One of the World’s Best Kept Secrets: Vanuatu

So you’ve never heard of Vanuatu? Well, neither had I before planning my South Pacific trip. But it was one of the cheapest flights from Fiji, so I figured: why not?! Vanuatu has only been an independent country since 1980 (*side note: a very good year, if I do say so myself), and has a fascinating history- especially on its largest island, Espiritu Santo (read below for more about that). While there are only three official languages (English, French, and the only language common across its 83 islands- Bislama, aka, Vanuatu’s pigeon language), there are 115 dialects spoken across the islands.

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Good example of Bislama on the sign above. In a lot of cases, you can easily understand if you just read outloud: U NO KAM INSEAD (= you no come inside).

Vanuatu also been rated as one of the happiest places in the world to live! It doesn’t take long here to understand why; the people are so friendly, warm, welcoming, and relaxed. I previously thought the Irish held the title of friendliest people in the world; I think the ni-Vanuatu deserve that title (or at least a tie for first place). While this was a short visit for me (less than one full week), Vanuatu now occupies a special place in my heart. Plus, this country can use tourist dollars! Vanuatu was hit hard by Cyclone Pam in 2015 (a category 5, direct hit) and parts of the main island of Efate are still rebuilding and trying to recover. On top of that, Ambae island’s volcano started erupting this summer, and all residents were required to evacuate (and still have not been permitted to return home); most are living in a tent city on the island of Santo. So consider Vanuatu when planning your next vacation!

But before I dive into more specifics of my trip to Vanuatu, let me begin with my travel here. Inter island flights in the South Pacific are not very common or regular (for the majority of islands), so there’s a good chance you will have to fly through Nadi, Fiji, or somewhere in AUS or NZ to reach your island destination. If you fly through Nadi, you’re in luck! Both my arrival and departure were some of the easiest and most efficient I’ve experienced anywhere in the world. Just an FYI: though I cleared both in about 10-15 minutes total (that included check in, security, and customs), you still want to allow for plenty of extra time prior to a departure because checkin for flights is very strict here! They close one hour prior to departure. Plus, it’s a comfortable airport to wait in. Very modern (feels like it must have been renovated or built recently), tons of comfortable seating, including oversized ottomans you can lay/sleep on. There are only a handful of restaurants and you will pay steep airport prices, but for a small selection it’s great! There’s a bar, a Gloria Jeans for your caffeine fix, a BK if you want fast food, and a pizzeria/gourmet deli that has everything from veggie sandwiches, falafel wraps, veggie lasagna, and a veggie frittata (that was huge and looked awesome). And plenty of meat options too, of course! There are a few shops, a day spa, and a huge duty free shop (pro tip: even if you just want a snack while waiting to board your flight, you get better options and better prices buying in the duty free vs the news/snack shop). Final bit of advice: the airport does provide free WiFi, but only 30 minutes. After that, you can’t use free WiFi on the same device for another 1 or 2 weeks! So if you fly in and out of Nadi within the span of 1-2 weeks, once you use your 30 minutes of free WiFi, it’s done.

I’ve been on small planes before, but only for short distances (and all domestic flights). So it was slightly disconcerting when they had to stop most of us from boarding until they filled rows 3-10, because “the plane could tip over” if too much weight was in the back. Seriously. Thankfully, all went well and there were no issues with the short, 2.5 hour flight. I even lucked out and had a local sitting next to me, so got lots of recommendations about getting around and what to do in Vanuatu. Including this airport tip: Nadi airport renovated its lounge, so what they currently have more closely resembles a Qantas lounge, complete with good (free!) meals and unlimited complimentary alcohol, all for only 100FJD- considering the price of food at the limited selection of airport restaurants, if you have a bit of time to kill in the airport, this could well be worth the cost.

Navigating your Way Around Vanuatu– from Arrival Onward 

The airport in Vanuatu is quite tiny, and reminds me of the airports you find in the smaller Hawaiian islands- open air, you deplane into the runway area/plane parking and walk into the airport. Unfortunately for me, despite having such a tiny airport, all three planes this airport can accommodate at once seem to have landed at the same time, with the big passenger jets landing and deplaning first, so the line at customs was a beast. But moved surprisingly fast! And while there were several WiFi networks with names like “Vanuatu Airport Free WiFi” none of them worked. So don’t plan on that. Use the ATMs near the baggage carousel, because I didn’t notice any when you pass through declarations into the main corridor of the airport. There you can find a Digicel counter, where you can buy a local SIM card (with 500MB of data) for about $10USD. I found my transport waiting in the same area, and as soon as I finished at Digicel we were off to Hideaway, my home in Vanuatu.

