By Norm Goldman
Today Norm Goldman, Editor of sketchandtravel.com and Bookpleasures.com are pleased to have as our guest author, travel writer, award- winning comedy writer, artist and expert on Vanuatu, Fiji and Cook Islands, Ian Heydon.
Ian is here to talk to us today about these islands.
Good day Ian and it is great to have you accept our invitation to participate in this interview.
Can you tell our readers something about yourself and your expertise pertaining to Vanuatu, Fiji and Cook Islands, as well as the different books you have written about these islands.
I first went to Fiji in 1993 and simply fell in love with the tropics – the warm, picture-postcard waters and the relaxed rhythm of life in general. I went back the following year and got my PADI Open Water Dive accreditation and, after another couple of trips realised I was working pretty much with a goal to travel more.
As I had a fairly successful career as a writer, I decided to see if I could write about travel and kill two birds with the one pen. In 1999, we took a family holiday to Vanuatu, where my wife Annie and I gave each other a ‘Renewal of Vows’ ceremony as an anniversary gift.
I felt automatically at ‘home’ in Vanuatu and, as luck would have it, Annie was offered a job teaching at Port Vila International School. We decided that it would be an adventure, especially for the kids (then aged 7 and 3). Our 12-month contract extended to three fantastic years, during which time I got to write a lot, including my travel book on Australia, The Small Guide to A Big Country.
After leaving Vanuatu I bought a travel agent’s licence to specialize in taking people, particularly honeymooners to this fascinating and rewarding part of the world. What I thought would be a hobby quickly became a business and in early 2004 I visited the Cook Islands and fell in love with another Pacific destination.
2004 also saw visits to New Caledonia, Fiji and three trips to Vanuatu. And I’m really excited about my first trip to Samoa this year. While I don’t have any actual publications on the Pacific islands, I have three comprehensive information websites, Vanuatu A to Z, Fiji A to Z and Cook Islands A to Z.
Could you tell our readers where these islands are located and an idea as to what differentiates one island from another from the point of view of topography, climate, and anything else you consider different?
For me, living in Australia, Vanuatu and Fiji are so accessible, being just a few hours away. Visiting the Cook Islands means a stopover in New Zealand, but it is still just ‘two meals and two movies’. For Americans, the Cook Islands and Fiji are more accessible than Vanuatu (requires a stop in Fiji to connect or to be taken as a side trip from Australia or New Zealand). The climate in all destinations is similar – tropical with no great range in temperatures but it can get very humid in the summer months. These months are traditionally ‘wet’ but El Nino seems to have changed that. In the Cook Islands, when it rains, they call it “liquid sunshine”. The warm water temperatures mean swimming is possible all year round.
– Vanuatu is by far the most primitive, if that’s the right word. While Port Vila is a modern town with good infrastructure, excellent resorts and great restaurants, on many of the outer islands the ni-Vanuatu people live traditional village lives (ni-Vanuatu means ‘of Vanuatu’).
Cannibalism is part of the history and the last recorded case was in 1969, the year Armstrong and Aldrin took that “one small step for man”. Vanuatu also has a number of active volcanoes, including Mt Yasur, which is accessible and rewarding. Because of this, small earth tremors are common. Until 1980, when Vanuatu became an independent nation, the country was called the New Hebrides, a condominium, jointly run by the British and the French. There were both French and English schools, hospitals, police forces and, for a time, they even drove on both sides of the road!
– Fiji is similar in topography, without the active volcanoes. For me, this is more a ‘resort’ destination. While there is certainly a lot to explore, most visitors usually choose one or two resorts for their vacation.
The Fijian people are warm, outgoing (you can’t go anywhere without being greeted with a beaming smile and “Bula”) and are far more akin to living on ‘island time’ than the Indian population. It’s a happy mix for tourists however, as the Indians pretty much make the business side of things run smoothly.
– The Cook Islands also has rugged mountains, lush vegetation and pristine azure waters but a very different ‘feel’. The local people are Polynesian, not Melanesian, and comfortably marry the sensuality of Polynesia with a Christian way of life.
