Picture the South Pacific: tall coconut palms shading a beach of pristine white sand overlooking the limpid turquoise waters of a shallow lagoon. Or is it? The islands of Vanuatu offer something that couldn’t be further removed from that exquisitely beautiful but – dare I say it – run of the mill landscape, in this part of the world at least. If you’re looking for a South Pacific vacation with a difference, then maybe it is time to visit Vanuatu.
The trick to getting the most out of this island archipelago is to focus on a couple of islands. You’ll fly into Efate, to the island’s capital Port Vila. It scrambles to life when one of the regular cruise ships slides into dock and has all the trappings those passengers demand: duty free shops, curio markets and somewhere to grab a juice or a bite to eat. There’s nothing wrong with that of course, but you don’t travel halfway round the world for something that’s replicated in cruise ports the world over.
Experience an active, drive-up volcano
Instead, hop on a twin prop and discover the more languid pleasures of a stay on Tanna. The sand here is black and volcanic, the result of numerous eruptions from Mount Yasur. Perhaps the most frightening, but also exhilarating, excursion you will ever make is the one that takes you up its flanks to stare down into a crater at a fidgety lake of molten lava. Accessible by 4×4 almost to the summit, it’s an easy hike. Come in late afternoon as the light fades and watch the drama unfold as the volcano spits out lava bombs and clouds of ash which glow orange and red against the darkening sky.
Custom and tradition play a big part in island life
Another popular excursion involves jumping on the back of a quad bike and following a rutted dirt track to Yakel village. The need to cross a crude bridge made of rope-tied logs and swerve around numerous tree roots and squealing piglets makes this one of the more adventurous journeys you’re likely to make during your time here. Eventually, the track widens into a nakamal, a large clearing under the shade of several banyan trees. The presence of men in nambas and women in grass skirts you see forms part of a show for tourists keen to learn more about the island’s traditions.
Back in Lenakel, the island’s main town, the market is a good chance to see what daily life is like. Held on several days of the week, with Friday being the biggest, the fresh produce sold includes tropical fruits such as papaya and pineapple, fresh coconut, yam and taro. You’ll see women wearing traditional dresses known as Mother Hubbards. These loose-fitting dresses, characterised by high necklines and long sleeves, were introduced by Victorian-era missionaries but bright and cool, it retains its popularity here to this day.
Exploring far-flung parts of the archipelago
Moving on from Tanna, the island of Erromango attracts intrepid travellers with its rustic accommodation and end of the line appeal. Hikers will find plenty of walking trails criss-crossing the island. It’s possible to trek from Dillons Bay to Port Narvin and on to Ipota via a coastal track. Sandalwood trees can be found beside the Williams River and at Suvu Beach, there are cave paintings to be discovered beyond the white sands, though you’ll need a guide and a canoe to access them. From the shore, you might catch a glimpse of whales, turtles or dolphins in the warm waters nearby.
More mainstream is the island of Aneityum, a popular stop for cruise ships, though when there’s nothing in dock you could find you have the place to yourself. Nature is a big draw: rich volcanic soils encourage the growth of vegetation and there are 84 different species of orchids to track down in the forest, as well as hot springs and hidden waterfalls. A coral reef protects the coast, offering excellent snorkelling.
Don’t miss Vanuatu’s answer to bungee jumping
Pentecost Island is famous for the ritual of land diving. Local men jump off newly constructed wooden towers which stand 20 or 30 metres tall, tied only by lianas (vines) around their ankles. The practice takes place with the annual yam harvest, typically in April, May or June. This timing ensures the jumps take place in dry season. The lianas are carefully checked to ensure they are supple, elastic, full of sap and critically, strong enough to withstand the forces exerted.
Though every effort is made to keep jumpers safe, it’s a dangerous activity, and broken necks and concussions do occur. Today, tourists are welcomed to watch the spectacle, which now takes place more often as a means of raising money for the local villagers. Nevertheless, land diving remains an authentic tradition, a rite of passage for boys ready to become men, and one in which the village chiefs have considerable say in how it is run.
About the Author: Julia Hammond
Enthusiastic advocate for independent travel and passionate geographer, travel writer Julia considers herself privileged to earn a living doing something she loves. When not roaming the globe, you’ll find her windswept but smiling, chatting away to her two dogs as they wander the Essex marshes.