South Pacific on a Shoestring: Port Vila, Vanuatu

by  Elissa Garay | Apr 9, 2013
Vanuatu / Zarnell/iStock

My very first sampling of the South Pacific wasn’t in Fiji or Tahiti or one of those other blockbuster palm-fringed access points we’ve come to associate with this idyllic region of endless turquoise seas, verdant isles, and friendly locals. I was looking for something a bit more off-the-beaten-path, for an island destination where an on-arrival Facebook update would leave my friends back home scratching their heads. With my finger dangling on a map over the South Pacific, it fell, rather impulsively, on the island nation of Vanuatu, and so the journey began.

While Australians and New Zealanders might count this as their backyard equivalent of Hawaii for West Coasters, or the Caribbean for East Coasters, for us Americans, Vanuatu is just about as far-flung and exotic as the South Pacific gets. With little more than a question mark (and a glowing Lonely Planet guidebook review) to go on, I flew into Port Vila, the island nation’s French-influenced capital, cradled by green lush hillsides that front a lovely natural harbor, on the island of Efate.

And while Port Vila didn't prove to be a budget destination (springing on airfare to get there alone is a costly undertaking), I discovered a happening little hotel and a few choice value-oriented highlights (i.e. cascading waterfalls, colorful coral reefs, and cultural encounters) that might just justify you setting off on a little South Pacific-on-a-shoestring adventure of your very own.

Where to Sleep

For the best value accommodations in town, book a room at the Traveller’s Budget Motel, ideally situated within a 10-minute walk of the town center. Hosted by a fun-loving Australian husband-and-wife team, the atmosphere here is convivial and laid-back, with facilities featuring a fully equipped communal kitchen and an inviting courtyard swimming pool. Nine clean and cheery guestrooms come with private bathrooms, kitchenettes, TVs, work areas, and ceiling fans (AC usage is extra). Rates start at $37/night for a bed in the shared five-bed dormitory room; upgrade to a private double room from $94/night – stay three or more nights and rates start from $89/night, with continental breakfast thrown in.

What to See

Iarofa Village / John Garay

Set on the edge of town, the freshwater Mele Cascades (above) plummet more than 160 feet to the crystal-clear rock pools below and provide the ultimate refreshing dip in a dreamy setting. Sign up for the great-value 2.5-hour tours offered twice daily by Evergreen Vanuatu – you'll get round-trip transfers, admission to the cascades, refreshments, a guided drive-through tour of the island's largest village, and a pit stop at the quirky Secret Garden, an outdoor cultural center showcasing the stranger side of island life ($46/adults; $23/kids).

To sample Vanuatu’s famed snorkeling firsthand, hop aboard the free three-minute ferry to Hideaway Island (aka Mele Island), where, for a small entrance fee ($11), you can use the resort’s beachfront facilities and rent snorkeling gear ($11) to better ogle the pristine reefs and fantastic marine life just under-fin. You can even mail a waterproof postcard from what’s billed as the world’s first (are there many?!) underwater post office.

Round out a sampling of the island’s natural beauty with some cultural immersion. Tour company Atmosphere offers a good-value culture-focused 6.5-hour daily tour that incorporates transfers from your hotel and a visit to the Iarofa Cultural Village, where you can learn more about the ways of traditional village life, as well as take in dance performances and a fire-walking display. Stops for lunch, shopping, and snorkeling are also included, as is a brief city tour, and a chance to sample kava, a traditional local drink, sourced from plant roots and said to have a calming effect ($61/adults; $31/kids).

Incurable travel addict, longtime travel scribe, and mindful money-saver Elissa Richard is currently indulging her insatiable wanderlust on an epic 14-month journey around the globe – intent on making it every step of the way without busting her modest budget. Follow her along the way as she reports back with budget-savvy travel tips from the mountains of Transylvania to the wilds of Tasmania, and from the little-trodden temples of Burma to the bustling bars and clubs of Buenos Aires. A vagabond in search of value, just for ShermansTravel!

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