The islands’ capital Port Villa on Efate Island is the epicenter of tourism activity. But Vanuatu’s greatest strength lies not in the natural beauty (as compelling as it is) but in the hospitality of its people. Unlike other island vacation destinations where you visit may be marred by unfair pricing and conniving trickery by locals, in Vanuatu you never feel under pressure to purchase anything. You do not have to linger long on the islands to understand why residents are regularly ranked among the happiest people on the planet.
In all, there are 12 major islands and tens of islets. The main islands are Efate, Erromango, Malekula, Espiritu Santo, Pentecost, Maewo, Ambae, Gaua, Epi, Tanna, Vanua Lava and Ambrym.
- National Museum of Vanuatu – Housed in a building that would qualify as a worthy attraction on its own, the National Museum has a substantial collection of cultural artifacts, photographs and videos.
- Lysepsep Culture Park – Like Ireland’s leprechauns, the Lysepsep were Santo Island’s first inhabitants. To this day, they continue to practice a secluded life in caves and banyans tucked away in the island’s central jungles and remote mountains. In fact, a good number of locals have never seen the Lysepsep. Adults are slightly over 3 feet tall and have very long hair. Since visitors have no guarantee of ever seeing the Lysepsep in their natural habitat, the Lysepsep Culture Park was setup to showcase their unique traditions and customs including food and dance.
- Yasur Volcano – Yasur is variously believed to be the most accessible active volcano in the world. A good four wheel drive vehicle can easily get to within 500 feet of the crater rim. The ash from Yasur’s bellowing crater has over the years blanketed the vegetation thus giving the surrounding landscape a desolate, lunar-like feel. The path leading to the rim is characterized by a lingering smell of sulfur and rumbling noises from below the ground. The classification of the volcano as active should not necessarily be a deterrent to ardent adventurers. Activity varies from hot and dangerous to calm and quiet.
- Vila Market – Busy and colorful, Vila Market in Port Vila is a 24-hour market that opens Monday morning and runs continuously until Saturday at noon. Edibles such as fruits, vegetables and ready-cooked meals, compete for space with firewood, flowers, jewelry and carvings. Prices are dirt cheap and you probably want to check this market first before going anywhere else to buy a souvenir. The fruits most abundant in the market are dictated by the season – wild raspberries dominate September, mangoes rule in November while passion fruits are king between March and May.
- Hiking – Vanuatu’s rugged terrain provides a wide range of spectacular options for hiking enthusiasts. One of the best trails is a two day journey that takes hikers through Lake Letas (one of the Pacific’s largest freshwater lakes), Mount Garet (a 2,600 foot semi active volcano) and the scenic Siri Falls.
- Boat Tours – There are numerous boat tours that take tourists between islands and past the most beautiful places in the archipelago. Choose from (among many other options) seeing the location of Survivor Vanuatu, diving sites at Paul’s Reef and Hat Island or the Emau crater lagoon.
How to Get There
Vanuatu’s main airport at Port Villa is well served by international flights to and from Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, New Caledonia and the Solomon Islands. The national carrier Air Vanuatu has a code sharing agreements with Qantas for its flights to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. While a flight would be the most practical means to get to Vanuatu, some major shipping lines operate cruises through Vanuatu e.g. P&O Cruises.
To foster tourism, Vanuatu’s government has exempted a large number of countries from visa requirements. These include all EU and Commonwealth member nations.
When to Travel
Vanuatu’s tourist season peaks between July and December. For this reason, January to June is the time to take advantage of off-peak discounts and the serenity of less crowded locations. Everything from flights to accommodation costs less. You have to however make do with the higher humidity and the occasional downpour.
The Vatu (abbreviated as VT) is Vanuatu’s local currency. There are many places you can change any major foreign currency to vatus. But just in case you need to make a purchase and do not have local denomination, you can rest in the comfort that most businesses accept major international credit/debit cards including MasterCard, VISA and American Express. Tipping is not mandatory nor is it expected. Neither is bargaining and haggling over price.
Accommodation is relatively affordable. For just 2000 vatus a night (approximately US$20), you can get decent accommodation in Luganville and Port Vila. The price often covers full service i.e. laundry and all meals. But if you want access to a wider range of amenities and do not mind spending more, there are several world class resorts. The largest, most popular and one of the oldest resorts is Le Lagon. In continuous operation for the last 30 years, Le Lagon offers discounted rates for kids. Other resorts include Nirvana, Erakor, Iririki and Poppys.
Vanuatu is the quintessential island vacation destination. If you are looking for a place that provides a seamless blend of beach attractions with a healthy dose of rainforests, hiking trails and rumbling volcanoes, this is it.