Port Vila (Photo:lidian Neeleman/Shutterstock)
3.0 / 5.0
Cruise Critic Editor Rating

By Cruise Critic Staff

Port of Port Vila

The sun is beating down, the water is a thousand shades of clear, crystal blue, and the market stalls are gearing up for a big day. It's another day in paradise in Port Vila -- fairly sleepy for much of the time, but transformed into a hive of tourist activity when a cruise ship arrives. There is not much evidence, to the casual observer, of Severe Tropical Cyclone Pam's handiwork back in March 2015, when it caused one of the worst natural disasters ever experienced in Vanuatu's history. It's true that some resorts remain closed, such as Iririki Island Resort across the harbour from Port Vila Township, which is still under considerable construction. Some trees still sit at odd angles, or even remain where they ended up, on top of cars or boats, while other sea vessels remain upside down, strangely high up the embankment. Enough time has now passed, however, that you now have to really look for the items out of place; Port Vila has largely recovered and its tourism industry is humming along nicely. The beaches are clear and startlingly white, and the water visibility is prodigiously clear.

Cyclone Pam destroyed a reported 96 per cent of crops on the islands of Efate (home of Port Vila) and Tanna, further south, and the price of food, such as bananas, is possibly higher than it was before. Yet other reports say that pawpaw seeds flew so extensively in the winds that pawpaw plants are now growing like weeds. So, eat pawpaw rather than banana!

Port Vila is clean, friendly and easy in so many ways. Public buses take you anywhere you want to go in town, without the need for schedules or timetables. Quoted prices are generally firm -- and fair -- without the need for chicanery or negotiation. Families with children are not only tolerated, but rather welcomed with open arms; many resorts offer nannies at a very low rate, while anyone in the street is keen for a cuddle with a bub. Even the local language, Bislama, is based mostly on English and can be quite simply deciphered.

The main part of town is simple to navigate, centred on the Lini Highway that runs alongside the water. South of the town, the roads curve into the large finger of land that includes the Main Wharf on the town side and the further-flung resorts and beaches of the Pango area. Although less sheltered here and badly struck by 2015's cyclone, the recovery effort has been strong. North of town, the road heads off to the tourism hotspot of Mele Bay, home of waterfalls, adventure parks and Hideaway Island.

Those seeking adventure in Port Vila will find natural wonders, exciting sports and activities and never a dull moment in the water or even in the air (or both, if you want to try flyboarding). Culture vultures can soak up the local colour in the main markets or on a village tour, and shoppers will be gobsmacked by some of the tax-free prices. However, Port Vila is the kind of place where one can have a truly lovely time doing nothing at all -- hang out with locals over taro pancakes, putter along in a water taxi or ferry, catch a ride on a bus and slip the driver a bit extra to stay and natter as you circle the town. Do as much or as little as you like, and fall into the rhythm of 'island time'.

About Port Vila


Pro

Find heavily discounted duty-free products, or head out of town to swim at Mele Cascades

Con

Some local taxis have been known to drive recklessly so perhaps consider an organized tour

Bottom Line

A practical rather than pretty port, where local transport is needed to reach its natural beauty


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Where You're Docked

Cruise ships dock at Port Vila's no-nonsense Main Wharf, among shipping containers and sometimes next to fishing boats, about a third of the way up Wharf Road in the Laho area of town. The 30 to 45-minute walk into town is not recommended as it is a fair distance that is sometimes uphill and not often on a footpath. The wharf area is currently being worked on as part of an enormous beautification and upgrade project affecting both the cruise dock and the town's waterfront. However, the timeline for completion is somewhat unclear. Meanwhile, there are sometimes roadblocks to limit taxi and bus access to the ship, although they get very close to the wharf so there is little drama caused by the works at this point.

