Vanuatu’s Outer Islands are bursting with adventure, culture, and smiling faces. From jumping off waterfalls to sipping on kava, these are the best experiences you’ll find in the Outer Islands.
You know the feeling, the jumpy-leg, gotta-get-outta-the-house feeling. The gotta-climb-a-mountain feeling. The anything-but-this-white-walled-office feeling.
The Skyscanner app winks at you when you unlock your phone on the train. You open it. What’s the harm in looking for flights? Nothing better to do. This commute is the pits, and you’re dizzy from watching suburbia whizz by.
The usual destinations pop up: regional areas of Australia, Bali, New Zealand… Places you’ve been to or aren’t necessarily keen on, or aren’t quite ready for yet. Then, Vanuatu.
And so you Google mountains or waterfalls or hikes in Vanuatu, and you somehow end up here.
Hi, hello, you’ve come to the right place. Turns out, Vanuatu isn’t just a place for the over fed, nearly dead and newly wed. This collection of 83 islands dotted in the Pacific Ocean, with its palm trees and crystal clear waters offers more than just hammocks and coconuts (although they’re great too). Here are 19 thrilling experiences you can get in Vanuatu’s Outer Islands.
1. Snorkelling Reefs Full of Wildlife
You won’t be bumping heads with tourists when you’re snorkelling off the coastline of Vanuatu’s Outer Islands. Most of the time, you’ll have the reefs entirely to yourself, where you can spend as long as you like swimming with dugongs and dolphins and turtles.
2. Cultural Dances
Every island in Vanuatu boasts an array of cultural dances, unique to every village. Watch as the men and women tell their stories through dance, in water or on land, using grasses, flowers and masks. Our Cultural Guide to the Outer Islands shares some of the important details and must-see dances for a cultural escape.
3. An Off-grid Experience
As you fly into islands like Gaua and Maewo, Ambrym and Malekula, and land on their grassy runways with a bounce, you’re quickly hit with the realisation that these places are not just stunning, but incredibly remote.
This is what you’re here for, though. The romance of remote. To escape the grind of the everyday. To experience something different. Yeah, there are the odd generators and yeah, there’s the local SIM. But really, why not take the opportunity to switch off while you have it?
Why not get to a remote beach and, instead of lounging in a hammock with your phone, head out for a hike, curl up with a book, or play with the local children? This was more thrilling than I’m willing to admit, but being truly off-grid is a liberating experience.
4. Travelling by Ute
Arms outstretched, head back, driving full speed across the rugged terrain of Vanuatu’s remote outer islands. It’s wonderful to be alive! You’ll travel by ute everywhere you go on these islands, and sitting in the tray is a must. Yes, even when it’s bucketing!
Dodging the branches, chatting to the locals who hop on board, and hi-fiving children who run alongside you on their way home from school makes getting from A to B all part of the adventure.
5. Land Diving, Naghol, Pentecost
On the island of Pentecost, to encourage a strong yam harvest, men, regardless of age, dive from 20-30-metre-high breath-defying wooden towers called Naghol.
Over time, springboards have been added at various heights, depending on the skill level of the land diver. Sounds like bungee jumping, right? Well, bungee jumping stemmed from this ancient practice, so it makes sense.
We’ve covered land diving in more detail, but if you’re in Vanuatu between the months of April and June, make sure you make a trip to Pentecost! The diving happens every Saturday.
6. Outrigger Canoes
When we arrived at Lake Letas, at the base of Mt Garet in Gaua, the local men had carved a new outrigger canoe for our arrival as there were so many of us. The wood was still green, absorbing the lake water with speed. Equipped with our freshly carved paddles, we moved around the lake as the boat slowly got heavier and heavier.
These are amazing modes of transportation, and locals not only build them but race them! Give one a try yourself, you may find it’s harder to paddle in a straight line than you think!
7. Barely Any Tourists
I had the pleasure of travelling around Vanuatu’s outer islands for 17 days. I saw six tourists (three couples) on the whole trip. Do you know what this means? No long lines. No party-going groups keeping you up at night. No crowds populating the waterfalls and volcanoes you’ve come to enjoy. And a real chance to truly connect with locals and another culture.
The kava experience can be as thrilling as you make it. This brown liquid, made from Piper methysticum, a plant native to the western Pacific Islands, is the Vanuatu equivalent of a beer at the pub on a Sunday arvo.
After a few too many shells, it’ll give you a relaxing high, and then push you over the edge to totally plastered in a very short amount of time. Thrilling indeed, particularly if you need to stumble through wild, relentless jungle on your way back to your bungalow.
