Food and Drink in Port Vila
The island of Efate is known, unsurprisingly, for its fresh lobster and seafood -- poulet fish (translating literally as chicken fish) is also a cheap and delicious local specialty that does indeed have the texture of chicken. More unexpected is the Vanuatu beef; Port Vila is a great place to experience excellent steak. An important note on another item on some menus here, though: please stay away from the coconut crab. The biggest land-living arthropod in the world, it is an endangered animal that takes decades to grow to full size, so consumption by visitors is discouraged.
Unless you're into taro and bananas, food in Port Vila can be pricey -- at least comparable to Australian restaurant standards. However, many of the French-style restaurants offer specials or a plat du jour (dish of the day) that can be great value.
Au Fare: Absolute waterfront on the harbour, this open-air, French-inspired eatery under a nakamal-style roof is all class and a local expat favourite. The daily lunch special is great value, and the cocktails are a reasonable price. Drink them while relaxing in the hammock, or watch the flyboard adventurers jet up to nine metres into the air (book this here, too). (Open Wednesday to Monday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., except for Sunday nights; Lini Highway, Melcoffee, Fatumaru Bay; +678-25580)
Stonegrill Dining: Close to the cruise wharf, inside the newish Vanuatu Handicraft Market centre (so you can knock off your souvenir shopping at the same time) and offering great fresh seafood and steaks, Stonegrill is a solid and very popular lunch choice. Food is presented on your own hot lava stone to cook yourself, meaning you can eat your steak exactly as you'd like, and it stays hot while you enjoy the sea breeze and water views in the shaded, open-air dining area. (Open 7 days, 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Vanuatu Handicraft Market building, Wharf Rd.; +678-5464506)
Chill Restaurant and Bar: It has beautiful food and an extensive menu, but the powerful air conditioning is also a drawcard in the Port Vila humidity, as well as its fantastic location right next to the atmospheric main markets in the centre of town. The seafood platter is impressive, as is the value of its lunch and dinner specials. Watch the ongoing post-cyclone construction over on Iririki Island across the water. (Open 7 days, 11 a.m. until late (lunch specials available 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.); Lini Highway; +678-22578)
War Horse Saloon: If you're looking to cut loose, or you're just craving Tex-Mex and a good beer, you'll be amazed (and somewhat confused) to find this wooden throwback to the Wild West on Wharf Road. There are five beers on tap, including house brews such as porter beer or a German-style wheat beer, and famous ribs that don't disappoint. (Open 7 days, 11:30 a.m. until late (happy hour is Monday to Friday, 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.); Wharf Road at the roundabout; +678-26670)
Best Cocktail in Port Vila
Happily, cocktail menus are widespread throughout Port Vila -- perhaps something to do with the tax-free spirits -- but top points for delicious fruity ingredients and sheer vibrancy have to go to the Australian Lady/Green Iguana. It's an over-the-top concoction of Midori, orange and blue curacao, pineapple juice, orange juice and coconut cream and is found at the Beach Bar in Mele Cove -- a great place to chill out if you're visiting the popular Mele Cascades, the Tanna Coffee Factory, Wet'n'Wild or heading across to Hideaway Island, as the Beach Bar is found right next to its jetty.
Of course, the real taste of Port Vila has to be kava, and there are countless kava bars around town; ask a local (or a bored bus driver) for their favourite, and you might just end up with a drinking buddy.
Beaches in Port Vila
The wonderful thing about Port Vila (and most parts of Vanuatu) is that popping into the water for a quick cool-off is a very casual affair. One of the pleasures of this town lies in taking a dip wherever you see locals doing so, especially in the turquoise water off the waterside park just north of the main shopping strip of the Lini Highway, heading up towards the Banyan Beach Bar, Chantilly's and Au Fare restaurant. Just as nice, though, is the fact that many of the small islands and resorts welcome day guests to come and enjoy their postcard-grade beaches and water facilities. There are also some beautiful beaches within Port Vila that, even on cruise-ship days, are spotless and nearly deserted. Note that there is often a small fee associated with using some beaches, so ensure you have some change (say, about 500VT (AU$6.50) to give the roaming caretakers. The money goes toward the community and upkeep of the beaches.
