Vanuatu is a Pacific island adventure far beyond any notions of cruise-ship ports and flashy resorts. Deserted beaches, ancient culture, remote and rugged islands and world-class diving are just a small part of the magnetism of this scattered 80-plus island archipelago.
Where else can you hike up a crater to stare down into a magma-filled active volcano then ashboard back down, snorkel in a blue hole and drink kava with the local village chief – all in the same day? The resorts and restaurants of Port Vila have little in common with traditional kastom (custom) village life in the outer islands, but it's contrasts like these that make Vanuatu a surprise and a challenge.
Vanuatu was slammed by Cyclone Pam in 2015, but the ni-Van people, resilient and laid-back as ever, take life in smiling strides.
It takes a little time, effort and a healthy sense of adventure to truly explore Vanuatu's islands, but it's worth every bit of it.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Vanuatu.
Peering down into the rumbling, exploding lava storm of Mt Yasur is a sight you won't soon forget. The active volcano is so accessible that 4WD vehicles can get to within 150m of the crater rim. There are many tours up to see the old man, and although you can walk up without a guide (around 45 minutes from the entrance), or join a vehicle going up, it's still best to go with a guide.
The guided climb up these twin volcanoes is reasonably demanding and the view is often obscured by low cloud and volcanic smoke and ash. But on a clear day the reward for your climb will be peering into an active crater and seeing the red-hot magma boiling below like a satanic pot of tomato soup. Both volcanoes are closely monitored, climbing is occasionally suspended on high-activity days and evacuation plans are always ready.
This popular and photogenic swimming spot is 10km from Port Vila. A series of clear aquamarine pools terrace up the hillside, culminating in an impressive 35m waterfall flowing into a natural plunge pool. A slippery path with guide ropes directs you to the top. There are toilets, change rooms and a cafe-bar with free wi-fi at the entrance. Go out by local minibus (250VT), or take a guided tour with Evergreen.
Million Dollar Point, where hundreds of tonnes of US military equipment was dumped, now shows its coral-encrusted machinery to snorkellers and divers. At low tide you'll find metal objects littering the beach for a kilometre in either direction. Don't leave your valuables around while you dive.
Iririki is the green, bungalow-laden island right across from Port Vila’s waterfront; it was closed following Cyclone Pam in 2015 but is expected to reopen in 2016.
Tanna’s best anchorage is this beautiful bay with magnificent cliffs and easy access to east Tanna's best beaches. The Ireupuow village has a basic shop, a market and a couple of simple restaurants. To the left, a road leads up to the local cliff-top 'yacht club' and to a marine sanctuary at Yewao Point where you can snorkel in the calm water just before the coral reef finishes. Another path reaches a glorious white-sand beach and a top surf beach, with deep swells along 2.5km to Yankaren Para.
Trek and trudge through the jungle, across creeks, along bamboo bridges and through cascades to this massive cave, 20m wide and 50m high, about 15km from Luganville. Climb down a bamboo ladder, and through a rocky pool dodging cascades and little bats, then out into the sunlight and into icy water to zap down the rapids past amazing towering rocks, gorgeous rainforest and waterfalls. An awesome, full-day, guided-tour experience; book through your accommodation or at the office near Sarakata Bridge.
Just 100m or so offshore from Mele Beach, Hideaway Island isn't all that hidden but it's one of Vila's favourite spots for snorkelling, diving or just enjoying lunch at the island's resort (nonguests can access the marine park until 4pm). The free ferry putts out from in front of the Beach Bar regularly and once on the island you can snorkel in the marine sanctuary, join a dive tour and send a waterproof postcard from the world's only underwater post office.
This excellent museum, in a soaring traditional building opposite the parliament, has a well-displayed collection of traditional artefacts such as tamtam (slit gongs or slit drums), outrigger canoes, ceremonial headdresses, shell jewellery and examples of Lapita and Wusi pottery. There's an interesting photographic display on the unearthing of Chief Roi Mata's burial site. One-hour guided tours include a traditional instrument demonstration and sand drawing.