One of the happiest nations in the world, Vanuatu immediately puts a smile on your face. And as you reflect on the magical time you spent on its islands, this smile will reappear to brighten up your day. Vanuatu was a surprising first stop on my voyage across the South Pacific, visiting three islands that were completely unique. But such is Vanuatu, a beautiful mosaic of cultures, landscapes and adventure – floating in the warm waters of the South Pacific. This 10 days in Vanuatu sample itinerary takes you to Vanuatu’s prime spots. From pristine beaches to blue holes to active volcanoes and plenty more in between, saddle up and let’s begin!
What’s Included In This 10 Days In Vanuatu Itinerary?
Spending just 7 days in Vanuatu? I recommend visiting just two islands (Efate plus another island). You can theoretically visit Tanna on a day trip or just spend one night to visit the volcano.
Visiting other South Pacific destinations? Get some expert advice on how to island hop in the South Pacific, and check out these travel guides to French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Samoa and American Samoa
Looking for a quick read? Here’s a list of Top 10 Things To Do In Vanuatu!
Why Should You Visit Vanuatu?
To simply put it: a vacation in Vanuatu can be as you want it to be. You can spend your time in a beach resort, seriously get off the beaten track in some remote community, and everything in between. Add to this the friendly attitude of locals and the fact that every island is completely different than its neighbor – and you have a winning combination. I was seriously contemplating whether to include Vanuatu on my six month journey across the South Pacific Islands and the two weeks I spent in Vanuatu turned out to be a positively huge surprise!
Vanuatu Or Fiji?
The good news is that both destinations are connected via direct flights, quite a rarity in the South Pacific. I visited both Vanuatu and Fiji and much preferred Vanuatu for its diversity, authenticity and lack of a party scene. I would say Fiji is more for the beach holiday (and it’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong), whereas Vanuatu offers more for those looking to get off the beach.
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Which Islands To Visit In Vanuatu?
This is always the million dollar question in the South Pacific. Here’s my advice:
- Efate: the main island and your international gateway unless flying directly to Espiritu Santo. Efate is great for markets, nightlife, families, road trips and resorts.
- Espiritu Santo: the largest island in Vanuatu, great for beaches, relaxing, simple or luxury accommodations, hiking, scuba diving, snorkeling.
- Tanna: on the southern tip of Vanuatu and perhaps the most interesting island in Vanuatu. Come here to experience the awesome force of Mount Yasur, visit remote tribes little changed by time, experience nature and meet strange cargo cults.
- Pentecost: the island famous for land divers plunging to the ground with nothing but vine ropes attached to their feet. Come here only between April and June when the land diving is in full swing, with day trips also available from Port Vila.
- Ambrym: come here to do some ‘volcano hunting’.
- Banks Islands: totally go off the grid in these remote northern islands where lobster is cheaper than chicken and where tribal women dance and produce music from water.
Facts & Brief History
Vanuatu is made up of 82 volcanic islands extending from north to south in a ‘Y’ shape. Its people are known as Ni-Vanuatu (or Ni-Vans) and though dozens if not hundreds of dialects are spoken, the official language of Vanuatu is Bislama. A pidgin language, Bislama is made up of words which mix local dialect with English. For example: halo means hello, nambawan means the best (‘number 1’), tankyu tumas means thank you very much (‘thank you too much’).
The islands of Vanuatu were settled by the Melanesians, dark skinned explorers from Papua New Guinea who got as far as Fiji. Though later ‘rediscovered’ by Spanish explorers, France and Great Britain took control of what was then known as the New Hebrides. These superpowers co-governed the islands until independence was achieved in 1980. To this day, it’s not uncommon to find both English and French schools on the islands. During WWII, the US had a large military base on Espiritu Santo, employing tens of thousands of Ni-Vans in the war effort.
These days, Vanuatu is a developing nation, with stark contrasts between the few modern towns and the many remote villages where traditional Kustom life still rules. It is very similar to Fa’a Samoa, the traditional Samoan code of behavior that is still upheld in independent Samoa. Despite living very simple lives, Ni-Vans are known as some of the happiest people in the world, well complimenting the tourism industry – a major source of income on the islands.
Vanuatu Travel Tips:
When in doubt, always ask the local Ni Vans. Their friendliness also extends to travel photography, seldom refusing to have their picture taken – though please be respectful and ask before snapping away. Here are a few essential travel tips for Vanuatu:
Along with this 10 days in Vanuatu sample itinerary, I highly recommend buying yourself a Lonely Planet Guide to Vanuatu – only $21 on Amazon. Even as an author of travel guides, I love having one of these with me on the trip. It helps in the pre-planning stages, understanding where you’re headed to next and it makes for great souvenir in your library!
When Is The Best Time To Visit Vanuatu?
The best time to visit Vanuatu is between April to October. This period is known as the ‘dry season’ and you can expect plenty of sunshine, relatively cooler temperatures and less humidity. November to March is not only the ‘west season’ but also cyclone season. Vanuatu lies in the ‘cyclone hot spot’ and you don’t want to be around on a rare landfall. Another period to watch out for is the Australian school holiday season, when some of the more upmarket accommodations and certainly the flights will book out quicker than usual. I visited Vanuatu during September, during school holidays, but had no issues despite earlier concerns.
How Much Does It Cost To Travel To Vanuatu?
Vanuatu isn’t the cheapest but definitely not the most expensive place to visit in the South Pacific. A popular destination for Australian families and couples, backpackers and budget travelers will also find their spots. Here’s a cost breakdown of my own visit to Vanuatu, a sort of ‘high end’ budget trip in which no activity was missed but no luxury was sought after. You’ll find that organized tours are often quite pricey though necessary in some cases (ex: Mount Yasur). If traveling in pairs or groups – it might be worth renting a car and exploring on your own if conditions allow.
Getting To The Islands
Cargo ships and passenger ferries in Vanuatu are only relevant for super flexible travelers. So flying or finding a spot on a yacht is really the only way of getting around the islands of Vanuatu.
