Sunday, October 9th, 2011: Port Vila, Vanuatu
The island nation of Vanuatu got its independence in 1980, making it one of the newest countries on the planet. It was our privledge to have a port day in Port Vila, the largest city and the capital of this country. As we disembarked our cruise ship, though, we came to realize that this new country is still very young and though it is in possession of a number of beautiful sights and natural resources, the plucky island still has some growing up to do.
We arrived into the beautiful harbor of Port Vila just after 8am on a Sunday morning, so, with the exception of the over one hundred vendors and taxi drivers lined up just outside of the port gates to battle it out for cruise ship passenger dollars, we found a quiet and tranquil harbor and city, still waking up to the new day. As we began our walk into town, gently declining offer after offer of “cheap tours” and “need a taxi?”, we found a quiet gentleman, waiting patiently in his minivan taxi, we negotiated a half day ride of a few choice tourist spots, and we quickly made our way through the city and off to our first stop — Mele Cascades.
Along the way, we had a unique adventure of our own as we travelled from place to place. Moses was a good and effective driver, but getting around is no easy feat in Vanuatu. Apparently, as a newly independent nation, there is still much work to do to fund projects such as road striping, speed limit signs, road signs, street signs, and the like. There is no speed limit in Vanuatu, no street names on any road, and it is impossible for the lay person to discern where in the world they are without a personal GPS device, so thaknfully for us, we had Moses and lucky for us we didn’t hire a rental car for the day. Otherwise we would have spent a lot of very expensive gas getting lost.
Mele Cascades is an amazing “water park” where all of the water features are natural. No water slides, no fountains, but somewhere in the vicinity of 30 separate waterfalls that flowing along a path nearly a kilometer long. As you work your way into the park, you have the opportunity to see most of the falls, and the water cascades (hence the name!) from the very top of the falls to its eventual end at the ocean. Along the walk into the park, you encounter lush green grass and nicely manicured pathways and the water tumbles and winds its way through gardens, trees, flowers, and more. Visitors are invited to go all the way to the top of the falls, where if you are just slightly adventurous (and willing to get a little wet), you can actually “climb” to the top of the waterfalls and swim and soak in the plunge pools at the top.
As visions of Tarzan and swinging through the trees comes to mind, its only fair for us to tell you that its not all that crazy, but at the same time, using rope guides to climb up slippery rocks and reach the summit of a triple set of waterfalls does have a certain “Wow” factor to the whole process. Once we reached the top of the final climb, we were rewarded with a triple set of plunging falls that all provided a cool and refreshing plunge pool for with to swim, relax, and get a free back massage as the pounding water from above hits your sore spots (its actually quite nice!)
Because we got straight off the ship and headed stright to the falls, we were able to beat a lot of the tour buses and the locals that are vacationing in Vanuatu (it is a Sunday morning after all), so we enjoyed the falls to ourselves for almost 15 minutes and during the rest of the time, there weren’t more than another half a dozen people in the area, so it was quite enjoyable. As we finally decided to begin the climb down, we knew that we were right on schedule as we saw the line of cruise ship passengers approaching the final stretch of the path to reach the falls and the plunge pool. As we toweled off and began to make our way down, we said goodbye to the newly arrived 100+ people and headed off to our next destination.
Moses, our superguide cab driver, took us to a local village, also called Mele. Here, we saw the locals begin their day and as it was a Sunday, this meant brightly colored sarongs, and families with bibles as they began their walks to their local village churches to celebrate mass with their families, friends, and fellow villagers. Moses explained that the island nation is very religious, though there are a number of different practicing religions currently available, and as such, everyone has a choice of what they would like to worship.
From the village, we headed for a short photo stop to see Hideaway Island, a vacation spot for tourists, where you can spend a night or several on an island off shore on your own private island. Its more novelty than seclusion, as you can throw a rock from the mainland and hit the island’s beach, but still neat to see. One of the other neat tourist attractions they offer is one of the world’s only underwater post offices, where you take a waterproof plastic postcard, written in waterproof ink, and dive below the surface of the water to an underwater mailbox. The “mail” is picked up three times a week and then sent wherever your postcard was destined. Unfortunately, the mailbox has lost its anchor to the seafloor and was under going repair while we were there.
From here, Moses brought us to the city center of Port Vila, where we got about an hour to walk around and see the local craft markets and the waterfront. The main market of the city is actually closed on Sunday, but a number of crafts merchants set up shop for the incoming rush of cruiseship passengers, so there was a smaller and more subdued alternative provided. While we walked along the waterfront, we also got to see a number of families out and enjoying the sun and playing games in the sports courts near the marketplace.
Of course, no trip to Vanuatu would be complete for folks from Australia and New Zealand without a stop at the duty-free shops. Apparently, alcohol is less than half the cost here from the normal prices at home, so long lines began to build up for passengers looking to bring home their allotment of customs declared goods. We watched the fun and a few minutes later, Moses drove us back to the ship. After a nice half day in Vanuatu, we headed back to the ship for a late lunch and a nap, as we will need to save our energy for the upcoming four straight port days to come in Fiji.