Our Vanuatu vacation visiting TV personality, Steve Jacobs
Hearing tales of his new kid-friendly island home, we visit television personality Steve Jacobs in Vanuatu, where family time is a breeze. Writes Jac Taylor.
Feeling the fear and doing it anyway, I settle down next to the resort swimming pool with a wriggly toddler, a bag full of diversions to buy me a few seconds of relaxation, and a longing for a cocktail to make it all better.
All the sparkling waters and swaying palm trees in the world aren’t enough to break through the haze brought on by first-time parenting and a post-midnight arrival in Port Vila.
A staff member in a bright polo shirt across the pool locks eyes with me and, crinkling her brow, starts walking quickly towards us.
This is it.
We are too disruptive for this paradisiac scene at Aquana Beach Resort already.
But a pair of arms reaches down in one smooth movement to lay the cocktail menu in my lap and lift my delighted daughter up into an inescapable cuddle.
“We will be just over there,” my saviour smiles reassuringly, indicating a shady hut that’s comfortingly close, and serenely departs with my giggling child.
My partner’s jaw has dropped.
“I think I’m going to cry,” he manages.
“Let’s stay another week.”
Running away to sea
Whoever said it takes a village to raise a child must certainly have come to Vanuatu.
This is not the place for personal space – not here in the home nation of the Ni-Van people, currently ranking the fourth happiest people in the world according to the Happy Planet Index.
Seemingly every resort has an army of Ni-Van nannies, their Melanesian smiles as wide as their arms when they see a chubby child.
And the cheek-pinching is not the domain of paid carers alone; walk through the markets with a ruddy-faced toddler, and see how far you get without a cuddle.
It’s a place where your business is everyone’s business, in the nicest possible way.
Even in the capital ‘city’ of Port Vila, little happens without the whole town knowing, so the recent permanent move by former Today show weatherman Steve Jacobs, travel presenter Rose Jacobs and their two golden-haired little girls (Isabella and Francesca, aged six and four) to their erstwhile holiday home here definitely made news on the island telegraph.
When we visit, Steve loves our poolside story.
“The Ni-Van people love, love, love children,” he agrees.
“Any day of the week we’d trust them with our kids’ lives, because they’re so caring and so beautiful.”
Officially, Steve is still commuting fortnightly with his TV commitments, Rose is the travel expert for the Lifestyle Channel and is launching a new perfume and skincare range (called 83 South), and they’re both ambassadors for Air Vanuatu.
Unofficially, they are settled at the furthermost property of an exclusive estate in the Port Vila suburbs.
Its name is The Boathouse – a magazine-perfect home with a cartwheel-friendly lawn stretching down to a private beach – and here they now have enough time on their hands to idly contemplate starting a bobsled team for the coming Pacific Games (no, we’re not joking).
“The vibration in a place like Sydney is constant, and when you get to a place like Vanuatu, the vibration stops,” Steve continues, gesturing around him.
“For me, it’s this.
We come down to the deck every night and watch the kids dance for us, and they’re so incredibly happy – it’s a soulful happy that you want to see in your child.”
We watch the kids huddle noisily in the hammock for a little while, before leaping out and running barefoot towards the water.
“It reminds me of growing up in the ’70s in Currumbin, when things were much simpler.
I grew up with sunsets, barbecues on the beach, boat trips to little islands… for me, that’s a perfect childhood.”
Whether a throwback to childhood or not, a fire is starting to crackle in the fire pit on the beach where the girls are playing chase.
Earlier, they were peering curiously beneath a rock on the side of the lawn, and whispering among the mosquito nets adorning the two bedrooms.
The house is open to the sea breeze that uniformly cools the islands every afternoon, but the shelter of the nearby hills has kept it safe through each cyclone season.
The only passing traffic is a snorkelling boat that comes close twice a day, due to the coral bommies filled with anemones and fussing clown fish right off the Jacobs’ beach.
Isabella learned at age four to get her goggles and explore it underwater, when this was still simply a holiday home, three hours from Sydney.
“I think a lot of people don’t realise that this is on our doorstep, and I’m kind of in two minds about whether to promote it or not because I love it here the way it is,” Steve says.
“It’s basic and it still has its own identity – Australia is so overregulated.
When we landed here, we couldn’t believe our luck.
We’ve travelled the world looking for this.
It’s beautiful, it’s untouched and we just have to be here.”
It takes a village
Back at our resort, that freestyle Vanuatu attitude has kids kicking a soccer ball with a nanny on the darkened lake shore, though the multihued kayaks are safely beached for the day.
The lion’s share of accommodations around energy-conscious Vanuatu eschew air conditioning in favour of sea breeze, but the bungalows here blast artificially cooled air to welcome the youngest visitors in comfort.
