Work (and play) recently brought us to our nearby neighboring country Vanuatu for a week and the quick synopsis is: beautiful! For those of you that don’t know, Vanuatu is an independent island nation that is just a 50 minute plane ride from Noumea. It being a former French colony, I’d expected a lot of French language but this was definitely not the case. Tons more Aussie tourists here than in New Caledonia and most signs are in English instead of French. Although Vanuatu is not a financially rich nation by far, the people are definitely the most genuinely happy group I’ve ever encountered. For what it’s worth, some past Lonely Planet survey actually rates them as the happiest nation on earth.
People here typically speak about four languages including English, French, Bislama (the local pidgin), and their village languages – truly impressive. English being in that list means catching taxi buses, asking directions, etc., all become super easy.
We have some serious supermarket envy what with the huge selection of ethnic spices, black beans (nowhere to be found in Noumea so far…), cheap staples, and, oh yeah, the giant outdoor market with the most delicious and inexpensive fruits open 24 hours! Prices here seem much more reasonable than Noumea but maybe were just jaded…
As for activities, there’s plenty to do provided you enjoy the outdoors. While one of us was working during the week, the other got to do some exploring:
Snorkeling at Iririki
There is a small island/resort just a 5 minute boat ride across the water from downtown Port Vila where we went snorkeling, had a look around, and got some meh food. 1500 Vatu (about 15 $US) gets you the boat ticket which is redeemable for food, drinks, etc. on the island. There is a little “snorkelers cove” with a dock and gear hire if you don’t have your own. The water is very warm compare to New Caledonia due to the currents so that’s another nice thing about Vanuatu. The snorkeling here was not amazing in terms of coral or fish but still plenty relaxing and easy to get to.
Exploring Port Vila
The main city in Vanuatu is Port Vila and is home to a long strip of restaurants, curio shops, junk stores, tourist info centers, dive shops, markets, and hotels. The buses are very easy – wave one down (they’re very frequent) , pay 150 VT, and let them know where you want to go. Easy. The city is small enough that you could walk across the whole thing in an hour or so. The centerpiece of Vila is the main city market. An open air pavilion houses rows and rows of people selling fresh bananas, coconuts, bundles of wriggling crabs, giant sacks of yams, tropical fruit, fish, and lots more. Definitely puts the Noumea market to shame in terms of quantity and price. A few blocks away, some more market pavilions hold rows of colorful fabrics, sarongs, hand-sewn bags, and dresses that are locally made and grabbing a fresh meal is no problem anywhere (except maybe Sunday afternoon).
Saturday morning we were up early to do 2 dives on the reef (14000 VT with gear hire). We met up at Nautilus waterspouts where we sized our gear, hopped on the boat, and motored out for about 30 minutes where we (just us 2 and one other guy plus 2 folks from the dive shop) went in. Not a ton of huge fish or anything particularly notable, but we saw plenty of healthy, colorful coral, tropical fish, and a huge cuttlefish that was changing color for us. After our first dive we had morning tea and snacks on board while we headed to the second dive site. More of the same at the second dive but still a good day. I think this was the first time we could have foregone our wet suits – the water was so warm!
A city bus, will take you out about 10 minutes outside of Vila to the Mele area. It costs either 200VT or 300VT depending on the driver’s mood. This is an excellent example of tourism actually helping preserve an area rather than harm it. The 2000VT admission price seemed steep at first but after waking through the base camp with showers, a small bar and restaurant, and other amenities, climbing up the well maintained trail, and standing under a 100 ft waterfall, the price seemed totally worth it. The trail sends you first up some concrete steps then a gravel trail through the jungle. After crossing the river a few times, using the rope handholds, the river opens up into dozens of pools, crystal clear water cascading between them. From this point on it is definitely barefoot territory (or wear reef shoes). At this point the river becomes the trail with a rope handhold to guide you, a few steps carved into the riverbed for the steep spots, and smooth river stone under your feet. If you look closely you will see a variety of freshwater fish and maybe some eels. After walking up the river a few minutes, the clearing at the base of the waterfall appears and you can bask in the beautiful waterfall rolling over the lush cliff. Definitely a Kodak moment here. Your 2000VT goes to good use maintaining the land, keeping the area clean, and allowing the locals to share this natural beauty with its visitors. On our way down we spent plenty of time playing in the freshwater pools and mini waterfalls. Definitely a must-do if you visit the area.
Erakor island is another small island near Port Vila. 200VT to a bus gets you to the dock which works very similarly to Iririki – pay the fee (1000VT) for the boat, and then spend the voucher on food/drinks on the island. This was a nice little resort island with good snorkeling – better than Iririki by far. It was interesting to see how different the marine life was here compared to the other places we’ve been around Vanuatu. There were tons of big sea stars and snails, and even a huge jellyfish that I’d never seen before. I was in for a pretty big shock when all of a sudden the current started pulling out veeeerrry hard. Wondering what was happening, I headed to shore and got out as the current reversed and started coming in hard. Turns out there was an earthquake in the region at the time which caused a mini-tsunami here in Vanuatu! The damages were pretty minimal – some beach chairs got swamped, some folk got scared, and the dock was temporarily submerged. It’s scary how suddenly it all occurred and no warning was sounded. By the looks of it, warning signals were pretty mixed in New Caledonia too.
To end our journey, we decided to relax and stay a few nights at Hideaway Island. This is another small island off of the main island and is near the Cascade Waterfall area. The snorkeling here was some of the best we’ve ever seen anywhere – super clear water, a good mix of deep and shallow reef areas, a huge variety of fish large and small, and nice warm water. There was even an underwater post office where you can send a waterproof post card back home to make everyone even more jealous of your travels. I think the photos speak better than my words so we’ll leave it at that.
We had a good time in Vanuatu and will surely be returning in the future for more work and exploring. We definitely want to visit Tanna and see the volcano and probably some other islands for a better view of some small villages and their customs (and of course their nakamals).
P.S. – when a cruise ship is in the harbor, the town and all of these activities are completely overrun and many of the cruisers are very… umm… inconsiderate… to the locals (and seemingly each other). Also the bus fares seem to go up unless you look like a native. AVOID cruise ship days!