Vanuatu is a South Pacific Ocean nation made up of roughly 83 islands that stretch 1,300 kilometres. The archipelago offers amazing cultural experiences, pristine coral reefs, WWII wrecks, blue lagoons, active volcanoes and a year round balmy climate. But this friendly island nation is struggling at the moment, after being ravished by Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam in March 2015. With recovery efforts well underway, here's why 2016 is the year that you should visit Vanuatu ...
Photos: Grace Picot Words: Melissa Connell
1. BLUE LAGOONS
The water must be seen to be believed! This particular lagoon at Eton Beach, Efate, is filled by the ocean. The water is warm and crystal clear and the lagoon is often occupied by locals enjoying picnics or swinging off the ropes attached to nearby trees. Santo (another of Vanuatu's islands) has numerous blue lagoons, equally as spectacular.
2. FRIENDLY LOCALS
The Ni-Vanuatu people (meaning ‘of Vanuatu’) are largely Melanesian and have lived in these islands for centuries. Vanuatu is recognised as one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world and more than 110 distinctly different cultures and languages still thrive here. Dances, ceremonies, animal and crop husbandry, status and systems of authority and artistic styles can vary from island to island. These cultural traditions are known as kastom (or custom). Whilst locals can sometimes be shy around foreigners, their kindness is genuine and has earned Vanuatu an affectionate title of 'the land of smiles'.
3. CRYSTALLINE WATER
Kayaking the coral fringed coastline of Moso Island, a short boat ride north west of Efate. The water here is crystal clear (as you can see!) and there are 7 simple thatched dwellings that you can sleep in only metres from the beach operated by Tranquility Eco Resort.
Hawksbill Turtles are considered critically endangered, meaning the species faces a very high risk of total extinction. The first year of their lives is the most perilous - many get snatched by hungry predators before even tasting the ocean. Humans, however, pose the greatest threat. Plastic waste in our oceans; unsustainable fishing methods; propeller-damage from speedboats and vessels and harvesting turtles for their shell are amongst the key killers of sea turtles.
Robson is one of the 'turtle caretakers' at Tranquility Island's Hawksbill Turtle Conservation Sanctuary. They have upwards of 200 juvenile turtles that they raise from hatchlings until 1 year old, when they are then tagged and released into the ocean. To date they’ve released over 1200 healthy Hawksbills!
Vanuatu's cuisine has several core ingredients such as yam, taro, banana, coconut, sugarcane, tropical nuts, pigs, greens and seafood. The Ni-Van (Vanuatu's natives) usually grow their own food except luxury foods such as rice and tinned fish. The above picture was captured in Port Vila's markets where there is a great array of fresh, local food available to purchase.
A local delicacy is the Coconut Crab, which we do not recommend eating as it is an endangered species.
Vanuatu has two distinct seasons: November to April is the Green season, which is hot and humid. The Dry Season (May to October) is dry and cool. Cyclone season is from November to April, however, tropical storms may also occur in other months. The coolest month is August while the hottest one is February. We travelled to Vanuatu in February, which made for some fantastic / moody photos such as the above one captured in Port Havannah, Efate.
There are some really cool treehouse accommodations in Vanuatu. We stayed in La Maison du Banian on Efate, more about that here. But we have also heard about more on other islands. For a back to basics, back to nature experience, nothing beats sleeping inside a tree for a night or three!
There are plenty of breathtaking waterfalls scattered throughout Vanuatu's islands. Well known ones such as Mele Cascades, Efate (pictured above) and Millennium Cave Waterfall on Espiritu Santo Island are stunning but quite touristy. Alternatively you can ask locals for their tips on lesser known falls. World of Waterfalls is an informative site with recommendations for waterfalls on different islands.
Support local! There are plenty of opportunities to purchase directly from locals, but make sure the goods have been produced locally, not imported. According to a report compiled by the Vanuatu Tourism Ambassador Program, 90% of the souvenirs sold at the main wharf in Port Vila are imported goods made overseas and bought from wholesalers! Keep an eye out for the Mama's Markets, a fantastic initiative to increase sales of locally-made handicrafts. To be involved in these markets, vendors' stalls must comprise of at least 75% locally-made handicrafts.
10. village life
With little or no modern conveniences such as running water, hot water or electricity, village life is very back-to-basics and the Ni-Van people exist in harmony with nature. Westerners could learn a lot from a culture where families share and care for each other. Where a community raises a child, supports its adults and cares for its elderly. The Ni-Van enjoy the simple pleasures in life such as healthy food, clean air, laughter and singing.
Vanuatu is renowned for some of the best diving in the world due to accessibility, water temperature and fantastic visibility. The crystal waters and spectacular reefs offer dive sites and attractions for all skill levels. One of the more well known spots is the the SS "President Coolidge" - the largest wreck dive in the world. This 22,000 ton luxury liner converted to troop ship sank fully laden during the war, just a short distance from the beach.
The last time I dived was 12 years ago, so I enjoyed an easy dive walking straight off the beach at Tranquility Island Eco Resort.
14. Ni-Van accommodation
In terms of accommodation options, there's something for everyone in Vanuatu. There are many local village guesthouses offering various levels of rustic comfort. One of the most well known is Lonnoc Beach on Espiritu Santo. The concrete bungalows are owned by the village and the beach there is stunning. We stumbled across this great list of locally owned accommodations, although it may be a little out-dated by now.
I can personally recommend Havannah Eco Lodge, owned and operated by Ni-Vanuatu man Gideon George, which we stayed at upon arrival into Port Vila.
13. coconut groves
Run to paradise! Coconut groves fringe the coastline, offering occasional glimpses through to deserted beaches that lie beyond. But beware, the fences are there for a reason... you definitely don't want to find yourself standing below a towering palm that's loaded with coconuts! Due to the ferocity of Cyclone Pam in 2015, we barely saw a coconut the whole time that we were in Vanuatu, unfortunately.
No postcard series would be complete without a sunset shot! We made this swing from some rustic timber and rope lying on the ground. The view from Moso Island to Efate was dreamy, this particular channel of water (Port Havannah) being home to dugong, spinner dolphins and many other species of marine life.