The welcome is somewhat more challenging the next day as we join a small, trepidatious group of families treading a dirt path into the bushland back near Port Vila.
Impassive faces regard us from the trees above and young men in full feathered regalia leap at us with spears poised.
The toddler seems nonplussed; the preteens next to us are wary.
But fascination and warmth soon take over as the spear-brandishing softens into a tour of Ekasup Cultural Village where Aussie kids, doubtless regarded here as cotton-wool-wrapped, discover how to catch fish with the help of a golden-orb spider (yes, a real one), set up a hunter’s cage, and create a serviceable medicine cabinet with a handful of plants.
The food is simple, served on a wide green leaf, and the gift shop is a clearing in the forest with shell necklaces dangling from the branches. Our child has lost her shoes somewhere, and it doesn’t feel much like an emergency.
The spirit of Espiritu Santo
Vanuatu’s largest island, Espiritu Santo is a little more humble, a little less worldly.
Now we have island-hopped away from Port Vila’s home island of Efate, there is no air conditioning at our otherwise airy digs, Village de Santo in Luganville.
We discover the sea breeze as we gently amble down a wide grassy seaside strip.
Here, local families have laid out their woven mats ready for their little ones’ noonday sleep, lazing in the coolness until the sun has passed well clear of the yardarm.
While the other mothers weave and chatter, we ‘borrow’ two glasses of French red wine from a nearby resort to sip as our child dozes and rehydrates from a coconut.
Later, we skip town in an easily hired car to explore the island’s one major paved road – no car seat for our child, but we’re used to that by now, singing songs snuggling in the back.
The road travels east, by the famous rusting wartime jeeps and dive-able shipwrecks of Million Dollar Point, then the island’s more wonderful natural gifts are dotted along the road north.
We swim in ‘blue holes’ that sink in disconcertingly cold, cerulean splendour into the depths of volcanic limestone tubes way below your paddling feet, and tread the world-class magnificence of Champagne Beach – a circus when there’s a cruise ship in, a deserted fairy tale of turquoise, white and deep green when there isn’t.
Further north again, the emptiness and silence of Port Olry’s fine white sands, punctuated by the laughs of a single local family and a few inner tubes, is almost surreal.
Even the pool at Aquana seems way too civilised now.
Our wheels finally crunch to a stop at the end of a dirt track soon after; a pristine white cross overlooks all the turquoise and marks a Catholic claim here.
Wondering if this is private or public land, I let the toddler roam and see a Ni-Van woman smiling at me from beneath a tree.
She beckons me and my daughter to her mat as my partner goes exploring, and our silence is companionable.
I try to explain why we’re here, but my new friend doesn’t understand when I say ‘writer’ or ‘magazine’.
So I say I am here to take pictures and tell others to visit.
This makes her smile so widely, my heart sings.
My daughter dances with a butterfly in the dappled light and there doesn’t seem to be the need to say anything more at all.
I see it.
This is soulful happy.
Need a locals guide to Vanuatu? Check out Steve Jacobs Insider's Guide to Vanuatu.
5 surprising Garden Route stays that’ll blow your mind
In the trees, on the hills, with the vines or at the beating heart of a township; these hotels and homestays along the glorious Garden Route will show you South Africa at its finest, writes Steve Madgwick.
Quaint seaside towns surrounded by impenetrable bush, dotted along the contours of the hills and valleys of a coast-hugging road that meanders over low-lying bridges which span large lazy lagoons… welcome to the Garden Route, where South Africa’s barren Cape gets a luxurious perm.
The Garden Route technically spans all the way from just outside Cape Town eastwards towards Port Elizabeth, but its sweet spot is the couple-of-hundred-kilometre stretch where it meets the coast, from Mossel Bay to just past Plettenberg Bay.
Hidden away from the towns here, in the hills and hinterland, perched on the cliffs, are some of the most luxurious, curious, unique and decadent stays on the whole of the African continent.
These five will blow your mind (and maybe your budget) – but they’re all worth it.
1. Tsala Treetop Lodge – not your average treehouse
At first sound, a ‘treetop lodge’ sounds like a euphemism for a tacky family holiday resort, but be assured that five-star Tsala is the furthest thing imaginable from that. Its 10 treetop suites and 6 treetop villas sit (on stilts) on top of a valley strewn with some of the oldest indigenous forests in South Africa; 50-metre-tall yellowwoods, ironwoods and stinkwoods (no they don’t really smell).
The stacked-stone, wood (rough and finished) and glass structures are full of distinct, character-filled spaces that allow you to appreciate the woods from a plethora of tranquil angles. The ‘afro-baroque’ décor inside is very ‘busy’ but ultimately works, thanks to the mix of harmonising earthy natural tones and bold local crafts thrown in here and there.
