Excellent sailing, kayaking, fishing, diving, snorkelling, trekking – everything, actually – will call you, even extreme sports such as abseiling and parasailing. Golf courses and tennis courts are only in or near Port Vila and Luganville. The only squash courts are in Port Vila.
Vanuatu’s scuba sites include several world-class dives. Port Vila has a great range of underwater topography and a Corsair WWII fighter-plane wreck near Pele, amid fan corals and healthy reefs, while Santo’s offerings include the wreck of USS President Coolidge. The Lady and the President by Peter Stone covers the tragedy of war and delights of scuba diving.
World-standard game fishing is easy to organise here. Boats range from 9m to 42m, most equipped with the latest and highest quality gear. Light tackle fishing, reef fishing, river fishing – it’s all waiting to lure you onto the water, where the dogtooth or yellowfin tuna and wahoo abound. The catch will be tagged and released or given to villagers.
You can generally hire a canoe on the outer islands, or pay a villager to take you out in a speedboat. Go spear-fishing with the locals for green jobfish, or dive for crayfish, but bring an underwater torch and enough batteries for everyone.
There are prawns and eels in the rivers. Several islands, especially Efate, Aneityum, Santo, Erromango and Malekula, have fast-flowing creeks and broad estuaries that provide good catches. Gaua and Ambae boast large crater lakes where prawns and eels are the main attraction.
Always check who owns the water and the fish in it before casting your line. Fishing gear is available in Port Vila and Luganville, but it’s best to go prepared in other areas.
The cooler months of July and August are perfect for hiking and trekking. Vanuatu has many fine walks, including strenuous two- to five-day hikes on Erromango, Ambrym, Santo, Pentecost, Vanua Lava, Gaua and Malekula. You can organise walks yourself (guides cost between 1000VT and 3000VT per day), through your host or a tour operator. Don’t set out alone with a map – all roads change dramatically during cyclones and mud slides or disappear under a 1m-high layer of vine. Without a local guide you’ll quickly be up you-know-where.
Always carry plenty of drinking water. Cotton trousers and long-sleeved shirts will protect you from sunburn, mosquitoes and the dreaded nanggalat plant, whose large, purple-veined leaves produce painful weals that hurt for a week (islanders use the sap from the plant’s roots as an antidote). Warm clothing and rain jackets are appropriate in many areas, particularly at high altitudes.
Solid walking boots are essential. Wet, slippery conditions are common, as are sharp volcanic rock paths, and tree roots to trip you. A tent is necessary for treks in unpopulated areas, but you can often hire one. Make sure your food is always secure from cockroaches and rats.
There are stacks of places where you can walk out from the shore and see brilliant, pristine coral: Hideaway Island, Nguna, Tanna, Bokissa, Vanua Lava, Mystery Island, it’s a long list. There are also boat tours for snorkellers, or you can join a scuba group.
If you’re travelling to outer islands, take your own snorkel gear and ask villagers for permission to use their beach.
Some beaches have stunning fine white sand, azure diamond-clear water, fringes of palms and little reefs of coral a few steps out from shore. Some are several kilometres long. Others are tiny windswept breaks between cliffs, with driftwood and rocks. Many beaches in Vanuatu have black sand, while others are based on dead coral and black volcanic rock. Sharks and strong currents are a major risk at many island beaches, so seek local advice before plunging in.
Visiting Archaeological Sites
Almost all islands have relics, including the sites of ancient villages, ceremonial grounds and burial places. Stone foundations and dry-stone walls are common – the stone monoliths that mark old dancing grounds are widespread in northern areas, particularly Gaua.
Aneityum has interesting ancient irrigation systems and prehistoric petroglyphs (rock carvings) representing the sun, moon and animals. North Pentecost and Maewo also have petroglyph sites.
Every archaeological site has a traditional owner; you must ask permission to see it and possibly pay a small entry fee.
The islands’ wildlife is a highlight when you swim near a coral reef or among the turtles or dugongs. Apart from marine fauna, however, you’ll only see birds and small lizards. Great areas for bird enthusiasts include the lake on Gaua, which has a large population of ducks; the cloud forests of Santo, home to the endemic mountain starling; Emae, for its peregrine falcons; and tiny Laika, off Epi, which has a colony of shearwaters (mutton birds). In forested areas there are parrots and pigeons – you may not see them, but you’ll certainly hear them.
Charter a cruising trimaran with skipper and crew:
Operators in Port Vila and Luganville organise tours and activities in and around Efate and Santo, as well as throughout Vanuatu. You'll find a range of inbound, locally run tour companies next to Port Vila’s market.
