Active volcanoes and lazy beach days: Vanuatu, Pacific Islands

Guest blog by Kristin Dokken.

Vanuatu is made up of over 80 islands, dotted across 1,300km of the South Pacific Ocean between Australia and Fiji. The diversity of the scenery is truly remarkable, which means whatever your idea of a perfect island adventure is chances are you can do it here. Hike up an erupting volcano and ash board back down? Check. Snorkel through stunning blue holes and caves? Check. Scuba dive in shipwrecks? Check. Relax on white sandy beaches next to crystal clear water? Absolutely check.

It’s hard to believe that your adventure in this tropical paradise can begin just two and a half hours after taking off from Brisbane. You’ll be greeted by friendly locals, something which will no doubt be a major feature of your trip. Reciprocate this friendliness and you’ll be able to learn all about this archipelago’s history, culture, and customs.

I spent time on three islands: Santo, Tanna, and the most popular tourist island of them all, Efate. Santo and Tanna weren’t really touristy at all, and most of the time I got the beach/tour/whatever to myself. I flew between the islands, with each journey only taking around half an hour.

Vanuatu flight times from official Vanutatu Tourism website
Map from the official Vanuatu tourism website

Getting flights between the islands is not particularly cheap – I paid around $250 AUD for each one. The good news is you can alter your domestic flights for no charge and very little hassle if your plans change, but be warned that this works both ways. Air Vanuatu can cancel and change flights at the last minute, so keep an eye on your emails and avoid booking an international flight for the same day if you can help it.

In terms of other costs here, don’t expect the low prices of Indonesia or Fiji. While it’s by no means expensive (especially for how beautiful it is!) it’s not particularly cheap or backpacker friendly. Apart from when I camped, which was cheap and cheerful, I paid around $40 AUD a night. This was for very basic rooms with limited electricity and no hot water, although they all came with a small breakfast of bread and fruit. Higher end accommodation at the nice resorts will cost you significantly more.

Speaking of money, ATMs can only really be found in the main towns, and cards aren’t widely accepted. (In the few places that will take them, expect a hefty fee). The best thing is to bring Australian dollars and exchange them at the airport in Port Vila/Santo, or there are a couple of places in town (Port Vila and Luganville). You’ll get a much better rate there than if you change them in Australia. At the time of writing 100 VT or VUV is worth around $1.20 AUD.

Santo Island

Things to do on Santo

There is plenty to do on Santo and I felt I could easily have stayed longer than my five days. Most of the things to do are in and around Luganville, but Port Olry is also worth a visit. That’s where I started my time on Santo.

Port Olry
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Port Olry Beach

Port Olry is a small village about an hour’s drive up the coast from Luganville.

It has a beautiful white beach with some small reefs for snorkeling, and lots of turtles! There are kayaks you can hire to explore the nearby islands but bring your own snorkel and mask. Otherwise there isn’t very much to do here, which is great if you just want a few days relaxing on the beach (which I had to myself most of the time).

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Port Olry Beach

In terms of accommodation there are a few small wooden cabins that you can rent, but I went for the cheapest option which was a tent under a hut (which I was very grateful for when the heavens opened one night as I had my doubts about the water resistant properties of said tent). It is very basic – there is a communal toilet and sink but no shower (I heard rumours of a bucket), but when you can literally roll out of bed and into the sea who cares!

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I spent the nights in a sheltered tent on the beach

Food wise you really have no other option than to eat at the accommodation restaurant, as there is pretty much nothing else within walking distance (I did see a beach bar further down the beach but this seemed to be closed). I had breakfast included with my stay and there was decent variety of lunch/dinner options that you could order off the menu. Just bear in mind that what you order will only loosely describe what you actually get. For example, I ordered garlic prawns with chips and salad, and I got a prawn curry with rice…it was still delicious though! I couldn’t find anything that resembled a shop in the nearby village so stock up on snacks etc in Luganville before you head out here.

Luganville

After my brief camping stint I headed back to the main town of Luganville.

