If you’re seeking an action-packed holiday, Vanuatu is the ideal destination. Instead of only lounging by the pool or beach, this tropical paradise offers the chance to complement your relaxation with adrenaline-packed adventures. Experience the rush of off-road driving through cow paddocks, marvel at breathtaking views with scenic flights over remote islands, or explore world-class wreck sites while diving into the pristine tropical waters. Follow Craig Tansley as he uncovers the thrilling experiences that await you in this tropical paradise.
THERE IT IS: that oh-so-familiar waft of frangipani on the breeze. It’s what the South Pacific smells like; so warm it feels like a sweater round your shoulders. But there’s something else on the wind that makes my skin heat up more: I hear waves crashing on a not too distant reef. It’s too dark to see, Flight NF33 from Melbourne had deposited us on Vanuatu’s main island of Efate after sundown.
Now, we’re sitting under the stars watching the lagoon sparkle barely three hours out of Victoria as we manage a late feed of local prawns and French white wine at Breaka’s Resort.
Vanuatu seems the perfect escape for a couple hell-bent on relaxing. It also seems the perfect place for a couple hell-bent on adventure. But more importantly, it seems the perfect place for one half of a couple hell-bent on relaxation and the other half hell-bent on adventure. There’s a million possibilities here, while some might like to lie on the beaches or shop in downtown Port Vila, I prefer to seek new adventures and challenges.
“Is there surf on Vanuatu?” I ask the waiter. He looks at me with a lopsided grin that looks like it might just fall right off his face. “There is good surf on Vanuatu,” he says. “So where’s the best waves?” That grin again, all white, white teeth. “The best surf in Vanuatu is right there,” he extends his arm straight out, to a point somewhere just past the still water. “You wait til morning,” he says. “You‘ll see.”
Morning can’t come quickly enough. I wake at five, quietly, of course, walk to the balcony of my beachside villa and come face to face with my fantasy.
While my partner enjoys the kind of guiltless sleep-in that should come with a romantic break, I don’t have to waste a second of my morning (I’m one of those annoying hyper-active people you probably hate to see on holidays, I probably had ADD as a kid before it was diagnosed or fashionable).
So while she sleeps, I paddle across a reef teeming with fish, into an empty line-up. The sun has risen and I surf near-perfect waves for an hour and a half, hardly able to believe my good fortune and take in my exotic surroundings.
Finding my partner still deep in sleep, I don a pair of running shoes and take to the streets, where scores of children wait for school buses. Vanuatuans have a reserved friendliness I find quite endearing, it’s like they want to smile, but they can’t quite crack it, but if you look at them long enough, they grin, then snigger. It becomes my challenge; to wear them down.
I feel a little out-of-place here, a skinny white man with chicken legs panting and puffing to maintain his fitness while they do everything they can to keep from sweating in the early morning humidity, men with banana knives working in the fields shake their heads. I run past villages, some primitive, some more modern. I take a wrong turn to a jetty that looks across to an empty island, all white sand and coconut fronds, and realise getting lost here is the best way to navigate.
Then I’m back sweating like a baboon, trying to cool myself down with a swim in the peaceful waters of the lagoon. My partner finally wakes, so we meander to a breakfast of sweet paw paw, pineapple, mango and grapefruit; her feeling rested, me feeling like Grant Kenny in his heyday.
There’s so many things to do around Port Vila – trying out ridiculously romantic restaurants like Sunsets Bungalows restaurant which sits on top of a lagoon, or the Tamanu On The Beach, surely the best place for a long, lingering Sunday lunch anywhere in the world, or the great bars along the Port Vila foreshore – but I think any visit to Vanuatu should involve a bit of adventure and a side trip to an outer island (there are 80 of them).
Instead of lounging by the pool or sipping cocktails on the beach, why not try something more exciting? From off-road driving through cow paddocks to scenic flights over remote islands and diving at world-class wreck sites, Vanuatu offers thrilling experiences for every adventurer.
Whether you prefer exploring by land, air, or sea, here are a few unforgettable adventures that you shouldn’t miss when you visit Vanuatu.
Head to Espiritu Santo
Vanuatu is still a wild paradise, when you fly to islands like Santo you’ll share seats with live chickens, and in our case, the President himself, Kalkot Mataskelekele and his bulky bodyguard, Major James Smith.
Santo is a frontier island, a former war base for over 100 000 Allied soldiers during World War II, and it’s almost impossible to imagine this sleepy island, with its potted dirt roads and empty white beaches, was once a thriving metropolis.
JFK came through these parts and writer James Michener based his book Tales Of The South Pacific (which later become the musical South Pacific) on his time here during WWII. His fantasy tropical utopia, Bali Hai, is actually the island of Ambae visible from Santo on a clear day.
The main town of Luganville is gorgeously primitive. There’s not much here but a café or two, to buy a drink you’ll have to find a western hotel, and there’s not too many.
But therein lies its secret, it’s a tropical paradise minus the rip-offs, the cabana chairs, the fruity cocktails and the hordes of tourists you’ll find in most other tropical locales across the globe.
From a hidden blue swimming hole along a rustic road to a luxurious retreat next to an ancient village, this place offers perfection in the most unexpected places. Don’t miss out on these incredible adventures on Espiritu Santo…
Blue Hole Wonders on Espiritu Santo
Travel to Oyster Island Resort, a two-minute boat ride from Espiritu Santo across a channel, for an adventure with a touch of romance.
In a double kayak, paddle with your loved one away from the quiet shores of Oyster Island to the peaceful Riri River.
