Day-Tripping Efate's Ring Road
The island of Efate is home to Vanuatu's capital, Port Vila, and is one of the most well-developed islands in the country. Many tourists visiting the country spend time in Port Vila and the surrounds, but not everyone may know that the island has an incredibly easy to navigate highway: the Ring Road. As it's name suggests, the Ring Road circles around the entire island. So: you start and end in Port Vila. Easy peasy. The road is only 122 km (75 miles) and is the perfect place to spend a day (or three!) getting familiar with the natural beauty of Vanuatu.
When we visited this past July, Emmett and I were lucky enough to take multiple excursions out on the ring road over the course of a few days. Here is a map of Efate and the Ring Road highlighting some of the places we stopped that you'll find in the post below.
There are quite a few ways to make your way around the Ring Road: private "bus", shared bus, taxi, or rental car. I'm sure you could probably get away with cycling some of it but there are quite a few dangerous and/or steep spots that I would not want to navigate by bike. Over the course of our two-week visit to Vanuatu, Emmett and I got a chance to travel the ring road multiple times. Most of our travels occurred in local pleather-lined mini buses that bumped expertly over the road's surprise potholes and washouts. We did splurge once on a rental car in order to take our time traveling around, stopping whenever we felt like it.
IF YOU GO: The best way to save money on transportation to a specific location around the island is to try and always get a shared bus. There is no indication or sign showing that a bus is shared - all passenger buses have the letter P on the license plate - except for the obvious presence of other people sitting in the bus. When we first arrived, we did not know the difference and had to learn the hard way that the private buses were nearly five times the cost (5000 vatu vs. 1100 vatu). Wait for a bus with others on it, or have a private bus take you 5 minutes outside of town to the Manples Au Bon Marche supermarket where all the shared buses pick up locals.
The only time a private bus might be worth it is when you might take a driver up on an offer to be your tour guide for the day. They will drive you around the Ring Road, waiting for you at each stop.
Taking It All In
By far the best parts of cruising along the Ring Road are the views!! We passed small villages, coconut palm plantations, white sand beaches, roadside fruit stands, wild hogs, forest, and more. Here are some of my favorite pictures I snapped while riding along the road.
Stop 1: Blue Lagoon
"Blue Lagoon" is a not-so-original name for many locations around the globe. I've been to the very famous Blue Lagoon in Iceland and I've seen the movie but none of those are indicative of what you'll find on a visit to Efate's Blue Lagoon. What you will find: bright can't-believe-your-eyes blue pools with plenty of space for relaxing, swimming, or rope swinging. When we visited, this place was a happy mix of tourists chilling out and locals coming by for a cool-down. We were lucky enough to go on a day when the cruise shippers weren't around and didn't feel remotely crowded.
IF YOU GO: Bring a swimsuit. towel, and sunscreen. Admission is 500 vatu per person.
Stop 2: Rural WWII Museum & Corsair Plane Wreck
In case you didn't know, American troops were stationed in Vanuatu - then known as the New Hebrides - during World War Two. The troops were set up mostly on Efate and Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu's largest island. In fact, my very own grandfather was stationed in Vanuatu during World War II with the US Marines. When the American troops left Vanuatu, they also left behind a lot of their old junk and equipment. Today you can view the rusty old relics in small WWII museums on both islands.
We weren't sure what to expect on the quiet grassy "road" towards the most rural WWII museum in Vanuatu. Along the road, we saw a few signs noting that the Marines had left some scrap metal and such behind. I began to worry that the museum would be a bit lackluster. I was not wrong. The woman who runs the place is very friendly. She let us into the museum... which was just one room filled with a few rusty guns, some other junk, and a lot of articles about a plane wreck that had happened during a training exercise out in the water just north of the museum's location.
In fact, the museum also offers "snorkel tours" for you to go check out the plane wreck for yourself. So we paid extra and did exactly that.
When we exited the museum, our proprietress directed us to her husband who took us to his boat which was idling in a nearby mangrove inlet. The three of us motored out into an estuary where I thought we might see a dugong at any moment. (It looked exactly like manatee habitat back home in Southwest Florida).
Then, before we knew it, we'd left the estuary and entered the shallows of the most beautiful tropical sea I've ever seen. And not another boat or person in sight. I could hardly believe it!