Air Vanuatu is the only domestic airline in Vanuatu with regular service to the islands. As such, you’ll find that interisland fares are very expensive. Purchasing the Air Vanuatu Pass can reduce these costs. However, Air Vanuatu either hides the existence of such pass or has ceased selling it. I suggest calling their Australian office as in any case the purchase of an air pass could only be done over the phone. If you did not fly with Air Vanuatu into the country, a 10kg weight limit will be imposed on domestic flights. Excess baggage can be safely stored at the Port Vila airport for V200 per day but if you’re spending the last night in Port Vila, perhaps your accommodation can provide a better deal. For charter flights, check Unity Airlines’ offering. I met backpackers who managed to hop on these flights for super cheap via last minute deals.
Air Vanuatu is not the most reliable airline and it’s not rare that flights are canceled, delayed or malfunctioning jets are swapped with small twin engine planes – without the airline notifying you by email or phone. Therefore, I highly recommend spending your last night in Port Vila just in case. This is especially true if you are not flying back home with Air Vanuatu.
Lastly, a V200 departure tax must be paid in cash at the airport before boarding your domestic flight. The international departure tax is already included in the price of your ticket.
Getting Around The Islands
Shared taxi vans (marked with ‘B’ on license plates) and regular taxis (marked with ‘T’) will be found on most islands. The shared taxis (known as busses) can be flagged from the side of the road and they’ll drop you off wherever you want. They may refuse to take you if they’re headed in a different direction but not to worry, another ‘bus’ will pass in a few minutes. The cost is a few hundred Vatu but it’s wise to consult a local prior to boarding so you’ll know what price you should be quoted by the driver (always agree on the price before).
Renting a car in Vanuatu is quite expensive (~ V7000/day), though not a big deal if you’re traveling as a couple or group. Rates are negotiable with local operators but: double check the quote and the car you actually end up getting, mark all scratches and check if unlimited mileage is included. Be prepared to pay the compulsory insurance which should amount to ~ V1,500 per day. Both Efate and Espiritu Santo have well maintained sealed roads. As a budget traveler in Vanuatu, there is definitely not a need to have a car at all times, perhaps just here and there for a small road trip.
Vanuatu’s currency is the Vatu (VUV or V). Credit cards can often be used with a 5% surcharge. ATM cash withdrawal charges are outrageous, so try and take out as much in one go. ATM’s are available in Efate and Santo but on Tanna, there is just one ATM which only caters to locals. Bargaining in markets is not accepted and tipping in Vanuatu is not necessary. Your bill will often be tallied using a hand calculator, so double check because mistakes can happen. Many tourist attractions are located on land owned by villages, so do not be alarmed if asked to pay entrance fees. These usually amount to V500 but can be higher in the more popular spots.
Food & Drinking Water In Vanuatu
Fruits and vegetables can unfortunately only be purchased in local markets and in roadside stalls (in Port Vila also in large supermarkets). Local grocery shops (most of which are owned by Chinese Ni Vans) only sell dried goods, with snacks heavily relying on peanuts (keep this in mind if allergic). Local markets are also a great place to buy a home cooked meal. To reduce any health risks, always check whether meat is refrigerated. You’ll no doubt discover the local love for the coconut crab and its appearance on dinner menus. Though delicious, the crab is endangered throughout Vanuatu so please be conscious and think twice before ordering. Bottled water is not necessary in some islands though highly recommended. Tap water is treated with calcium and it’s always wise to double check with your hosts.
Internet & Mobile Phones In Vanuatu
At the time of writing this guide, Digical and TVL were the mobile operators – both offering prepaid packages with data at the Port Vila airport and major towns. Digicel did not have great coverage outside major towns but did offer free data on Facebook and other popular apps. WiFi is readily available in Vanuatu and is almost always free in hotels and guesthouses.
What To Pack For Vanuatu
Aside from the usual, here’s what I recommend to pack for a holiday in vanuatu. For a full list, have a look at the X Days In Y Packing List and ensure you pack the right gear for Vanuatu:
- Your own snorkeling gear (fins not a must)
- Warm clothes and hiking shoes if visiting Tanna
- Reef shoes / waterproof sandals such as these
- Lite clothing from quick drying material such as this awesome shirt (I have 4 of these…)
- Thin rain jacket
- Torch (preferably head torch)
- Small toys for children, especially if visiting Tanna
- Battery packs for mobile phones
Especially in a remote tropical destination like Vanuatu, make sure you have sufficient travel insurance. World Nomads offer excellent coverage and value for money.
Part 1: Port Villa & Efate Island (2 Days)
Efate is Vanuatu’s main island and its capital Port Vila is a buzzing yet compact town that’s sheltered by a beautiful bay. Once you get out of town, it’s nothing but coconut plantations, fresh swimming holes and empty coves that are just waiting to be discovered by adventurous roadtrippers! Unless you’re on a relaxing family vacation, there’s no need to spend too much time on this island, as Vanuatu’s charm lies mostly in its outer islands. Efate was the first island I visited on a six month voyage across the South Pacific and it was a mix of adjusting to a new ‘vacation routine’, a positive culture shock and wonderful discovery.
Where To Stay In Port Vila?
There is no shortage of hotels, resorts, guesthouses and bed and breakfasts in Port Vila. As a budget traveler, I stayed at the Traveller’s Budget Motel and loved the warm hospitality offered by Aussie owners Jack and Janelle. The Motel is a real oasis for budget travelers in Port Vila, offering accommodations for families, couples and even backpackers in a comfortable dorm room. There’s free wifi and drinking water in the common area, where you can also cook your own meals or purchase breakfast (V600) or dinner (V1,000). An airport pickup can be pre-arranged for V1,000 if you don’t feel like taking a shared or private taxi.
If the Traveller’s Budget Motel is fully booked (and it might happen so hurry up), the Vila Hibiscus Motel is just down the road and is a ‘safe’ option for budget travelers. The rooms are cheap, the walls are thin but it’ll do the job for a night or two.