When you leave the airport, you can either take a taxi or a local bus to your destination (assuming you didn’t prearrange transportation from your hotel). The bus service here is the way to go! Locals pay 150vt per ride, while tourists will most often be asked to pay 300vt (less than $3USD). But once you get comfortable riding and learn not to ask for the cost upfront, you can easily get away with paying what locals pay for your ride. Often, the bus will take you directly to your destination with no stops or other passengers, so it’s effectively a taxi. And even when there are other passengers and stops, it’s always on the way/heading in the same direction, so worth the slight detour to save yourself money. FYI: buses here are all vans, and there are no bus stops. You just stand on the side of the road for the direction you want to head, and stick out your hand when you see one driving by.

It’s easy to tell if a bus or taxi is authorized. Just look for a red B or T on the license plate!

Accommodations in Vanuatu

Just as with Fiji, there are so many damn islands in this country! 83 to be exact! So that leads to the same dilema of where to go and how to spend a limited amount of time. Because I had so few days here, I visited only two: Efate (the main island and home to Port Vila) and Espiritu Santo. Vanuatu offers loads of affordable housing options (and even homestays!) on Airbnb. However, while accommodation are affordable, food (especially at hotels and restaurants) is rather expensive (much moreso than Fiji). After seeing a lot of tour companies that were offering day trips to Hideaway Island, I was intrigued by the option to stay there. Like my resort on Fiji, Hideaway Island Resort & Marine Sanctuary (https://hideaway.com.vu/) on Mele Island has a range of rooms for all budgets, from private bungalows to beds in dorm rooms, and is only a short ferry ride from Port Vila (main city, also where airport is located). Four nights in a dorm room plus loads of amenities (including, providing free snorkeling gear for the duration of your stay) cost me only $100! (The weeks leading up to Christmas are slow season in the islands, so the resort was kind enough to provide me a free upgrade to a single room because the dorm building was also hosting loads of university students, and I needed my sleep.) Plus, this island is home to the only underwater post office in the world (yes, it is a real, working post office)! The downside: you have to take a boat ride then bus or taxi to get everywhere (those little costs do add up), and the resort does leave a bit to be desired. The dorm room itself was decent, but the common space is in the center hallway between the rooms, so if anyone is using that space, you’re not going to be able to sleep. The beach lodge room was lovely and having a sink in the room was nice, but this was the hottest room I’ve ever slept in (and that’s compared to all of the places I’ve been staying for the past two months that also lacked air conditioning). And wifi is sometimes painfully slow, though that’s pretty consistent throughout Vanuatu. The staff are so wonderful that it makes up for some of what the facilities lack, and this seems to be a very popular spot for families on holiday. Though if you’re not super budget focused, you may want to consider at least splitting your time between Hideaway and another, more updated resort elsewhere on the island.

After a few days at Hideaway, I’d say that the best part about staying here are the wonderful people you can meet while here. I lucked out meeting Chris, Socs, and Phil, three Australians who have been traveling here around Christmas for 11 years, during my first night on the island. They were kind enough to invite me to join them for dinner that evening, and for the remainder of my evenings in Vanuatu they (and for the last two nights, the Hideaway’s awesome dive instructor, Greg) were my dinner companions every night. In fact, their company is the only reason I continued to dine at Hideaway; the food is good, but quite expensive (you can save yourself $$ on food and alcohol just by eating at the Beach Bar, which is a free boat ride across the water).

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The beach in front of Hideaway is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Very cool, but I highly recommend you bring your reef shoes.

Exploring Port Vila

During dinner my first night at Hideaway I also met Manuel, a fellow solo traveler (from Switzerland). Manuel was leaving the next day but also planned to spend time in Port Vila, so he and I headed out together and had a great time exploring the local markets (food and crafts, art, and souvenirs) together. The produce market here is one of the biggest and best I’ve seen anywhere in the world! Let’s talk about the eco-packaging too!! And of course, I truly do love the people I meet when traveling. Port Vila is small and quite walkable, though there’s not a lot to see or do. You probably only need one day to explore it; though if you’re like me, you’ll go back more than once to enjoy the wonderful food at the marketplace (local, authentic dishes that cost about 1/3 of what you’ll pay for a meal at any restaurant or resort).

