6 Must-See Islands
Vanuatu, pronounced VAH-noo-AH-too, is an archipelago of 83 islands (or more, nobody really knows), hidden between Fiji and New Caledonia. Never heard of Vanuatu? It comes as no surprise, even though Vanuatu has nothing to be envious of compared to its Pacific neighbors with luxurious resorts, crystal clear water and sandy beaches. Here’s my recommendation on the six must-see islands of this underrated destination!
By Margaux Carel
So why is Vanuatu underrated? Perhaps the main reason is the country’s poor accessibility. If you are travelling from America or Europe, reaching Vanuatu requires a significant amount of time and patience, from 2 to 4 flights and a total journey time of at least 40 hours!
But what makes Vanuatu so special to justify 40 hours of travel time?
Its remoteness and isolation from the rest of the world are precisely what give Vanuatu its unique and special appeal. Travelling to Vanuatu is not just travelling to another paradise, it is a journey out of time where you can disconnect from the world and reconnect with your mind and body.
As it is not possible to see all the islands of Vanuatu, some of them being very remote or uninhabited, I have selected 6 must-see islands. Get ready for a guaranteed change of scenery and meaningful adventures.
If you travel to Vanuatu, you will most likely land in Efate, home to the vibrant capital Port Vila. Even though the capital looks like a village rather than a city, it is very busy with buses, restaurants and shops.
If you want to experience the real culture, you must visit the local food market. Let yourself be guided by the scent of bougainvillea and bamboo still mixed with soil, tropical fruits and vegetables placed here and there and cooked dishes. Chefs cook local cuisine before your eyes. Take a tour of the stalls, ask for the daily specials and take a table. Kumala, taro, and manioc will make you discover new flavors.
Leave Port Vila for a road trip, stopping at the Blue Lagoon, though be advised that this deep blue water is not as warm as you think! A few steps away, you'll find Eton beach, where the sea is the opposite, clear blue and warm. Continue your journey to the other side of the island and discover the well-kept secret of Top on the Rock. The sun will bring out the 1000 colours of this bay. On your way back to Port Vila, you can stop at the Mele Beach Bar to watch the fire jugglers show while sipping on a delicious cocktail. Plunged into the dark, the fire jugglers will let the light shine through.
Ah Santo... miles of pristine beaches and crystal clear water. The main town of Luganville is nothing special to see, but as you drive along the main road, you will notice how different it is from Port Vila. The centre has an American city look because Santo was used as a military base by the Americans during WWII and Lugainville streets had to allow for 4 tanks to pass simultaneously.
Escape Lugainville and head north to Port Orly. Enjoy the 40-minute drive along the palm tree-lined road passing at the rhythm of the island's music radio. Halfway there, you can stop at the giant noni plantation. This plantation of several hectares belongs to a Chinese company. Noni is processed and mixed with other fruits to create a nutritious drink and it is imported to China where it is consumed in huge quantities. When you arrive in Port Orly, grab a table at Chez Louis, facing the sea, and enjoy a delicious local coconut crab. This giant crab is known for being able to cut through coconuts! The mile-long beach will allow you to enjoy the quiet power of the endless sea.
Gaua is isolated in the banks in the north of Vanuatu. That's why you might not get any phone service there. This makes Gaua another ideal island to disconnect and listen to your senses. Keep your ears open, women practice water singing in Gaua. Lined up in the sea in traditional dresses made of leaves and flowers, these women, ranging in age from 16 to 80, tune their voices and tap synchronously on the water to make it musical and in turn, truly magical.
After the show, head to a kava bar in the evening to wake up your taste buds. You will recognize kava bars by their red-lit facade because they have nothing like the usual trendy bars. This is usually a simple outdoor wooden display where kava is served in ‘’shells’’. You drink it straight up, give it back and sit in one of the white plastic chairs to relax and wait for the kava to take effect. Kava drinks are made from fresh roots that are chewed or pulverized before being mixed with water. Kava drinks are consumed in the same way as alcoholic beverages and have the distinction of reducing anxiety and creating a sense of relaxation*. I would not recommend going to a kava bar as a solo woman. Some kava bars are reserved for men.
*Kava may have side effects and is contraindicated for people with special conditions. Drinking kava is at your own discretion, risk and liability.
Epi is discreet, nobody really talks about Epi, but it is perhaps my favorite island. From Lamen Bay to Nikawa, the coastal road takes only 2 hours and will leave you speechless. This bush road allows you to enjoy a view of the ocean and Lopevi Island on your left and a view of the dense jungle-covered mountains on the golden sun on your right.
On your way, you will pass through some villages made of precarious dwellings, schools and churches. You may meet some people sitting here and there. Don't be afraid if they have machetes, they use machetes like we use smartphones in our cities. Take time to connect with them. Smile at children and say ‘’halo’’ to adults. You can try to strike up conversations with the locals, who will be delighted, but rare are those who speak English. Notice their capacity for contemplation, no hustle, no stress, nothing except the present.
Back to Lamen Bay, board a banana boat to jump into the bay and swim with the dugongs. Dugongs are massive grey sea cows found throughout the warm latitudes of the Pacific Oceans. Swim back to the shore and enjoy the colours of the sunset which are unreal.
Pentecost is the perfect island to immerse in the Vanuatu traditions and rituals. Pentecost hosts one of the most spectacular and death-defying ceremonies, land diving (naghol).
Naghol is a spiritual ceremony passed down from one generation to another to ask for blessings for a prodigious yam harvest as well as to prove the young men’s virility. Local men come together to build tall towers made of wood, usually measuring around 25 meters and jump head first with vines tied around their ankles into manhood. Even if you know what is going to happen, watching them jump will make your heart skip a beat. The jump is not without risk for these brave men but watch it without judgment. In addition to watching this ceremony, you can also swim and snorkel in the island's crystal clear waters and explore underground cave pools.
Tanna is a must see! For sure, the main attraction is the active volcano Mt Yasur. After an epic flight over the volcano, your guide leads you through the ash plain. Then you can easily walk to the top, which takes about 20 minutes. At the top, you face the active crater and are left to feel so small. From here, you can admire the great plumes of smoke escaping, the rock explosions and the red and orange colors of the lava, a contemplation for your eyes and ears.
In the evening, there is nothing better than sleeping at the top of a tree house overlooking the volcano.
The next day, dive and explore the blue cave on the west coast or try to spot the hot baths along the black sand beaches on the east coast. Due to the activity of the volcano, natural hot pools appear at low tide. Some of them are for bathing and others for cooking eggs or bananas.
So, are you bold enough to go to Vanuatu?
Espiritu Santo: For beach lovers
Epi: Off the beaten path
Tanna: For adventurers
Gaua: To be offline
Pentecost: For the show
About Margaux Carel
Margaux is a French traveller and founder of Waves of Change where she does travel lifestyle coaching and remote work consulting. Travel has always been a catalyst for change. Being lock-downed in Vanuatu during Covid-19 was one of those defining moments in her life. Her mission is now to guide and inspire women to travel better to become their best selves.