Port Vila & Efate Travel Tips
- If arriving during the daytime, you can easily catch a shared taxi to and from the airport for about V150. At the airport, catch the shared taxis outside the domestic terminal.
- Getting around Port Vila in a shared taxi should cost no more than V150 and if you’re heading just slightly out of town (Mele Cascades for example), expect to pay V300.
- The streets in Port Vila don’t have names, but sketch maps should be available in your accommodations. Not to worry though, it’s very easy to get around town.
- Be extra cautious of cars when walking around Port Vila at night as most streets are not lit.
- Sunday is a very quiet day in Port Vila with most businesses taking a day off. It’s best to buy everything you need in advance.
- Efate is circled by a well maintained sealed road that’s safe for driving but its interior is mostly off limits.
10 Days In Vanuatu Map: Efate & Port Vila
Click on the image to open in Google Maps. This map contains all the highlights mentioned in this section of the guide:
Day 1: Port Vila, Mele Cascades & Hideaway Island
Start your first full day in Vanuatu with a walking tour of Port Vila.
Port Vila Markets
Walk along the waterfront and head to the colorful outdoor central market. This is the largest market in Vanuatu, open all day during weekdays and until 2pm on Saturdays. In the morning hours, the market is packed with local families from around the island who sell fresh fruits and vegetables, packed snacks and traditional medicines. In fact, the place is sometimes so full that families just open up shop in the middle of the aisles. Treat yourself to a fresh coconut and have a look around.
You’ll strangely notice that the market is female dominated (yay girl power!). Since the produce sold here is grown in family plots, I’m assuming the men are sweating away while tending to the next week’s merchandise…
On the side of the market, you’ll find stalls selling island fashions, souvenirs and the chance for you ladies to get your hair braided. On the other side of the market, there’s an excellent food court but we’ll come back to this in just a bit.
Now that you’re all warmed up, head to the Hebrida Market Place, pretty much just across the road. This indoor market is a small maze of corridors where local women are busy sewing colorful dresses. If you feel like bringing an authentic, literally ‘tailor made’ souvenir – this is the place. For those not into island fashions, the market is a prime spot for local souvenirs such as the quintessential ‘coconut bra’.
Just before noon, head back to the outdoor market for lunch. There’s a quick ‘takeaway’ section in the middle of the market but that didn’t look very appealing when I visited. Instead, walk over to the ‘food court’ and grab a seat wherever you fancy. The best way to know where to eat it is where: (1) you like what’s on the menu, (2) you clearly see that food is kept refrigerated – if in doubt, just ask and (3) where other locals are eating. You can enjoy a delicious home cooked meal for a mere V400 and use this opportunity to chit chat with the friendly Ni Vans. I ate here on two separate occasions and had no problem, though I made sure to bring my own drinking water!
Flag a shared taxi for a 10 minute ride to the Evergreen Cascades Waterfall, more commonly known as the Mele Cascades (ride should cost V300). Pay the steep V2,000 entrance fee and walk along the path through this beautiful tropical garden. A few steps later, you’ll cross a series of seriously clear cascading pools which eventually lead to a 35 meter waterfall. Enjoy the natural massage and practice your sliding skills from one pool to another.
From the Mele Cascades, head to the Tanna Coffee Company on Devil’s Point Road either by walking or catching a taxi. Surprisingly, coffee is grown on Tanna Island at the footsteps of Mount Yasur, providing income for hundreds of families. The 100% Arabica coffee is of excellent quality, and it is here that you can learn how the beans are taken from ‘tree to cup’. Enjoy some awakening coffee on the breezy deck and buy a few packs to share with friends back home.
The cafe is also just steps away from a beautiful black sand beach that’s not frequented by tourists. There’s a very good chance you’ll have it for yourself.
Catch the short ferry from Mele Beach to Hideaway Island (V1,250), one of the top attractions in Port Vila. The tiny island is home to an acclaimed resort and the world’s only underwater post office – that’s right!
You can grab lunch if you passed on the opportunity back at the market, but maybe wait for after the snorkeling session off the island’s rocky beach. The reef is in pretty good shape and should be even healthier by the time you visit thanks to ‘coral gardening’, where new coral is grown on small concrete slabs on the reef’s sandy bottom.
Of course, do not miss the opportunity to pay a visit to the underwater post office and send a postcard back home from this bizarre gimmick. Waterproof postcards can be bought in the gift shop for V400.
Dinner & Kava Bar Crawl
For dinner, head to Kesorn’s Exotic Thai, a surprisingly authentic Thai restaurant with a breezy outdoor terrace overlooking the harbor. Now that your stomach is full (and this is the key), let’s venture on a kava bar crawl. If you haven’t figured this out yet, here’s a secret: kava is a big deal in Vanuatu! In a long and manual process that’s carried out during the day by men, the roots of a locally grown bush are ground and mixed with water to create a muddy looking concoction. More precious than champagne, after a few ‘shells’ (a.k.a coconut bowls filled with kava), its sedative effects start to kick in.
It’s perfectly legal and in fact, kind of the thing to do around here: getting high… South Pacific style!
With significant ceremonial importance in Fiji and Samoa, kava drinking in Vanuatu is more of a casual night time activity, mostly reserved for men. All you have to do is walk around town and look for a colorful neon light which marks the spot. Step inside, down a few shells and proceed to the ‘Kava garden’ to relax with the local patrons. Don’t be alarmed by the constant sounds of spitting and throat cleaning. This is perfectly normal, even if it might be a bit disgusting. Kava makes your tongue go numb and your mouth dry – so these oral actions apparently help with that…
This accompanying map lists two kava bars that I liked. The one listed as ‘local’s kava bar’ is just as it sounds – totally not geared for tourists, which is absolutely cool! The second one is known locally as ‘Shefa kava bar’, perfectly situated on a hill overlooking the harbor. It’s more ‘trendy’ and absolutely perfect for watching the sunset. Just get here before 8pm when the kava usually runs out.