Visiting the Outer Islands: Trip to Santo

When reading about Vanuatu prior to my visit, I was most excited about the blue holes and beaches on one of the outer islands, Espíritu Santo (called “Santo” by locals). Plus, the history of this island is fascinating! The entire infrastructure of the only big town in Santo, Luganville, developed from the site of the US’s 2nd largest military base in the Pacific (next to Pearl Harbor). So that became a “must do” for my trip. Because I had so few days in Vanuatu, I decided to squeeze Santo into a day trip. Now that I know how wonderful Santo is, I implore anyone visiting Vanuatu to spend at least a few days here! But if you too want to do a day trip to Santo, here’s what I did and what to know before you go.

Itinerary & Packing

I took the earliest flight to Santo, which leaves Port Vila at 7am. That meant leaving my hotel at 5am, which meant setting the alarm for 4:30am. I arrived to Santo right on schedule, just before 8am, and headed to my tour company’s office to pay (you can use credit cards almost everywhere, but you have to pay the 3%-3.5% transaction fee) and to change from my plane clothes into swimming clothes. Sam and I drove the island and explored Santo until just before 5:30pm, when he dropped me off at the airport for my departure. My flight was scheduled to depart at 6:50pm, but the arriving plane from Port Vila didn’t land until 7pm, so it was 8:30pm before I was back to Port Vila. Found a bus outside the airport and grabbed a ride back to Hideaway.

Packing advice. I took only the following with me: swimsuit, rash guard, snorkeling equipment, sunscreen, bug spray, cell phone, underwater camera, quick dry/pack towel, reef shoes (helpful but not necessary), a sarong, my wallet, a hat, and big ziplock bags. I used the ziplock bags to keep my wallet, cell phone, and plane clothes dry during the day, and then put my wet reef shoes and clothes inside for the trip home (so that everything in the bag didn’t get wet. I wore lightweight pants, a tank top, a woven cover shirt (to cover shoulders), and tennis shoes with socks, which I changed back into at the end of the day for dry clothes for the trip home.

Preparing for a Trip to Outer Islands

Malaria isn’t an issue if you stay in/around Port Vila. But it is a problem in the outer islands. I completely forgot to look into this prior to my arrival to Vanuatu (and was only made aware of the issue during dinner conversation my first night at Hideaway, yet another reason I’m so grateful I was invited to join Chris and company). Perhaps that was a blessing, because it was WAY easier and cheaper to get the medicine in Vanuatu than it would have been in the US. All you need to do is go to a pharmacy in Port Vila (I went to Healthwise) and tell them you need anti-malarial medicine. I was given (TYPE), which cost me only 100vt (~$1!). Follow instructions carefully, because it’s very different from malaria medicine prescribed in the US, Europe, and AUS.

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I still have my awesome REI mosquito/tick lotion, but it’s nice to have the extra protection. Especially because the mosquitoes in Santo (especially around the Ri Ri Blue Hole) are the most numerous and aggressive I’ve ever encountered. The only other plans you need to make prior to arrival are: book your flight; arrange a tour (or not, see below); and, arrange for reliable transport to the airport for the morning of your flight (if you are staying in Port Vila, probably less necessary). More on all of these topics below.

Travel to Santo

Getting to the Airport 
Hideaway is not located in Port Vila, so I had to pre-arrange airport transit. The hotel offered to arrange a 5am taxi for 1,700vt (~$10USD), or they said I could talk to a cab or bus driver myself and maybe negotiate a lower price. I liked the bus driver, Chris, who took Manuel and me to Port Vila, so I made arrangements with him to drive me at the same cost I would have paid the hotel (Chris lives in the nearby Melé Village, and I liked the idea of money going directly to him). Given that trips from Hideaway to the airport usually earn bus drivers 300vt (so, 600vt round trip), making 1,100vt more seemed like sufficient incentive to ensure he’d be there at 5am. Unfortunately, he was nowhere to be found at 5am, and when I called him, I could tell the moment he answered the phone that he was still asleep. Hideaway’s reception desk doesn’t open until 8am, so I couldn’t rely on them to find me a ride. I walked down to the main road (less than 5 minutes’ walk from ferry drop off), and began asking some locals if anyone knew the number for a taxi or bus driver; I even called Chris back and asked him if he knew anyone else who could pick me up. One of the local guys, who was walking with me and trying to help me, assured me a bus would be along shortly. At this moment I was so grateful for a 4:30am sunrise, because I wasn’t walking around rural roads in the dark AND because there are way more people and cars on the road at 5am here than most places in the world!

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Within a few minutes a local bus came along and was able to take me, just as my new friend said! He must have also told the driver I needed to get to the airport right away, because that was the first stop the driver made. I made it to the airport by 5:30am, plenty of time to checkin, and saved myself a lot of money. Still, for peace of mind, I would definitely arrange transit through the hotel next time (because missing my expensive flight would have cost me way more than the 1,700vt early morning cab fare).

