Vanuatu is a tropical paradise the likes of which are usually only spotted on postcards or in the pages of travel brochures. Any visitor’s trip to the country will usually begin on the South Pacific’s main island of Efate, where Vanuatu’s largest international airport Bauerfield is located. From here, many people island hop to the country’s outlying islands either by boat or domestic flight. But there is plenty to do around Efate island and in the capital city of Port Vila to justify more than a couple of days’ stay. The island has a range of accommodation options for all budgets, from top notch resorts to backpacker hideouts, and has a host of activities on offer to entertain culture vultures or nature lovers.
With 83 islands, there is no shortage of waterfalls across Vanuatu. But the Mele Cascades are the most famous in the country. Here water tumbles down limestone rocks into natural plunge pools, all set in a lush jungle. Adventurous visitors can hike to the top using the footholds cut into the slippery rocks, or abseil down one of the drops.
“Vanuatu waterfalls are more like natural water adventure parks, with arrays of torrents surrounded by rock pools, caves, springs and waterways,” says Lea Faccarello, from the Vanuatu Tourism Office. “At Mele, you can climb to the spectacular main 35m (115ft) cascades then cool off at the base in crystal clear pools.” This popular spot, 10km (6.2mi) away from Port Vila, can get very crowded when a cruise ship is in town. Try and time a visit for a day when the harbour is empty.
Vanuatu’s archipelago is world renowned for its scuba diving opportunities, and although it might sound surprising so close to a capital city, some of the country’s most famous dive sites are right on Port Vila’s doorstep. This includes a dive site named The Cathedral, a huge underwater cavern which divers can swim all the way into. Its name reportedly comes from the effect of the light as it filters through into the cavern through the open roof, giving it a dappled appearance like that of a Cathedral’s stained glass window. Divers can swim into the cavern through a gap 22m (72ft) under the water’s surface. Lots of different species of fish hide in the cavern, and critter hunters can also spot neon-coloured nudibranchs, shrimp and the elusive leaf scorpionfish.
The key is in the name at this popular café on Port Vila’s main seafront promenade, a top spot amongst locals and tourists alike. Meaning ‘Number One’ in Bislama, this café serves excellent pizzas and delicious cups of coffee grown on Vanuatu’s southern island of Tanna. Regular moonlight movie nights are also held throughout the week, with the projector being set up against the magical backdrop of Port Vila’s waterfront. “For breakfast or to watch the sunset over the harbour of Port Vila, Nambawan Café is a great spot to mingle with locals,” says Faccarello. “Try the amazing Vanuatu coffee in the morning,” she adds. “But be careful it is as strong as the volcanic soil it grew in.”
A short walk outside Port Vila’s city centre, this small museum is an Aladdin’s cave of information. Learn all about the history and traditions of Vanuatu’s people, known as the Ni-Van, and their vibrant Melanesian culture. Artefacts gathered from all over Vanuatu’s 83 islands are housed in a large open room, including examples of matt weaving and masks. There are also several displays dedicated to boar tusks – so important to Vanuatu that it is one of the important symbols represented on the country’s national flag. Highlights include the giant slit gongs that you see dotted all over Vanuatu, and the scale models of the platforms built by the land divers of Pentecost Island. There are also sand drawing demonstrations, traditional storytelling and musical performances on bamboo instruments.
A trip to the busy market in the centre of Port Vila is a colourful experience – luminous yellow bananas are stacked high next to vibrant green coconuts, purple aubergines, and piles of yam. When in season, grab a pot of Vanuatu’s famously sweet and juicy raspberries, or crunch on some peanuts after cracking through their muddy shells. Also watch out for giant coconut crabs – the largest and most powerful land crabs in the world – which you can often spot with their claws strung up with coconut fibres in preparation for the cookpot. Faccarello explains: “To truly appreciate the bounty of Vanuatu’s fertile volcanic soil, stroll through the stalls in Port Vila’s Market House, where a rainbow of tempting produce and flowers is piled high and peddled by ever-smiling mamas.” Vanuatu is leading the global charge against plastic waste and since 2018 is completely plastic bag-free, so do not be surprised when your shopping comes wrapped in banana leaves instead of a bag.
With 2,528km (1,571mi) of spectacular coastline, Vanuatu’s islands are a key stop for yachties sailing around the South Pacific. And many of them visit Port Vila to stock up on supplies like peanut butter and chicken stock in the city’s Au Bon Marche supermarket. Their boats are either moored on buoys off the shore, or parked up in rows at the marina along the city’s main waterfront, and one of the best places to see them is from Le Café du Village. Order a Tusker beer and sit under the bougainvillea-covered terrace while marvelling at everything from superyachts to sailing boats. The restaurant’s menu is packed with fresh seafood dishes, and is an excellent place to try Vanuatu’s famous coconut crab.
More than a hundred stalls are packed into these two purpose-built handicrafts markets on Port Vila’s waterfront. Local craftsmen display their work on wooden tables, with everything from bags and mats woven from pandanus leaves, to T-shirts designed for tourists. Perhaps the most spectacular stalls are those selling magnificent wooden sculptures including masks and slit gongs, all copies of traditional designs. “Pick up a couple of mementoes in one of our two main handicraft markets in the centre of Port Vila, both worth a visit and dedicated to promoting locally made products,” says Faccarello. “Pick up an intricate wooden carving, a woven basket or hand-beaded necklace as a reminder of your time on Efate.” There is guidance published around the market for what products are suitable for Australia and New Zealand’s strict customs laws.
Sitting on a large island in the middle of Port Vila’s natural harbour is Iririki Island Resort and Spa. It is hard to believe this secluded paradise is only a three-minute ferry ride from Port Vila’s busy city centre. The resort accepts day guests for all those who want to get away from it all but have not arranged to stay at the resort. Relax by the hotel’s infinity pools or snorkel around the lively reefs that ring the island. Paddleboards, kayaks and small sailing boats are also available if guests want to venture further from the shore. Follow the coast around to the south when leaving Iririki’s boathouse to see the shipwrecks washed ashore during Cyclone Pam in 2015. It is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable the country is to climate change and how devastating tropical storms here can be.
Vanuatu’s island Espiritu Santo is world-famous for its blue holes, but many people do not know that Efate also has one of these incredible natural swimming pools. The water is so clear in this lagoon the bottom can be seen 6m (20ft) below; the aquamarine water contrasting beautifully with the lush green jungle around it. Hire a car or a quad bike in Port Vila and set off around the island’s ring road, stopping at not only the blue lagoon but the many beaches and villages along the way. Lea says: “With just two and a half hours in the car over the whole day, the around-the-island road trip on Efate is filled with exciting destinations to keep everyone happy. “One of the popular stops is the Blue Lagoon, the largest natural swimming pool on the island. “Embrace your inner Tarzan and jump on the rope swing.”
Vanuatu is home to two of the most unique post offices on the planet. Mount Yasur on Tanna Island is home to the only post box on a live volcano, while Hideaway Island also has the only underwater post box in the world. Only a ten-minute drive from Port Vila, guests can send a waterproof postcard as they snorkel around Hideaway’s incredible coral reefs, teeming with marine life. Faccarello says, “Writing postcards to your family and friends could be the boring part of holidays, but not in Vanuatu. “A short swim from the beach in Hideaway Island, you can send a waterproof postcard back home from the world’s only underwater post office.” Stay in one of the island resort’s beachfront villas or ocean view bungalows, or visit the post box by taking advantage of the resort’s day guest offer.