The volcanic islands of Vanuatu lie in the South Pacific Ocean between New Guinea, Fiji and New Caledonia, and while they gained their independence in 1980, they were formerly managed as part of a joint colonial agreement between Britain and France.
Their rich Melanesian culture features some unique regional differences due to the island geography of the nation, making each island experience slightly different. You can watch an ancient form of bungee jumping during the annual Yam festival on Pentecost Island, visit the small and big namba villagers on Malekula, or experience the black magic sorcery of Ambrym, backed by its twin volcanoes.
While the island of Efate and the capital Port Vila are the center of tourism in the country, with plenty of idyllic resorts, beaches and nearby coral reefs to explore, together with re-created cultural village experiences, the outer islands offer some wild adventures for intrepid travelers. From the jungle-draped caves and blue lagoons of Espiritu Santo in the north, to the dramatic light show of Tanna’s Mount Yasur, Vanuatu’s natural environment is astounding.
During World War II, Vanuatu was used as a base by the US military and there are a scattering of intriguing historical sites across the islands, together with a number of offshore WWII wrecks that cater to experienced divers. Coupled with pristine coral reefs and year round warm waters and its easy to see why the country is an underwater enthusiast’s paradise.
While the recent cyclone caused widespread damage across the archipelago, infrastructure has been mostly restored and tourists are slowly returning to Vanuatu’s paradise islands. For those looking for a vacation that will make a positive contribution to the rebuilding of local communities, there is no time like the present to visit Vanuatu.
When to travel/weather
Vanuatu’s tropical climate is divided into a ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ season, with markedly different rainfall, humidity and temperature between the two. The weather is considered at its best during the ‘dry’ season from April to October when temperatures are more comfortable, the skies relatively dry, and the waters at their clearest for diving. This also coincides with the peak tourist season, with large numbers of Australians visiting to escape the winter cold back home, so if you plan to travel during this period, be sure to book your flights and accommodation well ahead of time.
The ‘wet’ season stretches from November through to March, with both temperature and humidity increasing to sometimes uncomfortable highs and occasional cyclones forecast. Daily afternoon downpours provide some relief, and provided you can plan your activities around them, they shouldn’t put too much of a dampener on your holiday. Water temperatures remain at an enticing 22-28 degrees Celsius year round.
Food and drink
Within Port Vila and the resorts of Efate there are restaurants serving a diverse array of international cuisine, including Mediterranean, Asian and tapas, that caters to the large number of expats and luxury tourism market. But once you venture to the outer islands and away from the hotels, you will experience the true flavors of Vanuatu and a diet largely based on fish, taro, yam, vegetables and tropical fruits.
Apart from fish, the other main source of protein throughout the archipelago comes from local beef, naturally grown and considered some of the best in the world, while flying foxes are caught and transformed into stew in some rural regions.
Coconut milk features in many of Vanuatu’s dishes, including the national staple, lap la - a dish of grated yam, plantain or manioc, which is covered in coconut cream and cooked in a hot stone earth oven. Sometimes a chicken wing is added on top, or alternatively, a meat-based version known as tuluk is served rolled into a cylinder-like a sausage roll. Coconut crab has traditionally been a Vanuatu specialty and ‘must-try’ throughout the archipelago, but as numbers have become endangered, many restaurants have taken them off their menus.
If you’re staying in Port Vila, then the local market that sprawls across the waterfront is the ideal place to sample local Vanuatu cuisine. Surrounded by fresh produce and cooked by vibrantly dressed ‘mamas’, this is a dining experience not to be missed.
Kava is Vanuatu’s national drink, traditionally drunk by men for the relaxing and slightly narcotic affect it has on the body. It is made from the root of the Piper methysticum (a species of pepper) plant and the Ni-Vanuatu kava tends to be stronger than that drunk in other nearby island countries. It is served in a coconut shell and often consumed before dinner within a nakamal, or kava hut, but also plays an important role in traditional ceremonies.
Popular vacation spots
Just a short 15 minute drive from Port Vila, the Mele Cascades are an idyllic series of waterfalls and plunge pools where you can bathe within its lush surrounding landscaped gardens.
Staring down into the crater of Volcano Yasur on the island of Tanna while red hot lava spurts from its belly is one of Vanuatu’s most incredible experiences, particularly at night. With no safety ropes to hold you back, it is also one of the world’s most accessible volcanoes.
Ekasup Cultural Village
Immerse yourself in Ni-Vanuatu culture at the Ekasup Cultural Village on Efate. Set within beautiful gardens, its exhibits include recreated local villages, explanation of hunting techniques and traditional customs, and a weekly Melanesian Feast night that includes dance performances.
If you are visiting between April and June, don’t miss a trip to Pentecost Island where each Saturday the famous Naghol, or “land dive”, traditional festival is held. Celebrating the yam harvest, local men dive from 100 meter high towers with vines tied to their ankles in an ancient form of bungee jumping that is considered a rite of passage.
Espiritu Santo Island
In the far north of the Vanuatu archipelago, Espiritu Santo is an adventure seeker’s paradise, with everything from World War II wreck diving to deep sea fishing on offer. Venture to the Millennium Cave for an adrenalin-filled hiking/canyoning/river rafting trip through its dense, pristine jungle or kayak to the legendary Blue Hole.
Just off the coast of Efate, Lelapa Island is surrounded by a pristine coral reef offering some of the country’s best snorkeling. Local Lelapa Islanders will take you on a tour of their village to explain their history and culture, with plenty of time to relax in hammocks or paddle a sea kayak out into the crystal clear waters.
For those interested in Vanuatu’s history of cannibalism, Malekula Island has a selection of old cannibal sites to explore within its rugged, mountainous interior. It is one of the most diverse of Vanuatu’s islands, and in addition to meeting its famed Small Namba and Big Namba villagers, there is fantastic bird watching on offer.
With its landscape dominated by the twin active volcanoes of Mt Benbow and Mt Marum that give it a moon-like appearance, Ambrym offers incredible treks to peer down into their boiling lava lakes. The island is also steeped in ancient customs, black magic and sorcery, most vividly presented in its masked kastom dances.
Vanuatu recognizes three ‘official’ languages - English, French and Bislama - the latter of which is widely spoken by most locals outside of the bigger centers. Bislama is essentially ‘pidgin English’, with a few French words thrown into the mix. While picking up a few phrases in Bislama is undoubtedly fun, most people speak enough English that you will be able to get by on this alone.
The local currency is the Vatu (VT) and Euros, US Dollars and Australian Dollars can all be easily exchanged on arrival in Port Vila. Both Visa and MasterCard are accepted at local ATM’s, found in most big towns and cities. Both credit and debit cards can be used at most hotels and resorts throughout Efate, but it is wise to carry enough cash if you’re traveling to more remote areas.
Tipping is not customary in Vanuatu and neither is bargaining at the local markets which can be considered quite rude.
Health and Safety
While Vanuatu is often classified as a malarial country, if you are only visiting Efate it will not affect you. For those traveling to more remote, outer islands, consult your doctor before travel to decide if you will be at risk.
The tap water is considered safe to drink (albeit with a high calcium content) in Port Vila and most of Efate, but bottled water is widely available for those who like to ‘play it safe’ and recommended in more remote areas and villages.