Vanuatu Domestic Flights
Santo is not far from Port Vila, but it’s still expensive to get to. There is a ferry, but that’s not a viable option for a day trip, so I didn’t look into the cost. On the advice of my hotel, I booked my flight to Santo well in advance of my arrival to Vanuatu; my hotel advised that flights can sell out and they were spot on. I’m not sure about travel during other times of the year, but in the days before Christmas locals are going home to be with family so domestic flights are very full. The flight is only 45 minutes, which makes the airfare shockingly expensive: I paid 362AUD for a round trip ticket with a carry on bag only, and that was the cheapest fare I saw over a couple weeks of searching (most were closer to $400USD round trip). The airline is supposedly very strict about the weight of your carry on bag (with excess weight charged per kilo), but they didn’t weigh mine. Nor did the bag (or me!) go through any security screening. Lesson: don’t be afraid to bring that bigger bottle of sunscreen, bug spray, and water! (They do have water for purchase at the small snack stand at the airport.) Though adding weight is at your own risk, because I have spoken to others flying to Vanuatu’s outer islands who did have their carry on weighed.

Port Vila’s domestic airport is very small (a single room) and lines for checkin can get long, so arrive early (they advise close to 2 hours before a domestic flight), to ensure you are checked in before the cutoff time; for domestic flights, that’s 45 minutes before departure. The line I was in was very full and moving rather slowly, but unlike small domestic terminals I’ve been to in other parts of the world, they were well staffed before 6am and opened a 2nd checkin counter. I gave my name and was given my boarding pass; no ID required. The agent even checked me in for my return flight that evening and gave me that boarding pass too! Once you receive your boarding pass, you’re not done. Head to the counter on the back wall to pay the domestic flight tax (200vt), which is not included in the price of the flight. The plane was actually the same size as the plane I was on from Fiji!

Choosing a Day Trip Tour Guide/Company
FYI: you cannot actually book a tour online. The best you can do is email companies, and responses vary. Relying on Trip Advisor and blogs about Santo, I reached out to all of the companies that were recommended for the visits I wanted to do (and that provided an email address for contact, versus only a phone number): canoe trip to Ri Ri Blue Hole, see Nanda or Matevulu Blue Hole, and visit Champagne and/or Port Orly Beaches. Santo is very popular with divers, so many of the most popular companies focus exclusively on diving and related activities. I probably contacted 10+ tour companies. I was going to list all of them for you, but this post is getting too long. I don’t think it matters who you use, many of the companies seem to share drivers and vans anyway, and most will charge you between 16,500vt – 22,000vt ($145-$193USD) for a full day tour including 3-4 stops, entry fees, lunch, a guide, transport, and airport pickup and dropoff. I chose to book a tour with Wrecks to Rainforest because they had a variety of great tours to choose from (more options than most companies), and Mayumi was incredibly responsive! I highly recommend them! Contact information: http://www.wreckstorainforest.com/ or you can email Mayumi directly at: mayumisanto@me.com

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My tour with Wrecks to Rainforest and Sam, my guide, was worth every penny! (Speaking of pennies, my tour, which included airport pickup and drop off, the guide, transport to three sites and a simple picnic lunch, cost me 18,450vt = $162USD.) Travel Tip: you definitely don’t need to hire a company to see any of the main sites in Santo, but you may want to anyway. There is one main road that goes to almost all the sites, and the island has some of the best signage I’ve seen anywhere in the world, so you could easily hire a car, drive yourself around, and save a lot of money. But if you do that, you lose the chance to make a new friend and get loads of extra information along the way. While the tours do get expensive, especially on top of a pricey flight, I’d do things the same a second time, even knowing I could have done it myself. Why? Sam was born and raised on this island and spent hours telling me about Vanuatu and Santo’s history, explaining the culture, teaching me about so many plants and their uses (everything from clothing to medicinal to home building materials), making impromptu stops to point out a building or tree or person or kava bar (and teach me more about that), and of course the yummy extras, such as fresh coconut water straight from the coconut, sampling the island’s grapefruit (sweetest I’ve ever eaten!), and trying taro from a stand on the side of the road.

I was blown away by the acres upon acres of coconut trees. (Many of which also appeared to be cattle farms. These are truly happy cows- free range and healthy.) At one point I asked Sam to stop so I could snap a photo of the coconut trees; he decided I should stand in the middle of the road so he could get photos of me with the trees. The things you can do in a place that hasn’t been overdeveloped!