A few rules of thumb when it comes to kava: the less water % in the mix – the stronger the kava, the emptier your stomach is – the quicker you’ll feel the ‘high’, you can ask for a ‘half’ or even ‘quarter’ shells and finally – the ‘high’ can best be described as a feeling where everything seems to move at a slower pace, so really nothing to fear. You’ll be sleeping like a baby!
Day 2: Efate Island Road Trip
Rent a car for a full day of circling Efate (see ‘Vanuatu essential travel tips’). A regular 2WD will do just fine. Before leaving town, stop at the central market and stock up on some fruits and snacks for the road trip. Drive in an anti-clockwise direction, starting off with a small detour to an unofficial lookout point overlooking the Port Vila Harbor.
Once out of town, there’s nothing but endless coconut plantations and hardly anyone on the road. Don’t be surprised if you don’t see too many road signs. This is kind of the norm in Vanuatu. The best way to navigate is by either asking locals or counting how many rivers you’ve crossed and matching it to your roadmap (don’t forget to pick one up).
The first official stop will be at the Eton Lagoon. Pay the V500 entry fee and practice swinging off the rope into the fresh pool. You’d be surprised how long it takes until you get bored of playing Tarzan.
There’s a small bar on the premises, picnic tables and changing facilities. Further down the road, Eton Beach can be another stop if you fancy a dip in the ocean (V500).
Traditional Lunch At Taka Village
The highlight of this road trip was no doubt the lunch stop at Taka Village. Look for the easy to miss sign and drive on the unsealed path towards the beach. Aim to get here around noon when a delicious beachside buffet lunch is served.
As you’re feasting away on local dishes, you’ll be serenaded by locals welcoming you to Vanuatu!
This incredible culinary and cultural experience costs just V700. It’s so good that even organized day trips from Port Vila make the effort to get here in time for lunch.
The gentle drive from Taka Village to Port Havannah will take you along the island’s remote northern coast. On the way, you’ll cross a few rivers, pass a few more coconut plantations and maybe even come across happy looking children returning home from school.
At Havannah Harbor, stop for some coffee at Gideon’s Landing by the Eco Lodge and relax on this tranquil beach that was the filming location for Survivor Vanuatu. These days, this part of the island is home to upmarket resorts and restaurants, but you can easily kill a few hours relaxing on the beach.
Don’t forget your snorkeling gear! The marine life just meters away from the beach is simply superb.
Cocktails On The Beach
You’ll complete the circle island tour with a scenic descent from Efate’s highlands back to Port Vila. To celebrate what I hope was a great day (it will be), head to the Banyan Beach Bar for some cocktails and food with the sand between your toes. If it’s your lucky night, they might have a some live entertainment involving fire!
Quick note before we move on: if you won’t be visiting Tanna Island, you might want to go on the Lelepa Island day tour or visit the Ekasup Village in Efate. Both options will introduce you to the Ni-Van culture and traditional Kustom village life.
Part 2: Espiritu Santo Island (4 Days)
Vanuatu’s largest island is known as its adventure playground. Espiritu Santo, simply referred to as ‘Santo’, is the kind of tropical island there you could spend your entire vacation. Santo was home to a large US military base during WWII. With the base came thousands of troops, paved roads, airpstrips and those familiar quonset huts which can still be seen around Luganville. These days, Santo is famous for its pristine white sand beaches, crystal clear blue holes and WWII relics hiding beneath the gentle waves.
Where To Stay In Espiritu Santo?
This really depends if you’re coming to Santo for the diving, the beaches or both. If you are planning to dive the SS President Coolidge and Million Dollar Point, I recommend staying in Luganville for this portion of your trip. If you’re not diving, there is no need to stay around town and you should head straight to the beaches on the east coast of the island. Here are a few options:
Luganville: I stayed at the Deco Stop Lodge, a recently renovated hotel commanding fantastic views from a hill overlooking Luganville and its bay. The lodge is centered around a lush tropical garden, just a 10 minute walk from town. Families, couples and even backpackers are accommodated for, with clean rooms equipped with: hot showers, fans, towels and some even with air conditioning. You’ll be greeted with an ice cold welcome drink at the reception and a free continental breakfast is served on the poolside deck. Other meals can be ordered and tours can be booked. Like all businesses in Vanuatu, a 5% surcharge will be added for credit card payments so cash is better, and the free wifi could use a little boost. But other than that, this place is a real bargain!
East Coast: for families and couples looking of getaway from it all, the Oyster Island Resort has your name written all over it. This resort sits on a tiny private island just off the east coast of Santo. It’s got a lovely beach, walking trails, romantic bungalows and of course – a great restaurant serving fresh oysters and hosting happy hour.
Champagne Beach: to really get off the grid, stay at Lonnoc Beach Bungalows, just a 15 minute walk from Champagne Beach. A row of cute and simple bungalows front a white sand beach where you’ll hear nothing but waves and songbirds during the day and swaying palm trees, crickets and falling coconuts at night. Around since 1991, the place is run by larger than life Kelmar Vocor and his family along with students from the hospitality school that he established just across the road.
Units are very simple, fitted with: a thatched roof, cold water showers, flush toilets, not so great mosquito nets and solar powered lights (no electricity). They do have a lot of charm but expect to come across a spider or two – this is the tropics after all. Electricity and (pretty good) wifi are available in the restaurant from 9:00-14:30 and from 17:30-21:00, where you’ll also enjoy a fantastic breakfast and order lunch and dinner with mains ranging from V1,000-3,000 (don’t miss out on BBQ nights).
You’ll spend most of your time relaxing on the beach, with snorkeling OK and free kayaks to use. If you really want to get active, tours to the island’s main attractions can be arranged (V5,000-7,000). The only bummer is getting here, with the lodge arranging private transfers to and from Luganville for an overpriced V6,000. Alternatively, you can catch shared taxi to/from Luganville running up and down the east coast for just V500.
