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A Taste of Melanesia

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A boat without water is no boat at all
A boat without water is no boat at all
ANZ bank in Nukuʻalofa
ANZ bank in Nukuʻalofa
Au Bon Marche in downtown Port Vila Vanuatu
Au Bon Marche in downtown Port Vila Vanuatu
Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua in Nuku'alofa
Basilica of Saint Anthony of Padua in Nuku'alofa
BAT in the Solomon Islands
BAT in the Solomon Islands
Clean green Tonga
Clean green Tonga
Crave the best bakery in Vanuatu
Crave the best bakery in Vanuatu
Creepy trees in Noumea
Creepy trees in Noumea
Deli in the Plaza Solomon Islands
Deli in the Plaza Solomon Islands
Fiji Airways connecting the Pacific islands
Fiji Airways connecting the Pacific islands
Fishing boats come a cropper in Honiara
Fishing boats come a cropper in Honiara
Free Church of Tonga
Free Church of Tonga
Huge cruise ship swamping the streets of Noumea
Huge cruise ship swamping the streets of Noumea
Lunch time in Vanuatu
Lunch time in Vanuatu
Mural at a post office in Port Vila
Mural at a post office in Port Vila
NO FISH NO FISH
NO FISH NO FISH
Number plate in Honiara
Number plate in Honiara
On the lookout for lunch
On the lookout for lunch
Panatina Plaza - the best mall in the Solomon Islands
Panatina Plaza - the best mall in the Solomon Islands
Peppers at the Talamahu Market in Nuku'alofa
Peppers at the Talamahu Market in Nuku'alofa
Port Vila's main market
Port Vila's main market
Roadside stalls in Honiara
Roadside stalls in Honiara
Scary carrots
Scary carrots
Shack painted with the Solomon Islands flag
Shack painted with the Solomon Islands flag
"Shop" - a novel name for a shop
Slow
Slow
Streets of central Noumea
Streets of central Noumea
Sweet potatoes in Port Vila
Sweet potatoes in Port Vila
This way to high ground
This way to high ground
Tongan tsunami evacuation
Tongan tsunami evacuation
Tonga's main airport
Tonga's main airport
Traffic in Honiara
Traffic in Honiara
Tranquil waters in New Caledonia
Tranquil waters in New Caledonia

I wrote a couple of blog posts last year on a trip to the Pacific Ocean sub-regions of Polynesia and Micronesia. Recently I visited the other, and possibly least known, ‘Nesia’ – Melanesia. It comprises those nations and islands in the Pacific which are closest to Australia and includes Fiji and Papua New Guinea. It also includes the countries of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, as well as New Caledonia which is a ‘special collectivity of France’. It was these three that I visited on the data collection trail, but first up was the tiny nation of Tonga. As you can see by the map on this website, though, Tonga is actually in Polynesia, not Melanesia.

Of all the locations that I have collected cost of living data throughout the world, I’ve always maintained that it is Havana in Cuba which has the worst shopping environment, in terms of both quality and availability of the 160 items in the ECA Cost of Living basket. Well, I have to say that tiny Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, pushes Havana quite close for this unofficial title. Never have I seen so many products on the shelves past their use-by-dates – some by a couple of years! In one packet of pasta I found a large family of ants complete with their eggs. I’ve come across these sorts of shops and products in other countries, particularly in Africa, but in those locations there is always at least one supermarket which stands out above the rest as the ‘go to’ expatriate shop of choice. In Tonga, these unwanted surprises I found were in the best shop!

Nuku’alofa lacks many other products that most people take for granted and often you can find yourself waiting weeks or months for the next shipment to arrive, usually from Australia. There wasn’t even any fish available for sale during my few days there – on an island surrounded by water! The shopping environment aside, I actually found Tonga a very pleasant place to spend time, especially on a lazy Sunday when EVERYTHING closes. A morning trip to church found me witnessing a real communal spirit around the place and the Tongans are perhaps the friendliest nation of people I’ve met. No wonder Tonga is also known as the ‘Friendly Islands’. On a side note, can you name the four other country capitals (along with Nuku’alofa) which have an apostrophe in them in their English spelling? (although technically speaking the apostrophe in Nuku’alofa is a glottal stop – the answers can be found below).

After Tonga I flew to Vanuatu - my first port of call in Melanesia. The capital, Port Vila, is on the third largest of Vanuatu’s 82 islands, a nation which has only been independent since 1980 (seceding from the United Kingdom). Port Vila is certainly not as laid back as Nuku’alofa and there is even a certain edge to the streets once the sun goes down. And watch out for those potholes after dark too! Although the country is not as welcoming as Tonga, the supermarkets are most definitely an improvement – they even had genuine Mattel Scrabble and the latest edition of The Economist magazine! 

I found my next stop, Honiara, somewhere between Nuku’alofa and Port Vila in terms of the shopping environment. There weren’t any Economist magazines or Mattel Scrabble in the capital of the Solomon Islands, but equally no ant nests found in pasta packets. Essentially stretching along just one road, Honiara bustles around the Central Market area, although the commotion tends to tail off as you head further along the coast in either direction. It actually reminded me quite a bit of many of the Caribbean towns I’ve been too.

After time spent in Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, I was expecting more of the same on my final Pacific island of the trip - New Caledonia. I was somewhat surprised to find something completely different. New Caledonia is a special collectivity of France and the capital, Nouméa, is the largest city in Oceania outside of ‘the big three’ countries of Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. It has the second highest GDP per capita of any nation on the continent (behind Australia and surprisingly ahead of New Zealand). The island contains around a quarter of the world’s nickel resources, which account for some 97% of its exports, although tourism also has an important contribution to the economy.

There’s definitely an air of French-ness about town and it’s a world away from the sleepy streets of Nuku’alofa. A huge cruise ship was in town during my visit but when you get away from the ‘centre-ville’ and in to the suburbs you can see that many expats seem to be living in paradise. The coastal areas of Bais des Citrons and Anse Vata abound with yachts and there are hundreds of restaurants and bars to satisfy your appetite. It’s the sort of place where I could imagine Mick Jagger or Beyoncé sitting back with a cocktail in hand whilst taking time out. 

Well, that was quite a whistle-stop tour of Melansia but did you guess the four capital cities with an apostrophe? Sana’a (Yemen), St George’s (Grenada), St John’s (Antigua and Barbuda) and N’Djamena (Chad).

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