Vanuatu Ring Road Trip – Drive the brilliant Efate Island in a day – 2020 guide

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Highlights

  • Fresh local seafood at stunning beachfront restaurants
  • Swimming in crystal clear turquoise water at the Blue Lagoon
  • Float in pools under the cascades in a tropical paradise

The Vanuatu ring road on Efate Island is a 130km loop around the island and can easily be done in a day with stops at the best places.

If you’re less keen on driving or prefer to linger for longer at the lagoons and restaurants, then you can do the eastern side one day and the western side the next.

If you drive the entire Vanuatu ring road at a leisurely pace, enjoying the views of coastline and tropical forest, stopping for photos here and there, you’ll do no more than 2 to 3 hours of driving depending on your pace.

This leaves plenty of time to visit the swimming holes, beachside restaurants, and tropical waterfalls.

Vanuatu is a chain of volcanic islands in the South Pacific west of Fiji, a thousand miles from Australia. Having been claimed by Spanish, French and British over the years, it regained independence in 1980.

The Vanuatu ring road was only built (as a sealed road) as recently as 2009. Before that it was a rough track made mostly of the underlying coral.

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Beautiful swimming at the Blue Lagoon

Prepare for your Vanuatu ring road trip

  • Visit a local market for snacks and drinks
  • Get waterproof footwear if you don’t have any
  • Take towels, swimwear, suncream, and a snorkel if you have one

Driving in Vanuatu

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Vanuatu roads are virtually empty

The Vanuatu ring road is sealed and good quality tarmac all the way around, but expect sections undergoing repair after storm damage especially if there have been any recent cyclones. Anywhere you turn off the main road, other than in Port Vila, it will be a gravel road.

Some are quite flat, many are rough, steep, and full of pot holes.

They’re all drivable, but bear this in mind when booking a hire car. Go for a cheap car or a 4×4. There’s no sense risking damage to a premium hire car. Drive sensibly on the rough stuff, and your biggest risk is from wildlife in the road.

Driving the Vanuatu ring road is a joy. Port Vila itself is quite busy but not in an intimidating way and you won’t be stuck in queues of traffic.

With google maps navigation on your phone it’s quite easy. Signs are clear, roads are in good condition, traffic is relatively sensible, there’s really nothing off-putting at all.

A few minutes following the sat-nav will have you on the ring road heading along the coast and with hardly a car in sight. All the way around the island for a whole day you will see a handful of cars on the road until you get back into the built-up area of Port Vila.

Here’s a little video showing what you can expect for road and traffic conditions on a trip around the Vanuatu ring road:

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It's rare to encounter another vehicle on the roads away from Port Vila

Vanuatu car hire

It’s easy and cheap to hire a car in Vanuatu but you should carefully check insurance and specifically any insurance exclusions. Many of the car rental firms will not cover you for damage incurred on unsealed roads.

The Vanuatu ring road is sealed but you will need to drive on unsealed roads to get to most of the attractions on Efate.

I recommend using Hertz for car hire in Vanuatu. There is also Budget and Europcar, and a number of local operators.

Here’s our review and full details for Hertz Vanuatu car rental.

Hertz will deliver a car to you at the Holiday Inn Vanuatu (read our review), and you can arrange hire there too. For a random date with no discount codes, with pick-up and return at Bauerfield airport, a day’s rental came out at around £60 for a compact and £90 for an SUV.

Shop around, use discount codes from Amex or Virgin or the BA Executive Club, and you’ll easily do better than that. Compared to the price of a guided tour it’s a very economical option if you’re OK with doing your own driving and navigating.

Fuel is not too expensive at around 170VUV per litre of unleaded and you won’t use much at all with only 130km for a complete lap of the Vanuatu ring road. The only petrol stations are in Port Vila, and most take major credit cards.

Navigating is easy because there is one road all the way around the island with a few turnoffs to the attractions, usually signposted.

vanuatu hertz hire car at holiday inn
Hertz is the best choice for car hire on Vanuatu - here at the Holiday Inn

The Vanuatu ring road trip route

  • Start in Port Vila
  • Head east along the coast – the best route is anti-clockwise
  • Use the rope swings and swim at Eden on the River
  • Swim and admire the tropical setting at the Blue Lagoon
  • Relax on Eton Beach
  • Take lunch at Orovy Beach Restaurant
  • Explore Port Havannah
  • Chill out at Mele Cascades

Highlights of a Vanuatu ring road trip

Eden on the River

Eden on the River is close to the Rarru Cascades (see lower down) and has a similar feel. It’s nowhere near as inviting as the Blue Lagoon, but it’s better than Rarru Cascades because it has a load of suspension bridge walkways and a zip line which offer a little more adventurous way to explore.

