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Cruising Vanuatu


Just a short three hours flight out of Auckland is one of the South Pacific’s most diverse collection of islands. This group of 83 picture postcard islands was first discovered by the Spanish explorer De Quiros in 1606 and has been re-discovered since by thousands of people who want to get away from it all.

Prior to its independence in 1980, Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides and was jointly governed by both the English and the French. Today both languages are spoken but the common local language is called Bislama, which is a delightful combination of Spanish, French and English. There are still more than 100 local dialects spoken which gives an indication to the diversity that Vanuatu culture has to offer.

Vanuatu is does not have the cruising profile that some other South Pacific islands have but the diversity and the newness of the area as a tourist destination lends itself perfectly for skippered charters. A real chance to enjoy some wonderful sailing and to find some places so new and raw they seems just a small step our of the Stone Age.

The main harbour is situated in Port Vila, which is little bigger than a New Zealand provincial town. Most Pacific destinations offer one or two options, fishing and diving, hotels and shopping, but Vanuatu offers something for everyone. If you don’t want to dive, you can shop, if you would rather game fish than eat at a quaint little French restaurant then you can. Port Vila is a wonder take off point to cruise these magical islands.
There is a number of charter boat options out of Port Vila form sunset cruises to serious jaunts up to the Solomon’s or down to New Caledonia.
It was here that we met Jim and his local crew from the 42-foot yacht Response. Jim natural enthusiasm for the area and the local people is obvious and he encouraged us to explore Port Vila before setting sail to more remote shores.

Nestled around a natural harbour of port Vila most of the restaurants and hotels face the water. The most obvious of these idyllic hotels is Iririki Resort, on an luxurious island a few minutes ferry ride across the harbour. A delightful island resort that has all the luxury of being removed from the mainland but has all the convenience of being close to the town. An excellent restaurant that over looks the opening of the panoramic harbour and a collection of rooms for either garden or harbour frontage.

The top quality hotels of Port Vila are not only on the offshore islands but on the mainland as well. Over looking the exotic Erakor Lagoon the Parkroyal offers spectacular lagoon and ocean views, with patios and balconies attached to each room to luxuriate in the topical setting. Tennis courts, golf course, swimming pool, spa, the Parkroyal shows the high standard of hotels that are available in Vila.

Vanuatu’s main city has managed to keep its Melanesian root but also cultivate a tourist infrastructure of international standing. The two major sporting highlights of Port Vila are diving and fishing. Nautilus diving has been established for some time with an outstanding reputation for both quality of gear and safety standards. There are a number of wrecks in the harbour and some wonderfully scenic dives with stunning coral reefs and caves, and slightly further away tremendous deep water drop offs with huge pelagic fish. Nautilus also organise the diving on the world famous President Coolidge in Santo.

About ten minutes out of Port Vila is another patch of paradise called Hideaway Island, near Mele beach, where turtles come to lay their eggs. An extensive reef that is a marine sanctuary surrounds this islands. Teeming with fish it is one of the few areas where the coral is still in great condition with both hard and soft corals in abundance. The resort offers a variety of accommodation and the new bungalows with their shell encrusted sinks and traditionally made thatching give a true feeling of getting away from it all. There is a glass bottom boat and a number of dive sites all within a few minuets from the beach. Kayaking, snorkelling, hand feeding the fish, once again there is something for everyone plus a Melanesian style restaurant and bar that specialises in local cuisine.

Game fishing in Vanuatu is in a class of it own, Ocean Blue charter run a series of both sport and game boat from outside the Waterfront restaurant. Remi, the owner, has a huge amount of knowledge of the area and within twenty minutes of the harbour you can be amongst some of the best marlin fishing grounds in the world. The quality of the boats match the top quality of the fishing. If travelling alone and you wish to try your hand at game fishing then consider joining an establish charter which will keep the costs down and give you someone to share your fish stories with over a beer at the end of the day. Jim Whites brochure says ‘you don’t have to be a blue water sailor’, in fact you don’t have to be a sailor at all to participate in one of the his cruise. You can be involved as much as you want or simply lay on the deck and enjoy the ride. Response Yacht charters will tailor a cruise to what budget or time frame you want. From a ten-day voyage as far as Santo and Epi to a six-day trip to Malekula.