There’s no rush, so take your time to appreciate the tropical beauty surrounding you. Vines dip their tendrils into the clear water; a smattering of leaves drifts in the gentle current on the surface; and shards of soft sunlight filter through the forest canopy to complete the Blue Hawaii scene. It’s a beautiful experience to share with your partner and gets even better when, after about 45 minutes, you reach your final destination – Matevulu Blue Hole.
As you would imagine, the hole is a large, but private, pool of liquid sapphire. A rickety wooden ladder leads from the water up a towering bankside strangler fig, from which you take turns swinging from a rope and dropping into the surprisingly cool water.
TIP: Leave yourself as much time as possible here as it’s the perfect place to rejuvenate your mind and body.
Under the Sea
A hawksbill turtle swims gracefully past as you descend to the bow of the wreck. Sunlight filters through rusted portholes, embracing you in a soft aqua glow. This is scuba diving on the SS President Coolidge, one of the world’s most accessible wreck scuba dive sites. At 200 metres in length and 27 metres wide, the sheer size of the Coolidge (as locals call it) is breathtaking. For ocean lovers, this is sure to be a holiday highlight, and is a magical experience to share with someone special.
The former US troop carrier is within swimming distance from the shores of Espiritu Santo, and a quick boat ride from Aore Island, where Aore Adventure Sports and Lodge (PADI certified) is based.
If you stay at Aore Island Resort, the dive master and skipper will meet you at the pier and tell you the history of the Coolidge as you head to its underwater grave.
The Coolidge has been resting here since 1942, when she hit two underwater American mines and was run aground on a reef. Out of more than 5,000 troops on board, all but two survived.
The ship is now a spectacular artificial reef, accessible to all levels of divers.With coral-encrusted military trucks, ammunition shells and medicine bottles to see, this is one adventure you won’t want to miss.
TIP: Book a minimum of two dives on the Coolidge and take an underwater camera.
DETAILS: Go on an underwater adventure with Aore Adventures.
Embark on an exciting jungle tour while on Espiritu Santo and experience the thrill of floating down a river towards Mount Hope Waterfall. This unique adventure takes you deep into the rainforest, where friendly tour guides will accompany you on a wild ride in the tray of a ute.
Prepare yourself for an unforgettable experience as you immerse yourself in the beauty and wonder of the jungle. You’ll travel past kava plants, taro crops, banana trees and an abundance of American rope, an introduced vine that adds an ethereal charm to the tropical landscape.
At Sarakata River, brave tourists jump off a road bridge about 10 metres high into the water below, but you can launch yourself in, feet first, from about three metres high instead, or ease in at the water’s edge.
As you travel downstream for 30 minutes, tiny moths flutter under overhanging rocks covered in moss. At the end of the stretch, there’s a brief bankside walk before it’s time to jump back into the water at Mount Hope Waterfall.
The river flows fast as you swim to the opposite side, where you’ll climb out and scale smooth boulders as water rushes over your feet.
The journey finishes with an easy rainforest walk and a bumpy return drive.
TIP: If you own a pair of reef shoes, make sure to pack them, as well as a light waterproof camera for river and waterfall shots.
Explore the Remote Beauty of Pentecost Island in Vanuatu
Flying low over the remote northern islands of Vanuatu is an off-the-beaten-track bucket-list experience for adventurous couples. Squeeze into a seven-seat Cessna on Efate (Vanuatu’s main island) for a one-hour journey to rugged Pentecost Island – the home of land diving.
Make sure to have your camera ready to capture the jade islands dotting the aquamarine sea and the reefs disappearing into the deep. You’ll pass incredibly close to a volcano on Ambrym Island, with your view momentarily masked by rising smoke and steam as the pilot banks sharply over the rim.
Once you touch down on Pentecost’s small airstrip, a band of ni-Vanuatu (local) men will greet you before you’re led into the jungle to watch the age-old tradition of land diving – the original bungee jumping.
The act of diving headfirst from a 20-metre-high wooden tower with only vines tied to their ankles is a rite of passage for the island’s young men and boys, and also blesses the yam harvest. It’s a spectacle of bravery that’s as exciting to watch as the flight is to get there.
TIP: Take motion sickness tablets as the flight can get bumpy near the volcano; carry a water bottle for when you’re sitting in the heat watching the land diving; and, whatever you do, don’t forget your camera.
Get down & dirty back on Efate
You’ll be heading back to Vanuatu’s main island to fly home, so make time for one more adventure and swap the kayak for a four-wheeled, open-top buggy that feels like it belongs more in an amusement park than on the roads of Port Vila.
Strap in with your partner and tackle the city’s traffic and dust before driving into the suburbs and eventually off-road, leaving the bitumen behind.
You won’t be able to hold back the laughter as you bounce across rolling green cattle proper ties, being splattered with mud, and, um, other stuff you find on cattle farms. Be warned: the the operators, Buggy Fun Rental, guarantee you’ll get dirty on this Jungle Safari tour.
You’ll take a different route when you return to Port Vila, travelling in convoy through rural villages and the outskirts of the city, and stopping for a break in one of the villages. Friendly locals will quickly proffer a platter of fresh fruit while their children climb all over the buggies, giggling and playing. The visit adds a nice cultural touch to a fun tour that’s popular with active couples.
TIP: Wear dark clothes that you won’t mind getting dirty.
Air Vanuatu operates regular flights to Vanuatu from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.
Discover more adventures with this guide: The 20 Most Incredible Adventures in the South Pacific