Ratua: The perfect island getaway
I've just dribbled maple syrup down a fresh shirt - and it's all because of the turtles. I'm sitting at breakfast at Ratua Private Island and the turtles that are feeding among the sea grass just off the beach keep poking up their heads for a look around.
Constant attention is required in order to witness this small marvel; maintaining vigil and hoisting pancakes to mouth are not compatible.
A satellite island just south of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu's largest island, Ratua, is not just another glossy hideaway resort in a palmy bit of paradise.
If anything, it's a complete rejection of the fixation for installing overwater-bungalow resorts on private tropical islands and equipping them with plunge pools and Carrara marble bathrooms. Ratua takes what nature has given and serves it up without too much faffing about.
It also represents a vision, the flight of fancy of a wealthy but reclusive Frenchman domiciled in Vanuatu. His intention was to build a low-impact, eco-friendly retreat that incorporates a strong sense of design; something that would appeal to the jaded escapist looking for a no-frills, barefoot, castaway island, prepared to pay more than $400 a couple a night for the privilege.
It would make no profit for its owner, however. As well as providing employment for local villagers, all profits would be dispersed through adjacent communities via the Ratua Foundation.
The build required fresh thinking, unencumbered by contributions from established resort architects and accountants, so the Frenchman imported several architecture students from Australia, sat them under a coconut palm and asked for ideas.
As much as possible, the 60-hectare island would be self-sustaining. The farm provides vegetables, eggs, chicken and beef. Fruit comes from the 1000-plus trees that have been planted here. Seafood is whatever the fishermen from the neighbouring island have caught that morning.
The prevailing style is described by some as "rustic chic".
Guest villas, the restaurant, bar and lounge are teak rice barns and village houses, some of them several hundred years old, imported from Java.
Each villa is a suite of rooms. My bathroom is in a separate cottage, across a covered walkway of squeaking floorboards polished to a high gloss by a century of bare feet. At the front of my bedroom is a verandah with a westerly view across a white-sand beach to neighbouring islands. There's no sign of other guests.
The natural credentials are five-star, but Ratua is not for everyone.
The lighting is barely a glow, which can make shaving a messy affair. Make-up and hair styling are problematic, I imagine, but nobody notices. There are gaps in the walls, no airconditioning, no TV and not a single piece of glass in my villa. The windows are blank frames that are either completely open or shut fast, closed by a door-sized slab of timber.
There is a safe in the wardrobe but no locks on the doors. If this causes you a single moment of anxiety, Ratua is not for you.
The centrepiece of the resort is the yacht club, a trio of high-roofed buildings around a terrace, open to the view on the seaward side.
There is no pool. This only occurs to me after my second day on the island, but who needs a pool when you've got a warm sea, with the wonders of a tropical aquarium below the surface?
About the only concession to the modern world is the fastest internet service in all of Espiritu Santo, available in the immediate vicinity of the club.
In the things that matter for me, Ratua is right on the money. Proof comes from the kitchen. The menu is a modest table d'hote affair, but when I confess to a liking for seafood, the chef delivers a slab of grilled tuna with a simple green salad for lunch, and a lobster that night.
The spa is set in an overwater pavilion at the end of an elevated boardwalk, completely open on the seaward side to the breeze and view. It is operated by two supremely talented Filipina masseuses whose speciality is a combination of Swedish and Balinese massage treatments.
Activities at Ratua mostly involve bare feet and water - paddleboards, kayaks and snorkelling gear are there to be used. Soft corals gradually give way to brain corals and antlers of blue-tipped corals, each attended by tropical fish.
Across the channel on Malo Island, a 30-minute paddle along a green filament delivers you to a blue hole, a limestone chasm where fresh water from an underground stream wells to the surface.
Ratua has a stable of 20 horses, and most guests at some stage ride around the island. After an hour-long trek your horse will be unsaddled and you swim, together.
"Trust your horse, he knows what to do," says Johnny the wrangler, as you plunge into an ever-deepening sea. The idea is to hang on tight to your horse's mane and float while those powerful legs kick beneath you. You need to steer your horse to avoid coral bommies - probably a new experience even for experienced riders.
Sure, Ratua is not for everyone. However, for a beach of my own and for the elemental pleasures this pristine place delivers, with turtles, Ratua is my kind of perfect.
Sydney Morning Herald