Vanuatu: A Cultural and Cruising Paradise
British sailor James Ashwell and his crew have been exploring the South Pacific for the last five years after leaving the UK in 2017 for a leisurely circumnavigation. Of the many places they have visited so far, Vanuatu rates as one of the best they have seen as James outlines in this report.
Published 3 weeks ago
Tanna Island – Port Resolution
We arrived at Port Resolution on Tanna Island from New Zealand after having made advance arrangements to check in here. The officials will drive over from Lenakel – but you have to pay for this. Even if you don’t give advance warning – all the evidence is that you will be OK. It will cost you a lot more to drive to Lenakel than it will to pay for the officials to come over from there to Port Resolution.
There are no provisioning facilities here, so you’ll have to wait till Port Vila to stock up on supplies.
The anchorage is very good – it’s very well protected from anything other than a northerly component of swell which makes it pretty rolly Unfortunately, we had quite a few rolly days so in the end we went around to the west side of the island to escape.
There is very little evidence of cyclone damage from earlier this year. Most of the debris has been removed and houses have been repaired. There is some evidence but you have to look to find it.
Why should you visit
While it was the first place we visited when we arrived in Vanuatu, Tanna was by far the best. Unfortunately there seems to be a lot of misunderstanding about the island – we met a lot of boats in Vanuatu who didn’t visit the island because they didn’t think there was a good anchorage there and they didn’t know you could clear in there – as we did – by prior arrangement.
It’s an amazing place and should be on every cruiser’s itinerary if heading for Vanuatu. As a thank you we did a movie night for the village.
A Volcano, a Blue Hole and Villages
The active volcano is one of the most impressive natural wonders you can see – standing on the rim of a volcano and watching all the lava explode around you is incredible.
The village of Port Resolution is authentic, beautiful and remote. Look out for a lovely lady named Sheila. You’ll find her in the south west corner of Port Resolution. She and her family do tours around the bay. Her children will collect you in a dugout canoe and take you to where you get different coloured face paints from the volcanic earth as well as showing you the steaming geysers – in exchange for some supplies.
On the north west side of the island, near Lenakel, is the Blue Hole which is pretty famous and very impressive. Just south of the Blue Hole is Rockwater Resort which is run by an absolutely incredible Australian guy and his wife. We had drinks and some food there and he showed us around his garden.
There’s a marine sanctuary which offers great snorkelling and lots of great fish, again, a wonderful experience. We anchored in front of the resort in what was a very well protected location.
The hotel arranged a tour for us which turned out to be the best tour we did in the whole of Vanuatu. We were taken to a village where the people live a very traditional life – no modern clothes and no western influence. Their houses are all built from 100 per cent natural materials and the women wear grass skirts and the men wear penis sheaths. It was an incredible experience to have just sailed in from New Zealand to visit places where there was no evidence of a modern world.
Adding all the cultural aspects of the island together with the Blue Hole and the volcano makes Tanna a pretty compelling location.
Efate Island – Port Vila
Our next stop was the capital of Port Vila on the island of Efate. Most boats go into the main bay to anchor or you can tie up next to the concrete wall in town. It’s flat and well protected and in the centre of the city so it is quite noisy and security may be a problem.
We decided to anchor at Mele which is just north of Port Vila where there is a beautiful white sand beach. There’s a restaurant /beach bar that does this impressive fire dance with music every Friday so it’s a very popular spot with visiting cruisers.
We stayed at anchor at Mele the whole time we were in Port Vila because it was such a good, protected anchorage.
Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle
Locals very kindly ask that you don’t leave the island after 4pm because the Coconut Rhinoceros Beetle comes out at dusk and biosecurity officials don’t want beetles hitching a ride to other islands. The rule is not strictly enforced but it is an issue and it does affect people’s livelihoods so please obey this regulation and don’t leave after 4pm. There are posters everywhere so you can’t say you weren’t warned.
It’s not New Zealand but you can get any of the basics you need in Port Vila and if you have already checked in with officials elsewhere – as we had on Tanna Island – you do not need to check in with officials here.
We took a tour of the island by car which was great. North of the Mele anchorage there are some fantastic waterfalls which are very special and much better than we expected. We had a wonderful day.
At Port Havannah there’s a sandpit where we were given permission to anchor. It was totally calm and super protected from the prevailing winds. We swam into the Havannah Hotel resort for drinks and dinner, which is very friendly to yachts.
Wherever we go, we always check in advance that we are welcome. We went to the hotel the previous night, had a cocktail and talked to the manager and he was very welcoming, telling us to come on over.
Epi Island – Lamen Bay
This is a massive wide open bay with an excellent anchorage in five to seven meters on sand. It is an area famous for dugong spotting and is a pleasant place to stop on your way north. Port Havannah to Lamen Bay was an overnight sail but it is easy to day hop your way through the islands. We always managed to find a good anchorage wherever we went.
These islands are on the south east corner of Malekula and were a real highlight. We swam with 30 dugongs underwater – it was incredibly magical and a wonderful experience.
However, you have to choose your anchorage here with care. Another boat had a pretty rolly and uncomfortable night. They chose a beautiful spot behind a reef but when the tide came in and the waves come over they reef – they didn’t get a wink of sleep.
There is a village ashore where again, everyone was very friendly and welcoming and it was a nice place to visit.
