Port Vila, the small capital of Vanuatu (about 30,000 inhabitants) on the island of Efate, is considered among the most beautiful spots in the South Pacific because of its marvelous location – a broad bay, with views to the forest-covered mountains of the southern peninsula and the two tiny islands of Iririki and Ifira. A mixture of Melanesian, British and French flair gives the town an unusual charm.
The main street, the Kumul Highway, runs parallel to the bay. The bigger shops, many restaurants, boutiques and cafes, offices of the airline companies and travel agents are situated along this somewhat commercial strip.
The Main Post Office is remarkable for its expressive ornamental reliefs by Aloi Pilioko. Pilioko has become one of the most well-known contemporary artists of the South Pacific. He originally came from the island of Wallis but has lived for decades on Vanuatu.
Many of his richly colored tapestries have found their way into public buildings. Pilioko is also known for his collaboration with another brilliant local artist, Nicolai Michoutouchkine. A way northward from the Post Office, in Lolam House, is the tourist office, where staff are always ready to help with advice and information.
Walking up Rue Emile Mercet, you pass the pink Pilioko House, its faqade decorated with reliefs by Aloi Pilioko. Nikolai Michoutouchkine designs and sells unique fabrics in this house. About 200 yards (200 meters) further down this street is the Mairie, the Town Hall, where in condominium times the French Tricolor and the British Union Jack fluttered side by side. Opposite the Reserve Bank of Vanuatu stands a memorial to the soldiers who died in the First World War. From here a marvelous panoramic view stretches over town. A few hundred yards/meters up the hill is the beautiful old wooden building of the Supreme Court. In colonial times it was the home of the Joint Court, the common French and British courts of the New Hebrides that used to regulate conflicts between settlers and locals and between the settlers themselves.
Parallel to the Kumul Highway runs the broad Shore Promenade with lawns on either side. At its southern end the market hall invites visitors with its colorful displays of agricultural goods. Some stalls sell shells, simple handicrafts and colored fabrics.
From the quay south of the market hall there is a free 24-hour shuttle service to the nearby Iririki Island Resort, which opened in 1986. The villa perched on the hill of the island used to be the seat of the British Commissary. The main building of the resort offers a beautiful view back to Port Vila. The island is well wooded and one can walk around it comfortably in 30 minutes. It offers marvelous possibilities for swimming and snorkeling, especially at Snorkeler’s Cove. From the quay in Port Vila boats also go to Ifira Island (get a permit first).
Two important sights are located to the the south of the town on Avenue Edmond Colardeau, the National Museum and the Vanuatu Cultural Center, with the library and archives. This modern building stands a block away from the Windsor Hotel. The permanent exhibition shows objects illustrating the history of Vanuatu, its art and historical photographs from various islands as well as ceremonial objects.
The Parliament Building opposite the museum was built with Chinese help in 1992. The bronze sculpture by the entrance figures a Ni-Vanuatu family.
About 3 miles (5 km) to the south on the road to the village of Pango, is the Michoutouchkine and Pilioko Foundation Art Gallery. The two artists have gathered here a collection of South Pacific art worth visiting. One can also inspect and buy the works of these two internationally-recognized figures.
On the coast between Pango and Pango Point are marvelous beaches, attractive also for surfers. The beach of Pango Point has an entry fee. The island of Erakor lies in front of Erakor Lagoon, and from the quay near Le Lagon Parkroyal Resort, a ferry shuttles 24 hours a day. The island is ideal for a daytrip. You can relax amid rich vegetation on a dream of a beach, while accommodation and fine food are offered by the Erakor Island Resort.
The approximately 84-mile-long (140 km) main road (mostly unpaved) follows the coast for long stretches at a time. Because of the rather steep gradients encountered in the west, it is advisable to drive around the island counterclockwise, as described below.
