Leipakoa greets me like a long-lost friend. This is the very best thing about travelling in Vanuatu. The wonderful connections you make with local people are the lasting memories you'll take home with you. Magical Coral Sea islands and funny, serendipitous adventures are simply a bonus.
Leipakoa and her husband, John, aren't in Port Vila for long, she tells me. They're here selling the last of their fruit and vegetables. Tomorrow they'll be going back to the island because they're expecting guests.
The road from Taloa to Unakapu Village.
Paunvina Guesthouse is not far from Taloa, the largest village in Nguna. We walked there carrying our backpacks, with a young man sent by Caroline from Nakie Women's Guesthouse to show us the way. The track hugs the coastline tunnelling its way through verdant jungle, the sound of the surf and glimpses of Pele Island on one side, the occasional house tucked into steep bush on the other. It's impossible to miss the Guesthouse, it's just off the path and clearly signposted.
Double story building housing the kitchen/dining area downstairs, with a library and guest room upstairs.
Paunvina is a work-in-progress. We stayed in a corner room, the first of three in a row that constitutes the original guesthouse. Nearby a substantial, modern, double story building houses a kitchen and an undercover, open air dining area. Upstairs, and not yet complete, are two rooms - one will be guest accommodation, the other a library. Yes, really! A library here on a remote South Sea island. Leipakoa's son-in-law (who owns the guesthouse) is the librarian at Malapoa College in Port Vila. I can't think of a more idyllic retreat for someone who loves reading.
Shared ablutions are located in a separate outhouse; a clean, flushing toilet that flushes and a spacious shower with a showerhead that showers. Not necessarily a given! Often in the outer islands water pressure is difficult to arrange, so buckets of water are used for both bathing and flushing loos. This is relative luxury.
An outdoor nakamal, conveniently close to our room, is the only other building on the property. A perfect place to curl up with a book.
Our room, conveniently close to the outdoor nakamal.
The guest rooms at Paunvina are large by local accommodation standards, ours comfortably fitted a double bed, table and a chair with plenty of space to spread our luggage and move about. Screened windows on two sides ensured sea breezes kept it cool and insect-free, with the added precaution of a mosquito net above the bed. Single bed configurations are also available.
Leipakoa welcoming us with fresh fruits and chilled water in the outdoor dining area.
The hub of the guesthouse is the dining area. This is where we were greeted with refreshments when we first arrived, and where we enjoyed long, leisurely meals peppered with plenty of "storian" (ie. storying, conversation). Leipakoa met the challenge of catering for vegetarians with real flair, including delicious yam fritters and sublime cabbage boiled in coconut milk. But the piece de resistance was served up for breakfast the following morning in the form of a specially prepared, chocolate-filled kato (guateau), a type of donut that Leipakoa gets up at 3am everyday to make and sell to the local villagers. They have to content themselves with the plain ones though, the chocolate are treats for guests only.
Paunvina is on the edge of Unakapu Village and in the cool of the early morning we took an exploratory stroll through it. Stunningly scenic, it's set at the foot of towering jungle bush that rises from a sparkling sea, welcoming visitors in true Vanuatu-style with pikininis waving and people stopping to exchange pleasantries.
The beach at Unakapu Village, with Mataso Island just visible on the horizon.
At first it felt reminiscent of both the road through south Tanna and of Sola in Vanua Lava in the Banks, a reminder of how the outer reaches of Vanuatu can be experienced right here in Shefa Province, almost on Port Vila's doorstep. Then it became uniquely its own place as the road rounded the island treating us to views of the Shepherds. Shimmering, enticing island peaks, one behind the other, beckoning to be explored: Mataso, Makiro, Tongoa, Emae, Tongariki, and in the far distance, Epi.
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"Next time you stay with us on the island," Leipakoa promises me, as we pay her for some mangoes and she gives us a free pineapple, "Don't forget, John will take us to a nakamal and we'll all have kava!" It's an offer too good to refuse.