Outside Port Vila, many of the places offering accommodation also run tours, such as guided walks or traditional dances, usually on private or customary land. You’ll often pay a guiding fee as well as an entrance fee to the land owners.
There’s an impressive selection of luxury hotels and resorts in and around Port Vila and, to a lesser extent, on Santo and Tanna. Other islands have a varying range of budget or medium-priced bungalows or guesthouses. Here, meals are simple affairs and are often included in the room rate.
On the most isolated islands communication is by word of mouth, transport is by foot and there’s no money to fix things that break. You’ll be pampered in the locals’ happy-go-lucky, warm style. If you’ve paid for everything back in your own country or are on a tour from Port Vila, take cash to cover all drinks, pay upfront for extras (such as kastom – traditional ownership – fees), and don’t be surprised if your host has no money to give in change (always carry some small denomination notes). If you’ve booked island accommodation through an agency, be aware that your hosts may receive only a tiny portion of the payment and, even then, they may not receive it until after you’ve gone. At the end of your stay, you’ll be presented with a handwritten bill, which will probably include an itemised list. A lot of time and thought goes into preparing these bills, so it’s not really something to quibble about unless you really disagree with a certain charge.
Outside of main towns, bungalows are the most common form of island accommodation; these are quaint, thatched bamboo or timber huts, usually with verandahs and plaited pandanus-leaf walls. Floors range from concrete slabs to sand or crushed shells. Owners usually take great pride in the bungalows, but it’s hard to keep them spotless when only a few tourists arrive each year, if your extended family needs somewhere to sleep and there’s a community of geckos living in the roof.
You might find communication difficult (mobile-phone coverage can be patchy on outer islands), and remote island bungalows can be at the peril of cyclones, changing tides and arguing families. Get local advice (Port Vila's tourist office is the best source) or just head there regardless; you’ll always find somewhere to stay.
Some hosts can’t wait to show you all the treats the island offers; they'll catch fresh seafood for meals, and will head off at 4.30am for an hour’s walk to the nearest boat so that it’s waiting ready for you at 7am. Others may leave you to find your own way around, and offer only a loaf of bread and cup of tea in the morning.
Staying in a bungalow generally costs around 2000VT to 3500VT per person (not per room). This often includes meals, but check in advance as you may need to take you own food. Luxuries are rare: most island bungalows have only solar lighting and occasional generator power in the evenings, and often there's no running water, so expect bucket showers and long-drop toilets. Be prepared for hard beds, lack of warm bedding, holes in the mosquito nets and a chorus of roosters acting as your personal alarm clock from 4am. But the locations – on waterfront clifftops, in pristine jungle or in the shadow of brooding volcano – along with warm family welcomes, make up for all of that.
For photos of remote bungalows, and how to get there, visit Positive Earth (www.positiveearth.org/bungalows).
Most island bungalows and guesthouses will let you use their grounds and facilities for camping (around 1000VT per person). If you want to pitch your tent on a remote beach, the local chief will probably give his approval. Camping is popular on organised overnight hikes to the volcanoes of Ambrym or treks on Malekula and Santo; tents can be supplied. There's a camping ground at Havannah Harbour on Efate.
Guesthouses, Resthouses & Nakamals
It’s unusual but possible to ask to stay in a women’s meeting room or church hall, or in someone’s house, though these days most communities that attract tourists have a formal bungalow set-up (to which you'll be directed).
Young males might be offered a spot in the village nakamal (meeting house and kava bar), in exchange for an evening’s toktok (discussion). You’ll need bedding and protection against mosquitoes (sometimes fleas and rats, too).
Resorts, Hotels & Motels
Port Vila dominates Vanuatu’s tourist industry and has accommodation to match. Reasonable budget options start at 5000VT for a double, and single rates are often half, or open to negotiation. Expect ceiling fans; air conditioning will be a bonus or will cost extra if you want it turned on.
Midrange options are priced between 8000VT and 20,000VT for a double room, and could include resort-style or motel-style rooms, usually with a swimming pool and restaurant. Top-end hotels and resorts start at around 20,000VT for a double or twin room and range from intimate beachfront places to full-blown family resorts with water sports and kids clubs.
You can usually negotiate a rate for long stays. If you're a walk-in traveller, ask about 'local rates', which can be substantially lower than those listed online, especially if it's quiet. Children under 12 are often free.
The following price ranges refer to a double room in high season:
$ less than 8000VT
$$$ more than 20,000VT
Vanuatu’s tropical climate and fertile lands bless it with fresh seafood, succulent meats, organic tropical fruits and fresh-from-the-garden vegetables. However, the availability of foods can be affected by the vagaries of seasonal changes, cyclones, earthquakes, drought and transport difficulties. Food crops, including most of the fruit plantations, were damaged or wiped out by Cyclone Pam in March 2015, creating food shortages worsened by drought and severe water shortages. Some estimates say it will take five years to fully recover.
