TRAVEL: The many faces of Vanuatu
CLUTCHING the knot in the rope attached to my harness, I stepped to the edge of the platform and looked down. Eighty metres up and hundreds of metres of wire to get me to the other side - I thought I'd be a lot more nervous than I was.
But whether it was simply the thrill of being in another country, or the promise I'd made to take more chances and try new things, I leapt off the platform without hesitation and was awestruck at the jungle, island and waterfall views across the Vanuatu mountainside.
"I need to do that again!" I said as I landed on the other side.
This was just day one of my five-day Vanuatu adventure, where I was pushed to my limits, immersed in its culture, surprised at its diversity and had the chance to experience the luxurious side of the island as well.
After a comfortable 3.5-hour Air Vanuatu flight we arrived at our hotel about 1.30am on a rainy, muggy night.
We were staying at the new Ramada Resort Port Vila, which opened in March. Tired, we settled in to our rooms, which were huge, luxurious and had everything we needed.
The view as we met for breakfast a few hours later at the resort's Akiriki Restaurant was absolutely stunning. The weather was a stark contrast to when we'd arrived - the sun was shining and the restaurant overlooked the striking Erakor Lagoon where kayakers were enjoying the morning sun.
After breakfast we headed into Port Vila township where we visited the markets. Hundreds of stallholders offered food and items including seafood, fruit and vegetables, crafts, souvenirs, handmade clothing and traditional food.
As one of our group purchased a dress from a stall, a child thanked her, saying the money was going towards his schooling. I was surprised just how many young children were managing the stalls by themselves at the markets - it was a Thursday, and we'd passed a school earlier filled with students.
I assumed these children had no option but to help the family make a living.
Outside the markets, a small group gathered as the Vanuatu National Council of Women held a peaceful protest against the ongoing abuse in their homes and on the streets by men. It was a powerful sight.
After lunch back at the resort, we headed to our first adventure: the Vanuatu Jungle Zipline, currently rated number two on TripAdvisor's most popular outdoor activities in Port Vila.
On the bus along the way I was struck by the diversity of Vanuatu's capital. In the space of only 20 minutes we'd come from a four-star resort, passed upmarket hotels and casinos, and driven through the village and market centre and the industrial area.
We passed offices and parliamentary buildings, villages and homes with roaming chickens and locals tending their gardens, poor areas where locals were living in shipping containers and makeshift shelters, thick jungle, open fields, flowing rivers where residents were bathing, and past farms.
Although we travelled through some poor areas, almost every single local we passed gave the bus a wave and a huge grin. They were some of the friendliest and happiest people I'd ever come across; genuinely just living their lives, doing what they can to make the best of what they've been given.
We finally arrived at the jungle zipline after travelling up a steep hill to where we would start our adventure. A few people in the group uneasy with heights were starting to shift uncomfortably.
But the Canadian instructor put everyone at ease immediately. His small team, a really fun crew, made us feel safe the whole time as we were clipped on to the wire and made our way across the 1km-plus of ziplines and wobbly suspension bridges. As I said earlier, I absolutely loved it and can't wait to go ziplining again.
The afternoon was then spent winding down at the Wyndham Hotel Group's other property, Chantilly's, with cocktails at Banyan Beach Bar, a favourite among locals and visitors. And I could see why: they have a bonfire on the beach a few times a week, with small timber stools and tables scattered around.
The bright orange sunset makes it the perfect backdrop to kick back with a few cocktails. And the Vanuatu bars certainly know how to make their cocktails.
Resort manager James Fogarty told us the island bounced back almost immediately following the recent cyclone just a few weeks before, with locals and tourism operators working hard to repair damage. Apart from a few stranded yachts on nearby islands, Port Vila and surrounds looked barely touched.
Acting on a recommendation from the zipline instructor, our small group headed into a local watering hole, the Warhorse Saloon Bar, where karaoke was the night's entertainment. It might have not been on the official itinerary, but belting out a few songs with the friendly locals into the wee hours was a highlight of our trip.
Just off where the waterside markets were held was the scene of another adventure, the Reef Safari Tour organised by Reef Explorer Vanuatu.
The semi-submersible boat provided a never-before-seen underwater experience as we ducked and weaved around the coral and sea life. Mooring off Iririki Island, guests can feed the tropical fish, view the reef and snorkel among both. It was some of the clearest water I've ever seen, with the fish obviously used to being fed as they were very tame and willing to eat from your hand.
After a delicious four-course dinner back at Ramada's Akiriki Restaurant - the Vanuatu beef is some of the most tender I have ever eaten - we were treated to an incredible surprise by some village fire twirlers.
As if we hadn't already adventured enough, the best was yet to come the next morning as we headed off to the Off-Road Buggy Adventure.
It promised a "pure driving tour that takes you on road, off road, through jungle, on mud tracks and onto a secluded white sandy beach where you can wash away the dust or mud". We were warned not to wear white or anything we didn't want getting muddy.
So far, I'd thought Vanuatu's beaches were nice but didn't quite compare to the pristine beaches of Mackay and the Whitsundays.
That all changed when we reached a side of the island we hadn't yet been to: the beach had stunning white sand and crystal clear water. It was a welcome sight and we washed off the mud and dirt that had covered us head to toe from the buggy experience.
I was so impressed by what Vanuatu had to offer, as I had long held the view that it was merely a honeymoon destination. But being so close to Brisbane and with so much fun to be had exploring the island and surrounds, it would make the perfect girls' getaway or boys' long weekend adventure.
The writer was a guest of Wyndham Hotel Group and Air Vanuatu.