Best Hidden Gem: Honeymoon Beach (off the road to Pango Point, past the turnoff to Paradise Cove) offers the best of Vanuatu beaches: snow-white sand, shelters and chill-out places on the shore, and even a brilliantly azure 'blue hole' just off the shore to swim and snorkel in. There's a small fee to use the beach, but considering this area was badly hit by the cyclone in 2015, the money is helping the excellent job done by locals in restoring the beach to full usability again.
Best Full Island Experience: Erakor Island is easily and quickly accessible from town and from the wharf, by bus, taxi or even water taxi. The ferry operates from the jetty 24 hours a day and the cost of the ferry voucher is redeemable on the island for lunch, drinks or the day spa. Day guests are welcome to enjoy the many facilities, including watersports, swimming, volleyball or simply lounging in a hammock. Grab a towel from the watersports hut to soak up the sun on this spectacular beach.
Best for Families: Poppy's on the Lagoon is a family-oriented resort within walking distance of town, and a bus ride from the wharf, with its own private beach and access to the calm lagoon. The resort has just started offering great value packages for cruise passengers that include a lunch and drinks voucher, massage, hair braiding or mani/pedi. You can also book an on-site nanny for the kids while you indulge, a lagoon tour by outrigger canoe and enjoy use of pools, kayaks and games.
Don't Miss in Port Vila
Duty-Free Shopping: There's a reason why there are so many duty-free shops in the main section of town. Visitors to this tax haven love to stock up on bargains, particularly alcohol, perfume and tobacco (though electronics, leather goods and even decorator items are on offer). Head south along the Lini Highway for Fung Kuei (+678-22556; no-frills electricals and Chinese goods, great alcohol selection), Paris Shopping (+678-24227; high-end shopping), Sound Centre (+678-22035; specialising in electronics, TVs, watches, musical instruments) and Prouds Duty Free (+678-22393; jewellery, watches, perfumes, leather goods). Just a heads-up: don't leave your shopping too late in the day as an agent must take your purchases to the ship, to be delivered to you by the steward. If you do leave your shopping until the last minute, you may miss the last run of the agent from the shops to the ship.
Ekasup Cultural Village: Want to know why a live golden orb spider is a great fishing tool? Why wearing multiple curved feathers in one's hair is a top way to attract a wife? This is a somewhat unassuming and genuinely friendly tour chockfull of information and demonstrations, as well as village-style refreshments, song and dance. The open-air 'gift shop' has quite a good selection of local products, too. (Tours Monday to Saturday at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.; +678-24217 or +678-7746734)
Mele Cascade Waterfalls: This pretty and very popular natural playground, 10km from the centre of town features multiple cascades and requires a medium level of fitness for the 20-minute climb to the top. You're then rewarded with lovely views, a refreshing swim and the chance to leap off rocks into the water, if you're game. Make sure you wear your swimmers, and reef shoes are recommended since you may cross both sharp rocks and small streams. (Open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; Ring Road, Mele Maat; +678-23050)
Vanuatu Bijouterie: The only store in Port Vila that stocks Vanuatu-made jewellery, the Bijouterie is a short bus ride away, on the wharf side of town. Find house-designed and made gold and silver pieces, featuring Tahitian black pearls, gemstones and Vanuatu-inspired patterns. (Open Monday to Friday, 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to noon; Nambatu, Rue du Quai; +678-7112065)
Vanuatu Jungle Zipline: The best way to take in the views of Port Vila and Mele Bay, if you can take them in at all while zipping along mid-air through the jungle canopy. This one is highly popular, especially on cruise-ship days, so book ahead (available as a shore excursion with many cruise lines). Wear enclosed shoes and be sure to bring your camera. (Tours at 10:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily; +678-5550423)