Travel Diaries: Vanuatu
Vanuatu, the magical tropical island where the wifi is slow and life is slower. Formerly a colony of both Britain and France, the island nation of Vanuatu (located in the Pacific Ocean off the north-eastern coast of Australia) declared its independence on 30th July 1980. Now the Republic of Vanuatu, this nation consists of around 83 islands, the largest of which is Santo. Peta and I spent six glorious days on the island of Efate, where the capital ‘city’ of Port Vila is located.
Vanuatu is renowned for a few things, but perhaps most notably being selected as the World’s Happiest Nation for at least several years running. As soon as you touch down you notice the relaxed and carefree way in which the locals go about their days. Smiles are abundant and people will greet you as you pass by, almost without fail. The locals are incredibly welcoming and accommodating, so you feel immediately at ease and safe. Everything gets done, but on island time. This is a refreshing change from the bustling life many of us are accustomed to, but just don’t expect anything to get done with haste. Embrace the slowness and you will love it here.
As for the sites, Vanuatu (specifically Efate Island) is teeming with spectacular natural wonders like the Cascade Falls and the Blue Lagoon. Some of the other islands, like Tanna, boast volcanoes, which I believe you can hike up if you dare. The easiest way to see the sites of Efate is to book a day tour with one of the local companies. The exact sites you visit vary, but we opted for a four-in-one trip to Eton Beach, Blue Lagoon, a turtle sanctuary and Cascade Falls. This tour set us back about $90AUD, but included two tropical fruit refreshments, a BBQ lunch and entry fees to all of the sites.
Now, if like us you imagine sandy white beaches bordering the whole of Vanuatu, let me just tell you they don’t. Although Efate does boast a few stunning beaches, they are small and spread all over the island, and all of the water near Port Vila forms the harbour. From Port Vila the closest beach we could find was Breakas Beach, which was a 6km walk from our accommodation. However, once you get to a beach on the island the water is crystal clear, iridescently blue and the perfect temperature for swimming. I guess if you are looking for a primarily beach holiday, be sure to choose a resort that is on or close to the beach. A few good ones include Breakas Beach Resort, Iririki Island Resort or Tamanu on the Beach.
Getting around Efate can be a little bit challenging, as the taxis are generally a little overpriced unless you’re prepared to haggle. There are many ‘buses’, which we quickly worked out were the Toyota or Isuzu vans with a red B on their number plates. There doesn’t appear to be a logical system of routes or stops, rather you flag down a bus, negotiate a destination and price with the driver and get on. Since we were staying very close to the main street of Port Vila, we mostly walked to get around.
In Port Vila you will find a lovely esplanade on the harbour, featuring many bars and restaurants in which you can enjoy a happy hour cocktail as you watch the sunset over the water. There is also the local Port Vila market, located under a thatched roof, open-air shed on the main street, where you can immerse your senses in local life. Some of the foods we spotted include bananas, grapefruits, bok choy, and a myriad of root vegetables, including some giant, mutant form of potato, which I believe could be cassava or marioc.
From almost anywhere along Port Vila harbour you can see a small island called Iririki. We would highly recommend taking a trip over to Iririki Island Resort. There is a complimentary shuttle boat operating from Port Vila harbour, which will get you there in about one minute. Once you arrive you can purchase a ‘Day Guest Pass’ for about $20AUD (1,500 vt), which can then be redeemed for food and drinks at the various restaurants and bars dotted around the island (so basically entry is free so long as you spend some money on food). As well as several small sandy beaches and a gorgeous, adults-only infinity pool, your day pass to Iririki includes free use of their non-motorised water activities, including snorkelling and kayaking.
Food specialities in Vanuatu include their local organic beef, succulent roast chicken, cassava fries, plenty of fresh seafood and tropical fruit. They also have their own Tanna Coffee, grown on the nearby island of Tanna. We were most excited to discover that kumala, which is either sweet potato or a very close relative thereof, is one of their local root vegetables… so kumala fries are basically a delicacy in Vanuatu. By the end of our stay I had also figured out that ‘kava’ is a speciality of Vanuatu, which from what I could gather was some kind of pepper-related spice that is used in drinks in a similar way to coffee. I have to admit I didn’t have the guts to try it though.
Unlike some other beach destinations (Bali, Phuket etc), Vanuatu is not super cheap. A meal will probably cost the same as (or more than) it would in Australia, and cocktails start at about $12AUD. Tours, although negotiable, are also fairly priced and it is common for beaches to have a small entry fee ($3-5AUD). Accommodation, it seems, is the one thing you can get a pretty good discount on (especially if you book as part of a flights package, as we did with Virgin Holidays). You have to keep in mind that Vanuatu is a small nation which relies heavily on tourism, so if you’re prepared to spend a little more than you would in South-East Asia on food and drinks you can definitely enjoy yourself without breaking the bank.
Keeping in mind that this is a developing country, and still very much in the rebuilding stage after tropical Cyclone Pam ravaged the country in 2015, if you can put aside your creature comforts your heart will undoubtedly be warmed by the genuine hospitality and relaxed attitudes of the locals. All in all, if you are looking to kick back and take life at a much slower pace, all the while enjoying some natural wonders, then Vanuatu is the place for you.