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Inside: What makes the island nati0n of Vanuatu one of the happiest countries in the world? There’s only one way to find out…here’s everything you need to know to plan your trip.
COVID-19 Update: Vanuatu is currently COVID-19 free and the borders have reopened to visitors as of July 1, 2022. Check for the latest updates here.
The end of Round-the-World #7 is near but I still have 2 left stops to go! Today brings me back to one of my favorite parts of the world, the incredible South Pacific.
But who can blame me? I mean, the South Pacific is just one of those dream destinations. And even while planning my stop in Vanuatu, I felt a little crush coming on.
From my last stop in Tasmania, I enjoyed an afternoon layover in Sydney with just enough time for lunch in the harbor before my evening flight to Vanuatu.
Arrival in Vanuatu
By the time my 3-hour flight from Sydney touches down on the island of Vanuatu, it’s approaching midnight.
Despite the late hour and the almost total darkness outside my airplane window, our flight of 30 or so passengers are greeted at the tiny airport by live island music played by a cheerful group of smiling locals.
I just love landing on tiny islands to a reception like this. No matter how tired I may be after a long flight, I’m immediately transported to island time. Instant attitude adjustment.
So let the Vanuatu love affair begin!
But wait, I realize most of you probably don’t have a clue where the South Pacific island of Vanuatu even is. So, let’s cover a few basics first…
Where is Vanuatu?
An archipelago made up of 83 islands, the island nation of Vanuatu is about a 2 ½ hour flight from either Brisbane, Australia or Auckland, New Zealand. There are also a number of quick and easy flight options from Sydney.
This makes Vanuatu one of the most easily reachable South Pacific islands for both Aussies and Kiwis (who account for almost all of the island’s visitors).
What’s the best time of year to visit Vanuatu?
Vanuatu is one of those rare destinations that is truly wonderful to visit all year round. But if pressed for the “best” time to visit, I’m told the island nation’s tropical climate is at its best from April to October.
I’m visiting in February, generally considered the middle of the rainy season, yet my days on the island turn out to be full of sunshine and very little rain. Sure, it’s hot and humid, but isn’t that to be expected in any tropical destination?
Rather than focusing on the weather, the real peak and off-peak seasons for Vanuatu tend to be determined by the Australian school holiday calendar. When school is out, expect higher hotel rates.
The Best Vanuatu Hotels & Resorts
Like in Tasmania, I procrastinated about booking a hotel in Vanuatu. In fact, I only confirmed my hotel a few days ago.
I narrowed it down to three top choices:
- Erakor Island Resort & Spa – Great reviews, a private island resort just a 5-minute jetty ride from Port Vila with a lovely beach area and comfortable waterfront bungalows for a reasonable rate.
- Hideaway Island Resort – A no frills, budget-friendly option offering everything from dormitory rooms to 1-bedroom villas. Also home to Vanuatu’s famous underwater post office.
- Eratap Beach Resort & Spa – Top rated and definitely the most luxurious of the 3 options. Beautiful villas with all the usual resort amenities. On the main island in a stunning beachfront location, 20 minutes outside Port Vila, free airport transportation.
Ultimately, I decide on the Erakor Island Resort. It’s a good mid-priced option and I love the idea of a resort on a private island.
But since I realize it might be difficult to reach a resort on a private island at such a late hour (and because I’m endlessly cheap), I book a hotel in the main town of Port Vila for tonight.
Why pay resort rates when I’m only going to be there a few hours, right?
A great budget hotel choice in Port Vila
After searching the Trip Advisor reviews, I book the Traveller’s Budget Motel for tonight. It gets top billing for budget properties, it’s close to the airport, walking distance from town and the price is right.
The owner, Jack, even arranges an airport transfer for me.
2022 Update: The current owner is an Aussie named Gabby and (based on recent reviews) she’s equally as helpful with local advice as Jack!
