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THE VANILLA FESTIVAL - Next held: 17 - 19 October 2014

Each year the Lifou Tourism association organises its Tourist Weekend focusing on vanilla, the leading product in Drehu, as the island is known locally. Let's set off for Mu tribal village, 150 years after the arrival in Ahmelewedr of an English missionary and the first vanilla plants...

In memory of Mémèche

The first two Tourist Weekends were held in Qanono, in the Gaïca District. Since 2008, the Tourist Weekend has taken place in Mu, in the southeast of Lifou, in Lössi District. In 2010, the Lifou Tourism association, which works to promote tourism on Drehu, decided to give it a theme and called the event "The Vanilla Festival". This festival largely owes its existence to Jacqueline Albert, known as Mémèche, the president of Lifou Tourism until her death in early 2010. She carried the Tourist Weekend virtually unassisted: "It was her baby," remembers Maline, a member of the organising committee, "she often said, 'don't touch my baby!' ". Formerly a nursing aide in Lorraine, this native of Wetr (in the north of the island) had come back to Lifou and for a long time ran Le Servigny hotel-restaurant in Kumo, while also putting a great deal of effort into developing Lifou through tourism based on small family facilities.

In October 2010, in the presence of her daughter, Valérie, the Vanilla Festival organisers and the political and custom authorities paid tribute with much emotion to the memory of this "great lady", "very dynamic", and everyone promised to perpetuate the spirit of the event. The tribute ended with a minute's silence then a song dedicated to Mémèche.

Lifou's gold

Lifou Tourism can count on the partnership of the Cemaid (tourist bureau) and the support of the Islands Province and the Lössi grande chefferie (high chieftaincy). A member of the organising committee, Gope Fenepeg Kanyipa, known as Kagnys, serves as intermediary between the association and the host tribal village. "Such an event is quite a lot to manage. The people here still have to absorb the project, understand they have every interest in getting involved, that there is a potential we have to turn to advantage." For Samuel Ihage, the new president of Lifou Tourism, the Vanilla Festival must become "the showcase of our tourist activity". "This event is very important for the tribal villages and families with low incomes. It allows them to live appropriately for some time by marketing the fruit of several months' labour or by taking in visitors." Kanyipa goes further: "Thanks to vanilla, some families have been able to buy a house, a car. Just like tourism, it has to be our bread and butter. Vanilla is Lifou's gold! Our island is an immense forest...may it one day become a forest of vanilla!"

Tribal accommodation

"Authentic tourism" is the credo of the organisers and of High Chief Naisseline of Maré, who insists on the concept of an "encounter" and prefers to talk about "visitors" rather than "tourists". "The Vanilla Festival is a place of happiness and sharing between the visitors and the Drehu population," asserts Samuel Ihage. "I am proud to welcome into our traditional huts people from all over the world, and proud to hear them say that our island is very welcoming and authentic." It all starts from the moment the plane lands, with welcome songs before the Friday lunchtime cocktail that is offered to all the guests.

The organisers offer a three-day package including the return airfare from Noumea, accommodation for two nights and breakfast, and the return transfer from Wanaham Airport to the place of accommodation. Visitors are accommodated at the homes of local residents in traditional huts, mainly in Mu but also in the neighbouring tribal villages of Xodre and Joj. It is an opportunity to discover the Loyalty Islanders' traditional lifestyle.


The Vanilla Festival (vanii in the Drehu language) is held at a site called Akawan in Mu tribal village, a few dozen metres from the beach where the English missionary Samuel McFarlane landed in 1860. Aboard his boat, he had some vanilla plants from Madagascar which he gave to the Api-Kai clan which lived there, at the Ahmelewedr locality (the name of the first association of vanilla planters, set up in 1994).

Choral singing, kaneka concerts, traditional dancing, the election of Miss Lifou Tourism: for three days there is a succession of performances on the podium and all around it. A giant bougna (a traditional meal cooked under hot stones) prepared on Saturday morning and eaten in the late afternoon, a heritage day, building an outrigger canoe, the elders' expertise in traditional medicine, sandalwood sculptures, hats and baskets woven from pandanus...nothing is lacking in Ahmelewedr. Not even the challenge issued by a giant coconut crab to the famous Wedrumel snake, a non-venomous reptile, or the demonstration of catching turtles at the end of Tanukul gîte beach.

