Vanuatu is a destination on many Australian's holiday radar. Almost all people who holiday here are likely to spend the majority of their time on Efate, where the capital city Port Vila is located. All international flights to Vanuatu arrive in Port Vila so even if your onward trip takes you to some of the other islands there's no doubt you'll spend some time here. Since many of the major tourist attractions are located in and around Port Vila, its definitely worth checking out what the city and surrounds has to offer.
I use the term 'city' quite loosely. At just over 40,000 people, Vila feels more like a busy town. But lets be honest - people don't come to Vanuatu for an urban experience - it's all about the experiencing the local culture and the majestic scenery, and unwinding island style cocktail in hand,
After a recent week long vacation to the Pacific island nation, I had a new found love for the island way of life and the laid back traditional charm - not to mention some of the friendliest locals I had ever met in all my travelling years. For those visiting for the first time here are my top 5 activities I recommend people visiting make the effort to fit into their itineraries.
5. Shopping in Port Vila
Port Vila is more like a town than a capital city, but there are some good bargains to be had among the bazaars and markets
You won't find exclusive boutiques or high end fashion but you will find some bargains. Whether it's a knock off Louis Vuitton clutch (maybe high end after all?) or some island trinkets it;s worth browsing the bazaars along the main drag in Vila. Think reat sarongs, soaps, and Rastafarian themed everything! Duty free booze is also worth picking up in town at one of the many duty free outlets.
While you're in town do yourself a favour and head over to Au Peche Mignon on Lini Highway (the main drag) a very authentic French patisserie. Make sure to try the Pain Au chocolate or the crepes if it;'s Wednesday. Also since decent coffee can be tricky to find in Vanuatu this can be a good place for the obligatory morning caffeine fix and is a good introduction to some of the French flavours you can find on the island.
Some of the best shopping in Vila however is by wandering through the fresh fruit markets. Never before have seen vast quantities of delicious raspberries available for so cheap at 200 Vatu (around $2.00.) Coconuts, yams, live crabs and hens, and endless fresh local produce is available to purchase and proceeds all go right back to the villages. Even if you are staying in hotels or resorts and will be eating at restaurants, the fresh food markets are worth a visit and are alone an impressive sight. Many smaller pop up markets can be found on the roadside around the island and we stopped at a few during the trip.
Delicious and fresh local produce for mere pennies at the massive market in the centre of town
Located in Mele Village, 20 minutes north of town, The Secret Garden is well worth a stop. In small tours a local guide will explain many different aspects of the Melanesian culture and a glimpse into the tribal history of Vanuatu - right from the cannibalism, volcanic activity, land driving traditions (similar to bungee jumping but with vines as the rope) and many other rituals, customs and their fight to become independent of the British and French in 1980.
The tour through the gardens highlights the British and French history of the Island nation
The tours allows you to meander through the well maintained South Pacific tropical gardens as well as allowing an up close glimpse of flying foxes (one of them rare albino) and the chance to hold an Iguana. Our tour guide Steve also brought out a colossal Coconut crab (a local delicacy) which has been kept on site as a pet. Each Thursday the Secret Gardens also open up their Chiefs Area to visitors where locals actually live. On Thursday nights for 3000 Vatu (approx 30 AUD you'll be able to sample local cuisine including taro, kumala and barbecue meats cooked in an in-ground campfire (like the Maori Hāngi) and all made by the locals themselves. This is in addition to drinking kava the famed 'herbal valium' right out of a coconut shell and enjoying being entertained by dancing and tribal music throughout the night.
Coconut crab is a local delicacy. The massive crabs crack open coconuts with their claws and is their main diet. As a result when you eat one of the crabs there is a distinct coconut flavour
You can really spend hours here in this outdoor museum of sorts, entering traditional huts and reading all the signs which detail the history of Vanuatu. At around 10.00 per person, its also good value and perhaps one of the most authentic all encompassing cultural experiences you can have while in Vanuatu. If you can go in with an open mind and be willing to learn, chances are you'll also highly recommend this experience.
Locals preparing taro, kumala and other produce for the island feast
If you're in Vanuatu, there's no doubt you are probably looking forward to some much needed R&R. To cater for pleasure seekers, there are resorts dotted all around Efate, and pretty much all of them welcome day visitors. Of course you can stay in some of the resorts yourself, but this way you can go with some of the more affordable accommodation and still take advantage of the luxury resort amenities without paying an arm and a leg.
Two of the best resorts around the Port Vila Area are Iririki Island resort which is on its own dedicated island and just a 5 minute water taxi across the harbour. Getting to Iririki costs about 20 dollars each but this can be redeemed over at the resort for food and drink. We chose to indulge in Pina Coladas pool side at their very impressive tropical themed 3 tiered pool. There is also pretty decent snorkelling off the jetty on the rear side of the island at Iririki Cove and better yet they provide the snorkelling equipment and towels free of charge.