Diving the SS President Coolidge

One of the highlights for me was diving the SS President Coolidge, an American ocean liner that was used during WW2 and sunk just off the coast of Santo near Luganville. It is considered one of the best wreck dives in the world, and is unique in terms of its accessibility – it can be easily done as a shore dive. It really was like an underwater museum full of WW2 relics such as rifles, gas masks, medicine bottles etc as well as interesting marine life. Once inside the darkness of the cargo hold we turned our torches off and saw luminous lantern fish and an electric clam, among other things.

I went with Allan Power Dive Tours, and they were great. They seemed more than happy to take me even though I was the only diver signed up that day. Allan is the pioneer of diving the Coolidge so has lots of stories to tell, and despite being well into his 80s comes along to every dive, looking after the van while you are exploring underwater and serving up hot drinks and buns in his house afterwards.

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Million Dollar Bay

If diving is not your thing you can also snorkel at the nearby Million Dollar Bay, where the Americans decided to basically dump all their stuff (everything from bulldozers to coca cola bottles) before leaving Vanuatu at the end of WW2. (I guess donating it to the locals who had hosted them was out of the question…?)

Millenium Cave Tour

The Millennium Cave Tour is another popular activity on Vanuatu (in fact the only one where I met more than 1 or 2 other tourists!). This is a day of trekking through the jungle, climbing and scrambling over rocks and wading through a pitch dark cave, before finally floating/swimming down a river through a beautiful canyon (which feels like it’s out of a Jurassic Park film). It’s hard work but really fun, and the proceeds go directly to the local community – they have recently finished building a school using these funds.

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Blue Holes

The blue holes are another of Santo’s main attractions – natural fresh water pools which are famous for being extremely…blue! They really do have an unusually dark blue colour and the water is crystal clear. I went to Nanda Blue Hole which charges an entrance fee of 1000VT (about $12 AUD) but has toilets, changing rooms and a nice little cafe. Not too much further along is Champagne Beach, considered the best beach on the island. It is very nice but having just spent two days at an equally beautiful beach I’m not really sure it was worth the 2000VT entrance fee.

Nanda Blue Hole
Nanda Blue Hole
Where to stay in Luganville

Here I booked a room with Charlie and Sylvia through Airbnb. They have several individual units with a private bathroom and balcony, and a communal kitchen/dining area so you can self cater if you wish. Compared to my previous lodging it felt like absolute luxury – they have showers! Though no hot water (as is the case for most budget accommodation here) and no cold water either on the first day due to a temporary problem with the local water supply.

It’s about a 45 min walk from the centre of town but it was always possible to get a lift from Charlie, or his neighbour, or whoever I happened to be chatting to at the time! Sylvia cooked me dinner one evening so I could try the local food, and also introduced me to kava, the traditional drink of many of the South Pacific island nations. I had wrongly assumed this was a local spirit and was fairly apprehensive (and impressed) when Sylvia poured half a coconut shell full of this ash grey liquid and downed it one go, instructing me to do the same. It’s actually made from a local root plant and is drunk for its relaxing and mildly sedative properties (rather than its taste – I now understand why they drink it one go!)

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Kava

Although illegal in many countries, the government of Vanuatu actively encourages kava drinking over alcohol, as it’s thought to promote a sense of serenity and amicability, as opposed to the violence sometimes associated with alcohol consumption.

Getting around Santo

There is limited public transport on the island, so if you are planning to venture beyond Luganville you will most likely need to take a taxi. I’d suggest getting your accommodation to help you orgnise one. It’s about 5000 VT one way if you go to Port Olry, but there are a few attractions on route so if you negotiate with your driver you can make a bit of day trip out of it. If you’re just travelling in and around Luganville then the local buses are fine (and very cheap).

Tanna Island

Things to do on Tanna

Mount Yasur

Tanna’s main attraction is undoubtedly the volcano, Mount Yasur, and it certainly lived up to expectations! Situated on the east coast of the island, it’s about an hour’s drive away from the west coast which is where most of the tourist things are. It will set you back about 5000VT for a drive one way – you can always reduce the cost by sharing the ride. I actually stayed near Mount Yasur for a couple of nights, but if you aren’t then make sure you get the cross island transfer included in your Mount Yasur tour.

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Mount Yasur

Mount Yasur has been erupting several times an hour for the last 800 years, so you are pretty much guaranteed a good show. The best time to visit is at sunset or sunrise, as the lava is most impressive in the dark. After a slightly random ceremony where the local chief (who seemed to be a different individual depending on the day) gives his blessing for you to visit the volcano, and a very helpful safety talk (‘If the volcano explodes, don’t run!’) it’s a short bumpy drive on the back of a ute to take you up close to the crater.