Considering accommodation, transfers and airfares costs, chartering is a cheaper alternative; in addition, you get to see so much on the way. Jim White, the owner operator of Response, has huge experience in the area and is keen to discuss in depth exactly what you want. His 42 foot cruising yacht can sleep 8 and contains a bathroom, toilet, shower, kitchen and all food is provided, duty free tends to take care of the beverages. Possibly the greatest value about Response cruises is Jim experience in the area and his ability to direct you to the diverse culture. For example in April and May he runs a charter to Pentecost Island to watch the land diving or N’gol.

N’gol happen each year on Pentecost where young men and boys plunge over 20 meters to the ground with nothing to break their fall but the slender vines attached to their ankles. Every year on the island of Pentecost the ritual ‘N ‘gol’ or ‘Land Dive’ takes place. At first a tree is stripped of its branches and a tower of sticks is built around it. The tower will be between 20 and 30 meters high and takes about 5 weeks to build. Platforms of woven leaves and branches are built into the platform. The liana vines, very elastic following the Wet seasons, are shredded at one end and tied to the tower at the other. Men and boys some as young as seven years, climb the tower and leap from the platforms with the vines attached to their ankles in a show of strength. It is also a fertility rite, for as the vines stretch as the diver get close to the ground, the land diver’s heads curl under and their shoulders touch the ground, making it fertile for the following year’s yam crop.

Each diver must select his own vine. Its size is of utmost importance and if it is only 10 cm too long, the diver could hit the ground and possibly break his neck on the ground. The jump is made to ensure a great yam harvest the following year. Young boys learn diving by playing and practicing their jumps from rocks over the ocean, or from small towers. They are only be allowed to take part in the N’gol after circumcision, at the age of seven or eight. However, the story of the N’gol does not portray the extraordinary feeling of power during this event. No picture can capture the feel of dozens of villagers dancing and stomping the earth during the entire ceremony. No words can express the awe of sitting beneath the tower watching these men and boys leap to a possible death.

Another of Jim’s prime destinations is the island of Espiritu Santo. This island has gained world recognition as being the home resting-place of the biggest wreck in the world. The wreck of the President Coolidge is legendary due to its size and well-known giant Groper Boris. This 22,000 tonne luxury liner was converted into a troop carrier with over 5000 men on board when it was struck by a mine and the captain rammed it into the reef. Amazingly only two men died, and the resulting magnificent wreck is a divers paradise. The interior of the dive is a night world of fish and war memorabilia, a truly stunning experience.

To finish off this dive is the dramatic way it began, Boris awaits you at the decompression stop. Over 450kgs this monster of the deep cruises within feet of you allowing you to run your fingers along his back. His mouth is full of tiny yellow fish that swim in and out of his gills picking up the scraps he leaves behind.

Santo is more than just wreckage: there are also some wonderful secluded beaches and hotels that offer a four star service and accommodation. Santo is also celebrated for its natural fresh water, the Blue Hole is a beautiful crystal source of natural water and was used by the GI’s for recreation during the Second World War. It was in Santo that James A. Michener wrote “Tales of the South Pacific” and if you look off into the distance you can see an island on the horizon, which Michener called Bali Hai, but is in fact the magical volcanic island Ambae.

Sailing in the other direction out of Efate is the small island of Tanna, without a doubt the most dramatic place I have ever been. You sail in to Port Resolution Bay, named by Captain Cook and the nature beauty of the area is overwhelming. Then by car, truck, mountain bike or taxi you travel, past the steep foothills, to the volcano called Yasur. While Tanna also boasts its own live active volcano, Yasur volcano is a once in a life time experience.