It was from here that the Maori people followed migrating birds in their canoes to discover New Zealand. These days in the Cooks, English is spoken with a Kiwi accent and the currency is the New Zealand dollar (which makes it great value for US travelers). By contrast, the Fijian people are around 50% Fijian and 50% Indian. The ni-Vanuatu people are far more shy but just as friendly and welcoming. And, as their tourism slogan says, ‘another time, another pace.’
How safe is it to travel to these islands?
I find these destinations the safest on the planet. Yes, you may find petty crime, as you will anywhere, but on the whole people are far less materially minded and perhaps more family oriented. Our three years in Vanuatu were a reminder of when the world was a simpler and more secure place – the children would nip off down the lagoon to play unsupervised and we knew they were safe… or a father would load a dozen children into the back of his truck and head out for a beach picnic – no seatbelts but also no worries… it was a place where kids were allowed to be kids.
Why would you consider these islands a good choice for a romantic getaway or wedding and honeymoon destination, and if you had to choose your favorite one, which one would it be and why?
Firstly, for the scenery – there’s something really romantic about swaying palm trees, balmy weather and green-blue warm waters (I’m yet to see any artist reproduce these colours). But, more than this, I think it’s that rhythm of island time that I’ve mentioned. You absorb the slower pace and are away from the routine of computers, traffic and deadlines. Choosing one place is hard for me, but I will go with the island of Aitutaki in the Cooks (about a 50 minute flight from the main island of Rarotonga). This huge lagoon (a volcanic crater) is just stunning, the local people are welcoming and there are some excellent accommodation properties and restaurants.
What is the best time to visit these islands from the point of view of weather, costs, and crowds?
I’m going to take an easy out and say anytime you want to travel and to use a local saying, “whatever the weather, have a nice day”. I was in both Fiji and Vanuatu in December 2004. Traditionally this is the hot, wet and humid season. In Fiji it hadn’t rained for seven weeks and I didn’t use air-conditioning in either country. Some people avoid traveling in February and March because of possible cyclones but these are pretty rare. I’m betting that 2005 will be cyclone free – the water temperatures haven’t risen much and there aren’t an abundance of mangoes. For some reason the mango tree seems to be in tune with weather patterns and they have an over-abundance of fruit if a cyclone is imminent. Cost and crowd-wise, I would avoid the Australian and New Zealand school holiday periods but, having said that, all three destinations have ‘adults only’ accommodation options.
Do people travel to all three islands as a kind of package tour or is this not advisable?
From Australia and New Zealand, packages often work out the most economical and efficient but, from the USA and Canada, it can be better to purchase the airfare and land content separately. I don’t want to be hard on US travel agents but some do not have enough knowledge of Pacific destinations to offer the right advice (although having Vanuatu as the location for ‘Survivor’ has raised the profile of this small country). I recommend using a specialist in travel to these regions and/or contact the accommodation properties direct. Most of them will still offer the package ‘specials’ like Stay 7 nights, Pay 5 nights to people who book direct.
If you had to choose an unequalled, exotic and unique areas such as parks, beaches etc in each one of these Islands to celebrate a wedding, which ones would you choose from the point of view of popularity and beauty?
– Again, a hard one because, for example, some brides like to arrive in a canoe, which requires a lagoon location but to choose one in Vanuatu, a little resort called Tamanu on the Beach. It is 25 minutes from Port Vila. The bride and groom are welcomed with a glass of champagne or fruit punch, ‘warriors’ perform a traditional dance and guard of honour, the ceremony is under a simple canopy on the beach, then champagne to toast and finger food while documentation is signed, a celebration lunch or dinner (on the beach or in the excellent little restaurant) followed by the night in one of the romantic French Colonial cottages.
– In Fiji, I will opt for a Tokoriki Island wedding. They have built a delightful wedding chapel (and there are plenty of beach options). Here there are also traditional Fijian warriors to escort the bride and a Fijian choir (these people know how to sing!) and a wonderful wedding dinner is part of the package. My main reason for choosing Tokoriki, though, is the new honeymoon bures with their private plunge pools.
– While I said earlier that Aitutaki is my most romantic choice for a honeymoon, I would actually have the wedding ceremony on Rarotonga by beautiful Muri Lagoon, again with warrior and maiden escort. A beautiful part of some ceremonies is to be taken by canoe across the lagoon to the motu (uninhabited island) called Koromiri where the union is sealed with planting of a small coconut palm (uto). As the tree grows, so will the relationship. Apparently many couples return on their anniversaries to see just how much their tree has grown and to again taste the romance of the tropics.
