7 Affordable, “Off The Beaten Track” Things To Do In Port Vila
7 of my favourite things to do in Port Vila, brought to you by a few too many very short trips.
I have a confession to make.
I have an embarrassingly high number of Captains Circle points for someone my age. Or in other words, I have somehow, through the influences of my grandparents and B’s family, become a “cruiseling.”
Reputation as an oldies way to travel aside, cruising gets a bad rap for not allowing you to truly “experience” the places you go, but I’ve actually found that it gives me a better appreciation for the time I spend in each port – even if I do that by running around like a headless chook. With plenty of time to drink cocktails and lay by the pool when you’re on the ship itself, you become an expert in pushing past the “island resort” face of the places you visit and seeing as much of the culture/architecture/food as possible in your 12 (or less) hours on land. One place where I have managed to nail this thanks to repeat visits (and to B’s dad, who has cruised there umpteen times and lived there for a while) is Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.
The beaches, the underwater post office and the always-packed Mele Cascades are all well worth a visit, but there is so much more to Vila than people realise. So if you’ve got a day in Vila lined up on your cruise itinerary and want to get away from the other 2,000 passengers, or are staying for a week but looking for a break from the resort, here are 7 of my favourite affordable, mostly off the beaten track things to do in Port Vila.
- Hire a local taxi driver for the day
Vila isn’t like other cities – rather than just hailing a cab to get you from point A to point B, ask a driver if they’ll be your guide for the entire day. It’s an affordable, expected way to get around, you don’t have to work out how to get back from somewhere after you’ve been dropped off, and you’ll score their local knowledge so that you don’t look like a complete moron when drinking kava (more on that below).
- Visit the 24 hour produce market
The markets are in the heart of town, and run 24 hours a day, six days a week, only closing on Sundays. It’s set up for locals, so don’t go expecting souvenirs, but head along to get amongst the locals doing their thing, dodge any escapee crabs from the seafood stalls, check out the gorgeous woven baskets the ladies use to bundle their produce and pick up a few super sweet bananas as thick as your arm.
- Go nuts in a supermarket
This is one of my favourite things to do in any foreign country – and will be until Orangina is available in Australia – but Vanuatu has the strangest combination of products from around the world (cereal from Australia, chips from New Zealand, sweets from France), as well as super refreshing alcoholic drinks you won’t find anywhere else. Grab a bottle of Tusker Lemon (citrus infused local beer) or Solbrew (lethal but delicious whiskey and cola from the Solomon Islands) right from the fridge and head to the beach.
- Try Tanna Coffee
While coffee has been grown in and exported from Vanuatu since 1852, Tanna Coffee was set up in 1982 to assist the newly independent country’s economy. You can find them set up in an old church, with the roastery, grinders, historical photos and a café all in the one room and guys walking around happy to explain everything to you as they rip the lids of massive bins of freshly ground beans. As an Australian I’m a massive coffee snob, but the iced coffee we had there was the best I’ve had away from home.
- Head to The Summit
I have a weird obsession with getting to the highest possible point wherever I go, so when our group split in two on my last visit to Vila and the options were the mountain or the beach, I was already in the bus headed to The Summit. The Summit is 200m above sea level – admittedly more of a tall hill, but with stunning views over the island and Mele Bay. There’s also a cafe, essential oil distillery, ornamental garden and zipline up there, but getting to the top is free.
- Go to blue lagoon
Blue Lagoon is fairly well known, but I’ve never seen it “busy” – probably because it’s around a half hour drive away while most things to do in Port Vila are much closer to the city centre. The colour of it has to be seen to be believed, and it’s easy to lose half a day floating around its clear water, climbing (and jumping out of) trees and throwing yourself off one of two rope swings. The locals will probably laugh at your inability to hang on, but they’ll also be the first to scramble up and help you retrieve the rope.
- Visit a local kava bar
Kava is a drink made from roots of a pepper vine found widely throughout the south Pacific. It looks (and tastes) a little like muddy water, and rather than getting you drunk, it acts like an anaesthetic, completely numbing your mouth and tongue (one of my travel companions discovered it was great for her sore throat). While it’s fairly easy to find kava sold in the more touristy parts of town, for a cheaper and more authentic (or I-don’t-know-if-this-is-a-good-idea) experience, ask your taxi driver to take you to a local kava bar. I’ve only tried it once, but I can say that mine came in a small ceramic bowl, from a plastic barrel in a suburban front yard. Luckily we were their with local friend Sarah, who was able to show us how it’s done (basically, drink it all as fast as you can, swish and spit with water, and then take advantage of the free snacks to get the taste out of your mouth) as well as make sure we weren’t charged the foreigner fee – the price dropped from $5 each to $2 when they saw her.
Heading to Port Vila on a cruise soon and wondering how much of the above you can get done? Basically, all of it – the above list is essentially my itinerary from our most recent trip, and that’s without mentioning the extra time we spent picking up Sarah, taking her son to school and a spot of duty-free shopping (Fact: Port Vila has some of the best duty free booze prices I’ve seen).
Have a few favourite things to do in Port Vila yourself? I’d love to hear about them!