9. Spending Time With Local Chiefs
On most of the hikes, and certainly, upon arrival in any remote village, the local chief will greet you with open arms. Sometimes he will give you a handshake, sometimes two kisses, other times a big, soft hug. He’ll show you around, welcome you into his home and ensure you are well fed. This is a great honour, and one which should be treated with utmost respect.
10. Losinwei Cascades
An easy walk along freshwater plunge pools and rivers, all the way up to a cascading waterfall in the heart of Malekula’s tropical rainforest. With coconuts aplenty and stomach-dropping jump rocks, this is a totally manageable (and memorable!) adventure for the books.
11. Marou Volcano, Nguna Island
A short boat from Port Vila, this extinct volcano is quite a climb, but a short one. The immensity of it all with take your breath away, not only because you’ve just made some pretty significant elevation gains in a small amount of time, but mostly due to the spectacular views of the surrounding islands.
If you get back to Port Vila a few days ahead of schedule, this is well worth putting onto the itinerary.
12. Domestic Charter Flights
If you’re going in the wet season, when there’s wind and rain, the grassy runways certainly make for a thrilling landing in your small charter plane. The pilots are incredibly experienced, and do their best to ensure you feel as safe as you are, but for those of us that aren’t used to small planes the heart-in-the-throat feeling is inevitable.
It’s a pretty spectacular way to see Vanuatu, though. The flight into Gaua is a favourite, keep your eyes peeled for Mt Garet!
13. Lonwok Lake
If you’re up for a relaxing kayak or wooden jetty to jump from, this crater full of freshwater, deep enough to float a cruise ship, is a short boat away on Ambrym island. You’ll have to catch a boat, as there are no roads to this part of the island. We talk more about Lonwok Lake in our Insider’s Guide to Ambrym.
14. Maewo’s Moon Cave
Maewo’s Moon Cave, also known as ‘the cave of the hole of the moon’ plays an important role in local kastom stories.
The moon once lived in this cave, until Tagaro (the God of the sea) threw the moon out of the cave to the south and north and west. He was happy with its place in the west, and so he left it there. The three canals of water that run into the cave are believed to be where the moon passed when Tagaro threw it out.
It’s a spectacular sight to behold. You can swim through with your snorkel and flippers and allow the tide to take you out.
15. Vanuatu Time
Vanuatu time, locally called Aelan Taem, is thrilling in a different kind of way. Will your tour guide show up? Will there be enough porters? Will your flight be on time? Will your driver know where they’re going? Maybe. Maybe not!
Leaning into this allows you to fall in love with Vanuatu time, and causes you to reflect on the seriousness with which you uphold time at home, and the way you project that expectation onto another culture.
The locals are committed to getting you where you need to go, even if your flight’s delayed or your guides don’t rock up or there are no beds left in your accommodation. You’re in safe hands. They’ll never leave you stranded.
16. Bungalow Accommodation
Bungalows are your only choice for accommodation when you’re travelling through Vanuatu’s Outer Islands. While most places don’t have running water, you’ll be able to wash your body, eat a delicious feed cooked by the family who hosts you, and your bed will be made up with flowers on your pillows every day. What more could you want?
Just make sure you keep your snacks buried deep in your zipped-up backpack, you never know which of the local wildlife may be hungry.
17. Small Boats to Get Around
Flying at top speed across the tops of waves, hugging the towering coastline of Maewo, or the black sand beaches of Ambrym. Huddling in the cabin as the torrential rain drenches the boat. Or sitting outside and giving yourself over to the rain, letting your tongue catch the drops as they fall. Whatever it is, these small boats are a great way to experience the Vanuatu coastline.
18. Naone Waterfall, Maewo
Maewo is fondly known as ‘waterfall island’ and it’s no wonder why. A short walk through farmland, right near the airport, will bring you to the base of Naone Waterfall. We were greeted by metre-long tables of fresh fruit in woven baskets, with a number of cultural dances performed in the water, by the waterfall and halfway up a cascade by local men and women.
This kind of cultural experience can easily be arranged, just ask your host. The ladies held my hand and lovingly dragged me into the dances, helped me scale the waterfall and get back down again. The smiles never left our faces! There are plenty of rocks to jump from here, and the locals will love to see you do it.
19. Kindness of Locals
When we arrived in Maewo, many of the villages close to the airport took the day off. A hundred or so people sat in the shade and welcomed us with open arms and tables of food and woven handicrafts. On all of the islands, the people were thankful and excited by visitors, and this kindness was seen not only in their actions, but in their eyes. Make sure you give yourself time to sit with them and listen to their stories.