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Thursday, 01 November 2018

Travel Vanuatu: Off the Tourist Trail in the South Pacific Archipelago

Written by Liska Crofts
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Pacific island nations are a common blind-spot on the holiday destination radar for Europeans. Until recently that part of the world has been prohibitively distant and/or expensive to journey to for many of us who've yet to emigrate to Australia (and some who have).

Well, the times, they are a-changin'. Budget air carriers springing up between Europe and South-East Asia (like Scoot and Finnair) have slashed the cost of a hop over to the Pacific vicinity threefold over the past two-to-three years.

With that said, the next time there's a week to spare, check out Vanuatu.

An archipelago of 83 islands stretched over about 1,300 kilometers and home to roughly 250,000 permanent inhabitants, Vanuatu's capital Port Vila on Efeta island is a mere 3.5 hours flight northeast of Sydney and merits every second of the trip. Tourism comprises a comparatively huge chunk of its economy, yet Vanuatu remains so undiscovered that the numbers of tourists it welcomes currently waver at around 100,000 international arrivals each year. Nestled between Fiji and the Solomon islands, its potential for opening up its tourist industry is among the greatest in the South Pacific and there are many reasons to preempt the rush which is predicted for Vanuatu over the next few years.

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Ni-Vanuatu (the demonym for the local people) without doubt top the list of most open and genuine hosts of any country I have visited. People you've met moments ago converse with the ease and chattiness of old friends, and bypassers stop to redirect lost-looking travelers or check whether you're alright. All this is carried out in French, the actual lingua franca, equally with English and Bislama (a pidgin mix of the two languages, themselves the imprint of colonial rule which continued until 1980) meaning few communication obstacles for the Anglo- or Francophone.

Go in with a readiness to be open, inquisitive and return friendliness, and you'll return with a holiday's worth of fresh, warm interactions, new contacts and friends.

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On the topic of getting about, while there are no bus timetables, Vanuatu runs on around-the-clock minibuses much in the style of a pooled taxi service. This can be intimidating on the basis of no available written schedule and everyone seeming to know what they're doing – except for you. Fear not – in this case the absence of instructions indicates the simplicity of the system. Steel yourself, lean into the front window, and ask the driver if he's heading past your destination. For 150 Vatu (VUV) (that's 1.3 USD, or 1.1 EUR) he'll either tell you to jump in or point you to someone who is going in that direction.

One of the first things we were asked by locals was whether we'd yet experienced the blue lagoons. Happily, our Airbnb happened to back right onto one nearest to Port Vila! Beautiful waters exist in many corners of the world, but among the islands of Vanuatu they're so immediate and accessible that you're never more than 20 minutes from walking, swimming, paddling around, or even diving down in them (if that floats your proverbial boat).

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Among the inhabitants of these sandy and reef-filled tropical waters you'll encounter many starfish, clownfish (that is, Nemo), turtles, moorish idol fish (Gill), octopuses and even the rare dugong. As a diver, Vanuatu presents extra excitement as home to the SS President Coolidge, a luxury oceanliner and subsequent troopship sunk full of cargo in 1942 by mines off Espiritu Santi island. Today it's one of the world's most famous dive sites and uniquely accessible for its type, although you'll still need your Advanced diving qualification since its huge vertical spread lays it at a 20-70m depth.

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Moving easily between the land and the water is the status quo for Ni-Vanuatu. Each day on our home lagoon the bottom of our garden was paddled-by by half a dozen kayaks and dugout canoes whose occupants would hop out, chat for a bit, cut down one of the ubiquitous papayas, wave goodbye and continue paddling. Spotting a head bobbing in and out of the water, more likely than not you're watching someone swim out for their daily spearfishing.

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Of course there are food shops and eateries of various descriptions all over Efeta, local and international cuisine, but one of the great joys of Vanuatu is the sheer generosity of its jungles and waters. Food hangs, walks and floats by everywhere. In place of Europe's blackberry bushes spring up the aforementioned papaya, coconuts, pomelos (the world's largest and tastiest grapefruit), soursop, and plenty of bananas! There's no 'big agriculture' on the islands and walking or driving around you can see how heavily the Ni-Vanuatu rely on family gardens constructed systematically for all their staple foods.

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Did I mention that the archipelago is volcanic?

Which would be an understatement as it sits dead on top of the Pacific's Ring of Fire. A dramatic component has been thrown up by a dozen dormant volcanoes and seismic landscape formation making for a spectacular trekking inland (and many impressive plane-descents, the main means for transport between the islands). Ash falls steadily on the southern island of Tanna with the ongoing eruptions of world-famous Yasur. To the north is volcano and island Ambrym, another of the world's most active volcanoes, constantly producing a worthy tropical counterpart to the lava fields of Iceland.

Whether the aim of your break is to escape your usual surroundings – it's difficult to be more remote than in the middle of the Pacific Ocean – or to explore the great outdoors while immersing yourself in an unfamiliar culture, Vanuatu provides an ideal setting; a varied and rich geography with locals ready to reciprocate an interest in their culture and keen to share all the best parts of Vanuatu life.

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©Liska Crofts

Last modified on Thursday, 01 November 2018