A French philanthropist’s apparent folly was a private paradise, created in Indonesia and shipped to one of Vanuatu’s most beautiful locations. He now shares this with the lucky few. Craig Osment was among them.
The sleek, canopied motor launch glides to a stop at the jetty. A platter of iced towels is offered along with a tall fresh fruit juice, which is more like a glass of fruit pulp than a liquid. The beachside BBQ is already alight, with two lobsters standing by, as we are led to our suite of villas to freshen up before lunch.
The table is a huge plank of rough-hewn hardwood long enough to seat up to 20 people. Today it is set for two in the dappled shade within two metres of the perfectly limpid waters of the channel on which Ratua Private Island sits.
The silence is so complete that a deliberate noise is needed every so often in order to remind yourself that you aren’t going deaf. This is absolute tranquillity and serenity in a climate close to blood temperature. It’s a form of total immersion that is all-enveloping. If I weren’t so practical and connected with modernity, I imagine it might be the embodiment of a Zen-like transmutation.
Are you getting the picture? There simply aren’t enough travel brochure clichés to do justice to this place. It is another world but within another world, as I’ll explain.
The genesis was in 2005 when the French creator was sailing across the Pacific and found himself enchanted by Vanuatu’s untouched lifestyle. So as you do, you buy your own island. You then create a private paradise before deciding to share it with paying guests and then donating all profits to the local community’s education system – simple.
The slightly more difficult part is the architectural style. All 40 dwellings date back to the 19th century and originate from Java and Sumatra. Each was carefully disassembled, shipped to Bali for restoration, then shipped to Espiritu Santo and then to Ratua where a team of Indonesian artisans faithfully reconstructed them on the shores of this 146-acre island in the South Pacific.
The final result is a slightly schizophrenic Indo-Oceania ambience – a sort of Bali without the belly or the bombs, right down to the outrigger canoes, which usually adorn the beach at Sanur but now rest in water that is so pure that if it weren’t salt you could drink it. It’s also Sanur without the sewage, and Kuta without the cutthroat street vendors.
The detailing is a wonder in itself: there’s no TV, no radio, no plastic, no glass and nothing to disturb the impression that you’re enjoying the simple splendour of a Dutch colonial existence in the East Indies a century ago.
The electrical switches are circular dark brown bakelite, the modern efficient fridges are shrouded in beautiful teak cabinets that at first glance appear to be ice chests with old fashioned brass catches, the electrical cabling is covered in braided fabric and attached with traditional brass clips. The bathroom hand basins are polished granite scooped from irregular lumps of stone, the shower room is just that – a timber room with a floor waste and a copper pipe with a shower rose plus a shuttered timber window.
The entire interior of each villa is timber with that impossible-to-recreate patina of age, and worn to a velvet-smoothness that is a tactile sensation on bare feet. Stunning colonial artefacts and Indonesian antiques are casually scattered throughout and the cool is courtesy of ceiling fans suspended from the four-metre timber shingled pitched roof. The verandas nestle under wide eaves that plunge to within a couple of metres of the ground and protect netted daybeds and bespoke leather stitched and upholstered lounge chairs and cane armchairs.
Our villa consisted of three interconnected individual bungalows, one for sleeping, one for lounging and one for washing, all linked by covered verandas with wooden fretwork decoration.
All villas are surrounded by lush tropical planting and face directly on to the sea and include beautiful boardwalks and decks over the water. Direct access to sandy beaches, an outdoor shower and sun beds complete the picture.
The three public pavilions that make up the Yacht Club are in fact restored silos, or granaries with thatched (natangura) roofs and include some of the beautiful original millstones mounted on plinths as part of the décor. The atmosphere is cool and club-like with cowhide rugs, carved leather club chairs, beautiful circular pedestal dining tables and antique dressers. All three buildings – the dining room, lounge and bar – open on to a courtyard for outdoor dining facing the sea.
The service is cheerful and impeccable with two staff for each guest at full capacity and the Ni-Vanuatu laconic charm is absolutely compatible with the pace of life on Ratua. Then there’s the food.
Whatever is fresh on the day is cooked to perfection and presented with pared back flair. Whether it’s lobster, beef carpaccio, freshly-made mango or coconut sorbet, local beef fillet, free range island chicken, or a fresh fruit sabayon, every dish is irresistible and the portions perfectly calculated for three courses.
A large part of the kitchen’s secret is the organic freshness of the produce. The island sustains its own market garden, its own herd of beef (50 head), pigs, chickens, goats and an endless supply of seafood (lobster, poulet, mahi mahi, yellow fin tuna, marlin and wahoo) from the surrounding waters and delivered to the jetty daily. There are also two pet ducks, Whoopsie and Daisy, as well as a domesticated pet chicken which is in future danger of becoming coq au vin.
In fact, sustainability is at the core of the management philosophy for Ratua. The island is fully self-sufficient – all water is harvested in tanks and all produce is either grown on the island or comes from the neighbouring islands of Santo, Aore or Malo. With the exception of the wine list – Australian, New Zealand and French – almost everything is home-grown.
The environmental sensitivity doesn’t end there. As I mentioned the most extraordinary aspect of Ratua, is that in spite of the luxuriousness of the guest experience all profits are returned to the local community through the Ratua Foundation. The foundation concentrates on providing educational facilities and equipment to local schools and assists with materials, expertise, labour and money. There is a building on the island dedicated to the foundation and its works which displays the results of its efforts and encourages participation. This could be as simple as donating text books or stationery, new or used, as believe it not there are local kids who have to share a pencil in class or tear pages out of their exercise books to share with other students.
But wait there’s more … for those with an equine inclination there is a horse ranch and riding facilities, there are electric buggies for the more sedentary, there’s abundant snorkelling and diving equipment including wetsuits, and guests are welcome to take the outrigger canoes with either sails or outboard motors for around-island outings. There are also canoes which you can paddle to the nearby blue hole or mountain bikes for a quick circuit around the palm plantation. You can also venture further afield and catch the many Santo sights. Or for some true pampering and a relaxing remedial massage try the overwater spa which opens wide to spectacular views of the sea.
For the game fishing fraternity there is a dedicated ‘fishing village’ which accommodates ten and includes all facilities for cleaning and preparing the day’s catch straight off the boat.
The rates for Ratua have been adjusted downwards from their original quite high prices. For VT43,685 for two people per night (minimum two nights), this is now inclusive of breakfast, arrival and departure transfers, complimentary WiFi at the Yacht Club, all unguided and non-motorised watersports activities, mountain biking at Ratua, archery and petanque.
This place is the essence of elegant simplicity and sophistication; its raison d’être is to deliver an island-paced, informal and private experience to people who understand.
Ratua Private Island is wet-hair casual, you can literally snorkel from your villa to the Yacht Club, grab a beach towel and sip a cocktail in your swimsuit if you choose. Equally, you can dress up for dinner in a Camilla kaftan and thongs, or shorts and a t-shirt (depending on your gender preferences) and you’ll feel just as comfortable. It’s come-as-you-are – the sea turtles do.
For the seriously socially phobic, or if you just want to evade the paparazzi, from one to 28 people can rent the entire island. POA. ∞
For more information go to www.ratua.com