Offering an authentic local stay in a beautiful surrounding, you will no doubt be invited to visit the village or attend church service on Sunday! Come here if you’re looking for a simple stay, living the dream on a beautiful beach and to be in tune with nature. Alternatively, you can stop here for lunch during the day as you’re exploring this side of Santo.
Espiritu Santo Travel Tips
- Santo is a 45 minute flight from Port Vila but you can also get here on direct flights from Brisbane.
- Private taxis from the airport to Luganville should cost V1,000. Shared taxis (marked with a ‘B’) are harder to come by outside the terminal but if you’re lucky, a ride to town should cost V500.
- Santo has a sealed road running up the east coast that’s safe for driving. The interior of the island is pretty much off limits, home to a few remote villages that even most locals never get to see. I have heard of hiking trips to the remote west coast mountains but these are weeklong and require a lot of asking around.
- If you’re not traveling solo, renting a car would make sense for a maximum day or two as organized tours average V5,000-7,000. Keep in mind that entrance fees when traveling with a car are higher (~V2,000 per car vs. V500 per person).
- Private transfers from Luganville to accommodations on the east coast can be very expensive (~V6,000). If you’re up for it, traveling with the locals can reduce this to just V500. Head to the Pacific gas station in the center of Luganville, which also doubles as the unofficial bus station. From Monday to Saturday, you should be able to easily catch a shared ride running up to Port Orly and get off wherever you want. On Sunday, you’ll either have to hitchhike or book a private transfer.
- Few shops exist outside Luganville aside from the occasional roadside stall. It’s best to stock up on some snacks before leaving town for a few days.
10 Days In Vanuatu Map: Espiritu Santo
Click on the image to open in Google Maps. This map contains all the highlights mentioned in this section of the guide:
Day 1: Wreck Diving & Exploring Luganville
One of the main reasons for visiting Santo, if not the main one, is to dive the wreck of the SS President Coolidge – a luxury liner converted to troop carrier during WWII. In 1942, the 22,000 ton ship was en route to the US Army base on Santo with over 5,000 troops on board. As it neared Luganville, the ship struck a friendly mine placed to defend against a Japanese invasion. The captain managed to beach the ship and the troops disembarked before the Coolidge slid down the reef just a few meters offshore. The tragic sinking of the Coolidge was probably the best thing to happen to the people of Santo, as thousands of divers visit the island to explore one of the best wreck dive sites in the world.
Diving The Coolidge Wreck
Pre book a spot with Allan Power Dive Tours to explore the wreck of the Coolidge. Allan has been diving the Coolidge for over 35 years and his team of instructors will take excellent care of you. You’ll be picked up from your Luganville hotel in the morning for the first dive. A 15 minute drive brings you to the spot where you’ll walk from shore, grab a rope and begin your descent.
The ship’s bow (front), lies at a depth of 21 meters while the stern (rear) is down at 73. Shockingly, you can request to dive deeper than the usual limit, where you’ll find the engine room and other ‘highlights’ that can be fun to see if you’re not experiencing nitrogen narcosis. In any case, your first dive will be a nice and easy one on the exterior of the wreck.
Aside from the wreck itself, the coral and marine life are among some of the best I came across in the South Pacific. So even though the main event is the Coolidge, don’t forget to look around during your safety spot.
We’ll explore the Coolidge from the inside shortly, but first – it’s time to take a break between the dives.
Walking Around Luganville
Luganville is not the kind of town you’ll be writing home about. There’s a rocky beach running parallel to a dusty main street that’s home to Chinese grocery shops, small hotels, restaurants, kava bars and the usual small town businesses. With the influx of tourists, there are a few higher end drinking and dining options that I’ll mention.
A definite Luganville highlight is the local market, about a 15 minute walk from Allan Power’s dive shop. It’s not as large and not as happy as the Port Vila market, but nonetheless it offers a kaleidoscope of colors and faces that are worth the short walk.
Just like in Port Vila, there is a small ‘food court’ here too. Grab a seat where you see other people dining and enjoy a delicious lunch at a fraction of what you’ll pay in town (~V400).
Diving Inside The Coolidge
Back to the Coolidge wreck site and this time you’ve earned the right to venture inside the massive ship. You’ll start with a sharp descent to 37 meters to ‘kiss the princess’ – the signature ornament of the Coolidge. Down here it’s pitch black and you’ll use the torches your instructor will equip you with.
You’ll then begin to slowly ascend back up to the surface, crawling through very tight spaces and inside the large hull where you’ll finally understand the enormous size of the Coolidge. En route, you’ll come across jeeps, aircraft fuel tanks, ammunition, medical supply and even latrines. It’s a thrilling, tragic and eerie experience all at once.
Dinner & Drinks In Luganville
Cap off what must be a tiring day with either dinner at your hotel or another trip to Luganville. There’s a descent Chinese Restaurant in the center of town or better yet, the Attar Cafe – a cozy restaurant with excellent wifi and western style food (~V1,000 per main). For drinks, head to the Waterside Bar & Grill or for another round of kava bar hopping!
Days 2-4: Million Dollar Point & East Coast
You can keep diving the Coolidge for as long as you want but if two dives are enough, let’s do something else. For the rest of your time Santo, I’ll list the places you don’t want to miss. You can choose if/how to see them and where to base yourself. I personally left Luganville after a morning visit to Million Dollar Point to spend the rest of my time in Lonnoc Beach, super close to Champagne Beach. But this is totally up to you.
Million Dollar Point
At the end of WWII, the US Army no longer needed the base in Santo. With no potential buyers around and considering the long voyage back to the US, decision makers were faced with a huge dilemma over what to do with all the surplus military equipment. So they did what anybody else would do: they dumped the equipment just off the beach, packed up and went home! So you now probably understand how Million Dollar Point got its name…
To get here, catch a bus (shared van) from Luganville for the 15 minute ride (V500 as oppose to V1,000 with taxi). You’ll have to pay a V500 entrance fee but at least there will be somebody watching over your stuff and shower/toilet facilities. All you have to do is put your snorkel on and swim for about 30 meters off shore, where you’ll start to see the leftover military equipment. There are cannons, tanks, jeeps, airplanes and troop carriers – all littering the ocean floor. Super cool!
