If you have never been to Vanuatu, we believe you should put it high on your priority list of places to visit. If you have been before but not in the past 4 or 5 years, it’s time to think of a return trip. Vanuatu has become a “must visit” South Pacific destination over recent times, but first, a little history. Although he was, by no means, the first European to “discover” this place, Captain James Cook named the island group the “New Hebrides”. Both the English and the French laid claim to it, so, to avoid trouble, for around 75 years before Independence the New Hebrides and its predominantly Melanesian people were under the influence of joint British and French colonial rule. Vanuatu only gained its independence from its colonisers in 1980. As a result of the colonial history, visitors will notice a French influence in street and place names and in the cuisine, especially in the country’s capital Port Vila which is located on the island of Efate, and in Luganville, the main town on the northern island of Espiritu Santo. English, French and the local language, Bislama, are all Official Languages and are widely spoken alongside well over 100 other languages that are in daily use throughout the islands. James A. Michener, the American author, was one of thousands of soldiers stationed in Vanuatu during WW11 and it was while living on Espiritu Santo that he wrote “Tales of The South Pacific” on which the musical “South Pacific” is based. There is a definite Michener influence still to be found today. The cosmopolitan harbour-side capital Port Vila, the ancient and modern Melanesian culture, the great variety of natural attractions and a wide range of good quality tourist facilities add up to a wonderful holiday destination to explore and enjoy only 3 hours flying time from Auckland.
There are normally 4 direct flights a week between Auckland and Port Vila and there are also flights from Nadi and Noumea so it is feasible to consider a combination holiday including Vanuatu and Fiji or Vanuatu and New Caledonia. There are extensive local services by air from Port Vila to all Vanuatu’s main islands. It is a 50 minute flight between Port Vila and Luganville on the island of Santo to the north and a 40 minute flight between Port Vila and Lenarkel on the island of Tanna to the south.
OUR Efate Island
The International Airport is only around 10 minutes drive from Port Vila. The main places to stay are clustered around the town or within 10 km of the town, although there are very special places to stay on the 132 km ring road around the island too. There is a wide range of accommodation types from spectacular boutique beach resorts and International-style resorts to city hotels and motels and Our Specialists know them all well.
There is something quite different about the Port Vila area for a holiday and we’ll try to explain it for you. In most South Pacific countries, the capital is built around a deep water harbour and usually on the side of the island that gets the highest rainfall; take Suva Fiji as a prime example of this. In many cases the resorts are a considerable distance away from the Capital. Not so with Port Vila. This charming Capital nestles on Port Vila Harbour and this harbour is the centre of recreation activity as well as providing a pretty backdrop to the town. There are cruise ship visits almost every week and the cruise ships pass close to the town to berth nearby. Cruising yachts, deep sea fishing boats and dive boats come and go and the locals use the harbour to get to and from town from their homes around the bay and on the islands scattered in the bay. There is sailing, parasailing, kayaking, jet boat rides and sunset cruises on the harbour. It’s a great place to be. One of Vanuatu’s many unusual tourist features is the resorts that are located on islands which are only a minute or two by boat off the mainland. Around Port Vila, these are Hideaway Island Resort in Mele Bay and Iririki Island Resort which is right in the middle of Port Vila Harbour. We love being able to stay at a resort on a tropical island and while enjoying the laid-back island resort atmosphere, being able to pop over to town any time a downtown café, nightclub, casino, restaurant or a spot of shopping beckons and then taking the short trip back to the tropical island to continue to enjoy all the quietness and seclusion that an island resort offers.
If the “Island near the city” concept doesn’t appeal there are plenty of places to stay in Port Vila itself, like The Grand Hotel and Casino – there are others and Our Specialists can match the best one to your requirements. We have uptown and downtown hotels/motels/lodges too. A short drive away from Port Vila Harbour on a series of sheltered lagoons, there are major resorts like Warwick's Le Lagon, The Holiday Inn and a big selection of boutique resorts, some for families, others for adults only, some with self-catering units, others with intimate restaurants. All of them facing one or other of several sheltered and linked lagoons and all of them very handy to Port Vila. Then there is Pango Point with one coastline on the harbour and the other facing the open sea and once again, there are lovely resorts here too. Around the point on the opposite side of Port Vila Harbour from Pango Point you enter Mele Bay. Here there are also small intimate resorts to be found and all of them only a few minutes from town. You don't need a rental car to get to these great spots as there is an excellent mini bus service in Port Vila - just hail the driver (the mini buses are not immediately recognisable but licensed mini buses have a "B" at the beginning of their number plates) and for around $2 each the driver will take you door to door!
