Vanuatu: GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE
GoNOMAD DESTINATION MINI GUIDE to Vanuatu
By Norman Douglas
Vanuatu is a name defined by the country’s constitution as "Our Land," not "Land Eternal" as some travel brochures have it. Vanuatu consists of more than 80 scattered islands in a rough ‘Y’ shape, located between 12 and 21 degrees South latitude.
Its people, who number 155,000 are known as Ni-Vanuatu and are dark-skinned Melanesians, though a Polynesian influence is evident on some islands. Their common language is bislama, a form of pidgin. English and French are also spoken.
Of the Melanesian countries of the Western Pacific, also including Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, Vanuatu is the safest and, in many respects, the easiest to move around in.
It has cultural and scenic variety, a fascinating history, and delightfully friendly and helpful people. This is an old tourism cliché, but in this case it is absolutely accurate. It also contains a greater variety of visitor accommodation at most levels than either PNG or the Solomons.
Vanuatu's history is the strangest of any Pacific country. The Spaniards, first Europeans to find their way here, in 1606, left little trace except for some place names, only one of which, Epiritu Santo, now survives.
It was 162 years before another European appeared, this time a Frenchman, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who called his findings the Great Cyclades, after the Greek Islands. The ubiquitous Captain James Cook followed in 1774, noted the presence of several more islands and re-named the entire group the New Hebrides, a name by which the group was known for the next 200 years or so.
By the end of the 19th century Anglo-French rivalry in the region had reached a peak, with the British in Fiji and the Solomon Islands and the French in New Caledonia. After some mutual sabre-rattling, a compromise was reached in 1906: France and Britain would govern the New Hebrides jointly.
The arrangement was referred to as a "condominium," and even by the improvised standards of colonial rule it was bizarre, with a duplication of every single institution, from governors to legal, postal and educational systems. Not surprisingly, the arrangement was quickly termed the "pandemonium" by European residents. The native people, whose opinions were rarely called upon, called it "two-fella government."
The peculiar system staggered on until July 1980, when, after a series of demonstrations, confrontations and at least one major rebellion and secessionist movement, the islands became the Republic of Vanuatu. The legacy of the condominium is still visible in the street names in Port Vila, most of which have not been indigenised: Bougainville, Pasteur, Carnot, etc. for the French, and Gloucester, York, Cornwall; etc. for the British. At one point, Rue Charles de Gaulle and Avenue Winston Churchill come together, which is more than the two governments of the New Hebrides ever did.
Seasons in the South Pacific Islands are usually identified as "wet" and "dry." Rain falls during both (otherwise, the islands would not look so lush), but more rain falls in the wet season. This is approximately between November and March/April, when cyclones (hurricanes) are not merely possible, but probable. Since this is also summer in the South Pacific, it is predictably hot and humid, sometimes unpleasantly so for travelers from the Northern Hemisphere.
Travel in the "dry" season -- between May and October -- is preferable, especially between June and September, when the weather, though still warm, is tempered by the Southeast trade winds and is generally very pleasant. The scattered nature of the country’s many islands means that the southernmost islands may experience relatively cool nights.
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Vanuatu is directly accessible by air from Australia (Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne), New Zealand (Auckland), New Caledonia (Noumea) and Fiji (Nadi). Visitors from elsewhere generally have to transit one of these countries.
All of Vanuatu’s major islands are accessible by the domestic airline Vanair (Tel: 678-22753), which is headquartered in Port Vila, the capital, on the main island of Efate. The country’s major airport is Bauerfield (a name left over from the Pacific War), a few miles out of Port Vila. It has been recently upgraded with aid funds from both Japan and Australia.
Cruise ships, especially those operated by P&O from Sydney, Australia, make frequent calls at Port Vila, one of the most popular ports in the Pacific.
Land transport on Efate consists of a generous number of mini-buses with no set routes and taxis with no set fares. The buses tend to go where passengers want them to! Simply hail the bus and ask. This may result in circuitous and time-consuming rides, but they are no less enjoyable for that, and provide a cheap and often revealing glance at conditions in the capital and its nearby villages. They are also likely to provide an introduction to Vanuatu’s "string band" music, the listening choice of most bus drivers.
If taxis have meters, they are invariably not working, but one’s chances of being cheated by a taxi driver in Efate are slim. There is general agreement among them on the standard journeys -- between town and the major hotels and restaurants, or to certain beaches, or the cruise ship terminal and so on. BUT… passengers should agree with drivers on the fare before commencing the journey.
Rental cars may be obtained from a number of agencies. Motor scooters and bicycles may also be hired, but are not outstandingly popular with visitors. Driving is nominally on the right of the road.
Vanuatu’s inter-island passenger ferries are, at best, uncomfortable, chancy propositions, but travelers who take perverse enjoyment in discomfort occasionally use them. They are invariably overcrowded and overloaded and, especially in the hurricane season, may be considered hazardous.
Two of Efate’s resort hotels -- Iririki Island Resort and Erakor Island Resort -- provide free ferry services which both guests and visitors may use.
