Why you should do Vanuatu

If you want to take a step back from glitzy tourism hotspots for a more authentic Pacific island experience, you could do a lot worse than Vanuatu.

My family recently travelled to Vanuatu for a holiday we booked 2020 and have only got around to post-pandemic.

To be perfectly frank, Vanuatu was not our first choice – sorry Vanuatu – but the limited opportunities offered by the travel company tipped us over.

Unlike its more glamorous cousins Fiji and New Caledonia, this Pacific island group offers a more down-to-earth experience with the absence of lavish international chain resorts and slick tourism product.

Highlights for our trip were what Vanuatu does best, and that is rely on its natural beauty and laid-back style.

We swam and snorkelled, walked for miles on the beach, took a banana boat to another island and played with turtles.

Well, we visited a turtle sanctuary, so sort of played with turtles.

Vanuatu style

Swimming was at the startling Blue Lagoon. The colour comes from the water filtering through limestone rock and the colour is every bit as crystal clear as the photos.

It’s a typical Vanuatu experience. The swing rope is really three bits of various mismatched rope tied together. You exit the pool via a wonky ladder propped up against a rock and there are no warning signs anywhere despite the obvious dangers (a woman nearly brained herself after slipping off a jump platform while we were there). The guy helping with the swing rope steadily smoked all the way through his ‘shift’.

I feel confident a similar set-up in Australia would be leave occupational health and safety experts with a facial tic and there might be a handful of arrests.

For all of that we loved it, and my son declared it the favourite for the trip. That’s him in the photograph above.

As for snorkelling, Vanuatu is known as one of the best places in the world for this low-key activity.

The waters are clear, calm and warm, and there are plenty of reefs. You might even see a dugong. We did not see a dugong and I’m a bit sad about that.

Pele Island

Apparently, Santo Island has the best sites, but we also enjoyed a day trip via a banana boat to Pele Island for a few hours of snorkelling. You start at one end of the beach and drift along until you get to the other end and walk back to start it all again.

However, the best fish we saw all day required no effort all. A spectacular lion fish was swimming around the boat ramp when we got back. It sort of sums Vanuatu up, without even trying you come across the most fascinating contrasts to your own culture.

The crystal clear waters and view from Pele Island.

The capital, Port Vila, is worth a trip, but it can be comfortably experienced in one day.

The main strip along the waterfront has a lively open-air fresh produce market, handicraft markets and several restaurants and cafes.

It’s a handy hub to withdraw money, do a spot of duty-free shopping – booze is so cheap – or buy a souvenir or thongs. Seriously thongs seem to be the national shoe, there were crate-loads outside of most shops.

Island time

It’s strange how immediately I settled into the local pace of walking in Port Vila. Everyone is at a steady stroll. I did not see a local run even once, and traffic on the main street stops in both directions if they see you trying to cross. It’s a vast contrast from New Caledonia, where stepping onto a pedestrian crossing seems to be all the encouragement drivers need to speed up.

A common tip for Port Vila is not to visit while the cruise ships are in. Prices go up, the shopping strip becomes congested and tours get booked out. Cruise ship schedules can be found online.

Vanuatu is a lot more lax on personal freedoms we would see as reckless endangerment in Australia.

Kids and adults can be seen piled into the back of utes, no-one wears helmets on any sort of bike and people strolling along country roads carrying machetes are an everyday occurrence. I can only think of the legal repercussions if I let my children wander about in Australia with sharpened knives.

And that’s okay. It perfectly matches Vanuatu’s gentle pace, and I’d hate to see it turn into a land of rules. It wouldn’t suit.

Holiday accommodation

We stayed at Tamanu on the Beach, a boutique resort of 15 individual villas. They are styled with a Caribbean influence and while some villas have their own plunge pool, the resort also has a large pool spa, kids club and volleyball court.  

The beach is wide, but swimming is limited to high tide due to the reef. However, you can walk for miles in either direction on the beach.

If you do take a walk on the beach, turn left for the creepy abandoned resort development La Plage du Pacifique. This spooky site made it almost halfway to opening before a lack of money, a hurricane strike and, if rumours are true, a falling out between the backers condemned it to a mere concrete skeleton.

I would have loved to get closer for a look, but people are clearly living in the skeletal ruins, and it felt like an intrusion.

However, as much as we loved it at Tamanu, it’s not going to be for everyone.

While the resort’s relatively isolated location meant idle relaxation was a must, unless you want to make the effort to go into Port Vila you are limited to the onsite restaurant to eat.

The food was great, it would easily slot into any metropolitan centre in Australia, but eating at a restaurant meal every day, three times a day can be a bit much. By the end of the week we longed for a sandwich for lunch or even just toast for breakfast. In our sad, sad, desperation, we had even picked out a corner spot in the restaurant that would be ideal for a toaster and looked at the vacant space longingly.

Split your trip

My recommendation would be to split a visit between either two accommodation options or Port Vila for a few days – many of the tours start there – and a resort or outer island.

While this all sounds idyllic, of course Vanuatu is not without its issues. There is a lot of poverty, the low-lying country is at the forefront of the climate crisis and education and health services are scarce and poorly co-ordinated.

But for all that, you should still consider it for your next holiday. The country is desperate for tourists and the foreign currency they bring to bolster the economy.

The COVID pandemic just about wiped out tourism on the island and while Australia’s industry is back in full swing, Vanuatu is still getting back on its feet.

So think of your next holiday in this warm, charming country as a social enterprise, and you might just see a dugong into the bargain.

Have you been to Vanuatu? What’s your favourite island? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: Destinations to spend your life savings on

Jan Fisher
Jan Fisherhttp://www.yourlifechoices.com.au/author/JanFisher
Accomplished journalist, feature writer and sub-editor with impressive knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income, issues that affect Australians planning and living in retirement, and answering YLC members' Age Pension and Centrelink questions. She has also developed a passion for travel and lifestyle writing and is fast becoming a supermarket savings 'guru'.
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