And then, of course, there are numerous stands serving food flavoured with vanilla, to be eaten there or taken away: pawpaw salad with prawns sautéed in vanilla, beef-heart kebabs in vanilla sauce, vanilla-flavoured snapper lasagne or chicken fricassee, milkshakes, banana bread, ice-cream and coffee, all vanilla-flavoured. And as well, purslane relish, pawpaw spice, soursop jam or mandarin cordial, all with vanilla!

A la carte

Right throughout the three days of the festival, numerous activities are offered outside the Ahmelewedr site. To start with, walks in the Mu tribal area, with a visit to a vanilla plantation and a yam field, a little history lesson on the arrival of the Gospel here in 1842, an introduction to the chefferies (the old and the current chieftaincies) and the Tanukul turtle park. Two guided hikes are also on the programme: the Hermit Crab Walk, and the legends associated with it, at Hmelek, around 12km from Mu; or, the second option, the mythical jewels of Luengöni, north of Mu, famous for its beach and its caves. Finally, two minibus tours to the north of the island: a cultural immersion with Gabriella Wassaumie in Hnathalo tribal village, or, more for tourists, the famous Jokin Cliffs, the Notre Dame de Lourdes chapel in Easo and Felix's botanical garden in Mucaweng.

Delicate cultivation

The vanilla plant is an orchid variety that likes shady, damp and well-ventilated places. It grows on a stake (wafel in Drehu), drawing the nutrients it needs from a layer of organic matter, contained in a bund. In order to prevent it growing too high and requiring strenuous monitoring, repeated "looping" is done. This creeper produces flowers once a year and they only bloom for a few hours: enough time for the "matchmakers" to run from flower to flower to fertilise them manually. Pollinisation occurs early in the morning, as the flower does not tolerate heat. The first pods (the fruit) appear several weeks later in the form of green beans, in clusters of about ten individuals. They are harvested six to nine months later, in June and July, when they take on a yellowish colour. Then starts a very long curing period, intended to release all the aroma (the vanillin) they contain: "scalding" (three minutes in water at 65ºC), "sweating" for 24 hours inside padded crates, the time to develop a chocolate colour, drying in the sun (two weeks) then in the shade (two to three months), and finally a stay of six to seven months in well-sealed coolboxes.

The pods are then classified by category. Several quality criteria are taken into account: length, vanillin rate, drying quality, lack of holes... The finest are marketed, in packets of 50 or 100 ("dynamite"). The others are used in cooking (jams, relishes, pastry, etc.). As for fallen dried pods, they are sometimes recycled in basketwork for decoration. The difficulty and the length of curing (three years from planting to production) make vanilla one of the most expensive aromatic plants in the world.

Maison de la Vanille

From 1860 till 1980, vanilla was only a pretty ornamental orchid - until the planters realised they could draw a substantial profit from it and became convinced planters. It is difficult to supply accurate figures but there are reportedly some 120 producers today in Lifou (for 26,000 stems) producing less than one tonne annually. Demand for this 100% natural vanilla is, however, very strong: in Noumea, in Australia, in New Caledonia and especially in Japan (around 50 tonnes!). After a promising start, the industry is today being entirely restructured. For that, all the producers have to work hand in hand. "The Gospel brought together all our ancestors," recalls Samuel Ihage. "If religion succeeded, why shouldn't vanilla manage?" The objective is to produce a greater quantity and to supply pods (not dried but green) to the drying unit set up by the Islands Province, which should open shortly in Hnathalo. Adjoining the unit will be a shop, the Maison de la Vanille, in charge of the distribution channel. The developers' desire is to standardise and improve the quality of Lifou vanilla, and move to a label to help them win external markets.

Come and eat!

Recipe for vanilla prawns (for 4 persons)

20 large prawns

20 cl fresh cream

1 soup-spoon of vanilla powder

1 split vanilla pod

5 ml rum

1 onion

Oil, salt and pepper

Sauté the onion in a frying pan with a little oil. Sear the prawns and the vanilla pod for two minutes, stirring frequently. Add salt and pepper. Then flambé the prawns with the rum. Add the fresh cream and the vanilla powder. Stir it all. Don't forget to taste it!


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