In Port Vila, MARK DAPIN is entranced by a lagoon, but tears himself away to go exploring.
As I relax on the balcony of my unexpectedly well-appointed room at the Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu, stuffed to contentment with breakfast sausages and gazing over the sublime Erakor Lagoon, my thoughts start to wander... and questions arise.
Firstly, how is it possible that a view can be so beautiful?
Secondly, why have I never been to Vanuatu before?
Thirdly, will I have to go home tomorrow or will my flight be cancelled for a second time, leaving me condemned to another night of all-expenses-paid, five-star luxury?
I wonder at the mysteries of Air Vanuatu the only carrier I've ever flown that asks passengers if they're carrying chainsaws in their checked luggage.
My flight from Sydney to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, is delayed by half an hour. The choice of inflight meal is to eat a Dad's Mince & Cheese Pie from New Zealand, or to not eat it. I opt for the latter. It seems Air Vanuatu's catering service has been "paused" (who needs it, eh?) and the airline no longer serves beer, wine or spirits.
My seat doesn't recline, which is probably character building. Luckily, I'm in the exit row, and I've got so much legroom that it feels like I'm in business class - but, as the old saying goes, "You can't drink legroom".
Okay, so it's not a particularly old saying: I just invented it.
My flight arrives at Port Vila's Bauerfield Airport after midnight, to a reception of unhurried and unconcerned confusion. By the time all the passengers get through customs and immigration, some hotel minibuses have left without their guests and all the taxis are gone.
It's very hard to figure out who is working at the taxi rank and who has just come out to stand next to their friend, but a taxi turns up fairly quickly (considering the time, the place, etc). Sadly by the time I reach the Holiday Inn Resort, the guy in the grass skirt who gives out leis has gone to bed, but the receptionist finds me a garland to wear at 1am while I sign for my room.
The room is bigger and better than I'd imagined. In March last year, two Category 4 cyclones vandalised Vanuatu, damaging the lagoon-view room I had booked for my holiday. Instead, the resort offered me a Resort View room, which sounded like it might look over a carpark.
I accepted the downgrade and was immediately given an upgrade - to a room with "partial lagoon views". I wear glasses, so that was probably all I'd see anyway.
In the morning, I realise the view from my balcony is utterly delicious - as is the buffet breakfast. It's as if a prankster has visited the resort and told them that Australians and New Zealanders (who make up pretty much all the guests) eat roast chicken, steak and roast potatoes first thing in the morning - which, of course, they do, if you offer them for free.
But the sausages are the true star of the menu. They are made from locally grown meat, which tastes just like Australian beef used to taste when it still had cow in it. Coconut water is served straight from the coconut which, rather oddly, arrives in a china tea cup, like a hairy mutant egg that has experienced a sudden growth spurt in its eggcup.
But back to the view: I could watch the still and glistening Erakor Lagoon all day and, in fact, I do - from various vantage points including the balcony, the breakfast bar, the larger of the two resort swimming pools and the lagoon-side cabanas. The loveliness of the outlook enriches the soul. Only a fool would want to leave. And I am nothing if not a fool so, after only one full day of gazing with fathomless content across the water to the overwater bungalows, I ask the hotel to organise me a taxi into the city of Port Vila.
Unfortunately, it is Monday, and Monday and Wednesday are "cruise-ship days", when all the taxis head to the port, so I have to walk into town, which is doable but not especially pleasant. The city is a bit scrappy. The best thing about the place is - once again - the view over the water. Cruise-ship passengers wander the streets, looking for something to do or buy. A local walks among them wearing chameleons on each shoulder and another on his head. The pair on his right side appear to be mating. Foreigners borrow his lizards for photographs, while I watch from the window of artisan chocolatier Gaston Chocolat.
Vanuatu was colonised by both the British and the French. Wherever there are French people, you can be guaranteed undercooked steaks and delightful chocolate. Gaston Chocolat serves one of the greatest inventions in the history of the world: Black Forest gateau ice cream. This alone is worth the trip from the resort.