To experience Million Dollar from up close, a scuba dive would come in handy. But snorkeling is also OK and you really get the point. Fins will really help out here but not a must.
East Coast Road
The sealed road running from Luganville to Port Orly passes through sleepy villages, coconut and plantations and thick rainforest. Along the way, you might get lucky and find a roadside stall where you can chit chat with the locals and stock up on fresh tropical produce. If you’re extra lucky, the boys might be preparing a batch of kava for later distribution to local bars.
Both a great lunch stop and a place to base yourself at for exploring Santo, the Oyster Island Resort should not be missed. Look for the sign off the coastal road and bang loudly on the rusty gas drum. In a matter of minutes, a boat will come and fetch you to Oyster Island, a small oasis in Santo.
I came here as a daytripper for lunch to sample the oysters of course. After a great meal and a cold beer, it’s really up to you whether to get back on the road or relax for a bit. The resort has a pretty but small sandy beach and walking trails that lead to more secluded coves where there’s good snorkeling and even a plane wreck off shore.
Matevulu Blue Hole
Vanuatu is blessed with thousands of fresh swimming holes, but the Matevulu Blue Hole in Santo is in a league of its own (V500 walk-in entrance). Shaded by massive banyan trees, a crystal clear natural swimming pool springs out of somewhere. Swimming in this blue hole feels like floating in space. Of course, after you’ve watched the local ‘pros’ in action, grab the rope and swing off the giant banyan tree!
A popular way to visit the Matevulu Blue Hole is by kayaking from Oyster Island inland via the Riri Riri River. I am not a kayaking fan myself and I actually met a couple who found it quite difficult to kayak against the current.
Considered the prettiest beach in Vanuatu, Champagne Beach is kind of a must visit in Santo. A long stretch of the whitest of sand curves around a horseshoe shaped bay, with plenty of shade in the back. Needless to say this is a very popular stop, even for cruise ships which anchor off shore. Entrance is V500 for walk-ins or V2,000 per car and there are facilities. It’s not a bad place for a picnic lunch or just a bit of relaxing and swimming.
I thought Champagne Beach was lovely, but you could totally see how busy this place gets sometimes. When busses and cruise ships arrive, dozens of stalls spring to life, selling the typical souvenirs, sarongs and other things you don’t really need (but certainly help the locals). So your level of affection towards Champagne Beach will really depend on the day you visit.
While everyone makes the pilgrimage to Champagne Beach, its sister beach is just as pretty and there’s a good chance you’ll be the only ones here. If you’re not staying at Lonnoc Beach Bungalows, stop here for lunch or a drink and enjoy the magnificent beach.
The snorkeling is ‘just OK’ but the intensity of the blue is is simply incredible and on its own makes the stop well worth the effort. The beach bungalows have a few kayaks you can use to explore the bay and the food is quite good in the restaurant (free wifi).
Marking the end of the coastal road, Port Orly’s name is a reminder of past French influence. This small village centers around a Catholic mission that was founded in 1887. There’s a lovely stretch of beach and a few restaurants that are popular with daytrippers.
If caving is your thing, you’ll love the full day tour of the Millennium Cave. This 50 meter high cave is not too far from Luganville but be prepared to get muddy, wet and sweaty. Parts of the tour are quite extreme, requiring a bit of swimming and a good fitness level (~V7,000).
Part 3: Tanna Island (3 Days)
My personal favorite island in Vanuatu, do not miss the chance to visit Tanna. Its main attraction is Mount Yasur – the world’s most accessible active volcano, but Tanna offers plenty more for those who stay for more than just a quick night. With hardly any paved roads and with remote villages where 26 different dialects are spoken, let curiosity lead you on a discovery of Tanna’s wild nature and old Kustom way of life. Living In the fringes, mysterious cargo cults do their own thing, further adding to Tanna’s cultural appeal to complement its awesome natural beauty.
Tanna was badly hit by the category 5 Cyclone Pam in 2015, with the island taking a direct hit. Many lives were lost, along with destroyed crops and infrastructure. Signs of that horrible day were still evident when I visited Tanna, from the torn airport terminal roof to the lack of fruit on the trees.
Where To Stay In Tanna?
There are pretty much two areas to choose as your base: the Mount Yasur area on the east side of the island and the airport area on the west coast.
- Mount Yasur area: very simple huts, campgrounds and even tree houses (no wifi and 24 hour electricity). They can be very cheap, offer a unique local stay and you’re close to Port Resolution and Mount Yasur (can even walk there at night). Keep in mind that unless you happen to hitch a ride from the airport, the cost of a prearranged airport transport will almost equal to that of a tour of Mount Yasur from the west coast.
- Airport area: accommodations are more modern, with 24 hour electricity, wifi and dining options. You’ll be close to excellent snorkeling spots, the airport, nearby guided tours and the ‘town’ of Lenakel – though Mount Yasur is a 90 minute drive.
I personally stayed at the Tanna Evergreen Resort and absolutely loved it! The resort is just 10 minutes north of the airport and they’ll pick you up for free. Small bungalows dot what used to be a lush tropical garden before Cyclone Pam struck, but by the time you visit, it may be back in full bloom. There are budget style bungalows with shared bathrooms (hot water, electricity and mosquito nets provided) to go along with fancier ocean facing units. The entire property is perfectly situated for magnificent sunsets.
