Continuing my island hop through the South Pacific, which has included Hawaii, American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga, and now Vanuatu, I flew from Espiritu Santo to Efate. Efate is the most populous island in the archipelago and is home to the capital of Vanuatu, Port Vila. The island, which was used as the locale for the Tales of the South Pacific as well as for three seasons of Survivor, many times is simply referred to as Vila.
Where to Stay
I stayed in Vila at the Traveller’s Budget Motel. Michael, the owner, is a chatty fellow from Australia who is very helpful. He arranged my pick up from the airport with Atmosphere Tours for 1,000 Vatu as well as the Blue Lagoon and Turtle Sanctuary Tour that I later took during my three day stay on Efate
The Traveller’s Budget Motel is geared toward backpackers. The rooms, cooled with a ceiling fan, are basic but clean, and include a kitchenette and bathroom. The grounds include a small pool and an open air kitchen which guests may use. Free WiFi is available, which is a luxury. Agnes will serve breakfast and do laundry for a small fee. Aside from an annoying running toilet which they made efforts to fix, I had a nice stay.
Given a late evening arrival, I spent next morning at the amazing market buying papaya, mangoes, and bananas as well as visiting a grocery store for eggs, tuna, and chips which has been my staple diet for breakfast and lunch.
Vila Outdoor Market
The Vila Outdoor Market operates 24 hours a day. Women sell their excellent selection of produce all day and sleep in their stalls at night. In addition to fruits and vegetables, one corner of the market features sea food and another section sells cooked meals. The locals are very friendly and thankful for any purchases made.
The Chinese, however, who operate many of the grocery stores, are far from friendly. I had the same experience in Tonga and chalked it up to them not knowing English, but a smile can go a long way.
In search of eggs which I couldn’t find in the refrigerated section, I asked, “Do you sell eggs?”
The woman at the register points at the bottom of a row of shelves were they were individually stacked. I selected six and dropped one as I added them to my bag. As a result, I replaced it with one from a stack at the check out counter. The woman at the register remained silent, tapped the calculator and spun it around to show the price without a smile or a thank you.
I returned to the Traveller’s Budget Motel to make my breakfast in the open air kitchen and learned that the eggs at the counter were boiled! Seriously?!? I didn’t know how long the boiled egg had been sitting out in the heat, so I tossed it in the trash. Needless to say, I did not patronize the store again.
Anyway, after breakfast, I began my first adventure in Efate…a trip to Hideaway Island. Agnes walked outside the gates with me to waive down a bus, which looks like a shuttle with a red B on the license plate. I climbed in with my snorkeling gear and after getting dropped off at the dock for the boat ride to Hideaway Island, I paid the driver $300 Vatu, the going price according to Agnes.
The boat ride to Hideaway Island which can be walked to across a shoal during low tide was free. Day use at the resort, however, is $1250 Vatu, which provides access to beach chairs, an excellent reef for snorkeling, and the world’s only underwater post office. Sending an underwater postcard was a big draw for me to the island. A novelty, but fun nonetheless.
Upon paying my entry, I also purchased the special waterproof postcard for a few bucks and wrote a quick note with the pencil they provided. With postcard and snorkel gear in hand, I proceeded to a beachside lounge chair where I settled in for the day.
I read several reviews on TripAdvisor that people had to search for the post box. That seemed strange to me given I could see the white post box from the shore. It is easily accessible, requiring a short walk down the stairs on the coral beach and a quick swim to the right of the first platform. Located just a few feet underwater, the mailbox may be reached by both snorkelers and SCUBA divers. It only took me one dive down to insert the card into the slot, and I’m pleased to report it made it all the way to the USA.
The Hideaway Island & Marine Sanctuary Resort has conveniently placed two platforms in the water for sun bathing. Just to the left of the second platform is a spectacular coral reef. It is full of marine life from Christmas tree worms to colonies of anemonefish to colorful parrotfish and more. Being a SCUBA diver, I was pleasantly surprised by the superb snorkeling experience very close to shore.
The resort also features a dive shop. Had I known that, I might have scheduled a two tank dive, but I have plenty of diving in store for me in the Solomons in a few days. Instead, I soaked in the sun on the beach as I awaited my meal from the restaurant since no outside food or drink is allowed on the island, though it wasn’t policed too strictly, as I drank my own water.
It was surprisingly easy to get a bus back to my motel, as one was waiting by the boat dock and nearby bar. All I had to tell him was to go to Stade, as the motel is across from a tennis center and really nice soccer stadium for the most popular sport in Vanuatu.
Alongside Vila Bay
I returned in time to catch the tail end of the Haus Blong Handikraf market that is set up everyday in covered pavilions along Vila Bay. I was thankful to be there while cruise ships were not in port, as I can’t imagine how crowded that would be.
There is a nice boardwalk along the bay which features several restaurants along with the markets. I spent all my nights down here for dinner as it is only a short walk from Traveller’s Budget Motel. All the places I tried were good.
