Deep Blue South

Three Versions of Vanuatu

Sep 19, 2001
Outside Magazine

If you're looking for the prototypical fantasy island plus a wild hit of traditional culture, Vanuatu could be it. Just a seaplane's hop from Fiji, this South Pacific archipelago is home to an eerie Titanicky dive wreck, locals who have bungee jumped for centuries, and a religious cult that anxiously awaits the return of appliance-bearing American soldiers. Known as the New Hebrides until 1980, Vanuatu's 83 islands have 185,000 residents who speak 115 different languages. Little has changed in their fascinating home since Allied forces (and James Michener) passed through in the '40s.

On the surprisingly cosmopolitan island of Efate, book one of 70 elevated bungalows, each with air conditioning, marble bathrooms, and balcony, at the beachside Iririki Island Resort (doubles $240-$290; On-site activities include snorkeling, canoeing, kayaking, and windsurfing.
When the jet lag has eased, take the one-hour plane ride to Espiritu Santo Island, the country's largest, and hook up with Santo Dive Tours (one-tank dive, $20; Here you'll explore the 654-foot luxury liner turned WWII troop ship President Coolidge, one of the world's largest easily assessible wrecks and one of the finest dives around. The almost fully intact ship, at rest in 60 to 230 feet of water, is littered with the personal effects of 5,000 American troops and crew. When you come up for air, stay in one of 17 hexagonal, thatched-roof fares at the six-acre Bougainville Resort. It feels like an old estate villa, surrounded by tropical gardens teeming with orchids, hibiscus, and frangipani (doubles $75;

On Tanna Island, you can almost touch the edge of 1,184-foot Mount Yasur, a volcano so reliably active you'll want to wear running shoes. Locals belive that it's the originator of the universe—or a spiritual home after death. Go at night, when the sound effects and fireworks are even more dramatic. Arrange for a guide on this 40-minute (one way) hike at the Tanna Beach Resort (doubles $49-$61 per person;, which has nine thatched-roof bungalows with private baths.

If that's not enough excitement, attend services at a church of Jon Frum, a cargo cult that emerged after American planes dropped luxuries onto the island during World War II. Members pray for refrigerators and radios to again drop from the sky and display the Red Cross insignia liberally.

Fall visitors may catch the three- to five-day Nekowiar Ceremony with its famous Toka Dance, an alliance-making event between villages consisting of feasting, face-painting, and dancing, which takes place between August and November. Even if VCRs aren't falling from the sky, it's nice to know that tradition is alive and well in Bali Hai.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!