750 miles west of Fiji (two hours, 30 minutes by nonstop flight). Vanuatu entered the American consciousness briefly during World War II, when it hosted a large military base, and again as the setting of James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” famously adapted by Rodgers and Hammerstein into a musical. Otherwise, it has remained more or less removed from the world.
Guests stay in one of 13 striking Indonesian wood farmhouses, which were painstakingly restored by artisans on Bali before they were disassembled and moved to Ratua Island.
A 45-minute flight north of the capital, Port Vila, sheltered by the islands of Espiritu Santo, Aore and Malo, lies one of the most remarkable properties in the South Pacific. The owners of Ratua Private Island eco-lodge initially intended to maintain the island as a personal retreat, but eventually, they opted to develop it into a stylish but casual resort, all the profits of which go to a foundation dedicated to improving local schools. Guests stay in one of 13 striking Indonesian wood farmhouses, estimated to be around 200 years old, which were painstakingly restored by artisans on Bali before they were disassembled and moved to Ratua Island.
Our house, “Cobra,” had a vaulted thatched roof, a comfortable canopy bed festooned with mosquito netting, two leather-upholstered armchairs and a vintage armoire. In a separate house connected by a short wooden walkway, the bath provided dual vanities surmounted by elaborately framed mirrors, and a wood-floored shower, but no tub. A furnished terrace faced our private stretch of beach, where two loungers occupied a rise shaded by a giant vutu tree. It all felt thoroughly exotic and beguiling.
Much as I enjoyed these accommodations, they are clearly not for everyone. Travelers unwilling to forgo air-conditioning, television or in-room Wi-Fi should look elsewhere. In addition, the windows have no glass or screens, and the doors lack exterior locks. Yet these ostensible flaws mattered not a whit on Ratua Island, which quickly cast a spell of relaxation and contentment. Gentle breezes supplemented by a ceiling fan kept us cool at night; bugs didn’t bother us; and we left our villa’s doors wide open except when we slept, an act that inspired an unexpected sense of freedom.
Cobra stands in the West Point Village, my favorite of the three clusters of accommodations because of the privacy afforded by most of its houses. The courtyard-style Fish Village is usually reserved for groups and families. South Point Village has houses similar to those in West, but it is a longer walk to the Yacht Club, the heart of the resort and the home of the bar, surprisingly chic lounge (with Wi-Fi), game room and main restaurant, which presents simple but delicious seafood-focused meals accented by local produce. An additional beachside restaurant with tables in the sand served as a delightful venue for lunches and a festive barbecue dinner one night, during which a group of local women performed traditional water music by rhythmically slapping and splashing the sea.
Activities include paddle boarding or kayaking in the channel and snorkeling around the island’s reef. One day, we circumnavigated the island by horseback, riding through its groves of mature coconut palms and patches of mangrove forest. After an hour or so, we returned to the corral, removed the saddles, donned our swimsuits and rode straight into the sea. Floating prone on top of my horse’s back while he swam, clinging to his mane as he pulled me through the water, was an experience I won’t soon forget. Guests can also take advantage of a spectacular overwater spa with two treatment rooms, one of which has a full-size bathtub hewn from the trunk of a tree. We had time for only a handful of off-island activities, and I deeply regretted not being able to visit the dramatically active volcano on Tanna and the traditional villages and blue holes on Espiritu Santo.
Service tended to match the quality of the facilities, getting everything right that really mattered. We never once encountered a chambermaid in our room, which was tidied twice a day while we were at breakfast and dinner. Excursions and transfers went smoothly, and in general, everyone seemed anxious to help. Shyness sometimes prevented proactive service. But having to go to the bar to ask for a drink instead of having one brought felt like a small price to pay for the experience of a place so thoroughly unique and unspoiled.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The stylish and exotic design; the pristine surrounding environment; the sensational snorkeling.
DISLIKE: The limited selection of wines by the glass; the run-down van used on an excursion to Million Dollar Point.
GOOD TO KNOW: Avoid the “Buffalo” house, which has little privacy, and the distant Safari Tent. Use the resort’s small private plane for seamless transfers to and from Port Vila, as well as excursions to an array of remarkable points of interest elsewhere in Vanuatu.
Ratua Private Island 93 Deluxe Villa, $370; One-Bedroom Deluxe Villa, $580 (all meals included). Ratua Private Island, Sanma Province. Tel. (678) 30020.