The resort’s restaurant and bar is where you’ll be treated to a great breakfast (with Tanna Coffee served, of course), sunset dinners and connect to the (OK) wifi. Throughout the day, you can buy lunch, snacks and drinks. The dinner menu was excellent and well priced, considering you’re really in the middle of nowhere (mains start at V1,200). Choose from Thai curry, chicken specials and even a whole lobster for just V2,500. As the sun sets and the air gets a bit chilly, a bonfire is lit nearby and millions of stars begin to shine in the night sky.
Another advantage of staying here is the snorkeling. Right off the resort’s rocky beach, you’ll find superb marine life that’s best explored a low tide. Don’t forget your reef shoes!
Finally, the resort also doubles as a tour company, offering you the chance to not only visit Mount Yasur, but also discover all the highlights mentioned in this section of the guide. I went on four tours and would have done more if only I had more time. Though prices are quite steep, don’t forget that Tanna is a remote island with very poor infrastructure so everything is quite costly also for the locals. All tours of Tanna featured in this section of the Vanuatu Travel Guide were booked directly via the resort and were well worth it.
Tanna Travel Tips
- Aim to spent at least two nights in Tanna. If weather is bad and Mount Yasur trips are cancelled, you’ll at least have an extra shot.
- Tanna is mainly reached via 40 minute flights from Port Vila.
- Bring enough cash as the only ATM on the island serves local bank accounts. Some accommodations accept credit cards, but a 5% surcharge will be added to your bill.
- Getting around Tanna is difficult and its only commercial center is Lenakel (not much happening there). Therefore, I highly recommend bringing some snacks to cover those ‘in between’ meals.
- Confirm your departing flight a few hours before (your hosts can help you). When I visited, a mechanical problem caused disruption in service and miscommunication, causing some to miss their flight to Port Vila and their onward connection back home.
- Pack something warm. Tanna can get a bit chilly at night, especially around Mount Yasur.
- Don’t forget reef shoes. Tanna has some amazing snorkeling off the west coast but it’s quite a rocky approach to get to the best spots.
- To get a sneak peak of the island, watch the highly recommended film Tanna, which accurately depicts Kustom life on the island.
10 Days In Vanuatu Map: Espiritu Santo
Click on the image to open in Google Maps. This map contains all the highlights mentioned in this section of the guide:
Day 1: Snorkeling & Mount Yasur Volcano Tour
Since it’s your first full day in Tanna (or even if you’ve arrived on the morning flight from Port Vila), book a spot on a tour going to Mount Yasur. This way, if the weather is bad, you’ll have another shot tomorrow. The tour leaves at around 3pm, so use the morning to relax, enjoy the view and explore Tanna’s marine life.
Snorkeling In Blue Hole #2
The best snorkeling in Tanna is just a 20 minute walk up the dirt road from the Tanna Evergreen Resort. Look for the sign to Blue Hole #2 and walk down to the rocky reef edge. From the surface, it looks nothing out of the ordinary, but once you enter the break in the reef (the hole), you enter wonderland.
During low tide, the break in the reef creates a calm tidal pool that’s a good few meters deep. Inside, tropical fish in all colors of the rainbow swim back and forth inside the safe confines formed by hard corals which grow on the volcanic rock.
The water is crystal clear and if you’re extra brave, you can venture inside small caverns and lava tubes running from the main pool. It’s an absolutely magical experience and you’ll probably be the only ones here if you come early in the day.
Where’s Blue Hole #1 you might ask? It’s further up the road, but #2 is said to be better. Don’t forget your reef shoes and snorkeling gear of course. Inquire with your hosts about the tides and only venture inside at low tide when it’s easy to spot the entrance and visibility is at its maximum.
Mount Yasur Volcano Tour
After lunch and a short nap, gear up for the trip of a lifetime. This is the prime reason you came all the way to Tanna. Known as the ‘world’s most accessible volcano’, the challenging and long trip to Mount Yasur is absolutely worth the effort and the cost (V12,000-14,000). The volcano has been active for the last 800 years and its nightly glow is said to have led to its coincidental discovery by Captain Cook.
Your tour will depart at around 3pm with a beautiful 90 minute drive up from the west coast to the highlands and down to the east coast where the volcano lies. Only the most difficult sections of the road are paved so expect a long and rough drive at times. You’ll pass through remote villages where time stands still, villages that were destroyed during Cyclone Pam. Keep your eyes peeled for slices of tine roof wedged into the treetops, debris leftover from the cyclone.
After the initial climb, you’ll reach a lookout point with panoramic views of Tanna. To the north, the beautiful uninhabited coastline and to the south – your first glimpse of Mount Yasur.
A few turns and a few miles later, you’ll think you’ve just landed on the surface of Mars with touch down on the only highway in Tanna – the black ash plains of Mount Yasur. It’s the only time you’ll break out of third gear on this trip and it’ll be your first glimpse of the volcano from up close.
As you get closer, you’ll pass a few small villages that live dangerously close to the volcano. There are a handful of accommodations out here in simple huts and treehouses for those who want to visit the volcano multiple times. Out here, you’ll begin to notice smoke literally rising out of the ground, sure signs you took the right turn.
The jeeps will then park right at the foot of the volcano, where you’ll embark on a short hike up to the creator to the sounds of exploding grenades and the smell of rotten eggs. En route, you’ll have a chance to post a letter back home from a lonesome mailbox. In a country with such poor infrastructure, it amazes me how Vanuatu Post manages to reach the toughest of places.
You’ll make it to the rim just in time for a spectacular sunset. It’ll be the last time you look out in that direction for the rest of the evening.
I’ve climbed the Pacaya Volcano in Guatemala but I’ve never stared down the mouth of an active volcano. For the next hour, you’ll be treated to a fiery display of lava eruptions that you’ll never forget.
Here’s what it felt like to be at the top of Mount Yasur
And here’s the entire experience from day to night in a time lapse video
Logistics: tours from the west coast leave at 3pm and return at 8pm so pre order your dinner. Wear warm clothes and be prepared for a lot of ash flying your way. I recommend packing something to cover your nose and mouth with, baby wipes, tissues, a torch and even something to protect your camera (mine briefly stopped working the following day).
