I’m so Excited (and I Just Can’t Hide It)
I was excited to see Vanuatu just for the name itself. “Vahn-ooh-ahh-too.” So exotic right? Flying a new carrier (for me), Vanuatu Airlines, was also a bonus. The three-hour flight from Auckland to Port Vila in business was nice. The food was solid, complete with carrot cake for the finish. My planned and “promised” diet for this trip was definitely not working out. I don’t think I lasted a day (see New Zealand).
I was off the plane and at my hotel by 4:30PM. I splurged on a corner room at The Grand Hotel and Casino, which I immediately realized was a great choice. It was right in the heart of the town, steps away from the central market and a long, concrete boardwalk along the water.
Here’s a list of hotels in Port Vila.
If Only for One Night
My evening stroll took me past the market (which was closing up) and along the water. I only had 24-hours in Vanuatu, so when I saw an excursion kiosk, I didn’t hesitate to pop in to book a tour for the next day.
“Sorry, mate,” said the blonde Aussie at the desk. “Cruise ship coming in tomorrow, all booked up.” He was nice enough to walk me over to a local guide named Fiona to see if she could help me. She gave all the signs that she did not want to be bothered by me, finally telling me to stop in tomorrow at 10AM to see if I could get squeezed in. No thanks. I did not want to have to “work” to hand someone my money. While absolutely gorgeous, I could tell Vanuatu was one big tourist trap – but how can you hold that against anyone? Glad they were bringing in the visitor-dollars. It just wasn’t my vibe – not from my first impression, at least.
You learn a lot about yourself when you travel, and one thing I don’t love are the super-touristy spots. Papas and Beer? That’s the last place I want to be. In fact, give me a country where people look at me weird for even just “being there.” My favorite places are the ones where the locals are more curious about me than I am about them…where they ask me, “What are you doing here???” I love that. Vanuatu was not that. This is not a complaint, just an observation.
I continued on, trying to shake the rejection I’d just received. Soon the concrete boardwalk transitioned to a small, long park along the water. Sandwiched between the main road and the water, were trees, grass, picnic tables and sets of concrete stairs that led right into the water. Kids were swimming in the clear bay. It was an idyllic scene that finally jump-started my appreciation for Vanuatu. There would be other things I’d enjoy, but they would have to wait until the morning.
I retreated to my room and enjoyed the sunset from the balcony before venturing back out for dinner. I headed back to the boardwalk to stop into Nambawan Restaurant. Much like Fiona, the lady behind the counter didn’t seem too thrilled to see me and informed me that only pizza and fish and chips remained. I ate a plate of greasy fish and fries as it became apparent they were closing – it was nearing 9PM and I’d realize that’s typical closing time for the restaurants here. I was trying to love Vanuatu, but they weren’t making it easy.
The Morning After
My next (and final) day, things turned around. I was walking the city by 7AM, this time, making a right turn after exiting my hotel and taking the main road over to the Erakor Island Ferry dock. The 1.5 mile walk there took about an hour and got me out of the tourist center and into a more authentic Vanuatu. Locals passing me on the street were quick to smile and say “Morning!” as they passed. I slipped down a side street to get a look at the “real” Vanuatu – a small collection of wooden shacks where kids played in the dirt and chickens ran about. A former French colony, there weren’t many lingering signs of France, except for a few streets labeled Rues and a couple kids taking those beautiful baguettes from the bakeries to their homes.
This is the part where I’ll note how beautiful the people are here. The Melanesians were mostly dark, with strong features. Many of the women wore big, round afros. And the kids were adorable; a lot of them would smile and wave when they saw me. Some had blonde hair and oh how I wondered if that was natural or colored – someone told me it was the effects of the sea water. Either way, Vanuatans are gorgeous people with a look I’d never seen in person before. As you can tell, I was really warming up to this place, my 185th country.
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Friends in Low Places
Back at the hotel, I met with a fellow traveler for breakfast. Nicolai is another nut like me – on the way to see all 193 countries. It was a total coincidence we were both in Vanuatu at the same time – even the same hotel. We’d crossed paths years ago in Istanbul, also by sheer luck. Nicolai is a great traveler with an awesome blog and it was great to reconnect with him. Vanuatu was 143 for Nicolai.
With only a few hours to spare, it was a left turn out of the hotel and back to the boardwalk, where I’d continue on through the seaside park and arrive at Chantilly’s by the Bay for coffee with another extreme traveler, Jaimey, from Belgium. It was great meeting Jaimey for the first time and hearing his story. Vanuatu was number 86 for him.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Chantilly’s by the Bay was a really nice hotel – as nice, or nicer, than The Grand. The two would definitely be my recommendations when coming to Port Vila. There are some nicer, fancier resorts on the island, but not with such a great, central location. Both hotels have a lot going on just outside their doorsteps, versus the other secluded resorts on the island.
Here’s a complete list of hotel options in and around Port Vila.
On the Road Again…
On the way back to the hotel, I finally succumbed to temptation, and walked down those concrete stairs, right into the warm bay that had been calling me since I’d arrived. I enjoyed a nice swim, being super cautious where I put my feet down – the sea life was abundant.
I liked Vanuatu. It grew on me with every passing hour. While I was only there for 24 hours, I felt like I did a lot, or at least, enough. I would have liked to see more of the islands and talked to more of the locals; maybe try some traditional food. Nicolai took a domestic flight to see the volcano (Mount Yasur) on Tanna Island. I did not plan such a short stay by design – it was the only way that this month’s crazy, 11-country itinerary would work out. It was one night or nothing. All in all, it was a solid stay.
Vanuatu–specifically Port Vila–was not as off the beaten path as I’d imagined, but nonetheless, enjoyable.Oceania