Sorta, kinda didn’t really know what to expect when I first went to Vanuatu as the online information isn’t terribly extensive, (Try here.) so while I had made some plans as to things I wanted to do, there was still the very real sense of “I wonder…” as we descended into Bauerfield International.
The surrounding countryside was rough grazing land covered with coconut palms, extending away into native jungle within a few kilometres. One of the features to be savoured in Vanuatu is a product of this land- the beef. Most of the beef farms are organic (there is little need for fertilizers, of course, and being an island, few introduced weeds or foreign pests, it would seem.) The sounds of a local string band
welcomed us into the terminal, and this was a nice diversion as we waited processing through immigration and customs (pretty painless). The trip into town was a good snapshot of what is to be expected when driving around the island. Rough roads, many pedestrians but intermittent pavements, and many vans and trucks, while the houses and occasional shops along the roads appeared run-down and poorly maintained. This is not in any way a criticism of the locals as much as an indication of the local economy- things are obviously quite tight and many people live at pretty much subsistence level. This particularly so outside Port Vila where you pass through villages that are quite ‘traditional’ apart from the extensive use of corrugated iron. It was interesting to take an early morning walk (always more pleasant before the day heated up too much- ALWAYS TAKE A WATER BOTTLE AND DRINK FREQUENTLY!) around some of the streets around our hotel. While most houses in Port Vila are standard European bungalow design, the sections clearly identify who lives there. Many will have little or no tended section- lawns grow much too fast for myliking, although there will be plenty of vegetation. There are fruit trees of all description- avocado, breadfruit, citrus, banana, mango, pawpaw, and so on, and such a wonderful array of shrubs bearing gorgeous blooms.
Many of the homes will have vehicles that are well past their ‘use-by’ date, but because they tend only to be used in and around Port Vila, they get long use out of them (not to say they are in pristine condition!!) The streets are all in dire need of attention and one wonders whose responsibility the footpaths and streets are, and how often major upgrade happens (there wasn’t much evidence of it either time I was there!) One interesting feature of many private dwellings was a ‘nakamal‘. This is the local term for ‘men’s house’ and the name given to kava drinking venue. Kava is widely drunk, and some men apparently are able to imbibe prodigious amounts of it. They drink by the shell, and I was told that some men will drink not dozens but hundreds of shells! Nakamals are also very common in the outlying villages. The largest village in Vanuatu is Mele Village, just 10km west of Port Vila, which has a population of almost 2000 people. Visitors should remember that permission is to be gained before you enter a village or tribal land on Vanuatu (tour operators will have necessary permissions). If you are not part of a tour simply wait at the gate until someone comes to find what your business is, and permission is granted.
Port Vila is an interesting town with a small ‘CBD’ that has most of the commerce of the island, with restaurants, bars, cafes, markets, banks, shops and offices.
Be careful of the traffic- there is plenty, although it is well-behaved and generally pretty courteous. Visitors will notice that a majority of vehicles have the numberplate with a ‘B’ on it- this designates ‘Bus’ and this is a handy way to get around Port Vila and environs. One price for the inner 5kms, and double that for the outer areas, these buses can simply be waved down and will drop you where you want to go. Taxis are similarly available. Your resort will probably have a list of buses that they will contact (a la taxi) if you want a pickup.
The restaurants in and around Port Vila are wonderful. With the French colonial influence in common to many, and Asian flavours widely offered, there will be plenty to please any palate. For what it’s worth, my suggestion for casual dining is breakfast at “Au Peche Minion” (try the tortilla- fresh-baked baggette filled with tasty potato and onion tortilla and tasty dressing) and El Gecko for lunch or dinner. I also recommend you have dinner at least once at “L’Houstalet”, a great French restaurant with a couple of novelty dishes to tempt, one being flying fox. If it’s steak that you are after, there are many places that claim they cook the best steaks in Vanuatu, but you could do better than ‘Moos’ (excuse the pun, but it’s Moorings (where I stayed, and would recommend) restaurant. I would also recommend that visitors DO NOT order coconut crab. If you favour seafood (and there is a wonderful range available,) lobster/crayfish is much more flavoursome and not at risk of becoming endangered.
While you are there you should partake of a Melanesian Feast. Many resorts offer them, but I would recommend Le Meridian- great food, nice complimentary cocktail in a coconut, kava, and a very entertaining native cultural performance. Take tours. They are as cheap as it would be doing it yourself, but they have permissions, equipment, built-in transport and commentary, and most offer some sort of refreshment. Lelepa Island is a nice visit with great snorkelling,
and if you go with the Lelepa Tours group, you get a very nice feeling of ‘family’ from the welcoming guides. It’s worth taking a day to do the around the island tour on Efate. It’s not far, but it is a full day (as you seldom get to travel much quicker than 70kmh (and most often less than that) due to the state of the roads. (This is about to change because the whole ring road is being sealed. I hope the government have a good maintenance programme in place or the road will be back to what it is now due to the rigours of the rainy season and the power of the torrential run-off.)
On the island tour you’ll visit gorgeous beaches, (don’t expect long, white, sandy- they are coral islands and the beaches are mostly coarse and sharpish coral ‘gravel’- beach shoes are a good idea) see rural Efate, experience village life, including traditional food and entertainment, see the colonial and war-time influences (including much evidence of abandoned war machinery)
and depending on the company, extra points of interest.
The Mele Cascades are worth a trip (but you don’t really need to be guided, here- get a bus out @ VT500 each, and walk at your pace and explore, swim, soak at your leisure.)
On the way to the Cascades you pass Hideaway Island which boasts the best diving around. I would argue with this, but it also professes to have the only underwater post office in the world. Whether or not this is true, they certainly have an underwater post office- whether or not you use it…up to you! If you are a golfer, you will play at worse courses than Port Vila Golf and Country Club. Contact a local member (ask at your hotel/resort) and you will pay a small green fee compared to playing on your own. Get a caddy (not compulsory, but well worth it, although I don’t recommend you rely on their shot advice!!??) Good fairways, lush rough, surprisingly good greens, but the weather makes a caddy almost a necessity- hot, hot, hot! The course layout presents interesting holes bending both ways, some challenging approach shots, and always a bit to do on the greens. If you go shopping don’t expect to haggle. The prices are marked and that’s the price. It won’t be all that cheap, either. I found the costs to be similar or a bit dearer than New Zealand. This means it’s not a place to do a ‘cheap’ holiday, but there are compensations- the people, the food, the sunsets,
the swimming and diving, and the ease of just laying back and enjoying the laid back, casual, easy pace of the place.
There are plenty of enjoyable things to do on Efate, but perhaps the feature is the people. Walking into town on the first morning there I saw approaching some quite imposing characters, very dark, quite hard Melanesian features, and the thought ran through the mind along the lines of “Maybe I should give these guys a wide birth??” NONE OF IT!!! Make eye contact and if they don’t beat you to it, give a cheery ‘Halo! -Good Morning!” and faces light up and you receive an enthusiastic greeting in reply. FROM EVERYBODY!!! Old people we tend to expect it from. In Vanuatu you get it from old, young, very young, male, female, and others. They are a very friendly and honest people. They will make your stay enjoyable and memorable.