At the western edge of the ‘Pacific Rim of Fire’ Vanuatu is a land of rumbling active volcanoes, 80-plus lush islands, fringed with deserted beaches, and a fascinating ancient culture where the majority of the population still lives a village lifestyle. There is much to experience and explore here and your timing is perfect, with the country largely recovered after Cyclone Pam blew through in March 2015.
Many visitors come to Vanuatu by cruise ship or resort holiday, jumping off in Port Vila or Santo island for a day of shopping, scuba diving or adventure activities. But to truly appreciate this archipelago you need to explore beyond the main island of Efate, island-hopping by plane or boat.
Getting around is half the fun: squeezing into tiny prop planes with nervous locals and landing bumpily on rough grass airstrips, taking to the deck of one of the weekly interisland ferries, or hitching a ride on a yacht or cargo boat. Don’t expect plush resorts, or even roads, on the outer islands either. Travel out there is adventurous and it’s bamboo huts and 4WD trucks all the way.
In March 2015 Vanuatu was hit hard by Cyclone Pam, a category 5 monster that destroyed 90 percent of homes in affected areas and wiped out crops and vegetation over a wide area. It was the most destructive cyclone to hit the nation in living memory but the recovery was well under way within the year, and visitors are welcomed with open arms by the unwaveringly friendly ni-Vanuatu striving to rebuild their economy.
It takes only a matter of minutes to walk up from your parked 4WD truck to the crater rim of Mt Yasur, from where you can peer tentatively down into the broiling magma-filled hole in the Earth. Every few minutes a violent explosion sends showers of red-hot magma and large rocks skyward. Welcome to Yasur – possibly the world’s most accessible active volcano. Located on Tanna island, you can drive almost to the crater rim. Even on foot it’s only a – steep – 45-minute walk to the top where you're rewarded with a breathtaking, deafening and slightly unnerving fireworks experience, like looking into the very eye of the world.
If you prefer a tougher trek to see your volcano, head to Ambrym island where the brooding twin volcanic cones of Mt Benbow and Mt Marum dominate the island’s interior. There are three main routes: the northern route makes it possible to hike up and back in a demanding day, but a better option is one of the cross-island routes which require at least one overnight camp.
Wrecks and reefs
Vanuatu offers world-class scuba diving and snorkelling, but it’s not just reefs and tropical fish. Off the coast of Espiritu Santo island lies the wreck of the SS President Coolidge, a 187m US luxury liner that was commandeered as a troop ship during WWII. It struck a ‘friendly’ mine and sank just metres from shore – all but two of the more than 5000 men aboard got off safely. Today it’s the world’s largest and most easily accessible diveable wreck, with the stern in just 20m of water. Snorkellers can also discover remains of the Pacific War at Million Dollar Point, where tonnes of surplus army machinery, from jeeps to aeroplane parts, were dumped when the departing Americans couldn’t give it away.
Around Port Vila, on Vanuatu’s main island of Efate, there are dozens of celebrated dive sites and marine sanctuaries including Hideaway and Tranquility islands, as well as wrecks such as the Star of Russia. Plenty of operators will take you out on boat dives and snorkelling trips.
Dancing with Nambas
Vanuatu boasts an ancient Melanesian culture with many traditions unique to the islands. On Malekula island, an island where cannibalism was practiced well into the 20th century, are the Big Nambas and Small Nambas, traditionally rival cultural groups so named for the size of men’s nambas (penis sheaths). In the past they had a fearsome, warlike reputation but today you can watch or join in on traditional ceremonial dances (admittedly now staged for tourists).
Tanna island still has villages virtually unchanged by the modern world where, with the help of a local guide, you can step back a few centuries and perhaps drink kava with the village chief.
Probably the most bizarre and best-known ritual in Vanuatu is the naghol on Pentecost island where, for a few months of the year, young men build enormous towers, strap liana vines to their ankles and hurl themselves off as a rite of passage. The land diving has been practiced for generations and is the inspiration for modern bungee jumping.
Volcano treks aside, the outer islands offer some of the most remote and rugged jungle trekking in the Pacific. Malekula island is a stand-out, with a range of jungle treks to isolated kastom villages, cannibal sites, hot springs and beaches otherwise accessible only by boat. The toughest is the five-day Manbush Trail, traversing the island with a local guide. Try Malampa Travel (malampa.travel) for guided treks.
For something a little less rigorous, Port Vila is the adrenaline activity centre of Vanuatu. Here you can jet-boat, parasail, zipline, kayak, surf or take off on a deep-sea fishing charter. The only limit is time – and your wallet.
What would a Pacific island be without beaches, and Vanuatu has them in spades – many so remote that they’re only accessible by boat or a long trek. Some of the best accessible beaches can be found on Santo’s east coast, where you’ll find the soft white sand of Champagne Beach (a cruise ship favourite) and the impossibly turquoise waters fringing the tiny fishing village of Port Olry. While Efate has many excellent resort beaches, our favourites are on Pele off the north coast. Finally, Tanna island has black-sand (volcanic) and white-sand beaches leading to crystal clear ocean that require no Instagram filters to capture the perfect image of paradise.