If you thought Ruapheu eruption was something, it pales into insignificance with Yasur. You literally stand at the edge on a three vent volcano and watch the molten lava spew forth in great plumes of light. As the night starts to descend the lava fireworks display becomes more and more spectacular. But not only is there the visual grandeur but also the deafening sound of the roar and the trembling earth. It is an experience that you will only ever experience once in a lifetime and one that you will never forget.
Back on Response in Port Resolution the sound of slapping water woke us. It was the local children calling the dugong. A dugong is a cross between a whale and a walrus: usually they live in pairs but the Tanna resident lives alone as its mate died some five or six years ago. When the children slap on the water with their hands cupped, this 400kg monster will arrive. It’s not overly friendly and will bunt you about in the shallows, it is worth noting the nervousness of the locals and how they do not venture out into the deeper water, this should be a warning.

There is nothing here for the Dugong to eat as they live on sea lettuce, he is not friendly, in fact he is quite aggressive and he lives alone, the only reason he comes when he is called, like all bachelors, is perhaps to mate!
Being dumb tourists we didn’t heed the warning of the locals and paid the price of the overly amorous dugong by being dragged through the water at high speed, pricked, battered and bruised. An absolute marvelous creature to see and touch but one that needs to be approached with the utmost of respect and caution.

Tanna is quite undeveloped and highlights another positive aspect of cruising the area in a yacht, in that you can take your own everything, from power to dive compressor. Plus Jim’s in-depth knowledge of the area allows you to get a real insight into the culture and much of what the ‘flown in’ tourist would miss. The island and surrounding waters of Vanuatu as a destination has something for everybody and because of that it is an ideal tourist destination. From the drama and power of an active volcano to the wonder sailing conditions, from diving some of the worlds best wrecks to mooring in remote bays and falling asleep to the sounds of local women singing songs a thousand years old.

This brief look at some of what Vanuatu has to offer is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of top quality charter operators in Vanuatu who, like Jim from Response, can take you to places you could barely dream about. 

