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Last Friday, in writing about the Negroni cocktail, I mentioned that its precursor, the Americano, is what James Bond first orders in Casino Royale.

Some readers took me to task for this, pointing out that it is in this very book that the most famous of Bond cocktails, the Vesper Martini (named after the novel’s lead female character, Vesper Lynd), was created.

Right on both accounts. The Negroni is the first cocktail mentioned in the book but the Vesper is the most famous. Here’s how it reads in the book:

“A dry martini,” Bond said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”

“Oui, monsieur.”

“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”

“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.

“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.

Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”

The novel goes on with Bond telling the barman, after taking a long sip, “Excellent…but if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better,” and then adds in an aside, “Mais n’enculons pas des mouches.”

Kina Lillet isn’t the same stuff that it was when Fleming made up this drink in 1953 (it’s been reformulated) so I go with Lillet Blanc (which is also lovely on its own as an aperitif served on the rocks with a lemon twist). And if you want the same kick Bond wanted, go for Tanqueray instead of Gordon’s (which has a lower alcohol content than it did back then) and 100-proof Stolichnaya vodka. I’d also suggest forgoing the champagne goblet since the martini glasses most of us have these days are much larger than the little things Bond was drinking out of back in the day.

I would, however, stick to his advice on having just one before dinner. Otherwise you might end up like Dorothy Parker who famously said, “I like to drink martinis. Two at the most. Three I’m under the table, four I’m under the host.”

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G and a wrangler ride through the coconut grove on Ratua. Photos by David Lansing.

G and a wrangler ride through the coconut grove on Ratua. Photos by David Lansing.

Yesterday I wrote that my favorite thing to do on Ratua is nothing. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t activities if you want them. For instance, yesterday afternoon I grabbed one of the electric buggies available for guests and went out to circumnavigate the island. That took maybe twenty minutes including a stop at Cap Normand, on the opposite of the island from our village, which has a lovely view of some unnamed little islands a stone’s throw away.

There are also 15 free-ranging horses on Ratua that you can ride and several of us have been talking for days about going out in the afternoon although we’ve yet to make it (you know, things like snoozing on a deck chair on the beach seem to take priority). Until yesterday.

“Are you going for a ride this afternoon?” Frederick asked G. G is a pretty young thing from Sydney who, from what I’ve observed, has wisely used her daily nap time to try out each of the half dozen or so daybeds spread around the resort.

“I’m thinking about it,” she said rather sleepily.

“You’ve been thinking about it for the last three days,” Frederick chided.

“I know, I know,” she moaned. “I suppose it would be nice to go for a ride. Can we go along the beach?”

“Absolutely,” said Frederick.

The thing is, because the horses roam free around the island, snacking on the grass that grows between the orderly rows of coconut palms on the eastern side of the island, one of the wranglers has to spend a good part of the morning trying to lure four or five horses back to Manade Ranch and get some tack on them in case anyone wants to go for a ride in the afternoon. And they’ve been doing this every morning for three days. All for naught. Until Frederick was able to guilt G into going for a ride and then she talked Marguerite into joining her.

I thought about joining them but, to be honest with you, I’m not a big fan of horses. I mean, I much prefer to look at them or bet on them to riding them. But I thought it would make some nice photos—the four of them chasing after wild pigs in the coconut grove and galloping down the beach.

But you know what? These horses weren’t too crazy about going for a ride themselves. Perhaps because they spend their days roaming free and doing whatever they want. G’s horse, a handsome bay, refused to go where she wanted him to go. And Marguerite’s horse just refused to go period. He’d just stop in the middle of the trail and stand there, looking bored to death as Marguerite gently kicked his flanks and implored him with clicking sounds to move forward.

Nope, he seemed to be saying. Ain’t gonna happen. Eventually Frederick was able to get the horse to move on, but then his horse wasn’t much better, drifting off into the coconut grove in search of some succulent sweet grass.

Once we got to the beach, I asked the wrangler if maybe he couldn’t get the girl’s horses to gallop a bit for the camera. He smiled indulgently at me and said he’d give it a try. He smacked Marguerite’s mount on the ass and the horse danced sideways for a step or two before settling back into a slow walk. G’s horse would have none of it; he walked off into the surf as if he was hot and bored.

