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.