Our boat stopped and we clumsily splashed into the somewhat shallow water. Our guide indicated the general direction of the wreck, which we could just barely make out from above. The tide was coming in at that point, which slightly limited our visibility and made us swim harder against it. This was the first time either of us had ever snorkeled above a wreck of any kind, so we were pretty excited. We circled it a few times, enjoying all the little fish hanging around and the small coral garden on the plane's tail. Our guide boat had been idling above a big "rock" aka a living coral head (!!) that our guide was standing on. He reached out to help us back into the boat and I cringed when I realized that damaging the coral head was the only way to get back in. I tried my best to step on the coral only in one spot - and one spot that seemed to be dead already.
IF YOU GO: Admission to the museum plus the boat trip is 2500 vatu per person.
Bring your own snorkel gear. Unlike a tour or resort-based snorkel excursion, there are no masks, snorkels, or fins provided. Luckily, we had our masks and snorkels in the car with us that day.
Stop 3: Excursions from Emua Wharf
Emua Wharf is an unassuming concrete dock lined with small yellow boats that will take visitors to the neighboring islands of Pele or Nguna or out for a snorkel in the Nguna-Pele Marine Protected Area. (Again: bring your own snorkel gear). We spent two days on Pele Island which was by far one of the best parts of our whole trip. I highly recommend at least going to Pele or Nguna for a visit. They are gorgeous, sparsely-populated getaways.
IF YOU GO: Private charters are 2000 vatu (Pele) or 3000 vatu (Nguna). These can be picked up at any time of day from the wharf. Locals take a shared boat onto the island in the evening and back off at 5 AM the next day (500 vatu).
If you plan to snorkel, again: be sure to bring your own gear.
Stop 4: Port Havannah WWII Museum
As we approached the Western side of the island, we stopped at another WWII Museum on the roadside. It was also quite small, but had a few more interesting "artifacts" to look at. The museum was run by a smiley young guy, Mark, who was incredibly enthusiastic about his history - especially when he found out that we were Americans. Mark showed us the collection of vintage Coca Cola bottles that he and his grandfather (the museum's founder) had discovered out in the harbor. He got really excited that we could recognize the names of the places embossed on the bottoms of the old bottles. Mark was even more delighted to show us his most recent find: a bottle manufactured in Albuquerque.
Stop 5: Havannah Harbor
Havannah Harbor has idyllic coral rubble beaches where clear blue water laps gently on the shore. What could be better? We spent a few sunset hours looking at seashells and watching banana boats speed by on the horizon. I'd love to go back and have a picnic here some day.
Stop 6: Mele Cascades
In the village of Mele, just 10 km north of Port Vila, there is a park with a walking trail that takes you alongside cascade after cascade of fresh water until you reach the tall 35 meter (115 ft) fall at the end. You can swim in all of the pools along the way. Mele Cascades could not be better suited for a hot Vanuatuan afternoon if it was designed by man. This all-natural cascading river is the perfect spot to cool off and have a lush, non-beach experience.
IF YOU GO: Admission is 2000 vatu per person for adults / 1000 vatu for children under 12.
- Wear your swimsuit! Take a dip in one of the pools or eddies
- Walk slowly and carefully. The last portion of the trail to the top is made up of handrails leading you through the gushing water on slippery rock surfaces.
All in all, if you ever find yourself with more than a day on Efate, you should definitely take a bus or rent a car to get out and see some of the beautiful sights that the island has to offer. Even if you only make it to one or two of the places I've mentioned above, I know that you'll have some unforgettable memories.
Lastly, on a less positive note, I feel that it's important to mention to potential visitors that many local guides and drivers might suggest that you visit Crystal Blue Lagoon where you can "play with sea turtles." We chose not to go, because after some research, online reviews alerted us to the fact that this establishment is not ethical. It claims to be a sanctuary but does not at all sound like a rescue/rehabiltiation environment. The turtles are not wild. From what I read, it seems that the turtles are kept in enclosures and allowed to be handled by any and all guests. Please do not visit or support this establishment. Tell your guide or driver "no thanks" when it gets suggested. Endangered species should not be kept in small enclosures where they are touched and grabbed all day long.