3 islands compose the archipelago of Vanuatu. Unless you plan to spend months traveling in Vanuatu, you won’t be able to experience all the best things to do in Vanuatu in one trip. The first step of making your Vanuatu itinerary will be to select a few islands to visit. This Vanuatu travel guide will make it easier for you to pick the best islands and the best places to visit in Vanuatu.
Vanuatu holidays can please anyone, from the adventurer to the resort lover. Vanuatu tourism offer is varied with outstanding natural landscapes from pristine beaches, lush forest, transparent rivers and blue holes. It also provides fantastic snorkeling and diving opportunities. Last, but not least, a visit to Vanuatu is also a chance to experience with locals a fascinating culture. We felt very safe in Vanuatu at any time. It’s always a good idea to read your government information about the country before traveling .
For our first visit, we kept it simple and went to the most visited islands in Vanuatu:
- Efate (where the capital Port Vila is located)
- Espiritu Santo
If we had the budget and the time, we would have added Pentecost, Malekula, Epi or Ambrym to our Vanuatu itinerary. But as you plan your trip, you will realise Vanuatu is not a cheap destination. Many islands are quite easy to access by plane or by boat. However, the costs quickly add up and the time quickly flies away with the transfers. We decided to keep the less visited islands for another trip. It will indeed be easier to organise now that we had a first taste of the country.
I have listed below the best things to do in each of the Vanuatu islands we visited.
I will write articles about each island later on the blog to provide more detailed information on what to do in Vanuatu. This list is an overview of the best activities and points of interest to start creating your Vanuatu itinerary.Warning! Our Vanuatu itinerary included a few adventurous activities. Double check that they are covered by your travel insurance to avoid bad surprises if an incident happens.
The best things to do in Vanuatu: Efate Island
You are likely to visit Efate during your Vanuatu trip as it is the island of the capital Port Vila. Most flights arrive or leave from there.
We weren’t very impressed by Port Vila itself. But a couple of days on Efate Island are a great way to start a trip to Vanuatu. It is a great transition to get introduced to the ni-Van culture without a strong culture shock.
Port Vila is a popular stop on cruises around the South Pacific from Australia. Hence, they are used to receive foreign tourists, and it is easy to get around the island. Still, there are important things to know to visit Efate or when you plan a day trip from Port Vila. These activities in Efate made it to my list of the best things to do in Vanuatu:
- Port Vila Market: I love going to the local markets in Vanuatu. Wandering around Port Vila market was a great way to discover new fruits and veggies. People were lovely and even often offered us to try before buying when we didn’t know a product. I also ate the best bananas ever. They serve local dishes, such as lap-lap or tuluk if you are there at the right time and ask for it.
- Port Vila Handicraft Market: Not far from the primary market, the handicraft market is a great place to shop for local souvenirs. It guarantees that your purchase will benefit local communities. You can have a lovely experience with the stall holders who happy to chat about their country, their culture, and their products.
- Mele Cascades: The fee to enter Mele Cascades is excessive (2,000 VT per person!), and it is regrettable that the profit does not seem to benefit the local communities. Still, the cascades and the waterfalls look fantastic. We chose Mele Cascades over Rarru Cascades (1,000 VT) as they looked more impressive.
- Eton Blue lagoon: If you don’t plan to visit the island of Espiritu Santo, you should make the trip to Eton Blue lagoon while you are on Efate. I recommend renting a car from Port Vila to go there. It will cost you almost the same than hiring a taxi or bus driver to go there and back from Port Vila (10,000 VT) and you will then be able to explore other parts of the island. If you are traveling by yourself, you may opt to join a tour*.
- Hideaway Island: The marine reserve park is a short trip away from Port Vila. It is a great destination for snorkeling with good facilities nearby as it belongs to a resort. You will need to pay a fee of 1,250 VT per person to access the island.
- Lelepa Island: Located in the north of Efate, Lelepa Island is a bit further away from Port Vila than Hideaway Island and a bit more expensive. It is locally owned and gives the opportunity to visit a local village while enjoying great snorkeling and even caves. We decided to skip it as the weather was terrible when we were in Efate.