Port Vila’s lovely harbor is very popular with cruising yachts. For travelers who fancy the experience, it may be possible to sign on with one as crew. Inquire at the Waterfront Café on the harbor.
BEST MAJOR ATTRACTIONS
Tanna Island boasts the world’s most accessible, constantly active volcano, Yasur. It is not especially tall, but the display inside the crater fascinates a lot of people, and frightens a lot more. It is possible to walk fairly easily right up to the crater’s edge. However, this must be done with a guide. Tanna may be reached on a day trip from Port Vila, but there are accommodations on the island, also.Volcanoes in more or less active condition may also be found on Ambrym and other islands in the group.
There are small beaches close to Port Vila’s major hotels, but no outstanding beach on the main island, which is surrounded by coral reefs. Tiny Hideaway Island, a short distance from the capital, offers good snorkelling conditions and fundamental accommodation. Champagne Bay on the large island of Espiritu Santo, is a beautiful beach, but land access is difficult. Most of its visitors are passengers from P&O ships cruising out of Australia.
- Scuba Diving
In the waters off Espiritu Santo, the wreck of President Coolidge, a liner turned World War II troop ship, provides one of the Pacific’s great diving experiences. Because much of the ship, which went down after hitting a "friendly" mine, is in deep water off the edge of the reef, this is not an exercise for novices. Other easier dives are also possible. Most of Santo’s visitors these days are divers
BEST UNUSUAL ATTRACTION
- Pentecost Jump
The land dive of Pentecost Island, sometimes called the Pentecost Jump, is unique to Vanuatu. It occurs in April/May in Bunlap village, in association with the yam season, and features the amazing sight of men leaping from towers constructed of saplings lashed together and up to 100 feet in height. The men’s fall is broken the moment before they hit the ground by vines attached to their ankles. The practice, based on local legend, is said to have provided the inspiration for bungee-jumping.The men wear only the traditional apparel of penis sheaths. Male children sometimes jump from lesser heights, but women’s participation is limited to providing ground support by whistling and chanting. There are no visitor accommodations in this part of Pentecost. The limited number of tourists who are fortunate enough to witness this spectacle are usually there as day-trippers organized by tour agencies based in Port Vila.
BEST ACTIVITY AND TOUR
Snorkeling and SCUBA diving are the most popular activities on the island, and for good reason. Crystal waters and an abundance of reefs and corals, not to mention some great WWII wrecks, make for days of underwater enjoyment.
There are numerous dive shops, both at resort hotels and in Port Vila. Compare prices.
- Allan Power Diving
PO Box 233, Luganville, Vanuatu
Wreck of the Coolidge dives
- Nautilus Scuba
PO Box 78, Port Vila, Vanuatu
Tel: + 678-22398.
Offers a wide range of dive opportunities.
Otherwise, Vanuatu is a very relaxing place, and activity of almost any kind seems undesirable much of the time. However, tours of the main island, Efate, are popular, if unremarkable. Day trips to Tanna Island to see the active volcano, villages and a few other natural attractions, including dugongs and wild horses, provide interesting diversion. Day cruises to other islands and remote atolls on yachts are offered by a number of operators and game fishing has its devotees.
The new national museum situated behind Port Vila has great displays of indigenous art and other exhibits from the country’s far-flung islands.
- The National Museum
PO Box 184, Port Vila, Vanuatu
Tel: + 678-22129.
Usual hours of opening: 9am-11:30am & 2-6pm, Monday-Friday. Saturday 8:30-11:30am. Closed Sunday.
Volunteer opportunities are available through registered organizations in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
Requests for specific cultural visits should be directed to the National Tourism Office
P.O. Box 209, Port Vila, Vanuatu, Tel: + 678-22685.
BEST LOCAL HAUNT
How local and haunted would you like to get? The nakamals (bars where the traditional local beverage, kava, is consumed) in Port Vila are popular with some visitors, but rise and fall regularly, so there is not much point in identifying them by name. Ask a taxi driver. Nakamals are generally dimly lit places where men mostly (though female tourists are admitted) sit around getting quietly stoned and talking in whispers.
Some drink just a few sociable cups (kava is served in a half coconut shell) and some continue drinking until they pass out and slip from their seats onto the floor. Kava is a mild narcotic, the numbing effects of which are felt first on the tongue and lips, later on the limbs. Its properties in aiding stress and insomnia are now being recognised in western countries. The substance, derived from the root of a species of pepper plant, is an important export for Vanuatu.
In the Port Vila nakamals, kava is prepared from the powdered form of the dry root. In some outer islands, Tanna for example, it is still prepared in the traditional manner, with pieces of root chewed by a virgin male (it is threateningly a male custom here) before the mixture, containing a high saliva content, is spat into a bowl and mixed with water before drinking. Among connoisseurs of the stuff, this method is said to have no equal.