Day 2: The Magic Tour
Another morning of taking it easy, pop into Lenakel to check out its small but cool outdoor market or join a morning tour to the blue cave, ‘wilderness waterfall’ or just snorkel in the blue hole again.
At 1pm, depart to the middle of nowhere for the start of what’s known as ‘the magic tour’ – a reconstructed custom village where surprises lurk out of every corner – warning: spoilers coming up! You’ll be greeted by a local tribe member who welcomes you to the village tour with the famous (true) story of a missionary that landed on the shores of Tanna only to be eaten by cannibals. Great way to start your tour ah… here’s what comes next!
After this welcoming introduction, you’ll enter the village through a massive banyan tree where the next generation of warriors take their shot at scaring the living daylights out of you.
You’ll then move from station to station, where you’ll learn about the ancient ways of warfare: archery, camouflage and medical evacuation using a few special leaves as a stretcher.
A few stations later, you’ll finally be worthy of meeting the tribe’s chief (he really is a chief). The chief will perform a beautiful wedding ceremony by using his special powers to bind together two heart shaped leaves known locally as Nanamian.
The tour then reaches its climax, with the entire village coming together to celebrate your arrival with traditional song and dance. The baton is then passed to you, as you get to play chief and be paraded through the village with a huge entourage cheering you on!
Bottom line: the tour lasts for about 2 hours and you’ll have a chance to buy some local souvenirs from the villagers so bring extra cash (V500-1,000). I actually had a wonderful time in the magic tour despite it being geared for tourists. The special moments I experienced there still put a smile on my face whenever I dream about Vanuatu.
Day 3: Yakel Tribe Village Tour & Cargo Cults
The magic tour was great but how about seeing the real deal? Tanna is home to a number of tribes that haven’t changed much over the centuries, resisting Western influence and holding on to the traditional ways of Kustom. The most famous such tribe is the Yakel tribe. A visit to their village is a must for any curious traveler.
Louinio Cultural Village
At around 8:30am, you’ll depart once again to the middle of nowhere, this time to the central highlands of Tanna. The ride will give you another opportunity to witness the beauty of Tanna’s landscape and the allure of its remote villages.
Arriving in Louinio Village, you’ll think you’ve just arrived on a filming location for one of those BBC nature documentaries. In fact, this description is not that far from reality as anthropologists from around the world come to Tanna to document the people of the Yakel tribe.
Your guide will lead you through the tribe’s village, where women are covered only by grassy lavalava skirts and men by penis sheaths. There’s no electricity out here and no 7-11. Everything is grown and raised on site, with tribe members sometimes heading to town to barter for goods wearing their traditional clothing. In good years, the village is almost completely self sufficient, with: taro, sweet potato, sugar cane, avocado, mango and herbal medicines grown on site to go along with chickens and pigs. Even tobacco and kava are grown in the village, with the men closely guarding these cash crops which surely help pass the time in the absence of satellite TV and wifi.
You’ll then enter one of the huts, where a local mama is busy preparing traditional dishes that you’ll get to taste. As you exit the hut, children are playing a local version of hide and seek, dancing around in a circle with one of them blindfolded in the middle. Who needs a Playstation?
Moving closer to the tobacco plantation, the men demonstrate how in seconds they can light a fire with simply a wooden stick and some dried bark. The entire village will then join, erupting in a traditional dance which sends vibrations running through the ground.
Bottom line: I highly recommend visiting the Yakel Tribe’s village. It’s as authentic as it gets and after watching the (highly recommended) movie ‘Tanna’ – I can honestly tell you it’s exactly like this in reality! In addition, like all villages in Tanna, Cyclone Pam really devastated the community so any extra bit of cash goes a really long way (bring some cash for souvenirs).
The Giant Banyan Tree
On the ride back from Louinio Village, you can detour and visit this freak of nature. Tanna has its fair share of banyan trees, but this one’s huge! Though locals claim it’s the biggest in the world, it’s not quite there yet. What appears to be a single banyan tree that has somehow morphed into the size of a football field, nobody really knows when it all began. Local legend says that even when Captain Cook visited Tanna in the mid 18th century, this tree was already a giant. Perhaps its secret lies in the small stream that flows right through its heart.
Logistics: the combo tour of the Yakel tribe village and the giant banyan tree leaves at 8:30 and returns at noon, so you can do this in the morning and catch an afternoon flight to Port Vila.
John Frum Cargo Cult
If it’s Friday, you’ll have the chance to visit one of the most bizarre scenes in the South Pacific. Tanna is home to a few cargo cults worshiping anything from Prince Philip to a mysterious figure called John Frum. Some say John Frum was a real person who spoke of the day when the European colonizers would depart Tanna and leave all their material wealth to the local Ni-Vans, while some say it’s the misinterpretation of an American soldier ‘John from (America)’ whom islanders met while working for the US Army on other islands during WWII. While some John Frum villages worship ‘cargo’ i.e. – old military equipment associated with this John Frum, others simply reject Western influence and hold on to their own belief system.
If you’re staying close to Mount Yasur, you can visit the guys who worship WWII military cargo. I visited a John Frum village where as night fell, locals gathered inside an open hut and began singing for hours upon hours. The men appeared to be completely high on kava, while some of the older women were dancing in bizarre fashion outside, also appearing to be high on something.
Bottom line: it’s certainly not a must to visit a John Frum village but it is a rare nighttime activity on Fridays. Inquire about special occasions when cult members parade through their village dressed in old US military gear.
Part 4: Port Vila (1 Day)
I highly recommend returning to Port Vila for one last night, just in case there are any disruptions to inter island flights on Air Vanuatu (which can happen). Use this last day in Port Vila to relax, reflect and do a bit of shopping in the town’s market!
So What Do You Think?
Is Vanuatu worth visiting? Share your thoughts, questions, tips and own experiences in the comments below. For a quick recap, here are the top 10 things to do in Vanuatu!
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