The stunning archipelago of Vanuatu in the southwest region of the Pacific is a holidaymaker’s paradise. Lying off New Zealand and Australia and west of Fiji, this tropical paradise is a cluster of 83 islands, dotted around the turquoise waters of the ocean. Fabulous diving and cultural experiences await visitors to Vanuatu. Travelers can experience a complete rustic and culturally breathtaking getaway on the smaller isles or a luxurious resort vacation at the more developed Santo and Efate. You could be diving to see a beautifully preserved shipwreck, soar over islands in a helicopter, posting a singed letter at the Volcano Post, visiting a cannibal village site or hike through tropical forests.
The capital city Port Vila has plenty for culture buffs who can explore the many historic buildings, museums and parks besides fitting in some retail therapy. Luganville is the other main city in Vanuatu and a good base for diving and beach hopping.
The people of Vanuatu are a friendly community with a rich history going back centuries. Vanuatu had a known 113 different languages spoken on its shores. Bislama is a very Pacific style pidgin English that blends simplified forms of English with a smattering of French, Spanish and local tongues. English and French are also widely spoken.
Be sensitive to the cultural norms in this piece of paradise. The Ni Vanuatu are traditionally quite conservative so travelers would be well advised to avoid any clothing that bares too much. This is especially true if you are a female traveler. Beachwear is absolutely fine at the pool, your resort or on a diving trip, but everywhere else, err on the side of wearing more. If you plan to explore remote beaches for which you pass through villages, avoid wearing a bikini. It is absolutely acceptable here to wear dresses to the beach. Going local with an island dress which isn’t figure hugging and is made from pretty soft floral fabrics is a great way to be beat the heat while respecting local culture.
Greeting and thanking each other is the norm. A quick beep when you pass another car, just to say ‘hello’ is customary when you’re on the road. The locals are very polite, so be on your best behavior. Do not haggle or bargain, it is considered disrespectful.
Learn to live on island time during your stay. Nothing is cast in stone and time is a flexible concept, though you can usually count on your hotel transfers to be organised per schedule.
An abundance of wildlife both on-shore and in waters off the miles of coastline will delight nature lovers, diving enthusiasts and travelers of all manner. The coral reefs are especially recommended with snorkeling expeditions affording the opportunity to swim between beautiful reefs and explore shipwrecks, marine life and more. You can even head out into the deeper waters to see dolphins or swim with sea turtles. The blue holes, beaches and dive sites like the grand dame SS Coolidge are within easy reach of Santo which connects via direct flights to Brisbane. The Maskelynes represent rugged island beauty, offer some amazing diving and marine life sighting opportunities and are home to villages that protect traditional arts and handicrafts. Picnicking at the Ringi Te Suh Marine Conservation Area is an experience not to be missed.
When in Port Vila, make time to visit the Vanuatu Cultural Center and the bustling Vila market, or tee off at the Port Vila Golf & Country Club which boasts an enviable seafront location. Visitors also follow horse trails near the L’Hippocampus the Sea Horse Ranch which is a few miles out from the town center.
Santo has long been a favorite in the diving community, but is now drawing visitors who wish to take the spectacular trip to Millennium Cave or scramble over tanks and other WWII relics. Some of the region’s tallest mountains are on Santo including the towering Mt Tabwemasana, Mt Kotamtam, Mt Tawaloala as well as the eponymous Santo Peak.
Vanuatu’s most iconic dish is the starchy ‘lap-lap’. It is made by grating cassava, yam, sweet potato or plantain and then wrapping it up with coconut milk in banana leaves for roasting below some hot stones. The flavor of this lap-lap is enhanced by the inclusion of beef, pork or chicken. Adventurous eaters can experiment with local specialties like snails, ground pigeon and flying fox.
A typical meal ends with some fresh juicy and sweet tropical fruit, of which there is an abundance in the lush, fertile lands of Vanuatu. The national drink Kava, is usually consumed before dinner and has a mild narcotic effect, though it is non-alcoholic.