Cruising Vanuatu


Three hours flight out of Auckland is one of the South Pacific’s most diverse collections of islands. This group of 83 picture postcard islands was first discovered by the Spanish explorer De Quiros in 1606 since which time it has proved a magnet for thousands of people who want to get away from it all. Prior to its independence in 1980, Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides and was jointly governed by both the English and the French. Today both languages are spoken but the common local language is called Bislama, which is a delightful combination of Spanish, French and English. There are still more than 100 local dialects spoken which gives an indication to the diversity that Vanuatu culture has to offer. Vanuatu does not have the cruising profile that some other South Pacific islands have but the diversity and the newness of the area as a tourist destination lends itself perfectly for skippered charters. A real chance to enjoy some wonderful sailing and to find some places so new and raw they seems just a small step our of the Stone Age. The main harbour is situated in Port Vila, which is little bigger than a New Zealand provincial town. Most Pacific destinations offer one or two options, fishing and diving, hotels and shopping, but Vanuatu offers something for everyone. If you don’t want to dive, you can shop, if you would rather game fish than eat at a quaint little French restaurant then you can. Port Vila is a wonder take off point to cruise these magical islands. There is a number of charter boat option out of Port Vila form sunset cruises to serious jaunts up to the Solomon’s or down to New Caledonia. It was here that we met Jim and his local crew from the 42-foot yacht Response. Jim’s natural enthusiasm for the area and the local people is obvious and he encouraged us to explore Port Vila before setting sail to more remote shores. Nestled around a natural harbour most of the restaurants and hotels face the water. The most obvious is Iririki Resort, on an luxurious island a few minutes ferry ride across the harbour. A delightful island resort that has all the luxury of being removed from the mainland but has all the convenience of being close to the town. An excellent restaurant that over looks the opening of the panoramic harbour and a collection of rooms for either garden or harbour frontage. The top quality hotels of Port Vila are not only on the offshore islands but on the mainland as well. Over looking the exotic Erakor Lagoon the Parkroyal offers spectacular lagoon and ocean views, with patios and balconies attached to each room to luxuriate in the topical setting. Tennis courts, golf course, swimming pool, spa, the Parkroyal shows the high standard of hotels that are available in Vila. Vanuatu’s main city has managed to keep its Melanesian root but also cultivate a tourist infrastructure of international standing. The two major sporting highlights of Port Vila are diving and fishing. Nautilus diving has been established for some time with an outstanding reputation for both quality of gear and safety standards. There are a number of wrecks in the harbour and some wonderfully scenic dives with stunning coral reefs and caves, and slightly further away tremendous deep water drop offs with huge pelagic fish. Nautilus also organise the diving on the world famous President Coolidge in Santo. About ten minutes out of Port Vila is another patch of paradise called Hideaway Island, near Mele beach, where turtles come to lay their eggs. An extensive reef that is a marine sanctuary surrounds this islands. Teeming with fish it is one of the few areas where the coral is still in great condition with both hard and soft corals in abundance. The resort offers a variety of accommodation and the new bungalows with their shell encrusted sinks and traditionally made thatching give a true feeling of getting away from it all. There is a glass bottom boat and a number of dive sites all within a few minuets from the beach. Kayaking, snorkelling, hand feeding the fish, once again there is something for everyone plus a Melanesian style restaurant and bar that specialises in local cuisine. Game fishing in Vanuatu is in a class of its own. Ocean Blue charter run a series of both sport and game boat from outside the Waterfront restaurant. Remi, the owner, has a huge amount of knowledge of the area and within twenty minutes of the harbour you can be amongst some of the best marlin fishing grounds in the world. The quality of the boats match the top quality of the fishing. If travelling alone and you wish to try your hand at game fishing then consider joining an established charter which will keep the costs down and give you someone to share your fish stories with over a beer at the end of the day. Jim Whites brochure says ‘you don’t have to be a blue water sailor’, in fact you don’t have to be a sailor at all to participate in one of the his cruise. You can be involved as much as you want or simply lay on the deck and enjoy the ride. Response Yacht charters will tailor a cruise to what budget or time frame you want. From a ten-day voyage as far as Santo and Epi to a six-day trip to Malekula. Considering, accommodation, transfers and airfares costs, chartering can be an alternative to exploring by air; in addition, you get to see so much on the way. Jim White the owner operator of Response has huge experience in the area and is keen to discuss in depth exactly what you want. His 42 foot cruising yacht can sleep 8 and contains a bathroom, toilet, shower, kitchen and all food is provided, duty free tends to take care of the beverages. Possibly the greatest value about Response cruises is Jim experience in the area and his ability to direct you to the diverse culture. For example in April and May he runs a charter to Pentecost Island to watch the land diving or N’gol. N’gol happen each year on Pentecost where young men and boys plunge over 20 meters to the ground with nothing to break their fall but the slender vines attached to their ankles. Every year on the island of Pentecost the ritual ‘N ‘gol’ or ‘Land Dive’. At first a tree is stripped of its branches and a tower of sticks is built around it. The tower will be between 20 and 30 meters high and takes about 5 weeks to build. Platforms of woven leaves and branches are built into the platform. The liana vines, very elastic following