Chill, an enclosed, upstairs restaurant with white table cloths was the fanciest. Nambawan Cafe, in the middle of the strip, is the most casual and known for its delicious pizza. While Rossi’s, with a large menu splits the difference of the two. They all afford nice sunset views.
Blue Lagoon & Turtle Sanctuary
For my second day in Efate, I took the Blue Lagoon & Turtle Sanctuary Tour offered by Atmosphere. I joined a couple from New Caledonia who spoke French, and a young couple from Australia, Nick and Sonya.
Rarru Rentapao River Cascades
Normally, our first stop would have been at Eratap Kindergarten, a school that Atmosphere supports with tourism dollars, but they were taking exams so we carried on to Rarru Cascades. Both the Australians and I were very surprised, as these cascades were not on the itinerary. For a minute, I thought I was on the full island tour, but our guide, Justin, clarified otherwise.
The trail and grounds leading up to the falls were very nice and well maintained. I almost felt like I was back in civilization. We followed the gravel path up the shallow, green river to the falls where several platforms surrounded the area. Two lower platforms featured ropes for swinging into the water.
While an upper one was meant for jumping. Nick skipped all the low stuff and went directly for the highest spot, jumping off without hesitation. The rest of us were more cautious, given we had to avoid large boulders in the pools below. After a swing off the rope and a jump from the falls which was very slick, I took the leap from the high platform too. I’m not sure of the height, but is was high enough for my Apple Watch to register a hard fall and offer to send an SOS!
We had a great time at Rarru Falls and were happy to have it added to our itinerary. After using all our allotted time, we ended our visit with refreshments that the establishment provided. Who knew chunks of fried coconut would taste so good!
Not far from Rarru Cascades is the “turtle sanctuary” called, Naiwe Beach. The groomed grounds featured cages of birds, flying foxes and coconut crabs, similar to a zoo. The turtle sanctuary was far from what I was expecting.
Despite the 60% unemployment rate in Vanuatu which requires many families to lease their land to companies for agriculture, I stupidly envisioned a scientific turtle breeding facility. How dumb could I be!
The turtle sanctuary consisted of a man made shallow bay and two covered cement tanks. The bay was home to a few large turtles which they took from the ocean. I asked if they bred them to which they said no. Then I asked why they took them and they proudly said, “To show tourists”. They had no idea it was wrong!
With that response, I asked them where they got the baby turtles in the tank? They pointed to a nearby beach and said, “Over there. We save them from the birds, raise them, and release them after six years.” If they do in fact release them after six years, I can’t imagine that a turtle growing up in a tank would know what to do!
The Blue Lagoon
I recognize the locals need to find a way to support themselves, but I was very upset to have contributed this so-called sanctuary. I believe the government in Vanuatu needs to do some educating!
Anyway, after a short time Naiwe Beach which included a buffet lunch, we continued East to the Blue Lagoon, our final stop. Uniquely, the tour pamphlet said this would be our first stop and then we’d visit Crystal Blue Resort and Aquana Beach Resort along with the school. Clearly, things changed!
The Blue Lagoon is a tranquil swimming hole with a few rope swings and a passage to the bay which allows for limited snorkeling. Locals and tourists alike swing off the platforms situated in the shaded grounds which also include a changing area. Justin gave us as much time as we wanted, though we likely spent an hour or less. In fact, we tended to impose our own time limits as we’d find Justin relaxed in the shade when we were ready to go.
Tanna Coffee Factory
For my final day in Efate, I debated going to Mele Cascades, a top attraction. As much as I like waterfalls, I couldn’t bring myself to support the operation recently purchased by the Chinese. Especially for $20 which is really expensive for Efate. Not to mention, I’d have to pack wet clothes for my afternoon flight, which I never like doing.
Instead, I took the bus to the Tanna Coffee Factory. I’d characterize it as a Cafe with a roasting room, but none the less, I got free five minute tour which featured one roaster and a few trash cans of beans! The tour does not include a tasting. Guests much purchase a cup of coffee.
Tanna coffee is a smooth Arabica coffee grown in volcanic soil on the island of Tanna by smallholder farmers. From 1998 to 2014, Tanna Coffee grew to produce over 86 tonnes. Unfortunately, Cyclone Pam devastated all of Vanuatu and many people’s livelihoods. The coffee plants had to be replanted, and this was the first year of harvest for a total of 8 tonnes. I feel fortunate I got to try the tasty brew.
Attached to the Cafe is also an artist nook featuring paintings as well as the Summit Distillery which distills different oils used for beauty and health products. For those who like shopping, bring a credit card!
As luck would have it, after my short visit, a bus driver was parked at the fruit stand across the street. He took me back to Vila after he finished his snack. I spent my final few hours in Efate under the shade at the local, bayside park just up from Rossi’s. It was a low key day before my overnight in Fiji on the way to meet my friends Julie and Dustin in the Solomons for a dive vacation. To be continued…ETB
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