Staples & Specialities
Ni-Van families have their first meal – a chunky slice of bread – around the open fire as the sun comes up. Bread is baked in the small metal wood-fired ovens that you see throughout the countryside, or in a pot over an open fire. Children take a banana-leaf-wrapped bundle of rice (which is mostly imported) with them to school. The evening meal will be vegetables from the family’s garden. Village families live mainly on vegetarian or fish diets, eating meat when it’s freshly available since there’s usually no refrigeration. If the yield from the garden is inadequate, the family eats very little.
Markets sell produce grown in village gardens, when available: look for coconuts, pineapples, bananas, pawpaw, yams, cucumbers, grapefruit, carrots and tomatoes, as well as cooked foods such as the national dishes laplap and tuluk (smaller parcels of laplap).
Laplap, Vanuatu’s national dish, is made by grating manioc, taro roots or yams into a doughy paste. The mixture is put onto taro or wild spinach leaves and soaked in coconut cream. Pieces of pork, beef, poultry, fish, prawns or flying fox are often added. Leaves from the laplap plant (similar to banana leaves) are wrapped around the doughy mix, tied up with strands of vine and then placed in a ground oven, with hot stones above and below. Nalot is a dish made from roasted taro, banana or breadfruit mixed with coconut cream.
Local specialities found in restaurants on Port Vila include roussette (flying fox or fruit bat) and nautou (green-winged ground pigeon). Roussette and nautou are almost edible when served au vin (in red wine). Poulet fish is common and delicious. River prawns are delicate, but best of all is Tahitian fish salad: the fish is marinated in lime juice, then sweetened with coconut milk. Beef, from those contented Charolais and Limousin cows wandering around the coconut plantations, is also excellent.
Coconut is naturally a ubiquitous staple. It is used in five stages of ripeness: the first (young coconut) is for drinking; the next has a tasty jellied flesh; the third, when the flesh is firm but succulent, is the best for eating; the fourth is for drying into copra (coconut fibre); and the fifth is when the nut sprouts while the milk inside goes crispy, making ‘coconut ice cream’.
Other edible fruits include nakatambol, clustered cherry-sized fruits that turn yellow when ripe, and naus, which is similar to mango. You’ll also probably see the rose-apple tree; its small pink-and-white fruit has apple-like flesh beneath its skin. Villagers flavour their food with its blossom, known as the kae kae flaoa (food flower).
Several edible nuts are grown; these include cut-nuts, also called narli-nuts or island chestnuts, and nangae, an oval nut-containing fruit that tastes like an almond.
A man taking a nimangki grade will provide a magnificent feast. He lines up scores of pigs and walks along, killing selected animals with blows to the head, touching others to show that they’ll be slaughtered later. He then presents woven mats and sufficient yams and taro for the lavish meal.
For a lad’s circumcision celebration, the father holds a grand feast. Villagers dress in wildly colourful costumes, with face and body paint, and amazing headpieces. Miles of bright material form shade-screens, and peacock feathers are used as decorations. Dancing lasts all through the night to celebrate the rite of passage of the boy. Adding to the colour are huge piles of gifts – food, mats and baskets – paid to the paternal extended family.
Feasts are prepared for every festival and anniversary, for a new house, for someone arriving or leaving, for births, deaths and many other reasons. The women work together throughout the day, preparing laplap and nalot. The men catch fish and a pig is slaughtered. For a large gathering, it might be a cow. Everybody calmly wanders around selecting food and sitting on the ground in small groups to eat it with their fingers.
Dining can be hit-and-miss in Vanuatu and variety lacking as a result of changing availability of ingredients, especially on the outer islands; but pick a winner (sublime crab perhaps, or perfectly cooked organic steak) and you’ll remember it for months.
Port Vila is by far the best place in Vanuatu for eating out, although there are also some good restaurants on Santo and a few on Tanna. Resort dining is usually of a high standard. There are numerous independent cafes and restaurants in Vila and Luganville where you can get pizzas, burgers, local lobster or bouillabaise. Most large resorts in Port Vila have at least one island 'feast night' weekly, when food is served buffet style accompanied by dancing and other entertainment.
Restaurants are hard to find in more remote regions, and many bungalows include meals with your stay for this reason. If you do see a local restaurant, call in. Some are surprisingly good despite the restricted menu, though with little refrigeration they may only remain open until the available food is gone.