From there a local guide will take you for a walk up and along the rim. You can actually look right down into the lava chamber, which is quite mesmerising in itself, but every few minutes explosions of various intensity will send molten lava shooting up in the air and result in lava bombs landing a little too close for comfort. (I learned later that a couple of tourists have died after being hit by these…)

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Mount Yasur

It’s pretty cold and windy at the top and you get a fair bit of ash and sulfur fumes coming your way, so bring a jacket and something to cover your face. Possibly more dangerous than the volcano itself is the walk back down the steep narrow rocky path in complete darkness, so I’d probably recommend to bring a torch too. Unfortunately the entrance fee for the volcano has almost tripled in recent years and is now 9500 VT (about $115 AUD). Still, I don’t think anyone who was up there regretted spending that money. If you go a second time it’s cheaper and if you go a third time it’s free, so if you are staying nearby I would recommend it – I found the explosions were even more impressive the second and third time. Don’t go a fourth time though – for some strange reason it then it goes back to full price.

Your accommodation will be able to organise a tour for you, or you can just go speak to the guides directly – you’ll find them at the ticket booth at the bottom of Mount Yusur.

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Mount Yasur
Where to stay on Tanna

There are a few accommodation options close to the volcano, but certainly the closest one is Yasur View Lodge – directly across the road from the volcano entrance.

It’s run by Thomas, who is lovely and speaks an impressive eight languages. I had booked one of the basic bungalows but when I arrived there was only one other family staying there so they actually put me in one of the treehouses, which had amazing view of the volcano. The sound effects were pretty good too – I quite enjoyed falling asleep to the rumbling of Mount Yasur in background (less so the roosters who kicked off at 3am every night..)

Tree house at Yasur View Lodge
Tree house at Yasur View Lodge

There’s only a tiny shop nearby and no restaurants, but Thomas provides dinner for 1000 VT which was really tasty and there was lots of it!

What else?

Aside from the volcano there are a few other places you can explore nearby, including some hot springs, the moon-like landscape of the ash plains, and Port Resolution beach. As a solo female traveller I felt safe and comfortable almost all of the time in Vanuatu, but I would advise against walking alone around the ash plains on Tanna. They are worth seeing but take a tour or go with friends, as it can start to feel quite remote quite quickly. There have been a couple of reported incidents from tourists, particularly women, that were on their own.

One morning Thomas’ sons took me volcano boarding on the ash slopes of Mount Yasur, which was probably not that different from sand boarding really except for the constant roaring from the eruptions much further up the slope!

Volcano boarding
Volcano boarding
Western Tanna

I also spent a couple of days on the western side of the island, which is where the airport and most of the resorts are located.

I stayed at an Air bnb called ‘Hidden Treasure‘. Considering every other Air bnb on the island has a similarly alluring name I hadn’t expected much but it actually wasn’t too bad a description. It’s set away from the main road by a short a dirt track to a quiet secluded beach with no neighbours in sight.

Hidden Treasure Bungalows
Hidden Treasure Bungalows

Unfortunately the beach is mostly reef, so not very easy for swimming, but you do get a beautiful view of the sunset. From the main road it’s easy to catch a bus or get a lift on the back of a ute (hitchhiking is just as common here) to the main ‘town’ of Lenakel, which pretty much consists of a gas station, a market and a couple of tiny grocery shops. You might be better off going the other way towards one of the nice resorts such as Tanna Evergreen Resort, where you can hang out and have a nice lunch without paying for the very expensive accommodation!

Lunch at the Tanna Evergreen Resort
Lunch at the Tanna Evergreen Resort

There are quite a few organised tours that you can do if you prefer a more active day out, though most of them are fairly expensive (usually starting at around 10 000 VT per person). I did the Blue Cave tour, which consists of an hour long boat ride to get to a large cave which can be accessed by a short swim or duckdive through the entrance. The inside of the cave is almost magically blue with crystal clear water lit by a beam of light entering through a hole at the top.