The (Charlotte Rhys stocked) bathroom is more like a bath precinct with a copper-tapped stand-alone bath and both outdoor and indoor showers (if you don’t like the monkeys watching). Even the loos have a valley view. A forest-facing private infinity pool on the deck outside and large ceramic combustion stove in the sitting room help to basically season-proof Tsala.
For dinner, it’s a tranquil (but fairly long) forest walk along the low-lit boardwalk to Zinzi restaurant, for a mix of tapas and modern African fine dining fusion. Except for the not-quite-lightning-quick complimentary wi-fi and the bafflingly complicated light switches, there are very few reasons to come down from the trees.
2. Madison Manor Boutique Hotel - the new Old World
Madison Manor markets itself as ‘Old World’ and pretty much lives up to that hype. Which is quite the achievement, considering the five-star property in its current incarnation is only two years old. The grand hilltop building’s Cape Dutch exterior is skirted by generous wooden decks, a nod to the local wood chopping industry of times past, plus sprawling manicured lawns.
Inside, Madison is like a museum of South African antiques that you’re not afraid to use and touch; plop down on your room’s vintage chaise longue, and wander around admiring a trunk collection to behold and the serving dish lids turned corridor installation.
Have a chat with ultra-friendly chef Leonard as he cooks your breakfast to order while you marvel at the brass kitchen scale collection on the dining hall’s buffet.
Although it falls short in a few details, such as the mid-quality own-branded combined shampoo and soap, there is plenty to keep you here. If the pool (complete with wooden sun lounges) with a 180-degree aspect of Knysna’s estuary in the distance isn’t enough, then maybe Narla (the hotel’s bouncy black Labrador) will steal your heart. (No children under 16.)
3. Wandu – much more than a township homestay
You may think that a $20-per-night room without an ocean view will struggle to compete with these heady five-star stars. But, in this case, you would be wrong.
Of course, the accommodation at Wandu in the township of Khayalethu (population 35,000) does not come with just about any of the five-star bells and whistles (although it’s perfectly charming, clean and comfortable). But as a cultural experience this is six-star.
Host Mawande and his delightful family invite you into the home (bedrooms are separate from their converted government house) with open arms. Try some Xhosa fare (pap and chakalaka), sample some umqombothi (local beer), and take a tour through the town’s (12 metre by 12 metre) ‘Mandela homes’.
The reality is that this is exactly how the majority of black South Africans live, yet very few tourists get to experience it. As Mawande says, “it's not perfect yet, but this is the next generation of South Africans” and most locals are happy that tourists get to see their way of life “with [their] own eyes”.
Keep an eye out for the ‘Township Big 5’ (goat, chicken, pig, cow and dog). All this for about $20 a night, including breakfast.
4. The Mount Knysna Boutique Hotel – just like home, sort of
The Mount Knysna does boutique to the letter: personal, small, thought-through quiet spaces. Perched high up on Knysna Heads, from the heated infinity pool, you can reflect on the shipwrecks lying in Davy Jones’ Locker of the beautiful yet treacherous waters far below the cliffs.
This place feels homely because it once was one (a luxury home), which means the setting feels a little ‘suburban’, the neighbours a little closer than usual; plus it’s a little isolated from the nearest town (Knysna, seven kilometres away).
But if you are happy in clifftop solitude, the Mount Knysna is your niche. The bar is so cosy you’ll end up talking tête-à-tête with anyone in there like an old friend and the cellar has plenty of distinctive South African wines hiding away; genuine triumphs such as the Meerlust Rubicon 1998, a bargain when you’re splashing out in rand.
Mount Knysna’s pièce de résistance, however, is its private 12-seat cinema with business-class-comfy recliners to melt into. Movie marathon?
5. Packwood Wine Estate – the alternate wine route
South Africa’s Cape is renowned for wine regions like Stellenbosch, but the Plettenberg Bay wine route is not one of them – just yet. At Harkerville about 20 minutes’ drive west of Plettenberg Bay, Packwood Wine Estate is a small-scale example of a burgeoning, diversifying region which boasts 18 producers; only a few of which offer accommodation at the moment.
The quaint ‘little’ 500-hectare property was (and still is) a dairy farm, but co-owner Vicky has put a lot of effort into Packwood’s cool climate wines; obvious, once you indulge in a glass of the pinot noir.
The self-contained thatched-roofed cottage (for two) or house (maximum six) are ideal not just for peace and quiet but also as a home base for cyclists and walkers, as there is plenty of forest to play in nearby. You’ll mostly have to self-cater, but there are creamy cheese platters and light lunches available.
The views across the jersey-cow-dotted fields to the Tsitsikamma mountains sell Packwood as much as anything. If you are lucky, you may spot a troupe of baboons (who think the vineyard is like a “sweetie shop”) or, less likely, one of the leopards that sometimes lick their lips over the plump cows.
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