With only a few people on my flight from Sydney, I’m through customs and on my way to the hotel just minutes after landing.
A late night arrival
My driver pulls up to the gate of the tiny hotel and we quickly discover it is locked. The lights are all off except for the small office. We can’t get anyone’s attention and I’m hoping to avoid waking up the entire place.
After a few minutes, we accidentally wake up one of the other guests who then goes to wake up Jack. I feel terrible and apologize profusely for waking him up but he doesn’t seem to mind.
It turns out Jack had set an alarm to wake up to greet me but never expected I’d get to the hotel so quickly. He said it usually takes at least an hour for guests to get through customs, get their bags and make it from the airport to the hotel after landing. I’d managed all that in about 20 minutes, plus the flight landed a bit early.
He’s very apologetic but I’m just happy to get to my room before being awarded an island name that translates loosely as “she who arrives in the middle of the night and makes lots of noise.”
My room is quaint and all I need for my first night on the island. It has air conditioning, a private bath, and free wifi – my only real musts in a hotel.
After a decent night’s sleep, I awake late morning and head out to the hotel’s breakfast area to seek out Jack. I’m in need of some island advice for getting around and things to do on Vanuatu.
Getting Around Vanuatu – “B” for bus
Jack is extremely helpful with advice on what to see and do around the island. And he gives me my most crucial bit of information for my stay, how to use the local bus system to get around.
Now, many small islands use sort of a loose bus system that doesn’t operate on any kind of schedule. For example, last year on Rarotonga I mastered the clockwise and anti-clockwise bus system around the island. It was cheap and easy to use once you knew what you were doing.
But I have to say, Vanuatu’s “B for bus” system really takes the cake for a loose operation.
The “buses” are actually independently-owned mini-vans (7 passengers or so). You just look for one with a red “B” on the license plate going in your direction and flag it down. If it has space, it’ll pick you up.
For destinations within the main town of Port Vila, you can get almost anywhere for 100 to 200 vatu (a dollar or two). But for areas further away on the island, it might cost as much as 500-1000 vatu ($5-$10).
2022 Note: These prices are several years old by now so take these numbers with a grain of salt. I’m sure, like everything else these days, they’ve gone up. Be sure to ask a local for the current going rates!
There are hundreds of these buses operating on the island. And luckily, I soon discover that there always seems to be one where I need it.
It’s extremely helpful to have an idea of what to pay for certain destinations because negotiating a price with the driver first is an important part of the process.
Not to mention when Jack says bus I’m thinking large 50-passenger bus. So I’m surprised when he flags down a mini-van for me (pointing at the “B” in the license tag) for my ride over to the Erakor Island Resort jetty later.
With Jack’s help, I have pieced together a loose game plan for my 3-day stay.
First up, a walk into the capital of Port Vila to see a little of the town before transferring out to Erakor Island for the rest of my stay.
The Happiest Country in the World?
In 2007, Vanuatu was named the Happiest Country in the World by the New Economic Foundation’s “happy planet index.” This brought a surge to their tourism industry.
After all, who wouldn’t want to visit the happiest country in the world?
And after just a few hours on the main island of Efate, it’s easy to see why everyone’s so happy here. What’s not to be happy about when you live in paradise?
Vanuatu is blessed with fertile soil and excellent growing conditions which allow the local population (called Ni-Vanuatu or just simply, Ni-Van) to live well off the crops that they are able to grow themselves.
Just how much food is readily available on the island is on display daily at the lively outdoor market in Port Vila, my first stop for today.
Exploring Port Vila
I walk along Port Vila’s pretty waterfront area stopping to watch a bunch of smiling locals playing with their children in the city park. From there, I make my way over to the market to check out the offerings.
The market is filled with women in brightly-colored island dresses. They are selling their fruits and vegetables and operating impromptu restaurants with grills cooking up fresh island treats.
It’s truly a feast for the senses.
