I dug my toes into the soft cool sand at my feet under the restaurant table, and savoured the buttery lobster. Outside, the blue, blue Pacific crashed on the shore, the sun shone with an almost blinding brightness, and the world sparkled. This was my first ever lobster, and even now, I can’t imagine a better place to experience it, and even now, whenever I eat lobster, I sigh at that first taste, remembering.
It was 1987, my first overseas business trip, and Port Vila was our last stop, after Port Moresby and Honiara. After those earlier stops, arriving in Vanuatu felt like re-entering civilisation, despite driving on the wrong side of the road. Vanuatu had the unusual experience of being administered jointly by France and England under what was known as a Condominium, from 1906 to 1980. So there was at the same time an English colonial feeling of familiarity, and a French je ne sais quoi. Coffee and croissants, rather than tea and toast.
We had meetings with various parts of the Vanuatu government. We were there to look into ways we could increase Vanuatu’s exports to New Zealand. In these tiny island states, there are few opportunities for industry or to earn foreign exchange other than exporting copra, seafood, and tourism. Vanuatu had a more developed tourism sector than some of its neighbours, and had also developed a small beef industry, but it faced enormous economic challenges in 1987, as it still does now. We met with their trade officials in a small building on the hill above Port Vila, the main town. We were treated with the most beautiful view I could imagine for a government department, looking across the harbour, with a small emerald island set perfectly in the middle, beyond to the endless blue of the Pacific.
We were fortunate to have a Saturday free before our flight out on Sunday. We hired a car to drive around the island. Jane had met a French man at a party the night before, and he insisted on being our tour guide, driving us around the island. He found the lobster restaurant, owned by two Australians who lived an idyllic, hermit-like lifestyle, with no TV or radio, not caring what happened in the world outside their sandy beach. He also found a beautiful shallow lagoon, where the water was clear and warmed by the sun, and where we swam before lunch. We drove through endless coconut plantations, as cattle grazed under the palms, across dark quiet streams and past tiny villages. We drove around the south coast, far from the tourists of Port Vila, and watched the fishermen come in, the children playing on their day off school, swimming and running and chasing each other.
On our last morning, we had no meetings, and lazed about the hotel, set peacefully in a lagoon. After breakfast we swam in the hotel pool. A small band, four guys with guitars, came along and started playing and singing as we swam. Bliss! It started raining, a warm, gentle rain, and we still swam, and they still sang and played their guitars, under a thatched sunshade.