Vanuatu-Land of Fire and Magic

"This place is what Fiji was like before it was overdeveloped" my divemaster told me. Fiji--overdeveloped!?! Clearly, that's a matter of perspective. Regardless, this statement says alot about the Republic of Vanuatu, a little known island archipeligo located between the Solomon Islands and Fiji in the South Pacific.

Vanuatu-Land of Fire and Magic

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by g3 on March 31, 2001

In order to fully appreciate all this country has to offer, it is best to visit several islands.

Most visits begin and end in Port Vila, a beautiful harbor town featuring numerous all-inclusive resorts as well as a variety of restaurants. The town center is compact and easily explored in a day.

Our next stop was the island of Espiritu Santo which has one main reason to visit: diving. During WWII, this was the base for U.S. operations in the South Pacific. It is the amazing collection of ship wrecks that attracts divers here. The main attraction is the S.S.President Coolidge, the world's largest accessible shipwreck. We made 9 dives on this ship, and felt as though we only scratched the surface.

Our dive quotient filled, we then ventured to the island of Tanna. If hiking in the dark to the rim of an active volcano and watching molten lava shoot into the night sky is your idea of fun, then Tanna is the place for you. This is the real thing--no liability waivers (and no handrails), just you and nature is all its magnificent (and frightening) glory.${QuickSuggestions} The remoteness of the island is part of its appeal, and one of the reasons it is such a great destination. Prepare to spend a lot of time on a plane as Port Vila is a three and a half hour flight from Sydney, Australia.

Vanuatu is just south of the equator, so the best time to visit is during the southern winter. The rainy season is December through March, with January being the wettest month. Monsoons are frequent during this time of year, as well.

I found Lonely Planet's Vanuatu guide book to be remarkably up to date and informative, but be sure to tap into the friendly locals as well as the fairly large ex-pat community in Port Vila for tips. ${BestWay} The towns are small and public transportation is widely available to and from the airport. Getting around town is easily done on foot and taxis on Santo and Efate will take you to other parts of the island for a reasonable fare.

If you plan to visit several islands, look into the Island Hopper pass available through VanAir. This pass must be purchased before entering the country and you can purchase different flight increments. It is a very economical way to travel and offers terrific flexibility. Contact Air Vanuatu (who just recently purchased VanAir) for details. They have an 800 number in the U.S.

The island of Tanna only has one road, and most of it is a dirt track. It is best to arrange accomodations before getting here as there is no public transportation. The village or resort will make arrangements to meet you at the airport. Our transportation was a pick-up truck that the villagers we were staying with borrowed from a neighboring village. We rode in the back on wooden planks for two hours across the island and had some pretty good bruises on our back sides to show for it.

LeLegon Resort

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by g3 on March 31, 2001

While our goal during our visit was to seek out adventure, we opted to spend two nights at this beautiful, all-inclusive resort located right outside of town. We opted for a garden bungalow since it was less expensive than the over-the-water options. The bungalow was cozy and had all the creature comforts you could hope for: air conditioning, tv, a hot shower and a comfortable bed.

The resort''s restaurant serves a wonderfull dinner buffet featuring fresh seafood and local fruits. A group of indigenous niVanuatu people provide nightly entertainment performing traditional music with a lively, joyful sound.

The resort caters to Australian honeymooners and the pool was the center of the social scene throughout the day with organized water volleyball, limbo and other assorted activities.

The resort has a local charm to it, and the individual bungalows are designed much like traditional village huts. Still, the resort ould have easily been in Hawaii or any other tropical locale. If you want all-inclusive, LeLegon would be hard to beat.

Sweetwater Lift Lodge
1255 Empire Ave.
Park City, Utah, 84068
(435) 200-0300

Port Resolution Yacht Club

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by g3 on March 31, 2001

This beautifully located 'resort' is actually a collection of eight thatched bungalows situated on the edge of a beautiful bay. The bungalows are immaculately maintained and have double or single beds (each with the requisite mosquito netting). Lighting is provided by kerosene hurricane lanterns and everyone shares a common outhouse. Warm showers are available thanks to a small water pump that is turned on each morning.

The resort is situated on a bluff overlooking Resolution Bay, which was discovered and named by Captain Cook and is home to a rather large dugong (Pacific cousin to the manatee) that you can swim with. The sound of Mt Yasur, the island's active volcano, rumbling in the distance, and the sight of its lava glowing at night, adds to the spectacular setting. The resort can arrange an evening excursion up the volcano for a truly unforgettable (and not all together safe) experience.