Kids would love it, and there are more of the rope swings into the water if that’s your thing.

The Blue Lagoon is more worthy of being labelled “Eden”, but if you like the water this place is worth a visit. Just like the Blue Lagoon it can get busy. There are two entrances. On one side of the river there’s a fee, but on the other side it’s free and you get into the same place.

Blue Lagoon

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Sensational Blue Lagoon - all to yourself for the first half hour if you go early

Stunning crystal clear turquoise water, warm when the sun goes in, cool when the sun is blazing, and quiet.

Get there early before the buses arrive. It’s an advantage to have your own hire car, or negotiate a price with a taxi – agree the price up front and include being brought back – to beat the first tour bus arrivals.

The entry fee is 900VUV, about £6 or $8.

There are steps down to the water but also rope swings, platforms, benches. toilets (just), a cafe for cold drinks and crisps, maybe some fruit but not much more.

There is no current because it’s separated from the ocean, but it is deep – you can’t touch the bottom.

You can easily drive there with a hire car. There are guided tours with different itineraries for between £40 and £100 per person. These tours mean you get a local guide and don’t have to hire a car, but you will arrive at the lagoon along with a bus full of people.

Set off from Port Vila  in your hire car 30 minutes before the opening time (9am but check before you leave) and you’ll have the place to yourself.

When there is a cruise ship in port it can be really busy. Cruise ships arrive in Port Vila and the passengers all immediately join a bus tour to the Blue Lagoon.

If you’re arriving on a cruise, get some of your own space by hiring a car or booking a private driver and spend the morning visiting the other sights, stopping at the lagoon mid afternoon and visit Port Vila either first thing or near sunset.

Just past the signposted main entrance where the minibuses stop is another side road which looks like nothing but is where the locals enter. It’s cheaper, there are no facilities, but you have access to the exact same lagoon.

Another tip is timing. In high season there will be lots of minibuses. On weekdays there may be parties of school children, but it’s generally quieter than at weekends when there are more of the grown-up locals.

Get a hire car, be there for opening, and you’ll get a good 20 minutes with hardly anyone there.

Otherwise, come near the end of the day when all the tour buses have gone home. I was there in shoulder season and for two hours there were a handful of small groups of tourists and a few locals.

PS Don’t confuse it with the Crystal Blue Lagoon, which claims to be a turtle “sanctuary” but which is really one of those horribly outdated places where foolish tourists who should have more responsibility can “interact” with animals that have no choice in the matter.

I’m sure the turtles there would rather not be in a confined space being pestered by tourists.

Trust me – swimming in the idyllic Blue Lagoon is way better than looking at some turtles in a cages.

Eton Beach

Just along the Vanuatu ring road from the Blue Lagoon is one of several stretches of white sandy beaches with turquoise water to swim in. It’s a public beach, but that just means it’s not private land owned by a hotel and you will still find a local there charging a few dollars for entry.

There are a number of beachfront huts where you can get shade and seat, but you’ll need your own supplies. You may get lucky and find some fresh fruit or coconut being sold but that’s all.

Port Havannah

A nice stretch of relaxing sandy beach and calm water, and worth breaking your journey here. Port Havannah was part of the US Navy’s operations in the Pacific during the second world war. 14 seaplanes were based here and flew bombing missions against the Japanese at Guadalcanal.

There was even an airstrip here for fighters planes. You may see some old webpages and blogs mentioning a second world war museum at Port Havannah but as far as I could tell there is nothing there anymore.

Mele Cascades / Evergreen Cascades

Don’t expect dramatic waterfalls but this place is very pretty, with water cascading over several layers of rock a metre or two high and numerous pools to soak in. There’s a basic cafe and the usual poor bathroom facilities.

The biggest fall is impressive if there’s been rain, but the water level of the whole place can be quite low during a spell of dry weather.

On a sunny day when the flowers are blooming it is beautiful and very natural. It’s not like one of those overly manicured hotel gardens, nor is it overdeveloped with concrete facilities.

There are some steps and rope handrails to hold on to but otherwise it looks and feels like a genuine piece of tropical island nature.

Hold onto those handrails because the wet and mossy rocks underfoot are very slippery. As with most places in the Pacific you would be well-advised to wear waterproof footwear, ideally not loose flip-fops. Most grocery shops and markets on Efate sell very cheap watershoes which are perfect.

Along with the Blue lagoon the Mele Cascades is a “must do” when visiting Efate. There’s more to explore here and you’ll probably stay longer than you do at the lagoon. My advice is to hit the lagoon as soon as it opens, stay until it starts getting busy, then head to the Mele Cascades.

