Right Time, Right Place, Right Now

Fifty-odd years ago, a young guy's visit to Vanuatu inspired the legend of Bali Hai. Thankfully, the good life's still here. Why aren't you?

Jun 5, 2001
Outside Magazine

Unlike its neighbor, Fiji, the pacific nation of Vanuatu, made up of 83 ruggedly forested, volcanically active islands, is a place hardly anyone in America knows. Which is odd, when you think about it. True, Vanuatu is so undeveloped that on the dozen or so larger islands where most of its people live you can still discuss the latest stock report (somebody's cows wandering through a neighbor's garden patch again) with a man whose entire wardrobe consists of a woven grass namba, or penis sheath. And when they bungee-jump in Vanuatu, where the pastime was invented centuries ago, they don't use sissy stuff like bungee cords. Instead, land divers, as they are called, tie jungle vines around their ankles and plunge from towers, up to 100 feet high, that look as if they were constructed from sticks and branches by a nest-building bird who got into the fermented berries.

Yet Vanuatu, known as New Hebrides until it gained independence from England and France in 1980, has had a distinct effect on American culture, or at least on how we imagine paradise. It was among these coconut-palm-and-beach-fringed islands that Lieutenant James A. Michener was inspired to create the mystical heaven on earth known as Bali Hai.
Now, half a century later, other American travelers are discovering the archipelago too. Of Vanuatu's 100,000 or so annual visitors, more than half come ashore via cruise ship or yacht. The rest fly in, either extending a visit to Fiji—which boasts more than a decade's head start on development and three times the tourists—or skipping Fiji altogether.

While flying into Vanuatu is easy enough, getting around its mountainous interior—in much-abused four-wheel-drive vehicles or on foot—can be a challenge. And because tourism is new to the outer islands, lodgings at times consist of dirt-floored leaf houses where, as the tourism office so eloquently puts it, "running water is not common and the bath is to be taken on the beach or in the river." But for uncrowded diving, sea kayaking, and trekking, and for an adventurous look at a corner of the South Pacific that has changed little since Allied forces passed through, Vanuatu is among the most fascinating spots I've encountered in three decades of bumping around. It's the kind of place where, if you harbor, as I do, the fantasy of getting temporarily marooned on a tropical island, you'll likely begin plotting your return soon after your arrival.

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