It’s a fascinating look into the daily life of the Vanuatu people (called ni-Vanuatu) and I wander the market for more than an hour visiting all of the stands and chatting with the ladies.
After the market, I stop for lunch along the water and then pop in and out of a few shops before walking back to the hotel. By now, it’s time to change hotels over to the Erakor Island Resort for the remainder of my stay.
I pack up and Jack walks me out to the street and quickly flags me down a “B for bus.” He confirms the price to the Erakor jetty with my driver and I’m on my way.
The Erakor Island Resort
When I arrive at the jetty, the ferry is waiting for the quick 5-minute ride across the channel to Erakor Island. As we get closer and closer to the island I’m blown away by how beautiful it is.
I feel like I’ve stepped off the boat into a remote tropical paradise.
The Erakor Island Resort & Spa encompasses the entire island so it’s about as private as a hotel gets. Yet within easy access of the main island by 24-hour jetty.
Remote…yet still connected.
I’m quickly checked in and shown to my beachfront deluxe spa villa.
It’s absolutely beautiful with a big jacuzzi tub and a lovely deck right on the water. The only problem (for me) is that it isn’t air-conditioned (not sure how I missed that when I booked?). I’m a little concerned l won’t be able to sleep at night but the bungalow is so cute I don’t care.
2022 Update: These villas do now have air conditioning.
I settle in, change into my swimsuit, grab my book, and head right back to the island’s main beach. There, I take full advantage of the rest of the afternoon to relax and swim in the shallow clear waters.
The first thing I discover as I wade in? The starfish-to-guest ratio is about 50-1. In fact, I have to watch my step to avoid disturbing my colorful, shapely neighbors.
Eventually, I decide the starfish are probably as friendly as the locals and surely won’t mind a slight repositioning for a photo op.
Viola! (No starfish were harmed in the taking of this photo.)
With a full day planned for tomorrow, the rest of today is all about relaxing and enjoying the natural beauty and tranquility of Erakor Island.
And that’s pretty easy to do!
Learning Vanuatu’s local language, “Bislama”
Later, I get my first introduction to the local language, Bislama.
The language was developed in the late 19th century when thousands of Ni-Vanuatu were forced to work on plantations in Australia and Fiji. With several languages spoken on the plantations, a form of pidgin English was developed combining English words with grammar typical to other parts of the region.
At the turn of the 20th century when these workers began to return to Vanuatu, the language was retained and spread through the islands since it allowed for better communication with European traders and settlers.
Over the years, the Ni-Vanuatu added in their own words and pronunciation and the result is a language based 95% on English but with a little French and island language thrown in.
A few interesting examples of Bislama:
Thank you: Tankyu
Thank you very much: Tankyu tumas
And my favorite, on the sign next to the bell you ring on Erakor anytime you want to take the boat back over to the main island:
“Sipos yu wantem ferry yu kilim gong.”
Love it! I briefly consider adding Bislama to my resume under “languages spoken.”
Tip: The Vanuatu tourism bureau website has a fun and helpful Guide to Bislama if you want to learn more!
After a perfectly relaxing day, I grab dinner at the resort’s lovely waterfront restaurant and then head off to bed. It’s a bit warm in my bungalow but I manage a decent night of sleep.
Vanuatu Day 3 – Waterfalls & the Underwater Post Office
I have big plans for my third and final full day on the island.
So, after breakfast it’s time to “kilim the gong” and catch the ferry back to the main island.
My plan is to catch a “B for bus” to the other side of the island and check out the Mele Cascades waterfalls – one of the island’s main attractions. Then I’ll spend the afternoon at the nearby Hideaway Island Resort, home to the world’s only underwater post office.
When I get off the ferry I’m swarmed by several “T for taxi” drivers ready to take me to the waterfalls for $10 -$15.
But thanks to Jack, I know I can get a bus for $3 -$5. So, I make my way to the main road and within just a few minutes I find a bus willing to take me for $5…good enough!
