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One of the most popular things to do in Port Vila, Vanuatu, is the round island tour. Efate’s size is perfect for an all day trip around the island – it is easy to do at a leisurely pace, and there is just so much to do. Yes, I know I really can’t stop raving about Vanuatu – but I’m just so thrilled to find a destination so close to Australia that is so fantastic!
The round island tour is a staple for tourists who arrive by plane or by cruise ship. I went with Atmosphere Tours, a nu-Vanuatu company (owned by locals). While I feel like our tour was made infinitely better by our guide Manu and his obvious pride and depth of knowledge about his country, there is no reason you couldn’t do this tour on your own. The roads in Vanuatu are not fabulous – one of my favourite bumper stickers read, ‘I’m not drunk just avoiding pot holes’ – but as long as you’re careful, nothing is too off the beaten path as to be unaccessible.
You can also catch a bus to some of the destinations, such as the Blue Lagoon, but I’m not sure how reliable they are for travelling all around the island.
If you decide to take a tour, however, you’re looking at about $100 for an adult and $50 for a child (up to 12). This includes all entrance fees, and lunch. Plus, tipping is not really a done thing in Vanuatu (Australians rejoice!)
Round Island Tour Itinerary
I was picked up in the morning by Manu and our driver Bill. Manu was a bundle of energy whereas Bill was a little quieter… he later admitted he’d consumed one too many kavas the day before. To my surprise, there was only one other female solo traveller on the tour that day. This was a stroke of luck in my opinion, since in my view there’s nothing like the bond between two solo travellers thrown together!
The first stop on the tour is a ‘cultural village’. Now, I have written previously about how I can’t help but roll my eyes at ‘travel snobbery’ and the obsession with finding “genuine” experiences. Honestly, these people probably won’t enjoy the cultural village – obviously it’s set up for tourists, and those who live there openly explain that they no longer dress in the way that they present. However, they do explain that many people in Vanuatu still live very traditionally, and even those who have embraced a more modern life still incorporate elements of traditional culture in their every day lives. For example, our hosts attributed the low death rate of Cyclone Pam to traditional teachings about how to spot and survive a cyclone.
Our hosts also stressed that the tourism venture they’d started allowed them to be more financially sustainable, and also keep elements of their fading culture alive. For this reason, I would much rather learn about traditional life in Vanuatu in a setting where people want to teach you about it, rather than turning everyday people into tourist attractions by noseying in on “real”, “authentic” villages. So, while the village may not feel entirely genuine, I truly did come away feeling I had learnt quite a lot about Vanuatuan culture.
Plus, I will never cease to be amazed by fire walking!
The Blue Lagoon
Our next stop on the tour was the Blue Lagoon, and on the way there, Manu gave us plenty of information about Vanuatu. He told us all about the history, culture and language, which is incredibly interesting. I particularly love how everyone in Port Vila seems to know each other – Bill and Manu couldn’t travel more than a few hundred metres in town without slowing down to call out to a friend on the street.
The Blue Lagoon is a great spot – not quite as impressive as it’s Icelandic brother but in a beautiful, relaxed tropical setting. Plus, there’s nothing like a rope swing to make you really feel like you’re on holiday. I’m about as elegant as a baby giraffe, and even Manu couldn’t contain his cackles as I dropped into the cool water like a flailing stone (I know that simile makes no sense, but meh).
After paddling around in the water for a little bit, and then holding onto a tree root for a little bit longer, it was morning tea. We were served a delicious variety of fruit, while we chatted away to Manu. Nothing was too silly a question, and I loved truly felt that Manu enjoyed sharing his knowledge with his ‘guests’.
Lunch Stop/WW2 Museum
After stopping at a pretty beach spot and eating a tasty lunch (it was a bit of a shame we were still so full after eating a morning tea fit for 8, not 2), we headed to the quirky and loveable World War 2 museum.
Vanuatu was an important part of the war in the pacific, and American troops were stationed there for a few years. When they left, they left behind many random items including weapons, cooking items, and most of all – coke bottles. Damn, they left a lot of Coke bottles.
These items were then lovingly collected by a Vanuatuan man, who created a quirky ‘museum’. At first glance, the museum is – to be blunt – a bit of a junkyard. However, the museum does come to life when you’re given a tour by the old man’s grandson, who has received the torch and is now running tours of the ‘museum’. It was really interesting to hear him explain the justification for the museum; how his grandfather thought if young people could really touch history, it would seem more real to them then just reading about it books. I had to agree with him there. Plus, the Coke bottles are pretty cool, with the town they were manufactured on stamped down the bottom.
Our last major stop was at a laidback, beachside resort. Perhaps most famously, the beach was apparently a major scene in ‘Survivor: Vanuatu’. This is a claim to fame that everyone in Vanuatu seems very proud of, despite the fact it was about 15 years ago now and by all accounts the season was heavily canned. While it was interesting, I have to say I was mostly amused by the fact that the landscape they had to ‘survive’ was about a 35 minute drive from the extremely well equipped Port Vila.
Nonetheless it was a really nice stop, where there is apparently great snorkelling. Due to my lack of swimming ability, I read instead, and made friends with a dog (yes!). I also ate a lot of Oreo biscuits, which seem to be a Vanuatuan national treasure.
Unplanned Stop: Kava!
By the end of the tour, I’d become fast friends with our guide Manu and my fellow solo traveller. Manu was absolutely mortified to find out that we had not yet tried Kava, everyone’s drink of choice in Vanuatu. We therefore decided we simply had to stop and sample some on the way home. Manu and resident-Kava-expert Bill quickly found us a stop, and we disembarked. We certainly drew a few funny looks from the locals as we entered the hole in the wall Kava “bar” and sat on our green lawn chairs.
Unfortunately my camera had conked out so I don’t have a photo of the dirty grey/brown drink that we enthusiastically tried. Now, I have had Kava before in Fiji so I wasn’t expecting much, especially since our trusty guide Manu was so happy to give us 3 cups each to drink.
I was wrong. Perhaps my Kava experience deserves its own blog post, but I genuinely felt pretty stoned by the end of my third cup. My mouth had gone completely numb, and I giggled my way back to the bus. Manu thought this was pretty hilarious, and likened us two travellers to teenagers who’d just gotten drunk at a party for the first time. Moral of the story: Kava in Vanuatu really is something!
The Round Island Tour is a really great way to see a lot of Efate in a day. I think our tour was made so much better by Manu, our friendly guide who spoke so freely and proudly about Vanuatu and its culture. While I’m not sure it’s the world’s most “authentic” introduction to life in Vanuatu, it is one that people are enthusiastic to share with you and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Plus, I made some great new friends!