How far in advance should a couple prepare themselves for a honeymoon or romantic getaway to these islands?
From our experience it depends very much on the situation. If couples plan to invite guests, it is nice to give a lot of warning so they can prepare financially (say, 9 to 12 months). Six months seems to be about average but we have had people deciding pretty much on the spur of the moment. The record goes to one couple visiting Vanuatu who were swept away by the romance of the place, decided to marry and were husband and wife in less than 48 hours (there was a lot of panic and appreciated cooperation from the registry office on that one!)
What advice would you have for destination brides who plan to bring along a wedding party to these islands? It’s a growing trend for destination weddings to now have a fairly sizeable wedding party–sometimes about 50–so it would be great to get tips on group airline discounts, hotel blocks.
An island wedding with guests can be really wonderful. In some cases, where guests arrive from different parts of the planet, the occasion can also serve as a family reunion. Group discounts for flights and accommodation can be arranged and sometimes it suits guests to stay in a different resort to the bride and groom because of budget or requirements (e.g. kids club or self-contained facilities). The largest wedding we organized in 2004 was for 67 guests travelling to Vanuatu from Australia, New Zealand, USA and the United Kingdom. We are currently planning one for 150 to 180 guests in Fiji, which will be interesting! Luckily there is a resort with a seaside chapel that can accommodate this many people. When compared to traditional weddings with all the trimmings, tropical weddings are very inexpensive and many guests combine the occasion with their annual vacation.
How does one go about checking on the reliability of a hotel or resort in these islands when it pertains to service, food, etc?
Again, you can’t beat specialist, local advice. To me, resorts and restaurants reflect the personality of the owners/managers and they can change literally overnight. Specialist agencies like ourselves should travel regularly to the destinations and have contacts on the ground for updates.
What should people know about planning a wedding in these islands insofar as legal requirements are concerned?
In broad terms, think three weeks/three days. In Vanuatu and Fiji, documents should be lodged at least three weeks prior to travel and couples should be in the country for three days prior to the ceremony. In some cases this is flexible. In Fiji, couples have to have an interview at the Registry Office and have original documentation with them. In Vanuatu, the faxed copies are sufficient and there is no interview. The Cook Islands require original documents and an interview (here, the 3-day rule can be shortened for a fee). Documents required include passports, birth certificates, Intention to Marry form and divorce papers or death of spouse certificate if applicable. One thing to always check is that passports have six months validity from the date of travel.
Is there anything else you would wish to add as it pertains to romantic and wedding destinations in these islands?
Two things – firstly, for the bride (and groom) to make a ‘wish list’. Most wedding tropical wedding packages can be tailored to the couples wishes, whether the ceremony be in a church, gardens or on a beach… and include little things like the color of the bride’s dress (so flowers and table settings can complement) and whether they would like a CD compilation of their favourite music (you don’t need last minute panics looking for a CD player etc!) And finally, no matter where couples marry (traditional or tropical), it really should be the wedding the couple wants. There’ll be plenty of time for compromise later when they have to decide who goes where for Christmas or thanksgiving!
To learn more about resort weddings in these islands click HERE and about tropical honeymoons click HERE
Thanks once again.
About the Author: Norm Goldman is editor of sketchandtravel.com and bookpleasures.com. Norm and his artist wife Lily meld art and words in order to create an unusual travel story, which generates interest, particularly because of the fact that each painting appears to have been ‘custom-made’ for the story-original story and original art. Combining the watercolors with travel writing provides a softer, more romantic look at the places we visit.
Their main focus is on romantic and wedding destinations.
As they specialize in web-based content, their articles are featured on their own site, SKETCHANDTRAVEL.COM, where you can find out more about them. They are also regular contributors to some of the most popular Internet Travel Sites: LOVETRIPPER.COM: THETIMESHAREBEAT.COM:TRAVELLADY.COM:BOOTSNALL.COM: Visit Florida Online: Tropical Island Weddings
Norm and Lily are always open to suggestions as to romantic and wedding destinations to visit, write and paint about.
Read the original: Anyone Interested In Vanuatu, Fiji And Cook Islands?