Port Vila, Vanuatu — What to do and where to eat

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 57 of the November 2013 issue.
Local girls chatting on the phone in front of a Carnival Cruise Lines ship in Port Vila. Photos by Lew Toulmin

(Second of two parts)

In my humble, resident-expat opinion, the best places to visit around Port Vila, Vanuatu, are (in order)…

The Summit Gardens — 11 gardens and a sandalwood plantation, plus a distillery and gift shop, all on a 600-foot-high plateau with fantastic flowers and views. $63 per person, including pickup at the ship, from www.thesummitvanuatutours.com, or just show up and pay $25 per person. Open 9-5 every day except Christmas and Good Friday. There also is a separate, multistage zip-line ($100) for the adventurous or insane. Five miles north of town on Devil’s Point Road. 

The Mele Cascades — several small falls and one 60-foot waterfall, very attractive and cool. Wear Crocs or reef shoes to cross the streams. Admission, $26 per person. Open 9-5 daily. Four miles north of town on the main ’round-the-island road.

Mt. Yasur Volcano — on Tanna island, 120 miles south-southeast of Port Vila. This is one of the most accessible and dramatic active volcanoes in the world. A one-day fly-in tour can be arranged for about $400 per person through any of the many tour operators downtown or via Unity Airlines.

Pentecost Island land diving — 165 miles north of Port Vila. Boys and men from nine to 35 jump headfirst into dirt, with their ankles tied with vines, from a tower up to 96 feet high! Only on Saturdays from April to June. A one-day fly-in tour ($450) to see the diving can be arranged downtown or with Unity Airlines. 

Vanuatu Cultural Centre — the main (but small) ethnographic museum, with cultural displays plus, while you watch, excellent sand painting by a local chief/artist. Admission, $11 per person. Open 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday. In town, opposite Parliament.

Best restaurants

Port Vila has a surprising variety of restaurants, especially when compared to other small Pacific island countries. The dress code is always very casual. 

A small pavilion at the Summit Gardens, 600 feet up on a ridge overlooking Port Vila.

The following are the best restaurants around town, which can give you a change from eating on board ship. Each listing gives the name, (type), neighborhood, best dishes, prices in US dollars and meals offered. 

Reservations are never necessary, and it is unlikely you will have a phone that works locally, so phone numbers are not provided. All restaurants take vatu (the local currency), most take Australian dollars, and a large minority will take Visa or MasterCard (but not American Express); add 3%-5% for using a card. 

The listing below is in order of my estimation of quality, with the best shown first. The first three are closed on Sundays.

Spice (Indian), in the Nambatu area (¾ mile south of downtown). Get the butter chicken ($20 — not at all spicy and enough to serve two), garlic naan bread ($3) or chicken biryani ($11). Open for lunch and dinner.

Au Peche Mignon (French), downtown. Tuna, onion or mushroom quiche ($4), a long, thin bag of small meringues ($2) and a tarte citron ($3) or any of the other petits fours. Breakfast, lunch and afternoon meals to 5:30 p.m.

Jill’s Café (American), downtown. Toasted “big cheese” sandwich with ham and local pineapple ($9) and a strawberry shake ($4). It also has the only used-book exchange and sale in town, which benefits the only animal-rescue service in the country. Breakfast, lunch and afternoon meals to 5 p.m.

Nambawan Café (pizza, burgers, etc.), at the waterfront near downtown. Pizza la Reine ($11 for a regular feeds two). Lunch and dinner. Has slow WiFi access.

Wahoo Bar & Restaurant (local fish), in the Havannah Harbor area 20 miles northwest of Port Vila. Latest local catch (about $23). Dinner only. Walk north along the narrow beach to collect excellent sea glass left over from World War II. 

Shopping‚ rather sparse 

In the outer islands of Vanuatu, sometimes the river IS the road. This “road” is on the north coast of Malekula island.

Duty-free shops in Port Vila cater to Australians seeking cheap booze and jewelry. Locally made items are surprisingly scarce. 

The best shop is Pandamas (downtown beside the ANZ Bank), for nice jewelry and souvenirs. 

Also, contact Jennifer West in Port Vila (phone 678 777 9992 or email jenniferwest3@gmail.com) to view and buy from an interesting collection of Vanuatu and Solomon Islands carvings and art, including local circular boars’ tusks. 

If you want soft drinks, hard liquor or other items that are expensive on board ship, go to the Bon Marche grocery. There’s a small branch downtown, with the main location one mile south of downtown. 

The best bread in town is at Breadwinner Bakery, a small yellow building just uphill from the old French jail. Ahhh, those French! Even their prisoners get better bread than we Americans!