If you’re staying in a bungalow, you’ll usually be eating what your host cooks up. It’s worth keeping in mind that access to fresh food (and funds to buy it with) can be limited (this is especially the case since Cyclone Pam). Unfortunately, in the outer villages convenience has taken over from tradition and taste, and your stay in a bungalow might be accompanied by a meal of tinned beef mashed over instant noodles or a large pile of boiled rice. This can be a cost-saving exercise on behalf of the bungalow; if you're willing to pay a bit more, when you arrive ask your hosts about what they serve for dinner and make some suggestions, such as fresh fish or vegetarian dishes.
Dining at the bigger town or resort restaurants in Vila or Santo is rarely cheap; expect 3000VT plus for a main meal, particularly if it involves seafood. At local markets you can get filling, tasty meals for 400VT. Supermarkets in Vila and Luganville carry local and imported foods.
Where they exist, most bars and pubs have a fairly good western-style food menu. BYO snacks to kava bars.
It’s called the peace drug. Its hallucinogenic properties make your mind happy and you feel clever. You love the rhythm of talk. Many people wouldn’t consider a day complete without a couple of ‘shells’ of the stuff.
Kava has a pungent, muddy and slightly peppery taste. It looks like dirty dishwater, and many say it doesn’t taste much better. But it’s not that bad. Kava etiquette dictates that you should down the shell in one go (first-timers should opt for the half shell). Your lips will go numb and cold; your limbs become heavy; and you’ll probably want to do nothing more than think about life. Also, your eyes become sensitive to light, so flashbulbs are intrusive.
Kava ceremonies are held to welcome visitors, seal alliances, begin chiefly conferences, and commemorate births, deaths and marriages. For such occasions, there are strict rules for preparing and drinking kava. On Tanna, for example, prepubescent boys prepare the roots by chewing them into a mush that is mixed with water and filtered through coconut fibres (don’t worry, just ask which nakamals use a grinder). First the chief drinks, followed by any honoured guests, then other men in order of precedence. Etiquette requires drinking each shell in a single gulp. Also, it’s drunk in a quiet atmosphere.
Kava drinking is traditionally an exclusively male activity surrounded by all sorts of tabu. However, these days most islands have places where women are welcome to partake. If you’re asked to join kava drinkers, consider yourself honoured, as the invitation amounts to a formal welcome.
Known botanically as Piper methysticum, a relation of the pepper plant, kava is grown in damp places, often around the edge of a taro paddy field, and is one of Vanuatu's major cash crops. Many islands claim to grow the best kava but Tanna's is said to be the most potent and Pentecost's some of the best.
Long-term use of kava can result in liver and kidney damage, and there’s little doubt that its use also causes loss of productivity, though kava is never consumed before 5pm. You can recognise a kava bar by its single red or green light.
Local village stores on Vanuatu's outer islands – where they exist – may be limited to shelves full of tinned food, packet noodles, biscuits, a few sacks of imported rice and (with luck) some fresh bread. Stock up on snacks and treats in Port Vila or Luganville for those long truck rides or airstrip waits. Also seek out the local village market, where you can buy fresh produce and seafood.
Sidebar: Island Edibles
Island Edibles, by Judy MacDonnell, is an illustrated and informative work with great recipes (think island cabbage dolmadesand Tahitian sushi) and translations from Bislama into English.
In times of plenty Futuna islanders wind-dry a mash of bananas or breadfruit, wrap it in laplap leaves and bury it in dry ground, which provides a food reserve during cyclones or drought.
Nangae trees grow wild in Vanuatu, and their nuts, the nangae nut (or Canarium), are in worldwide demand for their oil. There’s huge potential in Vanuatu for these nuts to generate much-needed income for communities – though getting the harvesting right is important. The Summit, in Port Vila, produces nangae oil for sale.
Sidebar: Local Delicacies
One of Port Vila's oldest restaurants, L'Houstalet, is famous for its local delicacies: wild pigeon and stuffed flying fox.
The following price ranges refer to the price of a main meal:
$ less than 1500VT
$$$ more than 3000VT
Drinking & Nightlife
Fresh coconut juice is a cheap and refreshing drink. If you want to drink coconuts straight off the tree ask the kastom (traditional) owner or your guide. They’ll hold it in their open hand; whack, whack with the bush knife, and it’s yours. Elsewhere they're available at markets or from street stalls in villages.
Look out for Tanna coffee, a strong brew grown on Tanna island and roasted in Port Vila. A few cafes in Vila and Luganville have European-style coffee machines; everywhere else it's instant coffee.
Vanuatu’s main locally produced beer, Tusker, is a decent brew and widely available, from Port Vila’s supermarkets to remote island stores and bungalows. Its sale may be limited to one shop in some towns. Spirits and wine are relatively expensive.
The major supermarkets carry a good range of French and Australian wines and spirits, and Australian and local beers.