Clement Martinez glides over in a loose, tropical red frangipani shirt, looking tanned and relaxed. Life on a tropical island clearly suits this restaurateur.
A trip to Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila, on the island of Efate is not complete without eating at L’Houstalet Restaurant and Bar.
The restaurant, a favourite with expatriates and tourists for three decades, continues to draw crowds, even with lavish eateries opening across the island.
I am here to try Martinez’s much-debated marinated flying fox. Yet at the last minute I have a change of heart, feeling it would be gaucherie to eat the cute, fluffy creature.
No less intrigued, however, I ask Martinez about this dish which continues to draw in the punters. “Ze taste is like ze hare,” he answers, bringing his fingers to his lips to illustrate the point. I’ll take his word for it.
Port Vila is a 2 ½-hour flight from Brisbane. The bustling town has Vanuatu’s only international airport, which makes it the most tourist-friendly and developed of the 83-island archipelago.
While it’s worth leaving Efate to explore some of Vanuatu’s other islands, Port Vila is definitely the place for gourmet dining.
The tropical Melanesian islands were discovered by British navigator James Cook in 1774 and named New Hebrides. From the late 19th century a combined French-British naval commission administered the country until Vanuatu gained independence in 1980 – enough time to establish an exotic cocktail of cultures.
Today British and French cultures are established in society. Ni-Van children run out of schools set up by the French shouting “bonjour” followed by a medley of Bislama (Vanuatu’s national language) to gain tourists’ attention.
This cultural integration is even more prevalent in the wide selection of places to eat in Port Vila – a French patisserie across the road from Jill’s American-style cafe; at night Japanese, tapas, French and seafood restaurants jostle for attention in this small island town.
Port Vila boasts a rustic combination of East-meets-West: laid-back island vibe versus chic boutique, but not in a polished Noosa style.
Locals sell freshly grown raspberries, mango, paw paw, durian, potato and leek from mats on the floor of the local market.
Directly across the aquamarine water is the up-market Iririki Island Resort. From Iririki’s private bungalows perched over the clear, blue water you’re not in the thick of the action but close enough to catch the melodious beat of local music in town.
With lagoons, waterfalls, pristine coral reef and native rainforest to explore there is plenty to do in Efate. And in the evenings you are spoilt for choice with places to eat.
A hamper of tasty morsels is on offer for the more adventurous. Some dishes test your morals; others test your bravery, but most are simply a treat. The elusive coconut crab is the dish that is most coveted and likewise most controversial.
Flying into Port Vila the Air Vanuatu in-flight magazine warns that the giant land-dwelling crustacean, which cracks open coconuts with its claws, has been hunted almost to extinction on Efate – so much so that it’s no longer served in restaurants.
Nonetheless I still found coconut crab featuring on most menus around town.
Some restaurateurs proclaim that their crabs are taken from the Banks Islands, on the northerly tip of the archipelago; others draw the line at catching the female crab to ensure the species’ survival. To order or not is up to you. I’ll admit, I did.
Even if this isn’t your thing, there is plenty of other briny bounty to keep you occupied.
Fresh lobster and seafood features on menus across the island – it is so fresh you see fishermen hauling in the day’s catch. The islands are also a drawcard for sport fishing enthusiasts.
Another Vanuatu dish you can get hooked on is the famous Santo Beef – this prime cut of beef comes from Espiritu Santo, one of the northerly islands. But almost all of the beef in Vanuatu is of a similarly high pedigree: lean and full of flavour.
Most restaurants offer Santo Beef, cooked in a variety of ways as a staple. At the unassuming Breakas Beach Resort, on the outskirts of town, Melburnian chef Sean McConnell cooked the best steak I’ve had in a long time.
If you’re in town and want a quick fix of beef head to the Flaming Grill, a typical steakhouse with warm wooden Melanesian decor. Choose from chips, salad or stir-fry to go with your organic eye fillet, rump or T-bone. You can also get fresh fish, burritos and burgers here.
For a light daytime meal head to the Parisian-themed Au Peche Mignon.
Romuald Ledoux displays rows of beautifully made raspberry tartes, congolais, mini quiche, croissants, macaroons, decorated Danish, eclairs and a tantalising assortment of hand-made chocolates.
Further out of town, Tamanu On The Beach, owned by a big-shot American producer, is one of the most beautiful places to eat.
Head chef Heriaud Malere from nearby Malekula island creates winning combinations of fresh tropical ingredients with French style cooking.
Try the herbed local poulet fish with carpaccio; sesame prawns with rice and the special Grand Marnier souffle.
The restaurant is on the southern side of the island, about 20 minutes from Port Vila, on a private white coral beach.
Tamanu’s owner is in partnership with the group building the ultra-exclusive $US10,000 a night resort on Kakula, a private island just off the northern tip of Efate.
Housed in a French colonial-style building, Tamanu’s restaurant fronts the sea. The setting is so picture-perfect it attracted the Survivor crew to film on site twice in the past few years.
On weekends it’s popular with expats, so you’ll have to book well in advance. There are also five luxury beachfront boutique bungalows in this exclusive paradise away from the centre of town.
At night the most popular place for the locals, or adventurous visitors, to hang out is in a kava hut. Kava is a drink made from the root of a plant related to the pepper tree and drunk from an empty coconut shell. Personally I think it has a terrible taste – much like mud and it looks like dirty dishwater. Locals drink it for the sedative effect and it makes your lips go numb. Traditionally it was used for medicinal purposes, but now many of the ni-Vans drink it on a daily basis. For those not brave enough to try kava in the traditional way, most of the hotels offer kava-tasting nights.