If I had to use one word to describe Vanuatu, it would have to be colour. Vanuatu is a symphony of colour everywhere you look. From the island dresses the 'Mamas' wear, to the buses that travel around the island (which each driver paints to reflect their style making for a multicoloured transport system), to the abundantly colourful 'Mamas Market' where seasonal produce is arranged seemingly in a colour pattern. From the bright yellow gleam of the sunshine, and the greens of the Jurassic mountains, the multicoloured tropical flowers that grow wild, to the spectacular hues of blues of the harbours, swimming holes, waterfalls, rivers and beaches.
If I had to choose just one colour though, to describe Vanuatu, it would be blue. Vanuatu has some of the most brilliant blue waters I have witnessed, and they aren't just confined to the coastline. Waterfalls and inland swimming holes are abundant in this tropical nation and you'll discover hues you have never seen before. There are over fifty shades of blue to discover in Vanuatu from cyan to cerulean, baby blue to midnight blue and every shade in between.
Port Vila Harbour. A deep blue in the late afternoon. Not one of my top 5 swimming locations but a base for most exploration.
Located approximately 3 hours flight from the east coast of Australia, Vanuatu is the perfect weekend escape. Located in the tropics, it's a year-round Summer holiday in Vanuatu so, if you feel those Winter Blues creeping in, book a ticket to paradise and bathe in the blue of Vanuatu. I'm going to give you my top 5 blue water swimming destinations around Vanuatu.
This has to be the most known and most loved blue hole in Vanuatu. It's only about 45 minutes drive east from the nation's capital, Port Vila, making it popular for those with little time. The lagoon looks like a scene from Hollywood, it is almost unbelievable. The water is predominately freshwater at low tide and mainly saltwater at high tide. The tide level will determine the hue of blue. At times it's a cyan shade, other times a milky baby blue, I've also seen it a turquoise shade. The fresh water is what makes this blue hole a cool temperature. The salt water currents that feed in from the ocean provide the warmth. You will feel the different temperatures at different depths and locations around the lagoon so dive deep into the blue. This lagoon is owned by two different families, one side has simple huts and benches, the other side has huts too and includes a simple bar that also serves hot chips, and there are kayaks for hire on this side. Both sides have toilets. No matter which side you enter you can still swim around the entire lagoon. I prefer to go on non-cruise ship days, however, I have been there on cruise ship days and still managed to find quiet space. For the kids and kids at heart, there are a few rope swings at the Blue Lagoon.
Dive into the Blue Lagoon. Tree jumping in the late afternoon.
I like to swim past the rope swings and around the corner where you can see the ocean. You will find tranquillity past the rope swings even on the busiest day. The landscaped surroundings of the Blue Lagoon give way to the rugged rocky coastline as you head to sea. Be careful attempting this when the tides are changing as there can be strong currents. I recommend trying this as a strong swimmer only. You can hire a kayak and cruise out there too. Driving from Port Vila, the first entrance to the Blue Lagoon is the side with the mini bar and kayaks. There is ample parking and the cost is 500 Vatu per person entry on either side.
Located on Espiritu Santo, around 40 minutes north of Luganville on the east coast, lies Nanda Blue Hole, also known as Jackie's Blue Hole. Surrounded by lush tropical gardens, you will enjoy glimpses of deep cobalt blue water on your approach to the hole. Underground streams of water that filter through limestone is what form these blue holes on the east coast of Espiritu Santo - known locally as The Big Island, or simply, Santo. The blue holes usually form close to the coast and run out to the ocean. The deeper and purer the water, the bluer the hole will appear. Nanda has a strong flow and a reported 18m depth. The term "crystal clear" reigns true here as the clarity of the freshwater means you can see to the bottom when the sun is shining. Bring a snorkel to explore this one.
The water is VERY fresh, so be prepared for that! Tour guides always recommend jumping straight into the blue holes for this reason. There is a cafe/bar on site but its hours are sporadic. I recommend packing a picnic to enjoy as there are tables, benches and a Nakamal (local gathering place) to set up at. There are toilets and changing facilities here also.
Destination 3: Champagne Beach & Lonnoc Beach. Okay, so I broke the cardinal rule of one location at this destination. However, you can walk from one to the other and they are both stunning, with aqua blue waters and white sandy shores. I could not choose one over the other and each has their quirks.