the Wet seasons, are shredded at one end and tied to the tower at the other. Men and boys some as young as seven years, climb the tower and leap from the platforms with the vines attached to their ankles in a show of strength. It is also a fertility rite, for as the vines stretch as the diver get close to the ground, the land diver’s heads curl under and their shoulders touch the ground, making it fertile for the following year’s yam crop. Each diver must select his own vine. Its size is of utmost importance and if it is only 10 cm too long, the diver could hit the ground and possibly break his neck on the ground. The jump is made to ensure a great yam harvest the following year. Young boys learn diving by playing and practicing their jumps from rocks over the ocean, or from small towers. They are only be allowed to take part in the N’gol after circumcision, at the age of seven or eight. However, the story of the N’gol does not portray the extraordinary feeling of power during this event. No picture can capture the feel of dozens of villagers dancing and stomping the earth during the entire ceremony. No words can express the awe of sitting beneath the tower watching these men and boys leap to a possible death. Another of Jim’s prime destination is the island of Espiritu Santo. This island has gained world recognition as being the home resting-place of the biggest wreck in the world. The wreck of the President Coolidge is legendary due to its size and well-known giant Groper Boris. This 22,000 tonne luxury liner was converted into a troop carrier with over 5000 men on board when it was struck by a mine and the captain rammed it into the reef, amazingly only two men died. The resulting magnificent wreck is a divers paradise. The interior of the dive is a night world of fish and war memorabilia, a truly stunning experience. To finish off this dive in the dramatic way it began, Boris awaits you at the decompression stop. Over 450kgs this monster of the deep cruises within feet of you allowing you to run your fingers along his back. His mouth is full of tiny yellow fish that swim in and out of his gills picking up the scraps he leaves behind. Santo is more than just wreckage there are some wonderful secluded beaches and hotels that offer a four star service and accommodation. Santo is also celebrated for its natural fresh water: the Blue Hole is a beautiful crystal source of natural water and was used by the GI’s for recreation during the Second World War. It was in Santo that James A. Michener wrote “Tales of the South Pacific” and if you look off into the distance you can see an island on the horizon, which Michener called Bali Hai, but is in fact the magical volcanic island Ambae. Sailing in the other direction out of Efate is the small island of Tanna, without a doubt the most dramatic place I have ever been. You sail in to Port Resolution Bay, named by Captain Cook and the nature beauty of the area is overwhelming. Then by car, truck, mountain bike or taxi you travel, past the steep foothills, to the volcano called Yasur. If you thought Ruapheu eruption was something, it pales into insignificance with Yasur. You literally stand at the edge on a three vent volcano and watch the molten lava spew forth in great plumes of light. As the night starts to descend the lava fireworks display becomes more and more spectacular. But not only is there the visual grandeur but also the deafening sound of the roar and the trembling earth. It is an experience that you will only ever experience once in a lifetime and one that you will never forget. Back on Response in Port Resolution the sound of slapping water woke us. It was the local children calling the dugong. A dugong is a cross between a whale and a walrus, usually they live in pairs but the Tanna resident lives alone as its mate died some five or six years ago. When the children slap on the water with their hands cupped, this 400kg monster will arrive. It’s not overly friendly and will bunt you about in the shallows, it is worth noting the nervousness of the locals and how they do not venture out into the deeper water, this should be a warning. There is nothing here for the Dugong to eat as they live on sea lettuce, he is not friendly, in fact he is quite aggressive and he lives alone, the only reason he comes when he is called, like all bachelors, is perhaps to mate! Being dumb tourists we didn’t heed the warning of the locals and paid the price of the overly amorous dugong by being dragged through the water at high speed, pricked, battered and bruised. An absolute marvelous creature to see and touch but one that needs to be approached with the utmost of respect and caution. Tanna is quite undeveloped and highlights another positive aspect of cruising the area in a yacht, in that you can take your own everything, from power to dive compressor. Plus Jim’s in-depth knowledge of the area allows you to get a real insight into the culture and much of what the ‘flown in’ tourist would miss. The island and surrounding waters of Vanuatu as a destination has something for everybody and because of that it is an ideal tourist destination. From the drama and power of an active volcano to the wonder sailing conditions, from diving some of the worlds best wrecks to mooring in remote bays and falling asleep to the sounds of local women singing songs a thousand years old. This brief look at some of what Vanuatu has to offer is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a number of top quality charter operators in Vanuatu who, like Jim from Response, can take you to places you could barely dream about. FACT BOX LANGUAGE English, French and Bislama (pidgin) VISAS: Visas are not required for New Zealand and most commonwealth citizens and the USA. CURRENCY: The Vatu is the local currency but New Zealand and Australian dollars are accepted as legal tender, major credit cards are widely accepted. CLIMATE: Summer is from November to march average 28 deg C Winter from April to October average 23 deg C WATER TEMP: Varies from 20 deg C to 27 deg C DRESS: In town and on local beaches light and casual but not too brief, especially in hotel areas. ELECTRICITY: 220-240 volts 50Hz. TIPPING: Is not a Melanesian custom MEDICAL: Malaria precautions may be needed when visiting outer islands, check with the Department of health.

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