For most travellers, Vanatu simply represents an idyllic tropical getaway destination, with beaches, snorkelling, adventure and friendly local folk in equal measures. But how does it stack up as a gluten free destination? Anne Vize visited recently to check out the options for a gluten free traveller, and was pleasantly surprised by what she found.
Made up of around 82 islands, Vanuatu was originally known as New Hebrides. It can be tricky to find on a map as it is seriously tiny, but if you start from Brisbane and head roughly north east, you will find a series of islands that are even closer to our Aussie shores than Fiji. Vanuatu has a warm, tropical climate year round, making it a popular destination for tourists from around the world.
Scuba diving is popular here, as are other water based activities such as game fishing, kayaking and snorkeling. Itâ€™s less well known than Fiji and offers many opportunities to see a traditional way of life based in villages, with people still living on the land and growing and harvesting much of their own food.
Vanuatu is home to many tropical fruits, and if you are able to tolerate the fructose levels in them you will discover a wealth of luscious options to explore. Paw paws, bananas, mangoes, oranges, pink and white grapefruits and passionfruit are common, although they are seasonal. They are served on many restaurant breakfast buffets and can be bought in the market and at roadside stalls.
As a guaranteed gluten free snack option, you canâ€™t go past asking a local to cut open a paw paw at a stall and biting into the gorgeous orange flesh within. As a guide, a bunch of bananas from the market was around 200 Vatu (about $ 2 AUD) and a mango was about 100 Vatu about $1 AUD).
It really wouldnâ€™t be a tropical island paradise without coconut, and Vanuatu has them laid on. Coconut finds its way into many dishes, such as fish cooked in coconut cream with local spinach, and in the traditional simboro dish cooked in folded banana leaves. Itâ€™s great straight from the source, with a straw! Just find yourself a local with a large knife (after a while you stop worrying about folk walking the streets with machetes, as you realise they have simply been to the garden rather than having any ill intent) and ask them to open the coconut for you. It will set you back around 40 Vatu (about 40 cents).
Places to stay
We checked out three options for accommodation on the island of Efate, in or near the capital of Port Vila. About 15 minutes drive from the airport is The Melanesian Hotel. It has reasonably priced accommodation for a family, and some rooms include fully equipped kitchens. There is also an open air restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast is buffet style but most food is well separated so that there is minimal risk of cross contamination.
Eggs, tropical fruits are the best options here for breakfast. There are several supermarkets nearby which stock a wide range of products that can supplement a breakfast, including yoghurt. We were not able to track down gluten free bread or cereal in the supermarkets though, so be sure to bring your own from home particularly to supplement breakfast here. Having a kitchen is often a bonus when it comes to gluten free travel, as it means meals can be prepared without worrying about contamination or problems with communication across a language barrier. The menu at Melanesian offers many naturally gluten free items, including Thai chicken sate, Vanuatu sirloin steak and Chicken bounia (chicken served with vegetables, coconut and ginger and baked in the oven).
Close to the Melanesian is Emilyâ€™s Cafe (part of the Sportsmanâ€™s Bar and Grill) – another, cheaper option for meals. Emilyâ€™s menu includes safe options such as steak, rice and salad for a main meal, although itâ€™s wise to steer clear of their fish and chips unless you are prepared to really do battle with the bones. The chef at Emilyâ€™s is aware of gluten free food and they have rice noodles availableÂ in the kitchen and can do a noodle dish using Changâ€™s brand sauces on request. They didnâ€™t have soy sauce at the time we visited, but itâ€™s worth having a chat to them about what they can do gluten free.
We also tried out Poppyâ€™s on the Lagoon, close to Port Vila. This has wonderful self catering options, with a well stocked kitchen in the rooms. The restaurant is less of a focus, although meals can be ordered and are prepared in a well equipped kitchen on site. We self-catered and had some wonderful dinners together. A highlight was my fish and coconut cream served with rice and sliced paw paw, as we had the enjoyment of watching the wonderful kitchen staff abandon their own meal preparations to show me how they grate a coconut and blend it with the milk to make coconut cream. (I noticed no one handed me the machete needed to chop the coconut in half!)
Last was Aquana Resort, a relative newcomer to the Vanuatu tourism scene. This was the only place we were able to get gluten free bread, as the chef had sourced it from a local French bakery nearby. It arrived at the table fresh and ready for toasting each morning, with a separate pot of butter and jam. We tested out each of the dinner menu items in rotation, although we did get a bit stuck on the Eratap Fish Curry and had this twice over, just to check it was as good the second time. This dish is served with enormous pappadams and a wonderful rich red sauce. The resort is small enough that all the staff members were aware of the needs of a gluten free guest, and had been briefed in the importance of writing on the meal order that it was gluten free. We did not have the worry of information being lost in translation or not finding its way from the table to the chef and back again.
We watched a traditional simboro meal made using root vegetables from the market. The manioc (cassava) and yam was cooked with onion, tomato, coconut and local wild spinach (known as lap lap in Bislama language) wrapped in banana leaves and baked in the oven. The resulting small parcels looked similar to dolmades and tasted simply wonderful.
We tried out a couple of tours with Evergreen, a local tour company. Our trip to the Cascades Waterfall was a wonderful success, and the guide was able to quickly produce a gluten free lunch without prior notice â€“ no easy feat! The Cascades walk is through lush tropical forest, and there is the chance to snack on paw paw along the way. The walk to the waterfall is exciting, and reef shoes are a must. Itâ€™s a challenging walk with children despite the hand railing and ropes for support. The view at the end makes it worthwhile, and the whole tour is a great chance to learn more about local culture and traditions. We found that hiring a car was a handy way of getting around, and this gave us more freedom to set our own pace and revisit places we had seen on an earlier Evergreen Tour.
We spent a few days snorkeling at Gideonâ€™s Landing (location for the filming of Survivor Vanuatu) and had an easy lunch of freshly cooked chips at the cafe there (watch the sauce as its gluten free status was a bit dubious).
Anne Vize is a Melbourne author who writes educational and travel content for book and magazine publishers.
Have you visited this tiny country? What gluten free goodies did you discover?