The staff are members of the local village who all speak english (along with French and Bislama, which is a form of pidgen english). Apparantly, members of the village take turns staffing the resort. Our hosts were Willie and Nelson (really!) and they were terrific. Willie, whose father is the chief of the village, was our escort on our day excursions and spoke flawless, if heavily accented, english. Meals are prepared from the village's gardens and are often very simple; fish from the bay, coconuts chopped from area trees and the most delicious fruit imaginable. What the service may lack in terms of sophisticated service, they more than make up for in genuine hospitatlity. We sat around the hurricane lantern late into the night talking about their life (and ours) and enjoying each other's companionship. Our group of 5 had the resort to ourselves during our visit, which made the personal attention that much greater. One of the most gratifying aspects of our visit was learning that the resort provides much-needed funding for the village; enabling kids to go to Port Vila or Fiji for college, funding occassional medical evacs to the Vila hospital as well as day to day living expenses. The resort was not inexpensive, but this information certainly made the cost that much easier to swallow.

The irony in the resort's name becomes obvious the longer you stay here. This place is not luxurious by western standards, but it is utterly comfortable with a level of tranquility that is hard to describe and a genuinely hospitable staff that means it when they say that they want you to feel at home. In our opinion, no trip to Vanuatu is complete without a few days at the Port Resolution Yacht Club as base camp to explore the island of Tanna.

Smoke Tree Lodge
Hwy 105
Boone, North Carolina
(828) 963-6505

Shark Dive

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by g3 on May 13, 2001

The scenario was typical; the dive boat was anchored in 50 feet of water and our DiveMaster, Kevin, was giving the pre-dive briefing. The content of his briefing, however, was anything but typical for the six of us who were preparing to dive. "When you get to the ocean floor, lay flat and wait for us to get into position with the spear guns," Kevin told us. "If anything seems unusual and we have to abort the dive, I want everyone to form a tight circle around me and to surface slowly. That way, if the sharks get unruly, they'll get one of you first." He was joking, of course, but it took awhile for the distracted divers to realize it, and even longer for some to appreciate his sense of humor.

Sharks almost always cross my mind when I am in the ocean but, as I treaded water while the others made their entry, I was surprisingly relaxed. Knowing they were below me was much less frightening than the fear of the unknown. The gloriously clear water didn't make us wait long, I saw the first shark circling a large rock formation below within moments of our descent. They scattered as we approached, startled by all the activity.

Our guides were efficient and quickly situated us into a flat area in the rocks. We lay on our stomachs, side by side, with our arms by our sides and shoulder to shoulder. Then Kevin tied a large bag to an anchor about six feet in front of us.

As the other guides warded off a few curious sharks that were getting closer, Kevin ripped open the bag to reveal a frozen ball of fish parts. The guides quickly retreated and the sharks wasted no time in getting to work. As many as eight white-tip reef sharks, the largest approaching five feet, swarmed in. We were so close that we could see the protective membranes roll over their eyes and their jaws protrude outward as they bit into the quickly disappearing meal.

It only lasted a couple of minutes. Fish parts floated all around us and we focused on Kevin's pre-dive instruction to avoid the temptation of using our hands to wave away any bait that got too close, or landed on us. In his words, "sharks aren't too particular about what they bite when they're in a feeding frenzy."

Kevin had a second bag of bait, and the spectacle was repeated. As we surfaced, every diver had a huge grin and the adrenaline rush was obvious. My fear of sharks was replaced with a profound respect for these amazing creatures and I look forward to once again observing them in their world.

swimming with a dugong

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by g3 on May 13, 2001

We traveled to Tanna for a unique wildlife experience, the opportunity to swim with a dugong. A larger version of the manatee, dugongs are indigenous to Australia and the oceanic islands of the western Pacific and like their American cousin, the 'sea cow,' as it is called locally, is endangered.

Our lodging was perfect for our quest as it overlooks Resolution Bay, home to a large dugong. At dinner, I thumbed through the guest book and read entries like, "they tell me the dugong was only playing," and "it must be a male, because he sure liked my wife." We were told that he weighed over a thousand pounds and that he was very friendly with people. We were anxious and a bit nervous.

The next morning we were accompanied by several children from the village down to the bay. As we climbed over the volcanic rock and into the water, the kids started slapping the water with their open palms--calling the dugong. It was like a scene form "King Kong."