Another great resort just out of town is Warwick Le Lagon, which has a 9 hole golf course, impressive manicured gardens, massive pool, swim up bar and hot tub, as well as it's very own private beach front where you can flake out and have food and drinks delivered to you. There are also Jet Skis, paddle boards and kayaks for hire at the Water sports complex to make the most of the stunning lagoon that connects to the resort.
One thing is for sure, it's worth living it up somewhat in the luxury of the resort lifestyle with a bit of much needed pampering when you are in Vanuatu.
Grab a cocktail and laze by the pool at the impressive island resort pools. Le Lagon has a swim up bar and 20 person hot tub
As far as waterfalls go, this is a premium one. Cascading down the into a series of crystal clear aqua blue pools, the Mele Cascades not only is one of the best waterfalls I've been able to immerse myself in, it's also one of the most spectacular.
Its about an easy 20 minutes walk up the mountain to reach the main waterfalls where there is a staff member who watches your belongings. Along the walk you'll have plenty of chances to photograph and stand in the fresh water pools and admire the tropical gardens where you'll see countless red hibiscus and the waxy, spiky pink and red bromeliads.
The waterfalls flow right down the mountain in a series of cascading pools from the impressive cliff falls at the top
I was amazed as how easy to navigate the waterfalls were. For some reason the rocks were porous and not slippery, and with well located stepping stones and foot holes to climb between pools. Of the two major waterfalls, one you can go underneath as the water barrels down in front of you. Myself and many other enjoyed standing underneath the waterfalls and taking what I called "nature's shower" which also proved to be a fantastic massage on the neck and shoulders!
Swim in the pools or stand under the cascading water for the ultimate massage and 'nature shower'
If you can avoid going to the waterfalls on a Wednesday or Friday do that since this is when the P&O cruise ships dock and it's pretty much the number one activity day trippers arriving from the ships.
After you've worked up an appetite from the outdoor fun, at the base of the waterfall there is also a bistro and bar for lunch, where you can enjoy the Heineken like local brew Tusker.
1. Lelepa Island Day Tour
The snorkelling off Lelepa island offers some of the best in Vanuatu, and the most unspoiled coral I've even seen
If you have the time and 100 AUD to spare, my number one activity in Vanuatu everyone should do is the Lelepa Island day tour. In fact, I'd recommend everyone budget the money and the time in their itinerary for this day long excursion.
The Lelepa island day tour takes you to the pristine white sandy shores of Lelepa Island, where you can relax in hammocks, paddle on coral reefs, and enjoy some of the best snorkelling in Vanuatu. Just off shore from Efate, the tours are run by the local Lelepa Islanders and a shuttle bus will pick you of from your accommodation in and around Port Vila. Once over to the island on private boat (about a 30 minute journey) our local guide explained the history of the island including healing properties of many plants which grow on the island, including for toothaches and as antiseptic. At the end of the day you also get to visit the village life on the island for afternoon tea where you have the chance to purchase local handicrafts.
The tour of the island also takes you to devils cave where you enter deep into the cave by candlelight
This was also the stunning location the American reality series Survivor Vanuatu: Islands of Fire was filmed. Many challenges were filmed on the beaches where we stood, and in the surrounding lagoons. We also got the chance to see the remnants of the tribal council set.
The tour takes you through the jungle of the island on a well maintained sandy path and once you walk through to the other side, one of the most iconic island beaches is waiting for you. Here you can snorkel right of the beach, laze in hammocks or meander and explore the fascinating island coastline.
Lelepa Island and surrounding lagoons was the filming location for Survivor Vanuatu: Islands of Fire
A fresh barbecue lunch is then prepared for everyone to enjoy, after which the boat takes you to another inlet on the island where you explore a massive cave by candlelight and hear the history of how the cave has been used for centuries. The boat then anchors at another snorkelling spot which was the highlight of the day for me. I've snorkelled in the Great Barrier Reef, Belize and Fiji, but this was by far the most spectacular coral I'd ever seen. Huge colourful canyons of coral and tropical fish lay below the blue surface and the colours and detail in the coral was absolutely second to none.
It's easy to see why this is consistently rated as one of the very best things to do in Vanuatu on TripAdvisor with the coral and snorkelling being mentioned over and over.
These are just a taste of some of the experiences you can enjoy while in Vanuatu, if you've yet to visit the island nation, mark it in as a serious contender for your next getaway. At just 500 dollars for return airfares and a easy three hour flight it's within reach while offering something a little bit exotic as well as a unique cultural experience.