If you’re keen on a holiday in a south Pacific paradise and you don’t need too many frills, Vanuatu (previously the “New Hebrides”) is well worth a visit.
My partner and I have been frequent visitors to the main island of Efate, staying at various locations in and around the capital city of Port Vila, “Vila” for short.
No matter what your budget is, you’ll not go hungry here. Snappy nightlife? Nope. Sophisticated restaurants and shopping malls? No, though there are plenty of really good restaurants, serving local dishes and French-influenced cuisine that will make your mouth water. Hotels? Plenty of them, and varying between the luxurious and the… well, shall we just say “quaint?”
The roads are pretty awful – but then so are the roads in suburban Sydney. Just a few years ago the first “proper” road was made around the whole island. In past visits we endured what can only be described as a muddy track. And yes, we got stuck and needed some help. Nowadays it’s ashphalt, and you can circumnavigate without a 4X4.
I can’t speak for Vanuatu’s 80-odd other islands, but they are still substantially primitive and a favorite location for photographers who enjoy documenting wild nature and communities relatively untouched by modernisation.
One theory that I have put to the test on each visit is this: it has been claimed (over the years), that the Ni-Vanuatu (the folks who live there) are the friendliest people in the world. I take this sort of claim with a pinch of salt. Usually. But I am very happy to endorse it. Friendly, happy, totally community-forged, these people, young and old, touch my very soul. Yes, they are somewhat influenced by a hundred years of intense Christian missionary work, but I believe that regardless of that, they are a nation that is inherently blessed – no gods required. They are what we westerners might call, “a poor nation.” They rely utterly on foreign aid. But look beyond the bank balance, and they are without a doubt a very rich nation indeed. You can tell that I love this place.
Tips? Sure. You won’t need to carry bags of cash (they have reliable ATMs). You will need some sunblock, and comfortable clothes, hats and shoes – this place is hot and humid. Hotels come in all shapes and sizes and good food is always just a minute’s walk from wherever you are. You won’t be nagged by hawkers, like those in Bali, for example. And it’s politically and socially stable. Crime? Apparently not. In fact, on one of our visits we were told that some prisoners were going to stage a jailbreak one evening. In proper fashion they informed the guards of their intentions. And then proceeded to “escape,” setting fire to some rubbish in the grounds and then being ushered back inside. Very civilised.
Things you should do? First, you must visit the produce market on the foreshore in downtown Vila. It’s the centre of everything, a meeting place, a town hall, a bazaar. Produce is very cheap, totally fresh and strolling through the place is a delight. I’ve visited it a million times at all times of the day and night – even photographing vendors in the very small hours of the morning. I produced a book of portraits in 2009 in which market people were my primary source. You can preview it here: http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/771217
You should take an all-day cruise. I’ve never gone on one of the yacht charters, but I have done the all-day cruise on Havanna Bay on the vintage sailing vessel, “Congoola.” I recommend it for all ages – they pick you up in a bus, take you to Havanna Bay, ferry you across to the boat and set sail for a turtle sanctuary, snorkelling off the deck, and deposit you for a few hours at an isolated, stunning beach for some swimming, snorkelling and a beach BBQ, before returning you to land later in the afternoon. I’ve loved this trip every time.
You simply must visit the Mele waterfalls, just a few minutes outside of Vila. The main entrance area has become a bit commercialised in recent years, but as soon as you walk up the mountain in the direction of the source, you leave the bar and restaurant behind you. It’s a longish walk to the falls, but they are among the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. There are numerous pools and a chain that you can hold onto while you clamber through the shallow rushing water on the granite outcrops before discovering the main falls. They are high. Most of the time they are open for you to explore. But beware, the water is crushing! If you are really adventurous you can even try to navigate under the falls to find the concealed cave, which is completely disguised by the falling cascades. There are attendants on hand who will look after your cameras and other belongings. And yes, there are two vareties of snakes on Efate – but they are harmless, so don’t be afraid if you encounter one. The spiders on the island are magnificent – if you’re into that sort of thing. You can touch them all at the “Secret Garden,” about half a kilometer from the Mele Cascades.
I’ve left out so much…. perhaps I’ll tell you more another time! In the meantime, you can visit my galleries of Vanuatu photographs here: http://www.pbase.com/cwest/vanuatu_2009