I’m following a man in a grass skirt who is blowing into a conch shell. Suddenly a posse of fierce tattooed warriors leap out of the jungle brandishing spears and clubs. In an instant, all trappings of the modern day evaporate and I’m immersed in the traditional life of Ekasup Cultural Village on the island of Efate in Vanuatu.
Over the next hour, I learn how to catch garfish using the web of a golden orb spider stretched across a y-shaped stick, how to trap wild pigs and chickens, preserve bananas, how to get iron supplements from coleus plants and, perhaps most interesting of all, what the feathers signify in the men’s stunning headdresses. Each feather represents the size and colour of the pigs they own. My guide Sifo has five long curving feathers of brown, black and cream. He’s a wealthy man, and also a fabulous storyteller and fine musician in the string band.
“I hope this experience helps you touch the heart of Vanuatu,” he smiles broadly. It certainly does.
What to do in Efate
Spending just a few days in Efate, I manage to squeeze in a kaleidoscope of cultural, aquatic, culinary and other adventures on Vanuatu’s main island.
Many Aussies only know of Vanuatu as a quick stop on a cruise ship itinerary in the South Pacific but it is well worth coming to visit in its own right. With white sandy beaches, world-class diving and fishing, exquisite blue lagoons, dramatic waterfalls, active volcanos and an ancient culture, there is so much to enjoy.
Located about 1,750 kilometres northeast of Queensland, this 80-plus volcanic island archipelago is renowned as one of the happiest places on Earth. Its 250,000 Melanesian residents speak both English and French (before independence in 1980, it was jointly administrated by the French and the English), as well as the colourful Bislama Pidgin English and several tribal languages.
While the remote island of Tanna is renowned for its Mount Yasur volcano (the world’s most accessible active volcano) and the island of Espiritu Santo for its dive sites (the Calvin Coolidge is the world’s most accessible wreck dive), blue lagoons and deserted beaches, the more developed island of Efate also has a terrific diversity of holiday offerings.
1. Diving and snorkelling
Tranquillity Island Resort on Moso Island, a short boat trip off the northeast coast of Efate, offers terrific full day diving expeditions and full and half day snorkelling trips in Havannah Harbour. You’ll see lots of fish, soft and hard corals and, if you are lucky, dolphins and maybe even a dugong. You can also visit its hawksbill turtle rookery which protects and releases turtles back into the wild. There are rustic cabins too, if you want to stay longer.
Hideaway Island Resort and Marine Sanctuary in Mele Bay offers scheduled snorkelling and dive trips, where you can even post a letter at the underground post office.
Enjoy the Blue Lagoon on the East Coast, a gorgeous blue hole filled with soft aqua fresh water mixed with seawater. You can swing off ropes, kayak and picnic here as well. Some of Efate’s most popular beaches include Mele Beach with its terrific Beach Bar (come to the Friday night fire dance) as well as Eton and the aptly named Honeymoon and Paradise beaches.
Efate has some of the best game fishing in the South Pacific. Just a few kilometres off shore there’s Pacific blue marlin, black marlin, striped marlin, spearfish, sailfish, wahoo, mahi mahi, giant trevally, dogtooth tuna and yellowfin tuna.
Ocean Blue Fishing not only offers a range of game fishing options but also has charming accommodation at Trees and Fishes Anglers Retreat on Havannah Harbour.
Every May, the Blue Marlin Lodge in Port Vila harbour organises the Vanuatu Marlin Classic.
Well-known waterfalls include Mele Cascades and Rentapo River Tour but the most spectacular are the tucked-away Lololima Falls on land owned by the Catholic church high above Port Vila. Atmosphere tour operator has the only permit to access it via mini bus.
5. National Museum of Vanuatu
Set in a thatched-roofed building across from the national parliament, this excellent museum features terrific displays of wooden slit drums, outrigger canoes, shell jewellery and ceremonial headdresses. Guided tours include demonstrations of sand drawing and playing traditional instruments.
6. Secret Garden Cultural Centre
The Secret Garden Cultural Centre offers fascinating insights into Vanuatu’s diverse tribes, customs, history, cultural beliefs and traditions in a lush garden setting. Enjoy live cultural shows on Tuesday and Thursday Island Feast nights, which also feature custom magic, singing and dancing.
7. Okeanos Vanuatu
Take a two-hour sunset cruise around Port Vila harbour on the Okeanos Vanuatu, a traditional Polynesian-styled double-hulled sailing canoe, which runs solely on wind, solar and coconut-oil power. You’ll learn about traditional ocean voyaging, hear custom stories from different Vanuatu tribes and enjoy fresh fruits from the market.
Activ stands for Alternative Community Trade in Vanuatu and is a thriving grass-roots organisation that works with local communities to help develop their handicraft trade. They also produce virgin coconut oil, honey and, most exciting of all, they have a small chocolate factory which makes exceptional dark chocolate from cacao grown on the islands of Santo, Epi and Malakula.