Champagne Beach has been voted one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Visitors to this beach can truly attest to its beauty. The name is given due to the fresh water that bubbles up from underground and creates a fizzing sound and glass-like appearance. The colour of the water is spectacular, and ever changing depending on the tides, weather and activity. The sand is powdery white and stretches right around the bay. You can walk along the soft sand from one end to the other if you so wish. Palm trees fringe the line between the grass and the sand and tropical vegetation surrounds the beach. In fact, you drive through paddocks with cows to get here. This beach is a popular cruise ship spot. Often times, cruise ships port here for a day meaning the beach becomes overloaded with tourists. The atmosphere on cruise ship days is a buzz. There are wood huts that line the grassed edge to the beach. These huts stand empty, ready to transform into a colourful bustling market place for when the cruise ship is in town. You'll find unique souvenirs here and can rest assured knowing you are supporting the locals directly through purchasing Ni-Vanuatu products.
Champagne Beach. Looking at the shore from the aqua waters.
If you prefer tranquillity, check the cruise ship schedule before visiting. Espiritu Santo currently has very few cruise ships so there's a high chance you can have this whole beach to just you and the few locals. There is a little jetty for those who love to jump. I am quite content to park my backside on a towel in the powdery soft sand to tan in between sojourns to the ocean. The water is a beautiful temperature year round and very easy to walk straight in. The beach is sheltered as it is in a bay and some people enjoy snorkelling here. I find the reef is quite far out and prefer to just frolic and float in the turquoise waters. Located around 1 hour drive north of Luganville on the east coast of Santo. Entrance is 500 Vatu per person. There are toilet blocks and plenty of shaded areas from trees to set up for the day.
Just around the bay from Champagne Beach lies Lonnoc Beach. It is about a 10 minute stroll between the two beaches. (NB: Both of these beaches are also referred to as Champagne Bay and Lonnoc Bay respectively. They are one and the same.) Lonnoc Beach is the lesser known beauty of this area. While not as famous as its big sister, it is equally as spectacular. This beach is actually part of a collective of properties (little bungalows in which I have stayed) and there is a restaurant on site with delicious local style dishes. This beach does not have an entrance fee, though I recommend buying a drink or a meal if you want to use the area out of respect to the owners. The bay is sheltered, providing calm swimming and snorkelling conditions. This beach is a little more rugged and rocky along parts of the shore than its smooth sister, however, it provides points of interest for the budding photographer. There are still sections of powdery white sand.
This beach also has a freshwater spring that bubbles from underground. Palm trees line the sand and there are picnic tables and benches along the sand and grassed grounds. If in house guests aren't using the kayaks you may be able to hire them for a while. Elephant Island sits about 3.5km from the shore providing an excellent adventure opportunity for the fit explorer. For those staying on the beach look out for the platform suspended in the tree on the south side of the beach. A great spot for those who love to hurl themselves from objects. There are toilets and changing facilities for day visitors here too.
Destination 4: Riri Blue Hole.
This blue hole has to be my favourite in Vanuatu. While certainly not the most "blue" of the blue holes, it is undoubtedly spectacular. Under 30 minutes drive from Luganville on the east coast of the Big Island. You can drive straight up to the car park and meander down a pathway into the the jungle, or, for a truly special arrival, get dropped at the bridge to Riri River and ride in a dugout canoe, a traditional outrigger style, and glide up the river with a local to the cerulean blue hole. I recommend option 2. It is a truly serene and peaceful experience to ride in an outrigger canoe. It floats smoothly along the water, especially compared to a kayak, and you can immerse yourself into the local lifestyle while admiring your surroundings.
This blue hole is in the depths of the jungle and so remote that I would not be surprised to see Baloo and Mowgli wandering around. You will find a Nakamal, small bar area selling limited beverages and snacks, and various seating areas. As the vegetation surrounding this blue hole is so thick be prepared for a shaded experience. While it may keep the temperature down, the lush vegetation provides idyllic tranquillity. The temperature of this blue hole, like the other freshwater holes, is, well, fresh. There are two rope swings here and plenty of trees and platforms for the serial jumper. There is also a natural vine rope swing. There are toilets and changing facilities. Entrance fee is 500 Vatu per person or 1000 Vatu per person including arrival in an outrigger canoe. This place is truly what I imagine fairyland or Narnia, or any other mystical alternate universe to look like.
Destination 5: Honeymoon Beach.
Bringing it back to Efate, the island of the capital Port Vila, for this one. Efate is not to be overlooked for its beauty. While many people rave about, and rightly so, the untouched and raw beauty of Santo; Efate has many magnificent places off the tourist trail if you know where to look. Honeymoon Beach is affectionately known as the Champagne Beach of Efate. Efate is known for its predominately coral beaches, which makes this gem even rarer. This is a very long, very white, sandy beach. Fringed with beautiful palm trees and large climbing trees with a grassed area next to the sand, you will find plenty of shaded and sunny spaces to camp out for the day. The longer you stare at this water, the more blues you will see. There is a natural blue hole in the middle of the ocean here, providing a great swimming spot.
