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On Ratua Island, barefoot luxury is just as decadent with a baby on board.

WORDS Amy Cooper

When I first became pregnant, the delight of impending motherhood was shadowed by a secret dread: being grounded. My travels have always been thoroughly grown-up: adrenalin on mountains; indulgence in spas; fine food and wine; late-night dancing; all-day decadence. How could these be possible with a baby in your baggage?

To me, the words ‘family friendly’ evoked a multi-coloured, bouncy castle hell, a pram ghetto of cheerful murals, mini menus and grown men in animal suits – or worse: clowns. Goodbye Frette linen, hello face painting.

And then, when our daughter was seven months old, my partner, Fon, announced he’d booked a family holiday as my birthday surprise. Ratua Private Island in Vanuatu was, he said, the sort of upscale paradise we loved. And baby Arden was welcome too.

It was time to face my fear of family travel and hit the road as a threesome.

Fon, who had meticulously researched the boutique eco-resort close to Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu’s second-largest island, promised it would be fine. But as he lined our suitcases with 60 nappies – six for each day, just in case – I could tell he was as apprehensive as I was.

We flew from Sydney via Brisbane into Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital, then a final short hop to Luganville on Santo.

In Vanuatu, children are cherished and celebrated, but they also slot easily into everyday life. Arden enjoyed the 30 minute motorboat transfer from Luganville to Ratua from the comfort of my knee and as we docked at the island’s little jetty to the beat of welcoming drums, she was scooped into the hug of a smiling male staffer while we checked in.

Ratua, a dot on the map between Malo and Aore, is immediately beguiling. Seven years ago, the island’s French owner, Marc Henon, created a 146-acre eco idyll of 15 Javanese timber villas and tropical gardens meandering down to secluded, tree-lined coves. The safe waters surrounding Ratua shelter a rainbow of fish and corals; and cows, goats, pigs, horses and chickens roam free among the coconut palms.

The island is as close to ni-Vanuatu subsistence living as Henon could make it. It houses no more than 38 guests, and much of the gourmet, organic menu is reared or grown there. A ‘no plastic’ policy means almost everything is timber, fabric or volcanic stone. Necessary man-made materials are hidden; our fridge was discreetly housed in a timber cabinet, which merged beautifully with the vintage mix of cowhide, leather, and ornately carved wooden furniture in our villa, which was suitably named Tiger.

Main image: Ratua Private Island Sunny Spa
Above: Snorkeling, view from Fish Village 



Dolphin Island: This newly-renovated 13-acre private retreat by the creators of the legendary Huka Lodge in New Zealand, houses a maximum of eight guests on an exclusive-use basis.

Motu Tane: The stunning island off Bora Bora in French Polynesia is rented to just one party at a time. A maximum of 26 guests luxuriate in villas with interiors by designer Christian Liaigre.

Wadigi: This fully-staffed five-star island in Fiji’s Mamanuca archipelago is exclusively yours during your stay.

Fregate Island: This tropical eco-haven in the Seychelles has 17 villas, each with its own butler, personal island buggy and private pool.

Barefoot luxury is a tricky balance, but we found it there in the palatial proportions of Tiger, its private jetty, outdoor and indoor showers, abundant daybeds and absolute ease – no room key and nothing but cool, smooth timber, rugs, soft grass or sand beneath your feet.

Instead of garish, artificial objects, Arden would play among the natural, jewel shades of the tropics. In the warm shallows, she toyed with bobbing coconut shells and floating leaves. She giggled at navy blue starfish and wriggled her fingers and toes in the white sand.

On our first night we wandered, still barefoot, down to the deck of the island’s Yacht Club restaurant for dinner and as we selected Taittinger champagne from an impressive wine list, Arden was lifted onto the hip of a waitress and carried, beaming, around the bar area while we toasted my birthday.

Nearby, two little boys were curled on a sofa with books while their parents sampled a red from the owner’s vineyard. A honeymooning couple occupied a quiet corner. At the next table a veteran jazz musician, holidaying solo, struck up a chat with us.

I gazed around at the eclectic guests, the starry sky, the cocktails being expertly mixed and my daughter sleeping peacefully in her stroller, and raised my glass to Fon. “You pulled it off,” I said.

As days passed, Ratua proved that travelling with a baby could be as indulgent and off-the-beaten-track as we’d always liked. When we ventured off the island to kayak to a remote blue hole or visit the postcard-perfect Champagne Beach on Santo, we pre-arranged a babysitter but on any day, the staff would spontaneously scoop Arden up and whisk her off wherever they were heading: on a fishing boat, up to the staff village, to the shade of a coconut tree for a nap. She was welcome everywhere. “We met your baby in the spa,” a fellow guest would say. Or “Arden was having fun in the kitchen.”

Sometimes with her and sometimes without, her father and I enjoyed blissful massages at the spa, rode the island’s native horses, snorkelled, chatted to new friends or simply lay on our jetty, savouring the silence.

We partied, too. On Saturday night the local string band played while we all danced and sipped kava. Arden, squealing with laughter, was rocked to the beat in the arms of her ni-Vanuatu friends in their floral finery.

She’s supposed to be too young to retain these memories. But I suspect that Ratua’s gentle rhythms, colours and creatures, and the smiles and welcoming arms of the Vanuatuans will travel with her – wherever we take her.


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Above: The Yacht Club

All images courtesy of Ratua Private Island



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