Come and visit the thatched roof bungalow in the hills behind Port Vila, where you can buy beautiful handicrafts and carvings, visit the chocolate factory and enjoy chocolate tastings and watch the coconut oil being produced.
9. Roi Mata Tour
Take a day tour of Chief Roi Mata’s domain. The last paramount chief of central Vanuatu’s domain is the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Vanuatu. It consists of three early 17th century sites, Roi Mata’s residence on Efate, Fels cave on Lelepa Island where he was poisoned and the site on Artok (Hat) Island where he was buried with 50 members of his family. Guides will explain oral traditions and archaeology and describe Roi Mata’s social reforms and conflict resolution which continue to this day. Immediately after his burial, around 400 years ago, a prohibition prevented people from residing there which led to the development of a unique biodiversity of rare and endemic plant and animal species, which you will discover on a guided rainforest walk.
10. Horse riding
Enjoy a guided horse ride through the lush hinterland of Efate, between the mountains and the lagoons. You’ll ride through coconut plantations and cattle farms dotted with tropical vegetation and enjoy spectacular views of the coast. At the end of your ride you can go swimming with your horse in the lagoon. You may even hear them laughing!
Port Vila’s covered waterfront market (also known as the Mama’s Market) is open around the clock from Monday morning to noon on Saturday. Women from the countryside bring in their fruit and vegetables to sell and there is excellent island raised beef and fresh fish and shellfish too. Vendors in the extensive handicrafts section sell hand-dyed sarongs, traditional wood carvings, woven baskets, shell jewellery and much more.
12. Duty Free shopping
Vanuatu is one of the last genuine duty free ports in the South Pacific. As incongruous as it might seem, you can buy Swiss watches, French cosmetics and champagne, Tahitian pearls, high class leather goods and fashion labels at below Australian retail prices at several stores in downtown Port Vila, the capital city. •
Photography by Susan Gough Henley.
• Air Vanuatu flies direct from Sydney and Brisbane to Port Vila. airvanuatu.com
When to go
Vanuatu is a year-round destination. The best time to visit is during the dry season from April to October, however, even during the wet season it generally only rains for short periods.
Where to stay
• The brand new Ramada Resort Port Vila is a full-service beachfront resort nestled on the cliffs of Erakor Lagoon, close to downtown Port Vila. ramadaresort.com.vu
• Warwick Le Lagon is a traditional favourite with families offering rooms, bungalows and private villas. warwickhotels.com
• The award-winning Havannah Resort for couples is magnificent with its beautiful beach and tranquil location. For the ultimate luxury, stay in one of its deluxe waterfront villas. thehavannah.com
• A world onto its own, the newly refurbished Iririki Island Resort is like staying on your own private island and has a broad range of accommodation. iririki.com
• Eratap Beach Resort has luxurious villas from one to four bedrooms as well as plunge pool and honeymoon villas in a serene setting. eratap.com
• Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu boasts 148 guest rooms including overwater villas, fantastic Family Suites, two stunning pool areas, a kids club, day spa and nine-hole golf course. vanuatu.holidayinnresorts.com
Where to eat and drink
• While it looks more like a Spanish hacienda than a French restaurant, L’Houstalet has been proudly owned by Clement Martinez for more than 40 years. On the outskirts of Port Vila, this is where the declaration of Vanuatu independence was drafted in 1980 and today it still appeals to a wide range of locals, expats and visitors who come for its signature lobster dishes, excellent steaks, pizzas, French onion soup and, for the brave, flying fox in red wine sauce. +678/22303.
• Overlooking the second lagoon, the palm-fringed Vila Chaumieres offers superb local seafood like coconut crusted local prawns and Tahitian fish salad as well as chargrilled prime Vanuatu beef. vilachaumieres.com
• Just a short ferry or water taxi ride away, Iririki Island Resort and Erakor Island Resort offer charming alfresco dining within minutes of Port Vila. iririki.com; erakorislandresort.com
• Vanuatu Beach Bar right behind the white sands of Mele Bay is the place to be for the Friday night fire show and Tuesday movie and pizza night. vanuatubeachbar.com
• Overlooking Port Vila Harbour, the Lava Lounge is a great spot for sunset cocktails, pizzas, local Tanna coffee and live music. +678/26671; facebook.com/lavaloungevanuatu
• Le Fournil De Vila offers superb French breads and pastries made with flour imported from France while Au Peche Mignon, with its terrace overlooking the market, offers excellent coffees, sandwiches and
quiches as well terrific chocolates and pastries. frenchpastryvanuatu.com
It is very easy to hail a bus to get around Port Vila. The cost around town is 150 Vatu per person. The further you travel out of town, the fare increases. You can also hire taxis or buses to take you to sights all over Efate. Drivers have their own rates depending on where they take you and how long they wait around for you. You pay around AUD$184 for three hours but you can also negotiate.
• Full and half-day tours are also available.
• Vanuatu Tourism: vanuatutravel.info