If you are staying on the "mainland" you are still welcome to visit the small islands near the city and that makes a great day out, just go to the jetty and the island boat will be there shortly to pick you up. Iririki Island Resort will charge you the equivalent of around $20 per person for a "Day Pass" which you pay for on arrival at the island's security centre. You get a full credit of this amount in the Island's food and bar outlets.
Apart from water–borne activities there are plenty of other activities to be enjoyed around Port Vila. There are excellent restaurants and cafes, local markets, casinos, clubs, pubs, supermarkets, boutiques and shops. A few minutes south you come across Club Hippique which is a high quality and very professional horse-riding operation. They specialise in rainforest rides, swim horses etc. Bordering on Mele Bay you’ll find the 18 hole Port Vila Golf and Country Club and visitors are welcome to play on this well-maintained course. Not too far past the Golf Club you come to The Cascades which is a wonderful waterfall area where the fresh, clear water runs off the plateau and down to the ocean in a series of lovely cascades – it’s a great spot to visit, play and picnic. Don’t overlook the cultural aspect of Vanuatu either. The resorts will offer special cultural events and they are great. However, do consider the tour out to Ekasup Village on the Erakor peninsular to take part in the whole experience of custom dancing, learn about the old ways of life in Vanuatu, bush medicine, the coconut tree of life and hear about what part cannibalism played in the history of the people. There is a very good National Museum in Port Vila opposite the Vanuatu Parliament buildings on the first rise behind the town.
A trip around Efate is a good day trip from Port Vila, but a better idea is to spend a night or two (or more), at one of several very special spots along the way. Our Specialists can organise a rental car for you. The road right around the island is 132 km long and fully sealed. Even though ring road is sealed it is still a good idea to hire a 4WD as you will want to get off the bitumen to see Eton Beach, Banana Bay, White Sands etc. Travelling clockwise from Port Vila you pass around Mele Bay. Have a look at Nippers Bar – you will want to come back here another day, then climb the steep grade up Klem’s Hill to the top of the plateau. The views over Hideaway Island and Mele Bay are spectacular from the top of Klem’s Hill. The road will take you across the island and you’ll soon arrive at the coast again where the road overlooks the aptly-named “Hat Island” and Lelepa Island which forms the western end of Havannah Harbour. Havannah Harbour is a sheltered deep-water harbour with crystal clear water where dugongs and dolphins live and play. There is an excellent day trip from Port Vila that takes you to the village and caves on Lelepa Island. The road dips back to sea level and you will soon arrive at Samoa Point and the deluxe up-market couples only resort “The Havannah”. What a great spot. You could spend your entire holiday here or take a short break from Port Vila – Our Specialists can assist you with a booking at The Havannah (Enjoy the “resident” dugongs). On the circle Island drive, you might decide to stay for lunch – it’s a perfect setting. Close by is Port Havannah and this is the jumping off spot for The Tranquillity Island Eco Tourism & Dive Resort where you can stay in rustic cabins or you may decide to come back another day on a Coongoola Day trip to Tranquillity Island Resort for great swimming, a BBQ lunch and get up close and personal to the turtles. Coongoola is a lovely comfortable old sailing ketch which plies the waters of Havannah Harbour. The road climbs back up on to the plateau and comes down again at Siviri. Siviri, where there are some interesting caves, marks the eastern end of Havannah Harbour. You get lovely views of large off-shore islands here. Soon you will arrive at the jumping off point for Kakula Island. Now, here is something a bit interesting. Kakula is a perfect tropical island which is destined for a top-end tourism development, but meantime, there is an opportunity to experience the island if arrangements are made in advance. Further on at Beachcomber Hot Springs, 55 km from Port Vila, it is probably time for lunch (if you weren’t tempted to lunch at The Havannah) and an opportunity to take time out for a dip in their pools which are filled from natural hot springs. After lunch the road follows the coast past villages, through beautiful forests, past the disused nickel mine, wharf and village at Forari then across to Eton where there is a lovely beach for your last break before travelling through coconut plantations where Vanuatu Beef cattle graze amongst the palms, either directly back to Port Vila or by turning off the bitumen road to take in the beautiful south coast beaches passed Banana Bay and Eratap Beach Resort which is around 30 minutes from Port Vila.