He also drove me through Luganville and showed me everything, including a pit stop at the Project Development Office for the South Pacific WWII Museum. If they can get funding and fully develop that site, it will be amazing! You can learn more here: www.southpacificwwiimuseum.com

Prior to my arrival, I had selected a tour that included two blue holes (Ri Ri and Nanda) and two beaches (Port Orly and Champagne). When I landed in Santo, it was raining and skies were very gray; less than ideal for a day trip based entirely on outdoor activities. I decided to save myself a bit of money by cutting one of the beach visits. (FYI: There would have been plenty of time to visit both blue holes and both beaches and not feel rushed.) Here’s a highlight reel from my day:

Ri Ri Blue Hole

I liked the idea of taking a canoe trip down the river, and as far as I know, this is the only Blue Hole in Santo that you don’t just drive to. When I arrived at the river, I was thrilled to meet two other women (from AUS) who were doing the same tour. We all hopped into the canoe and were gently guided down the river by two lovely, local girls. I’ve never seen river water so clear! It was breathtaking! And then we got to the hole… WOW. Photos don’t do it justice. The blue holes across Santo get their color from the limestone (and a couple other factors, which Sam explained to me, but I promptly forgot), and are definitely worth seeing at some point in your life.

And because they were there, I had the local girls help me get ahold of a rope so I could swing into the river #nevertoooldforfun

The only downside to this Blue Hole: the mosquitoes! What a nightmare! Not a problem when you’re swimming in the water but the moment you get out… you’d think they actually like DEET. For this reason, if you only have time to visit one blue hole in Santo, Nanda is the clear winner (see below).

Champagne Beach

I’ve seen a lot of beautiful beaches in my life (and especially, my last two months of travel), and this one definitely tops the list. You drive through farms and a forest and all of a sudden: BAM. The softest, whitest sandy beach I’ve ever been on, which is consumed by emerald and blue water, and a jungle all around on other sides. Talk about the beauty of nature! Wow. And let me take a moment to emphasize how soft the sand was; it was like pillows all over the beach. I’ve honestly never felt sand like that- it doesn’t even feel like sand! I spent close to 4 hours just relaxing and enjoying this beach.

For about 2 hours, maybe 20 other people were there (half were other tourists, the other half were Vanuatu families), but otherwise I had this stunning beach to myself. Well, me and my squad of beach dogs. So sweet. I’ve never encountered such polite, well mannered stray dogs; they politely watched while I ate and when I started giving out food, they each waited their turn and took so gently I fed from my hands. The super skinny momma dog (who must have had puppies recently) gave me all the feels. Side note: I have seen some stray dogs in both Fiji and Vanuatu, lots of skinny dogs and dogs with fleas (even family pets), but the problem is nowhere near as bad as other parts of the world. And I have not seen a single incident of animal cruelty!! South Pacific FTW!

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While Port Orly Beach is known for its restaurant that serves up lobster and coconut crab, there aren’t any restaurants on Champagne Beach. Thankfully, I opted to pay for a picnic lunch at the beach, so no issue. The most important information in this blog post: coconut crabs are a species of crab, not a way of preparing crab. They also happen to be an endangered species. So please do NOT contribute to making this species extinct by eating this in Vanuatu. (Also, many locals seem to be unaware they are endangered, which helps explain why people will recommend them to you.)

Nanda Blue Hole

This blue hole is surrounded by beautifully maintained gardens, which include mosquito catchment! So you can enjoy this spot without being eaten alive. There were no other tourists when I was there (probably because freshwater blue holes are cold, and with gray skies…brrrrr), which meant I got to enjoy this stunning place all by myself.

Final Thoughts on Santo

I now understand why people say this is what Hawaii was 50+ years ago (but with modern amenities like WiFi). Very little development, so much breathtaking nature to enjoy, super clean air, and a population that largely seems to still work (partially, if not entirely) as farmers. It is so safe, and the people are soooo nice! Smiles and waves everywhere I went! Even when I almost forgot to pay the man at the kava bar, there was no yelling after me as Sam and I walked to the van to leave; when I ran back to pay, just laughter. You can actually feel the warmth from people here. I adored my day in Santo and was kicking myself for not spending more time here. I loved it here and highly recommend it as the destination in Vanuatu.

Final Thoughts on Vanuatu

GO! That is all. Leaving you with a wonderful reminder from the Beach Bar’s bathroom: never let go of your dreams!

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2 thoughts on “One of the World’s Best Kept Secrets: Vanuatu

  1. Next? Philippines??

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not quite, but I do hope to visit there! If I make it that way I will definitely reach out to you in advance for recommendations!!

      Like

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