Local cuisine seems to borrow bits from French, Chinese and Indian food, but is based largely on tuberous vegetables that are not as nice as potatoes. An arcade of harbourfront stalls in the colourful Port Vila Markets offers a selection of island foods, but I opt instead for a ziplock bag of tremendously crunchy homemade manioc chips bought directly from the grower.
I make a dutiful visit to the investment-starved Vanuatu National Museum, where a man demonstrates storytelling through sand-drawing to interesting effect, and return to the resort with a clear cultural conscience.
Wherever there are French people, you can be guaranteed undercooked steaks and delightful chocolate.
I'm not eager to leave the resort twice in one day - or ever again, really - but I'm keen to try a meal at Port Vila's oldest French restaurant, L'Houstalet, where freedom fighters are supposed to have drafted the constitution of Vanuatu over bowls of French onion soup.
It's a good effort at re-creating a 1980s-style French bistro in the Pacific. There's a bar at the front and a garden to the side, and the house specialty is flying fox. Bearing in mind recent well-publicised international events, I'm a bit surprised that people are still eating bats - but I also saw flying fox on the menu at a food truck in the city.
I order the French onion soup in solidarity with revolutions past and a beef fillet in Roquefort cheese sauce, in solidarity with other people who don't have to watch their waistlines because they're on holiday. Washed down with a half-carafe of decent and cheap house red wine, my meal only costs me about $40. On the whole, Vanuatu is cheaper than I expected. It seems only a little more expensive than Fiji, at least at the higher and lower ends of dining. I ask the restaurant to book me a taxi back to the resort. Instead, they call the bus. This is a surprise, as I didn't know you could phone a bus.
The bus fare to anywhere in Port Vila is only about $2; the taxi fare to everywhere except the airport is about $23. The buses operate on an informal first-on, first-off basis, so if you grab an empty vehicle early it will take you straight home (which is how I now think of the Holiday Inn Resort).
I resolve to stay in the resort for the rest of my holiday.
On the final morning, my flight home is cancelled by Air Vanuatu: I first hear of this when I try to check in online and discover there is nothing to check in to. The problem is "unscheduled maintenance work on the 737-800 aircraft".
Several people explain to me that this is not an unusual occurrence, and the plane is often sidelined due to operational issues.
"It's time they threw it in the bin and bought a new one," suggests a local.
The good news is that under international aviation law, Air Vanuatu is obliged to issue vouchers covering my meals and accommodation, which means I can remain in the same room at the five-star resort. However, the airline will not pay for my Tusker beers, because Air Vanuatu really doesn't want me to have a drink.
The delay isn't a problem since I don't want to go home anyway. I enjoy a bonus day looking at the lagoon and I'm "lucky" enough to be among the minority of stranded passengers to get a seat on the next available flight, which is operated by Nauru Airlines.
Nauru Airlines turns out to be Air Vanuatu's good twin. The plane is new, the seats recline, the service is licensed and Dad's Mince & Cheese Pies remain in New Zealand where they belong. So it's not as if a tiny Pacific-island nation can't run a decent airline.
The tragedy is that the Air Vanuatu plane was sidelined for a whole 10 days. If I hadn't made it onto the Nauru Airlines flight, I could've been trapped in paradise for another week, all expenses (except for beer) paid.
Read more on Explore:
Getting there: Qantas and Air Vanuatu fly nonstop to Port Vila from Sydney (return fares start at $702). Virgin Australia and Air Vanuatu fly nonstop from Brisbane (return fares start at $816).
Staying there: The Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu has double rooms from $179 per night. Taxis to and from the airport cost about $32, but they're still cheaper and at least as reliable as hotel transfers.
Explore more: vanuatu.holidayinnresorts.com; vanuatu.travel/au
The writer travelled at his own expense.