- Tanna Coffee Factory: The factory is a short drive away from Port Vila, on the way to Hideaway Island and Mele Cascades. It is an interesting short visit to learn more about how they locally make coffee, try the local products and buy souvenirs. They also have an art gallery and essential oil products on site. The factory is a short drive away from Port Vila, on the way to Hideaway Island and Mele Cascades. It is an interesting short visit to learn more about how they locally make coffee, try the local products and buy souvenirs. They also have an art gallery and essential oil products on site.
- Aelan Chocolate Factory: Chocolate tastes better when it is produced by a non-profit organization in a beautiful natural environment. The Aelan Chocolate Factory is located 15-minutes away from Port Vila in the Activ Association Centre. You will find there many local handicraft products and discover Vanuatu’s chocolate makers.
- L’Houstalet Restaurant: A dinner at the L’Houstalet restaurant is not for the budget traveler but is a great opportunity to try some interesting local ingredients cooked with a French touch. The Chef Specialties – a flying fox, marinated in red wine or an imperial Goliath pigeon with a creamy sauce – will cost you 2,700 VT.
- Drive around the island: You can rent a car to drive around the island. This road trip will lead you to beautiful places and stunning views. We did not have time to do it this time, but we met fellow travellers who recommended doing it as an overnight trip.
- Nguna Island: It is one of the few islands in the north of Efate that you can access via a short boat trip. We did not spend enough time in Efate to add it to our Vanuatu itinerary. With two extinct volcano craters to hike and great diving spots in a protected marine area, it is on my must-see list for next time we go there. I believe a minimum of three days is needed to get there and enjoy the activities.
If you have heard of Turtle Bay or Naiwe Beach or the Turtle Sanctuary or Crystal Blue Lagoon and want to go there, please reconsider your choice. If you like animals, you want to avoid this place.
When looking for the best things to do in Vanuatu, we were told at the tourist office there was a beach where we could snorkel with turtles. We love marine life, so we were excited. On arrival, we had to pay a “conservation fee” to enter a sanctuary. I don’t mind helping protect marine life, so it didn’t bother me until I entered the place. I felt sick when I realised it was a prison and not at all a sanctuary. They keep sharks and turtles in tiny enclosures for tourists to touch, take photos and feed them food they would not find in the wild. A dark place that should not exist.
Most visitors seemed to have a great time, probably not realizing how bad it is for the animals to be kept in such terrible conditions.Responsible Travel Tip: This lousy experience at the fake turtle sanctuary near Port Vila was an excellent reminder on how important it is to research the activities we join to be responsible travelers. This is especially true when animals are involved as they may be treated poorly just to attract and please visitors. I wish tourism actors (P&O Cruise and tourism offices, if you read me…) would all participate in educating tourists about why these places are wrong. They would not exist if no one wanted to visit them.
Vanuatu itinerary tip | How long to stay on Efate?
We spent three days on Efate. If you can add a few more days on Efate in your Vanuatu itinerary, I recommend it. It will give you the opportunity to leave Port Vila behind you to explore the north of the island and even some of the other islands in this area.
Unfortunately, it rained most of the time when we were in Efate, so we decided not to visit some of the must-see places. We hope to go again with better luck weather-wise.
We used Airbnb to find our accommodation in Port Vila.
The best things to do in Vanuatu: Tanna Island
Many people spend a short time on Tanna just to see the volcano. Some even travel to Vanuatu just for it. But if you have time to stay longer, there are many other things to do on this beautiful Ni-van island:
- Yasur volcano: A trip to Yasur volcano can be made during an overnight stay on Tanna. However, spending a few days in the east of the island will give you more opportunities to experience the majestic volcano. We loved our walk along the river in the ash plain. You can even try ash-boarding on one side of the volcano.
- Blue holes: There are two blue holes on the east side of the island, only five minutes away from the airport. These blue holes are in the sea and make fantastic spots for snorkeling and scuba diving. Diving is expensive in Vanuatu, and we could not check out all the exciting sites. When the conditions are right, the Blue Cave sounds like a great experience too.