Santo has always been known as a great place to SCUBA dive and snorkel and it certainly is that, but Santo has a great deal of interest for all visitors and some great places to stay. Santo has two close-by off-shore islands with very good resorts, namely Bokissa Eco Island Resort and Aore Island Resort. There are hotels in and around the town of Luganville and out along the east coast towards Champagne Beach there is Oyster Island Resort which is another beautiful little natural resort on a close-in off-shore island in a perfect location . Our Specialists can help you decide which one suits your requirements best. The beach and island resorts of Santo are ideal spots for a honeymoon, (whether first or second or third) and are great for serious relaxation and unwinding in a quality setting.
Don’t overlook Santo’s natural features either. Kayaking the sheltered bays, swimming in the amazing “Blue Holes” or enjoying the magic Champagne Beach are “don’t miss” experiences. Champagne Beach is such a perfect beach that cruise ships make special stops here on South Pacific itineraries and if you are staying on Santo you can drive up there any time you like. Diving the wreck of the “President Coolidge” or Million Dollar Point is a must for experienced SCUBA divers. If you are at all interested in outdoor pursuits don’t miss the Millennium Caves, it’s a day trip to remember, and a dugout canoe paddle up the Riri Riri River to the Matavulu Blue Hole is an amazing experience. Santo has a 9 hole golf course in a beautiful setting and is also known for its excellent fishing. For those people looking to experience something of the “real” Santo, a visit to a Custom Village is a great way to learn about the time-honoured traditions of the Santo people.
On Santo you can still see fragments of the Allied troop bases that existed here during WWII. It was on Santo that James A Michener gazing out to the distant Ambae Island and watching it disappear and reappear in the sea mist wrote his epic “Tales of the South Pacific” and in his imagination, named the island “Bali Hai”. From May through July each year the luxury small ship “Island Passage” sails weekly from Luganville on 6 day cruises to Champagne Beach and Hog Harbour and that take in Maewo Island and Bali Hai (Ambae). The cruise to Champagne Beach, Maewo and Ambae is a perfect way to round out a trip to Santo. For the remainder of the year “Island Escape Cruises, cruise Auckland’s Hauraki Gulf, The Bay of Islands and Nelson Regions.
“Natural” is a word that springs to mind when describing our thoughts of experiences to be had in Tanna. Tanna has a wonderful history full of stories of ancient people and cargo cults etc handed down over the generations by people, some of whom still live the natural way far off in the “Deep Bush” and who are only ever visited by outsiders (if ever) strictly on their own terms. You can visit the fringes of some of the villages of these people and the experience can be very rewarding indeed. Tanna is a volcanic island so the coastline is craggy and dotted with small inlets, some with white sand coves and some with black volcanic sand. The snorkelling in these inlets is some of the best you will find anywhere. The surrounding forest and bush is ancient and lovely natural features abound such as waterfalls, swimming holes and the like. How much time should you allocate to Tanna? Well, as usual, the longer you can stay the better but allow at least 3 to 4 nights as the minimum and that isn’t really long enough. It takes 1 night to visit the amazing Yasur Volcano which is best experienced at dusk. Yasur is on the south-east coast of Tanna and there is quite a long and sometimes bumpy ride to get there. You need to take an organised tour as you simply wouldn’t find your own way there and back. You travel through forests then over the wide dark-grey ash plain before arriving at Yasur around dusk. You park just under the crater rim and take an easy walk up to the crater. If Yasur is performing (and it usually is) be prepared for an amazing experience.
Because of its natural charm, visitors to Tanna won’t feel the need for expensive luxury accommodation in order to totally relax and unwind. We offer a choice of two locations. Firstly we have 2 good-standard resorts just 10 minutes north of Tanna Airport and one very natural, environmentally low-footprint resort on the south coast which is the handiest location from which to visit Yasur volcano, but which, in itself, offers a unique holiday experience. No matter which location you choose on Tanna, don’t miss the opportunity to visit The Blue Caves, a Custom Village and take part in the “Black Magic” Tour. We recommend you allow us to pre-book these activities for you as not every attraction operates every day.
Pentecost has become famous throughout the world for the land diving ceremony – Nagol or N’gol – which occurs April through June each year at different traditional villages. To witness this magnificent ceremony is a once in a lifetime experience and one that is limited by visitor number to prevent commercialization and protect the local custom.
Pentecost is a long narrow island, situated north of Port Vila and south east of Santo. It is approximately an hours scenic flight from Port Vila to the airfield of Lonorore in South Pentecost. There is limited Guesthouse accommodation on Pentecost Island so we do recommend you come just for the day to witness the extraordinary Land Diving ceremony. From the airfield you will be transported on the back of a local truck, on dirt roads, or even by tin boat, to the village where the Nagol is being held. There will be some bush walking involved although the village will ensure relatively easy access to the site.