We swam a short distance into the bay and soon a very big, very fast gray shape passed below us. An impressive sight, and startling at first, it was as big as a hippo but moved like a seal. Within moments, it wrapped his big flippers around the leg of one of the women in our group, apparently hugging her. She managed to pull away and he refocused on my fiancee, Raina. He wrapped his neck around one of her legs and started chewing on her with his large, cow-like molars! While not a pleasant experience, it didn't really hurt and she maintained her cool until we could get her away. While he continued to show such affection to the women, the guys were never able to get close enough to touch him.

We soon decided watching from shore was less intimidating, until I decided we needed a few more underwater pictures of him. Almost as soon as I jumped back in, he charged me--all thousand pounds coming right at me. I got my hands out in front and managed to keep him at arms length as he pushed me toward the rocks. He clearly viewed me as a competitor and wanted me out of his territory. I was very happy to oblige and several of the village kids helped pull me out of the water.

We learned a valuable lesson about interacting with wild animals in their natural habitat. As big and strong as this dugong was, even his signs of affection could have severely hurt any of us. Still, this was an amazing encounter with one of the most unique and rare animals on earth. We learned one more thing, the guest book was right -- he was definitely a male.

Congoola tall ship cruise

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by g3 on April 1, 2001

The Congoola is a tall ship sail boat and is anchored offshore in an isolated bay on the other side of the island from Port Vila. The cruise lasts most of the day and visits two of the near by islands. It is a relaxing and enjoyable way to take in the remarkable beauty of this place and to see some interesting sights along the way.

The highlight of the first island we visited was a visit to a large cave located a short hike from the beach. The cave's ceiling was several hundred feet high and we could hear bats moving around and screeching high above us. Ancient petroglyphs marked the walls and our guide told us some of the traditions and legends surrounding the cave.

Our second stop was an isolated beach where we spent the bulk of the day. A small boat that the Congoola towed along shuttled us out to an offshore reef to do some superb, deep water snorkeling where we saw a manta ray and a reef shark. Lunch was an excellent buffet of barbecued steak and fresh fruit served on the beach and then more snorkeling.

As we sailed home we were accompanied by several dolphins playing in the ship's wake and, at one point, we sailed through a school of jellyfish for about fifteen minutes. I was glad to be on the deck rather than in the water.

Diving with the ghosts of WWII

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by g3 on March 31, 2001

The S.S. Coolidge rises before us within moments of beginning our dive. It is hard to believe how big this ship is, and how close to shore. Originally a luxury cruise liner, it was converted to a troop carrier during WWII. In 1942, it hit a 'friendly' mine in the harbor off Luganville and the Captain decided to run the reef in an effort to get the troops as close to shore as possible. As a result, the bow of the 654 foot long ship sits in 50 feet of water, while the stern lies well below at 240 feet.

The ship settled on its side, creating an occasionally discombobulating diving experience. Sometimes it was difficult to tell if the ship was sideways or we were. As we swam sideways along the ship's promenade deck, we observed helmets and guns that some of the 5000 troops onboard had abandoned as they jumped over the rails of the sinking ship. Amazingly, the Coolidge remains almost exactly as it was the day it sank--from the morphine vials in the doctor's office to the unbroken dishes in the kitchen.

Our most memorable dive on the Coolidge was at night; swimming through the never-used shark cage, mounted on the side of the ship by early salvage crews, and then into a large hole on the ship's side, we descended into the darkness. At our DM's signal, we all turned off our lanterns and discovered we were completely surrounded by phosphorous plankton. It was like being surrounded by thousands of lightning bugs and it was the most surreal diving experience I have ever had. Another fascinating dive was to "the Lady," a bas relief statue of a woman and a unicorn that adorns the fireplace in the formal dining room of the ship. On other dives, we saw the swimming pool at 170 feet and the barber shop with the barber chair still bolted to the floor. This is deep diving and not for the inexperienced--almost every dive required decompression stops. We dove with Kevin Green, an Aussie ex-pat who owns Aquamarine Diving in Luganville. Kevin's staff sticks to a strict schedule of dives that run the course of several days and works deeper into the ship as your comfort level and experience increases. This was the deepest diving most of us had done, but we were all impressed with the seriousness with which the staff took our safety. Depending on how deep our dive, we often had the stop at about 25 feet from the surface for 10 minutes to avoid getting decompression sickness. These decompression stops were not boring, however, thanks to Boris-- a 400 pound grouper that hangs out in the area. Boris is about as friendly as a fish can be, but he is big enough to be startling on a diver's first encounter with him. Just one more amazing experience for the divers who choose to explore the world's largest accessible ship wreck.

© LP 2000-2009