You can never go wrong with ordering seafood in Vanuatu. An abundance of fish makes it a regular feature in homes around the region and most restaurants will serve up seafood cooked well. Order the crab cooked up with a choice of a simple but flavorsome garlic or chilli flavor, or opt for a soupier coconut or curry sauce. The tangy Tahitian style poisson cru or raw fish salad is another favorite.
Good international cuisine can be found in Port Vila and nearby, with French, Japanese and Italian eateries getting top billing. Eating steak at a market stall in Luganville is unmissable.
When the sun goes down, there is a choice of some fun local pubs and clubs where you can unwind and mingle with locals and travelers from the world over. For something a little more cultural, you could reserve spots at beachfront fire shows where dancers and performers regale the audience before everyone is treated to a feast featuring regional specialties and traditional cuisine.
The Port Vila Handicrafts Community is the best place to find souvenirs of your trip to Vanuatu. Buy some uniquely Melanesian handicrafts, hand woven fabrics, paintings, sarongs, woven grass bags, mats and more. Pick up some local herbs and spices or some traditional tanna coffee to remind you of your vacation in this tropical gem.
No island vacation is complete without some time in the water and most resorts and tourism hubs offer visitors a chance to try canoeing, kayaking, snorkeling and even scuba diving. And when you’re back, treat your muscles to a relaxing massage at one of the many world-class spas in Efate.
Golfers can count on that something special when they play a round at any of the golf courses in the region. Whether it is the 18 hole Port Vila Country Club that overlooks the impossibly blue waters at Mele Bay or the more modest 9 hole course on Espiritu Santo, you will find yourself looking out onto some of the most stunning vistas of any course in the world.
Vanuatu is well located for visitors from Australia, New Zealand and Fiji. Direct flights connect several cities to Port Vila and Santo. There are no direct connections from the US or Europe. All international flights in and out of the archipelago arrive at Port Vila’s Bauerfield International Airport or Pekoa International Airport in Santo. Vanuatu is also a popular destination on the cruising circuit with many international cruise lines halting at Efate (Port Vila), Santo (Champagne Beach and Luganville) as well as Mystery Island in the southern side of Vanuatu. Private yachts can, with the requisite paperwork, also enter at Lenakel and Sola in addition to Port Vila and Luganville.
Air Vanuatu is the major domestic player, offering scheduled commercial flights that connects over a dozen location in the archipelago. Unity Airlines, Air Safaris and Air Taxi are airplane charter companies operating in Vanuatu.
Be prepared to get a workout if you really want to get under the skin of this destination. A bicycle is probably the best way to explore villages and sights outside the towns. 4WD vehicles are needed to negotiate the rugged terrain and track roads in most places. Taxi services run between the town and tourism hubs and resort areas. Resorts organize boat transfers if they are located off the mainland. Boats can also be hired for fishing and diving trips. Self-drive cars are only available (and only advisable) in Port Vila and Luganville.
Public transport by way of island buses are a fun immersive local experience that is worth doing at least once on your trip. Locals use the minibuses that tear around bends and zip you to your destination in smaller towns. Efate and parts of Santo have a regular public bus service.
Being in the southern hemisphere, Vanuatu’s seasons are flipped around from what most visitors from North America, Europe and Asia are accustomed to. The weather is largely humid and warm. Islands in the south tend to be slightly cooler and less humid. The temperature dips a between between June and August when winter sets in. While its tropical climate means you can visit it virtually all year round, do check for cyclone forecasts before you visit. The rains arrive in November and last all the way till March.
The local currency is called Ni-Vanuatu Vatu . Credit cards and debit cards are accepted in larger towns and bigger hotels.
Visitors from certain countries do not require a visa to enter Vanuatu. Do check the latest Vanuatu Immigration Authorities to see if your country is on the list. Depending on the duration of the visit, nationals of a few additional countries are exempt from needing a visa. Visitors Permits on arrival are made available for those traveling for tourism, business or to meet family. You will need a confirmed onward/return ticket as well as proof of funds to support your stay, in addition to a valid passport.
In case of medical emergencies, you can meet with doctors at the private or public hospitals in Vanuatu. Carry any prescription medication that you take as well as adequate quantities of antibiotics if you are unwell at the time of departure from your home country.