Mele Cascades Waterfalls
I arrive at the Mele Cascades waterfalls and pay my entrance fee. The attendant explains that swimming is safe in any part of the falls.
This is wonderful news!
I begin my hike up to the top on a nice trail through the rain forest. Along the way I pass pool after pool of clear aquamarine water.
The water is just too tempting so I stop a few times to wade in. It’s hot and steamy today and these lazy, turqouise pools are the perfect way to cool off.
As I work my way to the top, the land trail disappears completely. It’s replaced by a “path” through the rushing waters indicated by guide ropes. My flip-flops aren’t the best choice of footwear for the occasion – especially since I’m carrying camera gear that I don’t want to get wet.
But I take it slow, hold on to the guide ropes tightly, and carefully make my way to the top.
It is worth the effort. The 115-foot falls at the peak are amazingly beautiful.
As I’m listening to the thundering water, I notice that on the falls to my right people are actually rappelling down them! I have zero urge to try this – it looks a little scary and I’m a wimp – but it is extremely entertaining to watch.
I linger at the top for a while and enjoy the incredible views. Then I carefully work my way back down through the rushing water. Remarkably, I manage to make it all the way up and down without dousing my camera.
The Hideaway Island Resort
Back down at the entrance to the falls, I catch another bus to the jetty for Hideaway Island.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be a guest of the Hideaway Island Resort to visit the island. Day visitors are welcome for a fee of vt1250 per adult and vt600 (children 5-12). Kids under 5 are free and so is the 4-minute ferry from the mainland over to the island.
Like Erakor, Hideaway is a tiny island just offshore which is home to only one resort. The Hideaway Island Resort is known for two things:
1. Terrific snorkeling around a vibrant coral reef.
2. The world’s only underwater post office.
The island is a total tropical paradise with clear blue waters and bungalows lining the shores.
Unfortunately, the post office suffered some damage in a cyclone just last week (unlike Bora Bora, my cyclone timing is actually good for once!). It had to be brought to the surface temporarily for repairs.
Luckily, the actual mailbox is still underwater so I’ll still have the chance to mail a postcard.
Vanuatu’s underwater post office
Hideaway Island’s underwater post office is a big hit with cruise ship passengers. On days when there are ships in port, the hotel actually puts one of their divers inside the office to greet those who swim down to mail a postcard.
How fun is that?
The postcards come with a unique postmark when you mail one from here so I decide to buy one of their special waterproof postcards anyway and send one to myself. How can you not?
With just the small, actual mailbox in the water, it takes me a few minutes of snorkeling to locate it. Not to mention a few tries of diving down to get it in the box! But I managed to get the job done.
Once my postcard is in the box and on its way, I spend the rest of the afternoon lounging on Hideaway Island’s lovely beach with a good book.
It is a completely splendid day.
Last night on Vanuatu
Later that afternoon, I make the jetty + B for bus + jetty return trip to Erakor Island for dinner and a perfect sunset. Sidebar: After getting a quick look at the rooms at the Hideaway Island Resort, I definitely made the right choice staying on Erakor Island!
It’s the perfect way to end my 3-day stay on these spectacular islands. Considering how much I love the main island of Efate, I can only imagine how wonderful the other 82 islands are.
Vanuatu just might be the happiest country in the world.
One of my favorite parts about it is just how friendly the always-smiling locals are. Especially the children who seem excited to talk to visitors and pose to have their picture taken.
Not for money (like everywhere else in the world) but I think just because they want you to remember them and their smiling faces.
There’s little doubt that I will.
The next morning, I’m up before dawn to take the ferry back to the mainland for my transfer to the airport.
I’m sad to leave these beautiful islands. So it’s pretty safe to say my love affair with the South Pacific continues unabated.
But for now, I have just one stop left in New Zealand before wrapping up Round the World #7. It’s been an unforgettable month(ish) and I can’t believe it’s almost over.
Next stop, Auckland!
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