Blue Cave tour
Blue Cave tour

Efate Island

Efate is the most popular island for tourists and is where the capital of Vanuatu, Port Vila, lies. It does feel a lot busier and more touristy than Tanna and Santo, but not overwhelming.

Where to stay on Efate

I stayed at the Retreat Seaside Resort, a hotel run by an Australian family who are super friendly and welcoming. They have a pool and a bar/restaurant with a great view over the lagoon, as well as hot showers and wifi that actually works – both a first for my trip! There were only a few other guests, mostly solo travellers like myself, so it was really easy to meet people. There are also some very nice (and pricier) resorts in town, including a couple that are located on private islands just a short boat ride off the shore. Fortunately you can still enjoy these even if it’s a little out of your budget to stay there – Iririki Island Resort and Hideaway Resort both let you purchase day passes for 1250-1500 VT so you can hang out for the day and use the facilities.

View from my room at Retreat Seaside
View from the bar at Retreat Seaside

Things to do on Efate

Underwater Post Office

I spent a day sunbathing and snorkeling at Hideaway Resort, which is also the location of the world’s first underwater post office. You can buy waterproof postcards and swim out to the post office, located about 50m off shore and 2-3m underwater, where they have a post box which gets emptied daily by the resort’s scuba divers. Apparently the post cards can be posted anywhere in the world – I’m yet to hear if mine have turned up!

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Markets and Kava Bars

Port Vila has a large market, as well as plenty of tourist shops and places to eat, so you can easily spend a few hours just wondering around town or relaxing by the waterfront. There are also lots of kava bars (or nakamals as they are known locally) dotted around town, where anyone is welcome to come and try the local brew (in some of the more traditional areas kava is drunk in a more ceremonial manner and reserved for men only). The kava is served in plastic shells (as opposed to the traditional coconut shells) out of a big container, and after drinking you take a seat in one of the associated wooden huts or tin shacks to let the effects sink in. It’s not particularly glamorous (and kava really doesn’t taste great) but it gives you a glimpse of how many of the locals spend their evenings.

Club Hippique horse riding

One of the highlights of my stay in Port Vila was going horse riding at Club Hippique, a large equestrian centre just outside of town. They offer rides ranging from a couple of hours to a full day with lunch included. I had a great afternoon ride through the surrounding rain forest and farmland, and to top it all off got to swim in the lagoon with my horse at the end of the ride. The horses were in good condition and looked very well cared for so I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

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Getting around Port Vila

Port Vila is easy and cheap to get around by bus, despite there being no bus routes or bus stops anywhere. You only need to stand by the road for a couple of minutes before you’ll see one of the many minivans that drive aimlessly round town, stopping in the middle of the road to pick up passengers and dropping them off literally on their doorstep. It’s basically a door to door service for 150VT, with the added bonus of a convoluted sightseeing tour round every neighbourhood in town before you get to your destination. If you’re in a hurry you may want to consider a private taxi (for 10 times the price I should add).

Another option is to rent a car and on my last day I joined up with a couple of other travellers who had done just this. We set off to explore the island and search for a nice sandy beach to spend the afternoon- the latter turned out to be surprisingly difficult as it appears most of the land is privately owned, fenced off and inaccessible to the public. It was also raining for the majority of the day, so perhaps this didn’t matter too much.

Getting lost and finding a hidden gem

Despite the nearly horizontal rain we did come across a group of locals having a great time lounging in some rock pools, looking more like they were spending the day at the spa than about to be swept off to sea in a tropical storm! Although our search for a beach was not overly successful, we did find a hidden gem that none of us had expected. After driving for about 20 minutes down a randomly chosen and almost unpassable dirt track, seeing only a few bemused locals and several motivational signs (Don’t give up, you’re almost there! – not that we really had a choice in the matter as there was no way to turn the car around…), we arrived at a restaurant called Back to Eden. It really did feel like a sanctuary, with a beautiful view over a small garden and beach, and the food was delicious – home made ice cream, cakes and lots of great lunch and dinner options. It was an unexpected but lovely place to end my holiday in Vanuatu!

Welcome Back to Eden
Back to Eden

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For more more information head to the Vanuatu Tourism website.

If you have any questions, want help planning a trip to Vanuatu or have an idea for a guest blog please email contact@talbahtstravels.com.

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