The southeast of Efate consists of acres of abandoned coconut palm plantations transformed into pastures for cattle and also pumpkin fields (for export to Japan). After 5.5 miles (9 km), the road passes the biggest river on the island, the Teouma, and soon afterwards appears the White Sands Country Club with its golf course. Banana Beach and Dry Creek are beautiful public beaches. It is worthwhile, however, driving on a further 3.5 miles (6 km) to the wonderful Eton Beach (directly behind the village of that name). Shortly before entering the village, on the right side, you will find the Eton Blue Hole surrounded by rich vegetation. A rich variety of colorful fish swim about this saltwater hole located right by the roadside.
In Forari, 6 miles (10 km) further, intensive surface mining of manganese was conducted between 1961 and 1978. The rusty, overgrown buildings are a grim feature of the landscape here. As the volcanic ground around Forari is good for the production of cement, new investors have shown interest.
The journey continues to the north partly along the coast and also through small settlements and rich vegetation. In the Takara Beachcomber Resort (50 miles/82 km) you can inspect some rusty old relics of World War Two. The resort, with restaurant and a waterside bar and views of Emao Island, offers a pleasant opportunity for a break in the journey or even for a night’s stay.
Quoin Hill airfield, not far away, was built by the Americans during the Second World War. Near Bauvatu are the wrecks of two fighter planes lying in shallow waters offshore. There are also wrecks in the forest to the west of the landing strip, but you will need a local guide to find them.
From the simple but beautifully situated Nagar Resort, also with restaurant and bar, you can see three islands. The nearest is the uninhabited little Kakula Island, on lease and awaiting construction of a luxury resort hotel. Pele Island is inhabited, just like the big island of Nguna.
The impressive picture book volcano, Taputaora, standing almost 2000 feet (600 meters) high, is a defining feature of the tableau that presents itself from over the water to the north. Siviri (59 miles/98km), on the western edge of Undine Bay, is reached by a side road. For a small fee you can visit the little Valeafau Cave and hear its story.
Shortly before the village of Ulei, the main road hits the coast at Port Havannah, which offers a first class protected anchorage formed by the islands of Moso and Lelepa. In 1942, American troops landed here and set up base, and for a few years life returned to this little harbor.
In a few places one can see relics of these times: a quay, a water reservoir, the remains of a sunken seaplane and the ruins of the officers’ mess. Here, roadside vendors offer fruits and mussels, and also finds from the American times like field canteens and cutlery and old bottles (mainly Coca Cola).
After Samoa Point (70 miles/116 km) you will reach Lelepa Landing. Lelepa Island has some beautiful, lonely beaches, caves (Feles Cave with rock paintings more than 1000 years old) and again relics from the Second World War: a crashed Corsair and an anti-aircraft
gun. Day trips are on offer from Port Vila to Lelepa.
About 2 miles (3 km) from Lelepa Landing (and only to be found with the help of a local guide) is the former Manga’asi, a settlement founded about 1500 years ago. It developed during the reign of Chief Roymata in the 13th century and was once upon a time the most important place on the island.
Roymata was reputed to have been buried on the uninhabited island of Eretoka (also called Hat Island because of its shape), in the company of 18 of his chieftains and 22 wives, all of them alive at the time. Excavations led by the French archeologist Jose Granger at the end of the 1960s indeed brought to light what was obviously a chieftain’s grave with 41 skeletons.
The road starts rising and then falls steeply in several sections until finally reaching Klem’s Hill (76 miles/127 km). From the parking lot on the left, directly behind the hill, there is a marvelous view of Port Vila and Mele Bay. The road descends steeply to Mele Maat, where the great sight is the cascades. Before the road cuts away to Mele, continue to the right for another 7 miles (12 km) to Devil’s Point.
In front of Mele Village lies diminutive Mele Island (also called Hideaway Island), a popular place for swimming and snorkeling. Past the Port Vila Golf Club, the road returns to the capital. 2 miles (3 km) before the town center a side road to the right takes you to the wealthiest district, called Malapoa.