The temperature of this water is warm so this blue hole actually provides some cool relief to the surrounding ocean. This beach is quite protected with gently rolling waves. There is also an abundance of marine life and coral so bringing your snorkel to this one is non-negotiable. 5-10 minutes down a dirt road past Breakas Beach Resort in Pango, this beach is truly off the beaten track. About 20 minutes from Port Vila. Entrance is 500 Vatu per adult tourist and 200 Vatu per pikinini (Bislama, the national language, for 'kid') and 200 Vatu each adult local. I have not used the toilets here but believe there are some. Cafe Vila is about 5-10 minutes down the road at Breakas Beach Resort, call in here for a meal or a coffee if you prefer to not bring your own food.
Top tips to help you navigate Vanuatu smoothly.
1. Hiring a driver or a car will give you the most freedom to explore the islands. The public transport is limited and quite unlike that of the western world. Locally owned vans operate as buses and are found abundantly on Efate. Bus rates are cheap and they operate much like taxis, taking you where you ask. You will always get to your destination more easily than home choosing this option, especially when visiting places off the beaten path where buses do not pass as regularly to flag down. Little taxis zoom around Santo. You can hire a driver for the whole day on both Santo and Efate for around 8000 Vatu, this includes multiple stops! You can also go with a tour company to most of the above locations. Many companies have set itineraries however if you have enough people in your party you can alter the destinations. NB: They drive in left-hand drive vehicles on the right-hand side of the road.
2. Always carry cash with you. Cash is king in Vanuatu and you will not find EFTPOS accepted readily. Also, be sure to carry the correct change. The hourly rate is extremely low, approximately 200 Vatu per hour, meaning Ni-Vanuatu do not have change. the currency exchange is approximately 100 Vatu = $1.20 AUD.
3. Accept that everything is privately owned in Vanuatu. It is a different concept to the western world where we are privileged with many free parks and beaches to use at our leisure. Instead, in Vanuatu, everything is privately owned. These places you are visiting have been opened up by the landowners to tourists. Sharing their piece of paradise with you generates a form of income for them. Try and think of it as supporting the locals! The fee helps them feed their family and get around the island. Take note of the prices you pay at supermarkets and the market place, these are the prices locals also pay except most with their 200 Vatu per hour wage. I often hear tourists complaining about these entrance fees and I can understand it's a different concept to get your head around. When we are in more developed countries we probably wouldn't think twice about paying large sums to visit buildings, museums, concerts, stadiums, exhibitions, national parks and so forth.
4. Always bring plenty of bottled water and snacks. Even prepared meals if you will be out for a while. Vanuatu is in the tropics meaning humidity is high. This, in turn, means you may become dehydrated quickly. Also, even places that have cafes/bars/restaurants may operate on "island time" meaning hours are sporadic and unreliable at some places. Stock up at the fresh food markets, known locally as the Mamas Markets, on in-season fruit and vegetables. Each town has a bustling market place. There are also roadside markets around the islands. I tend to buy what I think I may need for the day in town and stop at roadside stalls if I see a particular fruit I am craving or a pile of fresh coconuts. While coconuts are abundant in town I do rather love drinking them as soon as I get them making roadside markets the perfect refresher stop in between locations.
5. Going on from tip 4, bring insect repellent and sunblock. Try and find natural based chemical-free alternatives where possible in order to keep the pristine beauty of Vanuatu unspoilt. Always dispose of your rubbish in bins or bring it back with you! Vanuatu is leading the way as the first country to totally ban plastics so do your bit to support this.
6. Bring reef shoes and snorkelling gear everywhere. You never know when you might need it! Also handy, a towel and fresh clothes. Tropical downpours are common, especially from November - April, and the weather can change quickly and vary dramatically around the island. Don't let clouds hinder your adventure! Clouds in your location doesn't necessarily mean they will be at your destination, despite the small size of the islands.
I'll leave you with one last photo of the infamous Champagne Beach. Is this enough to entice you for a weekend away?
Lastly, smile. At everyone. The locals here are so beautifully natured and friendly and they sincerely love tourists. Wipe any city style prejudice aside and wave back when someone waves to you. Also, accept that you are on island time and go with it. Island time truly does help you to relax and disconnect from your Western worries.
Leave work and all pressures at home and recharge with a weekend escape to Vanuatu. If you are here for just a weekend I recommend choosing either Efate or Santo to maximise your island time. Immerse yourself in the blues of Vanuatu. Here, feeling blue is a good thing.
Go to Vanuatu Travel for more information on tours, accommodation and things to do.