Oh well. I snapped a few shots of the group on their horses in shallow water, the islands in the background, and then we all headed back towards the ranch. Which is when, of course, the horses decided to pick up their pace. They knew they were headed home. As they galloped back, a pack of wild pigs, wallowing in a muddy pond, scattered while some cows looked on in surprise. Most excitement any of us have had on the island since I fell off the bench and onto the beach at lunch a couple of days ago.

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A lazy morning on Ratua

The most popular activity on Ratua is lazing about. Photo by David Lansing.

The most popular activity on Ratua is lazing about. Photo by David Lansing.

Every morning it takes me a little longer to drag myself out of bed and make my way down to the Yacht Club for breakfast. Yesterday it rained. Not hard. Just that soft tropical rain, like a warm shower from one of those sunflower shower heads. It sounded so lyrical as it fell on my thatched roof. Like the sort of new age sounds of nature they play in some spas when you’re getting a massage. I got up, opened the doors and windows, and then got back into bed and just stayed there, watching the rain make patterns in the white sand in front of my villa.

After awhile I actually made it from my bed to the veranda where I fell into a wicker chair and, barefoot and bare-chested, just sat there taking in everything around me: a hermit crab shuttling out of the ocean; the way water beads on the leaves of the red cannas in the garden; small fish, no doubt being pursued by a predator, jumping out of the rain-spotted lagoon like popcorn.

By the time I actually found the energy to shower and dress, it was well after ten. I thought for sure the other guests would have had breakfast long ago, but no. Frederick said I was the second one up. This pleases him—the predictable behavior of guests to laze about, sleep in, do nothing.

The meals here have been elegantly simple: a beach barbecue with chicken for lunch; a dinner of curried red snapper; a pineapple tart for dessert. But I think my favorite meal of the day is breakfast. You can sit with others at one of the big round tables, if you like, though usually I find a quiet spot in the corner where I can sit quietly and enjoy the cappuccino Martha makes me and sip a glass of fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice that is so sweet you’d swear they must have added sugar to it, but no, it’s natural. Just the unadulterated juice of island fruit.

And then, after I’ve slowly sipped my first cup of coffee, Frederick will usually come by, ask me how I am, how I slept, and what would I like for breakfast. Perhaps a crepe. Or two poached eggs and some fruit—watermelon, pawpaw, pineapple, guava. And once the food arrives, Martha slips by to replenish my juice, ask if I’d like another cappuccino. Other stragglers wander in. Some with wet hair from having had a swim in the lagoon before breakfast; others with bed head have obviously just gotten up. Everyone is quiet, a bit sleepy, in awe of the beauty of our surroundings. It’s like going to church. Only better.

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Ratua’s mysterious owner

A deserted beach in front of Ratua, a private island in Vanuatu. Photo by David Lansing.

A deserted beach in front of Ratua, a private island in Vanuatu. Photo by David Lansing.

Ratua is a privately owned island and I’d like to tell you all about the owner but I don’t know anything about him. Well, that’s not completely true. Frederick tells me he’s French and in his ‘50s and he owns a vineyard in France. There you have it.

Actually, the mysterious owner has left us a few other clues. In my villa is a little book with “the story” of Ratua, written by the owner, in which he reveals that “In 2004, we decided to sail around the world. After one year spent in the Atlantic Ocean we crossed the Panama Canal to face the immense Pacific and visit some of its archipelagos—the Galapagos, Marquesa, Tuamotu, Cook, Samoa and Fiji.

“In June 2005 we arrived in New Caledonia, where our friend Patrick Durand Gaillard had been living for 20 years. Patrick immediately told us about the Vanuatu archipelago, and one place in particular, a jewel-like island whose location was kept secret. Our voyage across started on July 6, 2005.

“From its southernmost volcanic island, Tanna, we sailed north to Efate Island, the capital and its port, then to Epi, Ambrym, Malakula and finally Espiritu Santo. One after the other each island put us under a spell; here time stood still, intact tribal communities had kept their ancestral ways, nature was unspoiled, consumerism had yet to reach this part of the world.