The origin of land diving is told in a legend. A women was dissatisfied with her husband Tamilie and ran off into the forest whilst being pursued by him. She climbed a banyan tree and he climbed after her. She tied ‘liana’ vines to her ankles and jumped and survived the fall whilst Tamali followed without tying the liana to his ankles and fell to his death. According to legend the men perform the land dive so as not to get tricked like Tamalie. The ritual is also associated with the yam harvest and a good dive helps ensure a bountiful harvest.
The time of the yam harvest is important because the tower construction is best done during the dry season. The liana also have the best elasticity during this time. During the construction of the tower the men seclude themselves from the women. The women are not allowed to go near the tower being constructed where Tamalie lives, or he may seek venegeance, leading to the death of a diver.
The construction of the tower takes up to 5 weeks with 20 to 30 men working on it. The wood is freshly cut, so that it can remain strong. The core of the tower is made from a chopped tree with pole scaffolding tied together with vines to stabilize it. Several platforms come out about two meters from the front of the tower, supported by several struts. During the jump, the platform supports snap, causing the platform to hinge downward and absorb some of the force from falling. It is said the g-force experienced in the lowest point in the dive is the greatest experienced in the non-industrialised world by humans.
The vines are selected by a village elder and matched with each jumper’s weight without any mechanical calculations. The vines need to be supple, elastic, and full of sap in order to be safe. The ends of the vines are shredded to allow the fibres to be looped around the ankles of the jumpers. If the vine is too long, the diver can hit the ground hard, but if the vine is too short, then the diver can collide with the tower.
Before diving, the men sometimes bring closure to unsettled business and disputes in case they die. The night before the jump, divers sleep beneath the tower to ward off evil spirits.
Though the majority of the islanders are Christian, they still adhere to custom beliefs. Before dawn on the day of the ceremony, the men undergo a ritual wash, apply coconut oil on themselves, and decorate their bodies. The males wear pig tusks around their necks and the traditional penis sheaths called nambas. The women wear traditional grass skirts and are bare-breasted. Only the men are allowed to dive, but the dancing women provide mental support. Around 10 to 20 men in a village will jump.
The platforms are at several different heights, with the most experienced diver jumping from the top – usually the Village Chief. The ideal jump is high with the jumper landing close to the ground. The goal is to brush the shoulders against the ground. The higher the jump, the more bountiful the harvest. Before diving, the jumper can give speeches, sing songs, and act out pantomines.
The diver crosses his arms over his chest to help prevent injury to the arms. The head is tucked in so his shoulders can contact the ground. The divers risk a number of injuries, such a broken neck or concussion. During the dive, the jumper can reach speeds of around 72 Km per hour. Right after a dive, other villagers rush in and take care of the diver.
For boys, land diving is a rite of passage, and they jump from the lower platforms. After the boys are circumcised at the age of around seven to eight, the boys can participate in the ritual. When a boy is ready to become a man, he land dives in the presence of his elders. His mother holds a favourite childhood item, for example, a piece of cloth. After completing the dive, the item is thrown away, demonstrating that the boy has become a man.
No words can express the feeling of the ground vibrating under the dancing and stomping feet of the villagers and the excitement of sitting beneath the tower, waiting with baited breath for the diver to jump safely to the ground.
Summing up Vanuatu is quite a challenge. A visit to Vanuatu is rewarding with a few days spent staying in the town or somewhere in the vicinity of Port Vila, but, as you can see, there is a whole lot more that this destination has to offer. Melanesian Culture is something that many Kiwis know little about and learning something of this is a rewarding bonus while enjoying a South Pacific Island holiday trip. The gentle French influence adds to the experience too and you are spoilt for choice between Port Vila, around Efate, Santo and Tanna and all the different opportunities for enjoyment these choices bring, not to mention the renowned Land Diving on Pentecost!
Enjoy a relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable week around Port Vila or on one of Efate’s spectacular outer beaches but to really experience the country you need to visit Santo and Tanna and for that you need to allocate at least two weeks. Get on up there to Vanuatu – it’s a great place for a holiday!
Most major credit cards are accepted.
Electricity: 230V / 50Hz
Flying time: approx. 3 hours from Auckland, New Zealand.
Local Time: 11 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).
May to October is the dry season, whilst November to April is wetter.
* Valid passport for at least 6 months beyond the intended period of stay (NZ passport holders).
* A valid return or onward air ticket and sufficient funds.