Lowlight - Rarru Cascades

This “waterfall” really isn’t a waterfall. It’s a swimming hole with some rope swings, but it’s not very appealing. Maybe it would be more attractive in the height of summer but on the relatively cool and overcast day when I was there it looked more like a Scottish river than a south pacific lagoon.

There is a lot of shade form the trees, which might be ideal on a sunny day, but it means there’s a lot of moss and algae, not clear turquoise water.

I turned around and left immediately. Some reviewers say “magical”. I say “slimy”.

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There's no traffic but you still need to keep your eyes on the road

Restaurants on the Vanuatu ring road

In low season you may find that they are closed, but there are a few restaurants on the north and north-west side of the island where you can enjoy a bite to eat with spectacular views. Many are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Our pick is the Orovy Beach restaurant at the north of the island at Undine Bay. As with most places, once you turn off the main road it’s a very bumpy track with steep sections and potholes, so go slowly if you’re in a hire car.

You might assume you must have gone the wrong way, but look out for the reassuring signs that confirm there is indeed a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Another superb choice is The Point Restaurant at Port Havannah, with more beautiful beachside dining and great service. The food is all fresh local produce but the price is a little high.

Finally, Back to Eden restaurant on the West of the island not far from the Evergreen Cascades waterfalls is a little hidden gem where you can also go snorkelling amongst the clown fish.

Port Vila Markets

port vila vanuatu jetty
Port Vila harbour

At the end of a lap of the Vanuatu ring road you’ll be back in the capital, Port Vila, which is a great place for dinner.

Near the harbour, the market place is a bustling, vibrant place full of local produce and arts & crafts.

A lot of the stuff for sale is tourist tat like fridge magnets including mass-produced trinkets and “art” that came out of Chinese factories, but dig around and you can find some genuine local handicrafts and jewellery made form local stones.

Just wandering around the food stalls is a great experience and you will not recognise half of the bright array of local fruit and veg on offer.

If you take a container and buy some fresh fruit the stall holders will expertly slice it up for you with a flourish of knife work that makes you cringe while it’s happening and then stand there looking amazed to see a tub full of pineapple but no sliced fingertips.

You really should try the pineapple. Fresh pineapple that hasn’t been chilled and transported half way around the world is so much juicier, sweeter, and richer.

Port Vila Dining

You can’t beat the Blue Marlin Club for sunset harbour views and great service, but the prices match and it is very busy. The whole harbour front area near the markets is lined with cafes and restaurants and you can easily find something to suit your mood.

Avoid the overpriced and poor quality burgers and pizzas and try some fish curry and rice wrapped in a banana leaf from the hot food stalls in the market.

FAQ

What's the best way to get to the Blue Lagoon in Vanuatu?

If you take a hire car or a private taxi then you can get there before the tour buses and swim while it’s quiet. Otherwise you can join a tour on a mini-bus.

How much is a taxi to the Blue Lagoon in Vanuatu?

A private taxi will charge around $50 for a trip to the blue lagoon or around $100 for a day. You will have to negotiate a price including return. The driver will wait for you. Most drivers will be happy to drive for you for the day and visit several places.

Can you drive around Vanuatu?

Yes, driving in Vanuatu is easy because there is hardy any traffic and the main road is quite good. Side roads are unsealed and bumpy. A competent driver could drive in Vanuatu without difficulty. In Vanuatu you drive on the right. You should have an international driving permit, just in case.

How much is car rental in Vanuatu?

For a day expect to pay around £50 for a compact, up to £100 for an SUV, but prices all depend on season and availability.

How much is petrol in Vanuatu?

A litre of unleaded is around 170VUV (£1.12 / $1.46) and you won’t use much at all with only 130km for a complete lap of the Vanuatu ring road. The only petrol stations are in Port Vila, and most take major credit cards.

What are the best things to do in Vanuatu?

The top attractions on Efate Island are the Blue Lagoon, Mele Cascades, Port Vila markets and restaurants.

What are the road conditions in Vanuatu?

The main Vanuatu ring road (Efate Island) is sealed and in good condition with little traffic. Sections of the road may be damaged by storms. All the main attractions and restaurants are off the main road on unsealed and bumpy dirt roads.

Most of the traffic is in Port Vila but it is not difficult for a competent driver. They drive on the right.

Do you need a 4x4 to drive Vanuatu?

No, an ordinary car will be fine but you will need to proceed carefully along the unsealed roads. A 4×4 would make it easier to reach beach side restaurants etc down steep dirt tracks, but is not essential.

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