- Kastom villages: The kastom culture is dominant on Tanna and spending time in traditional communities was fascinating. We learnt a lot about the culture, the way of life and the surrounding environment.
- Port Resolution: The road to the volcano end a few kilometers further down, on the coast, at Port Resolution. The lovely village offers an ocean beach on one side, and a magnificent bay on the other side. There, you can watch local fishermen and small hot springs.
- Black Magic Show: Although it is staged, the Black Magic Show on Tanna was described as a fun experience by fellow travelers. We could not attend it as prices for transfers from the east coast were out of our budget. If you travel to this area, you may want to push all the way to Louniel Beach with its beautiful black sand.
- Sulphur Bay: Fresh water thermally heated by the volcano flows into the sea in Sulphur Bay. Because of transfer costs and time, we did not manage to check it out.
- Lamakara: Have you heard of the John Frum Movement or the Cargo Cult? Check this out. If you are in the east of Tanna on a Friday night, you can go to Lamakara village to listen to songs and local music.
Vanuatu itinerary tip | How long to stay on Tanna?
Tanna is worth visiting even for just one day. But I recommend planning a more extended stay. If you go there for only a short visit, you will need to allow a big budget for transfers. We spent five days there (two in the west and three in the east). And we would have needed about two or three extra days to do everything we wanted – especially as we walked a lot to avoid the expensive transport costs.
We stayed at Rocky Ridge Bungalows*, Tanna Tree Top Lodge* and Island of Fire Bungalows*.
The best things to do in Vanuatu: Espiritu Santo
Espiritu Santo is an excellent mix of a ni-Van city and more traditional villages. It is a popular destination with direct international flights from Australia. Whether you are looking for a thrilling adventure or relaxing holidays, you will find things to do in Vanuatu’s biggest island.
- SS Coolidge wreck: Some people travel to Vanuatu just to scuba dive this famous wreck from WWII. If you can include a night dive in your program, it is worth it.
- Million Dollar Point: Beautiful corals and many fish now live on the rest of what the Americans dumped in the ocean after WWII.
- Millenium Cave: Although they improved a lot the trek to make it accessible to most tourists, it remains a challenging day hike. The adventure took us to cross a fantastic cave and swim along a stunning canyon. It is another expensive activity in Vanuatu (7,500 VT per person). But the profit made from the tour are used to provide education to more than 125 children. If you have time, you can spend the night in the village for an authentic experience (3,500 VT per person).
- Champagne Beach: The access to the beach is expensive (2,000 VT per vehicle), but it indeed is one of the most beautiful beaches in the South Pacific. And there’s a trick to avoid paying the entrance fee!
- Blue holes: There are at least four freshwater blue holes in Espiritu Santo. We visited Riri, Matevulu, and Nanda blue holes (budget around 500 VT per person for each blue hole). They all looked different and had their own charms.
- Port Olry: Vanuatu’s second biggest village is in one of the most beautiful locations you can dream of.
Vanuatu itinerary tip | How long to stay on Espiritu Santo?
As much as you can! It is a place where I could live. We spent nine days on Espiritu Santo and it was great. You could fit all we did in a week. But it felt good not to rush and embrace the “island time” spirit.
Other top things to do in Vanuatu
Try the local food
Food is a big part of a culture. So when traveling, I find it essential to try the local dishes. Most meals you will be served at the restaurant are made with local ingredients. But it does not mean they are local meals. Unfortunately, very few restaurants serve local meals. They believe visitors don’t like them. We managed to try local dishes at the markets and by asking our hosts if they could prepare it. We found most of them delicious, so I highly recommend the experience!
Trying these foods is one of the best things to do in Vanuatu:
- Tuluk: Our favourite ni-van dish – and it is even better when it is hot! They wrap a mix of beef and onions in a manioc roll. It reminds of a kind of a meat pie. We found tuluks by asking around in the market or stopping on the side of the road.
- Lap-lap: A visit to Vanuatu is not complete without trying their national dish. The name of the dish comes from the lap-lap leaves that are used to cook. Although they all look quite similar, there are many different kinds of lap-laps. I was not fond of the banana lap-lap and also found the manioc lap-lap quite average. But the yam lap-lap served with coconut milk was delicious.