If you don’t care for it, and many people never acquire the taste, then alternative watering holes with more recognisably convivial customs and beverages are the Rossi (Tel: 678-22528), Ma Barker’s (Tel: 678 22399, though the quality is slipping here) the Melanesian Hotel (Tel: 678 22150) and the Office Pub (Tel: 678-24808), all in Port Vila. Vanuatu makes its own beer, but brews imported from Australia, New Zealand and the US are also available, as are French and Australian wines and the usual variety of liquors
Most visitors to Port Vila would probably opt for Iririki Island Resort, because of its spectacular location in the middle of the harbor, on a site once occupied by the British residency. Not surprisingly, it is the most expensive, and particularly popular with honeymooners or just plain romantics, especially the units over the water.
- Iririki Island Resort
PO Box 230 Port Vila,
Alternative upmarket choices in Port Vila might include Le Meridien (Tel: 678-22040) and Le Lagon Parkroyal (Tel: 678-22313), both situated on the lagoon.
Erakor Island Resort (Tel: 678-26983), across the lagoon from Le Lagon, is a trifle run-down, but has wonderful ambience. For more options, find unique Vanuatu hotels and interesting tours in Vanuatu.
Accommodations on Tanna, Espiritu Santo and Ambrym, three of the more accessible outer islands, are much smaller and with fewer services, but can be quite delightful places to spend a few days.
Budget travellers are catered for at a number of accommodations in Port Vila especially, but many of these are somewhat dire.
- Kalfabun Guesthouse
PO Box 494, Port Vila, Vanuatu
Has been in the game for many years, so must be doing something right.
- Talimoru Motel
PO Box 9, Port Vila, Vanuatu
Tel: + 678-23740
Closer to town and built some years ago by Barak Sope, the man who is at present the country's Prime Minister.
The Rossi, on the harbor, is famous for its seafood platters and its coconut crab, a local speciality. Other local fare with a French twist, including flying fox in red wine, can be found at the long-standing L’Houstalet (Tel: 678-22303).
A Tahitian ambience distinguishes La Cabane (Tel: +678-22763), on the road leading to the port. Chinese food is available at a number of locations. Vanuatu coffee and French pastries are always worth stopping for, especially at La Terrasse (Tel: +678-22428).
- The Lapita Café
One of the few places offering local Melanesian dishes, open only from 8am to 4pm.
- Club Vanuatu
Located behind the Main Street
Tel: + 678-22615
Modelled on Australian sporting and social clubs and has food of similar quality -- burgers, steaks etc. -- as well as reasonably cheap drinks.
Traditional dance groups or string bands make regular public appearances at hotels or beach barbecues and vary considerably in quality. There is one cinema in Port Vila and a casino at Le Meridien Hotel.
The ubiquitous T-shirt is the most popular item, in designs ranging from the ingenious to the moderately obscene. Why do people wear these ghastly things? But indigenous artifacts are by far the most interesting purchases.
Vanuatu’s traditional crafts are quite distinctive and range from enormous wood carvings (the so-called tam-tams) to finely produced woven ware. The woven shoulder baskets, which come in a remarkable range of sizes and patterns, are popular and pack easily. Amuse your friends with the woven penis wrappers, which are still worn by many of the country’s males, although not in the capital.
In Port Vila, Goodies (Tel: 678-23445) and Handikraf blong Vanuatu (Tel: 678-23228), both on the main street, have large selections of artifacts. Prices are better, but the range far more limited, at the open market on the waterfront in town.
Some shops advertise "duty free" merchandise, but do not stock anything that travellers could not find cheaper at home. Color print film can be processed locally.
VISAS AND DOCUMENTS
Visitors must hold passports valid for at least six months from date of arrival. Passport holders from most countries are issued with tourist visas for up to one month on arrival.
HEALTH AND SAFETY
Unless visitors have been in yellow fever areas before arrival in Vanuatu, no special health requirements are necessary. Precautions against malaria are recommended while in Vanuatu, especially in the outer islands.
Wear strong sandals or sneakers for reef walking and immediately treat coral cuts.
Port Vila’s water is potable, but visitors who simply must drink water should buy mineral water from the supermarkets.
MONEY AND COMMUNICATIONS
Vanuatu’s currency is the vatu, but Australian and US dollars are widely accepted. Neither tipping nor bargaining is part of Melanesian custom. Both should be avoided. Australian and US dollars may be used for purchases in some shops and restaurants. Credit cards are accepted in a number of businesses and most hotels.
The usual range of telecommunications and postal services is available. Vanuatu's International dial code is 678. Satellite TV is received in Port Vila and there is a local radio station with trilingual broadcasts. The weekly newspaper, Vanuatu Hebdomadaire, is also trilingual, with articles in English, French and Bislama, the local variant of pidgin.
There is an extensive literature on Vanuatu, but much of it is out of print and hard to find. Port Vila’s library has a good selection of books about the country. Vanuatu: A Guide, by Norman & Ngaire Douglas is widely regarded as the best item for its coverage of the curious history of the country.
The Vanuatu Tourism Office’s bilingual Internet site vanuatutourism.com is relatively hype free and well-organized.