Port Facilities

Passengers alight directly onto the wharf and are then directed through fenced and roped-off pathways onto Wharf Road. This is merely a thoroughfare when there is no ship in dock but, on cruise-ship days, long rows of souvenir markets magically appear, lining the road off to the left into town. Alongside them, a host of locals are eager to offer transport, private tours and a helping hand (and van) for a price. The good news is, most of these people are genuine and quite helpful -- it's a competitive market, after all. However, until the port area upgrade is completed, you'll find little official help in terms of currency or tours. Catch a bus, boat or taxi into town (see below) to the post office, where you will find ATMs (including a Westpac directly opposite), foreign exchange, tour offices and eateries. Stay on the post-office side of the main road and head north-west (away from the ship) and you'll come across the tourist information centre, filled with brochures and maps as well as friendly staff.

Good to Know

Some swimming spots and beaches can have hard coral or active marine life underfoot -- reef shoes are a smart item to pack in your day bag. Sunscreen and mosquito repellent are also a must, like for most Pacific destinations. On a less practical but no less important note, try not to overfill your itinerary here. Vanuatu is known as the friendliest place on Earth, and taking a moment to sit in the shade in front of the markets and chat with the locals can yield as many happy holiday memories as the prettiest beach.

Getting Around

By Taxi: The bad news is that taxis are relatively expensive in Port Vila and throughout Efate. The good news is, if you're staying within the town limits, you really don't need them.

By Bus: There is a wonderful local system of buses (really an odd assortment of vans) that charge a flat fee of 150VT (AU$1.90) to take you wherever you like within central Port Vila. If the bus driver already has quite a few passengers or isn't really going in your direction, he'll simply tell you to flag down another one. Look for the 'B' on the number plates of passing vans to find a bus, and there's no need to use bus stops -- wave them down wherever you like. There are generally plenty of buses hanging around the port when a ship is in town, too. Some travellers like to offer a higher amount (to be negotiated with the driver) to simply sit in the van awhile as other passengers come and go, and see the town that way. You never know whom you might end up chatting with! Keep in mind, though, that if you're in a hurry, these buses do operate somewhat on 'island time', depending on how many passengers are on board and where they're heading. Take a taxi if you're really pressed for time.

By Water Taxi: Another fun (and very local) way to get around is by water taxi; you'll find operators on the water side of the markets, along Wharf Road, holding signs to catch your attention. It's inexpensive and a little more adventurous, especially considering that the boats in question are sometimes on the small side.

Currency & Best Way to Get Money

Official currency is the Ni-Vanuatu Vatu (or simply, vatu) -- for current conversion rates, check xe.com. Australian banks such as Westpac and ANZ have a good presence here, and most ATMs around town are widely used and well stocked. Keep some coins or small notes on you for buses and small purchases at the markets. Aussie dollars are often happily accepted, while most stores and resorts charge a surcharge to use credit cards. Tipping and hardcore bargaining are not widespread.

Language

Vanuatu is an incredibly diverse and multilingual place. More than 100 languages are used throughout its islands, but its main three languages are Bislama, French and English. It is very easy to get by in Port Vila just by speaking English, but a basic knowledge of French certainly helps -- for example, a restaurant might have a 'plat du jour' (dish of the day). Bislama is a lovely Creole language based mostly on English, with some extra French and island influences -- it may look quite foreign as a written language, but say the words and their meaning becomes very clear (the ocean is 'solwata'; the best is 'nambawan'). It is very possible to have a conversation with a local where you speak English, they speak Bislama, and you both understand just about everything.

Food and Drink

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)

Shopping

A really popular way to remember Port Vila is to have your hair braided or beaded. Although it is somewhat of a temporary souvenir, you can find plenty of offers for this in the markets on Wharf Road. Otherwise, see the main markets in the centre of town (waterside on the Lini Highway, roughly opposite Prouds Duty Free) for wooden statues, colourful cloth bags and loose dresses, and the ever-present wooden pig -- a sign of prosperity and marriageability to boot.

Best Cocktail

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.


Port Vila Awards

Cruisers’ Choice Destination Awards

2018 Top-Rated South Pacific Destinations