On the east coast of Malekula there is a chain of four islands which are quite beautiful and well worth a stop if you’re heading north. The best anchorage is behind the island of Rano where there’s a beautiful white sand spit that you can anchor off. There were three other yachts there when we arrived. The island has a very traditional Ni-Vanuatu village and once more the people were very friendly and welcoming to visiting sailors.
We arranged to see a Custom dance with a lady named Edna from the island – where the villagers dress up in amazing outfits, covered in grass from head to toe and and wearing masks. It was really impressive and well worth doing and again for a small contribution to the village.
We were also shown how to dance and they also taught us how to make traditional baskets and well as showing us how to weave and cook. For the first time ever I learnt how to make fire with sticks which I have never been able to do before. It was a really cool experience and took place just 100 metres from our anchorage – truly amazing.
There is a very well protected anchorage here behind a huge volcano. We also did a full day hike to the top of this volcano which, like Tanna, was a very impressive activity. We climbed to more than 1000 meters above sea level to see the steaming volcano.
Home Bay is where we saw the famous Land Diving. I was amazed by how few boats were aware of the land diving spectacle. It was a highlight of our whole time in Vanuatu and pretty incredible to see.
Land Diving is only on from April to July so make sure you are there for that time.
We also visited Rapat which is a very traditional village in the mountains where they live a very traditional life wearing clothing made from grass. Again worth visiting and very beautiful.
We always took small gifts when we visited villages, but if you don’t have gifts then a little money is fine, you don’t really want to visit with nothing. Our suggested gifts include knives, fishing gear including hooks and lines, t-shirts, hats and sunglasses – they absolutely love sunglasses!
Espiritu Santo Island – Luganville
This was a great place and we spent quite a bit of time here.
There are a set of moorings outside the Aore Adventure Sports and Lodge. There is an Australian there by the name of Paul White who runs the dive company. He has three moorings in front of his house that he maintains meticulously. Our boat – an Oyster 62 – is 44 tonnes and we spent a month on a mooring here without any problems.
The moorings are US$20 (2000VT) a day but this is the only really perfectly protected place in Luganville. We highly recommend this as a place to stay while visiting Espiritu Santo.
Heading north and clearing out
We were heading north to the Solomon Islands and thought we would be able to clear out of Sola on Banks Island which is the most northerly Port of Entry/Exit for Vanuatu. However as of August 2023, there are no Customs or Immigration officials stationed there.
We visited both the office of Customs and Immigration in Luganville to discuss the possibility of checking out from Sola. They said it was possible if we paid for the cost of transport to and from Sola (return flights) and also the daily living expenses of agents from each department. The Customs Officers confirmed they were willing to clear us out of Vanuatu and undertake both Customs and Immigration procedures at Sola subject to approval from the Director of Immigration on Santo.
So, we emailed the Director of Immigration and he sent us an email in return giving his permission for a Customs Officer to undertake Immigration departure clearance formalities from Sola.
The cost of flights and accommodation would have been about US$500 and there were a few boats who were also keen to clear out from Banks Island, but in the end it just didn’t work out timing wise. So, it is possible to clear out from Sola, but you have to receive permission to do so and pay for the official’s flights to and from Banks Island to go up and clear you out from there.
In the end we did our checkout from Vanuatu at Luganville. We did a car trip around Santo and would have loved to continue sailing up the east coast of Santo as we saw lots of beautiful anchorages.
Port Orly and Champagne Beach were particularly stunning and the anchorages are very popular with yachts but we thought that checking out and then sailing to the same island the next day would be a bit discourteous.
However, we had to make an unplanned stop at Ureparapara Island which is one of the most northerly islands and which looks like a big volcano with a chunk taken out. The weather was pretty bad and we had to hole up there to wait for a weather window. It was an incredibly beautiful and remote island with a stunning collapsed crater which you can sail into – there’s a very remote village there living a very traditional way of life and we had three days there which were very special while we waited for a weather window.
Like all of the island chains in Melanesia, it is important to go immediately into the local village and speak to the villagers. Ask permission for anything that you want to do including anchoring and thank them and give them a gift if you want feel it is appropriate.
There were few if any taboos that we were aware of or knew off. On many of the islands and in more remote villages, the men all wear penis sheathes and the women are bare-breasted – it’s natural for them, unlike Tonga.
Do your research
It is well worth saying that you get out of Vanuatu what you put in. We cruised with quite a few boats that went to an anchorage, put the hook down, went for a walk on a beautiful white sandy beach and then said they were bored – there was nothing to do!
We did a lot of research and in every anchorage we discovered amazing hikes or Custom dances or traditional shows. You can have a really fantastic experience if you do your research but you can’t just rock up and expect to find a signpost on the beach telling you where to go and who to see – you need to dig a little bit.
Our experience of Vanuatu was safer than anywhere in Europe – everyone was very friendly and we never – not once – felt threatened in any way. Even in Port Vila we left our stuff all over the deck – we never put anything away.
However, we put our dinghy away at night as it’s such a high value item. I would have been happy to leave it in the water but just to be cautious.
Vanuatu was definitely one of the highlights of the whole Pacific where we spent five years cruising. Every island we went to we found amazing cultures and the most welcoming and friendly people you could meet.
Uhuru of London
About the Author
James Ashwell and his crew of four left London in 2017 on a “lazy circumnavigation”. They have spent the past five years cruising the Pacific and are now cruising through Solomon Islands and onto Papua New Guinea and then Indonesia.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Noonsite.com or World Cruising Club.
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