- Simboro: Like lap-lap, simboros can be very different from one to another. They all look like a nem with local roots or banana wrapped inside cabbage leaves. The manioc simboro we found on the market was delicious. But the banana simboro that our host cooked for us in Port Olry was the best one ever.
- Fruits: Fresh fruits in Vanuatu are delicious and sweet. We had the opportunity to try many fruits for the first time. And the bananas and grapefruits were so much better than anywhere else in the world!
- Coconuts: Make sure you try the three different stages of coconut during your trip. It was my favourite snack. The fresh coconut is close to jelly whereas the dry one is hard like a biscuit and the germinated one like a cake. If you get a chance to try the fried coconut and the coconut jam, don’t miss it!
- Fish: You may have heard of the ciguatera – a food intoxication due to harmful algae that fish eat. Do not let this stop you from eating fish in Vanuatu. Only reef fish are at risk of making you sick. I loved trying their favorite local deep sea fish: the poulet fish and the wahoo.
- Coconut crabs: These crabs live in the forest and eat coconuts. It sometimes made them taste a bit like coconut.
- Flying fox: We heard about it a lot in New Caledonia, but they do not serve it to tourists there. Locals always say it is the best meat. So we were thrilled to find it in a restaurant in Efate!
Talk to locals
When you travel to a country like Vanuatu, it feels important to take time to learn about the people’s way of life and culture. Their stories are fascinating, and their knowledge of surrounding nature is breathtaking. Try to visit at list once a garden. A bit outside the village, the garden provides all the necessary food, including many fruits and vegetables you may not know.
Ni-vans are great people to exchange with. We were touched by their kindness and felt welcome everywhere we went. We mainly chose Vanuatu as a holiday destination for its beautiful natural resources. It was a pleasant surprise to be able to take time to connect easily with the locals. Despite a low GDP, short life expectancy and recurrent natural disasters, Vanuatu people are among the happiest in the world. The Happy Planet Index has proven it, and you can also feel it when you spend time with the locals during your holidays. I hope to stay in touch with few of the locals we spent time with and see how their projects evolve.
You may have heard of kava in other Pacific Islands like Fiji. But Vanuatu is the home of kava. It is the place with the most potent kava in the world and the highest number of species.
Kava is an integral part of the Ni-van culture. It is a drink made from roots used during rituals that has now become part of the everyday life. Local men often gather at the end of the day to enjoy its relaxing effects. Although sharing kava with a local is among the best things to do in Vanuatu, you may not get this opportunity and simply choose to stop at a kava bar. Kava is mostly a drink for men in the Ni-van culture as someone (women!) must take care of the kids. But foreign women were welcome to drink kava at the kava bars on the islands we visited (Efate, Tanna, and Espiritu Santo).
If you have been there, what are the best things to do in Vanuatu according to you? Share your experience in the comments below!
The best time to visit Vanuatu
I recommend avoiding Australian school holidays when planning your Vanuatu itinerary. Unless you are a solo traveller hoping to meet fellow tourists, you will have a better experience during the off-peak season. It removes December and January from the best time to visit Vanuatu. I heard February is a very slow month and some resorts even close. Plus, the cyclone risk is higher from January to April. And if you are not used to the tropical climate, you may struggle with the heat and humidity during the summer months.
It appears the best time to visit Vanuatu is from May to November.
The tropical climate does not mean you should absolutely avoid the wet season (November to March) as showers are generally brief. We traveled during the wet season to the neighboring country New Caledonia and had perfect weather. And we ended up having rain almost every day in June in Vanuatu… You never know!
Temperatures average at 23°C during winter, and you can swim all year round. In June, the ocean was still around 26-28°C. Tanna is 500 kilometres south of Espiritu Santo, and we felt a significant difference in the temperatures at night. Make sure you pack a jumper!
Vanuatu is located in the South Pacific, very close to New Caledonia and not far away from Australia’s East Coast and the north of New Zealand. There are direct flights from Australia’s major city to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu on Efate Island. There are also direct flights from Brisbane to Espiritu Santo island.
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