“Finally, nestled between Aore and Malo, south of Espiritu Santo, was our destination, Ratua. This stunningly beautiful isle, in its green setting, welcomed us, a preserved sanctuary, wild yet accessible. Right away we decided to adopt the island, and after a few meetings the local elders entrusted their treasure to our care.

“We pondered during the long hours sailing back to civilization on the necessity of preserving Ratua without concession, on how to live there harmoniously whilst avoiding its destruction.

“We created a living environment without compromising the integrity of the place by renovating forty houses in total respect of their ancestral architecture. Two years later, each house had been carefully blended in its vegetal surroundings so as to preserve the ‘emotions’ of the first encounter and the uniqueness of the place. All aspects of life on Ratua derived from this concept, transport on horseback, return of indigenous fauna, sea links using traditional crafts, and organic cooking.

“The life we aspired to required that we shed our usual consuming habits and learn autarkic living again without taking too much from our environment. Thus, our entire fishing and farming will be local. In our workshop, we work with coco wood, which, together with Natangora palm thatching, will be the base of our future construction. We use rainwater and plan to make our own coco-based soap, shampoo, lotion, and cleaning products. It is a start and maybe one day we will cease to buy industrial products and manage to preserve the best quality of life locally.

“We have cautiously, yet selfishly, disrupted this place, our duty eventually will be to give it back, and to this end we have to be vigilant, ethical. More than a profession of faith, our endeavour is a raison d’être.”

The mysterious owner doesn’t mention it in his letter, but 100% of the profits from the Ratua resort are donated to the surrounding island communities, supporting hospital construction and educational and cultural projects.

You’ve got to love the French.

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Frederick, the gm at Ratua, holding a coconut crab. Photo by David Lansing.

Frederick, the gm at Ratua, holding a coconut crab. Photo by David Lansing.

This afternoon, just as we were sitting down to lunch, Frederick, the Paris-born general manager at Ratua, came walking in holding the largest coconut crab I’ve ever seen. This particular crab, called krab kokonas in Vanuatu, had a lovely violet coloring to it; the ones I’ve seen in Niue, where they are called ugas, were more bronze and pumpkin colored.

These guys are really one of the most fascinating creatures in the animal kingdom. First of all, even though they are crabs and are born in the ocean, they can’t swim. They are born with the ability to breathe under water but they lose it by the time they’re a month old and will drown if they don’t get to shore. So the little critters head for shore when only a few weeks old. Once they make land, they look for an abandoned snail shell to call home. If they can’t find one that’s a good fit, they’ll use a broken coconut shell instead.

But that’s not why they’re called coconut crabs. They get this moniker because that’s their favorite food (although they have a terrific sense of smell and will scavenge on everything from rotting bananas to dead rats; in fact, one theory on the disappearance of Amelia Earhart has it that coconut crabs consumed her remains and hoarded her bones in their crab burrows). And while they’re happy to feast on coconuts on the ground, they’ve also been observed cutting the nuts off with their pincers and letting them hit the ground and then, if the nut hasn’t opened, carrying it back up the tree and dropping it again—over and over until it cracks. Behavior that is unique in the animal kingdom.

Coconut crabs can live to be 30 years old and weigh up to nine pounds. This guy Frederick is holding is probably at least 15 years old. The thing is, it takes a coconut crab five to eight years to mature (in other words, start having babies). Which, when combined with the fact that they’re pretty damn tasty—or so I’ve been told—explains why they’re endangered. When I had lunch at La Tentation in Port Vila the other day, I noticed that their special was coconut crab soup. Which made me very sad. While it’s not illegal to take coconut crabs in Vanuatu, they do have strict conservation laws (one of which only allows harvesting coconut crabs that are at least 15 years old so they’ve had a chance to reproduce). But imagine making a soup out of some grand creature who, as an egg floating around in the pelagic zone of the ocean for a month, survived every little fish and bird and turtle that came along to eat them, then managed to crawl to dry land and again avoid a thousand predators as he oh-so-slowly grew to be an adult, and now—after 15 or so years of hanging tough—some guy comes along and throws him in a soup.


Which is why I was happy when Frederick, after letting me take a few shots of the Ratua coconut crab, released him unharmed back into the jungle. To live another day.

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