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Vanuatu’s fantastic cultural gems, and where to find them

With 83 islands stretching over 1,300 kilometres, where do you even begin?

Vanuatu, a name which means ‘Land Eternal’, is a South Pacific nation with a booming travel industry. Travellers near and far arrive all-year-round to experience white sandy beaches, cascading waterfalls, and active volcanoes.

And it’s not hard to see why everyone’s coming here. Just take a look at these breathtaking sights:

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Yes, that water colour is real! Welcome to the iconic Blue Holes of the island of Santo. Never heard of them? That’s ok, most people haven’t! Surrounded by towering forest which drips with verdant vegetation, the vibrancy of the colour is due to the purity of the water, which is filtered through limestone springs deep underground before welling up in these quiet forest pools – the purer the water, the more longwave (red) light is absorbed and the brighter the blue. But even with the vivid colour, some of these Blue Holes are like liquid crystal, so clear that things seem magnified, like swimming inside a giant magnifying glass – in one, big schools of tropical fish swim lazily in its azure depths. TAKEOVER// Joel Johnsson – @aesthetics.of.adventure

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But for every tourist looking to snap perfect Instagram photos at Vanuatu’s world-famous spots, there are also those who’d rather wander the off-beaten path. If you’re the latter, here’s how to uncover the country’s hidden cultural gems.

You can start your holiday off by checking in at Tamanu on the Beach.

Located on its own unspoiled white sand beach, the five-star boutique resort features a pool overlooking the ocean, luxurious villas each with its own private terrace (and others a private plunge pool), and a restaurant that serves the island’s best organic meals.

If you love wine (of course you do), the beachfront restaurant also offers the largest wine list in all of Vanuatu (!!!).

After a relaxing night’s rest, it’s time to wander around the island of Efate, the archipelago’s main island.

But hold on, aren’t we talking about off-beaten path destinations? So why is Efate on this list? Yes, we’re still talking about the road less travelled, and yes, Efate should most definitely be on this list.

While the island is filled with popular tourist destinations – such as the National Museum of Vanuatu and Hideaway Island – there are plenty of hidden treasures waiting to be discovered.

Take for example Tranquility Island Resort on Moso Island. Just a short boat ride from Efate, the place offers visitors to snorkel and see its diverse marine life, which includes hundreds of fish species, soft and hard corals, dolphins, and even dugongs.

You can also visit the hawksbill turtle rookery, which protects and nurtures baby turtles until they’re ready to be released back into the wild.

Ocean Blue Fishing Adventures in Port-Havannah, meanwhile, offers a different kind of aquatic life interaction. Hop on one of their boats and head out to sea. There you’ll try your hand (or fin?) at the best game fishing in the South Pacific. Can you imagine reeling in a Pacific blue marlin, a sailfish, a giant trevally, or a yellowfin tuna?

Back on land, you can take a break by shopping for local goods and tasting Vanuatu’s renowned artisanal chocolate.

“The chocolate is manufactured the artisanal way, without additives or preservatives and without the use of milk. It will be 70% pure cocoa with the only two ingredients being cocoa beans and sugar,” said Sandrine Wallez, who founded ‘Alternative Communities Trade in Vanuatu’ (ACTIV).

According to Sandrine, she was looking to stock more local produce in her Fair Trade store in Port Vila about a decade ago when she noticed the farmers and artisans didn’t know how to effectively take their products to market.

So she established ACTIV to help makers sell their hand-woven baskets, carvings, and handmade soaps and oils, carvings. More recently, ACTIV has put up an artisanal chocolate factory which makes the beloved brand Aelan.

“All the equipment, sourced from different countries around the world, is traditional, sometimes antique, equipment used in artisanal chocolate making,” said Sandrine.

Since putting up the factory, ACTIV has helped hundreds of cocoa bean growers earn more by creating a high-quality product ready for export to markets like Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand.

“The chocolate factory is great for Vanuatu because it provides a finished product entirely made here,” said farmer Joseph Merip. “For the growers, that means that we will be able to get a high price for our beans.”

In another part of the archipelago, farmers are making a livelihood – not with artisanal chocolate, but with another favourite: single-origin coffee.

For the last 20 years, Australian coffee farmer Terry Adlington has been working with farmers on Tanna Island to grow single-origin coffee.

Their product, called Tanna Coffee, is grown on a plantation situated in the shadows of Mount Yasur, some 400 metres above sea level.

The rich volcanic soils, combined with abundant rainfall and a pest-free environment, make for the perfect place to grow “the purest organic coffee in a sustainable, non-harmful manner.”

Once ready for harvest, the ripe cherries (the pit with all the good stuff) are processed through natural means only. That means processing on the same day, using natural fermentation methods, and sun drying.

“These integral steps ensures that only a truly natural product is produced without the use of any harmful sprays or chemical fertilisers,” the company said.

You don’t have to look far to find hidden cultural gems in Vanuatu. Take a quick stroll around the capital city of Port Vila and you can find treasures in traditional- and modern- art, such as hand-woven baskets, sand paintings, and graffiti.

One of the most distinct murals around is one made by renowned street artist RONE, who visited the country in 2015.

As it turns out, the Australian creative not only packed his luggage with swimwear, but also with his brushes.

Apart from taking in the sights and sounds of Vanuatu, he and fellow artist Callum Preston went around looking for a blank canvas to paint on. And in the island of Efate, they found one.

“We saw this village that had this big grey building and there were a couple of people who seemed approachable and that was it, we just went and asked,” he said.

With the permission granted by the MeleMaat community leaders, the two bought paint from a hardware store and got started. For an entire day, save for a three-hour swim break, the pair along with a bunch of residents, worked together to give the building a fresh look.

The result is a massive mural bathed in blue and pink, and adorned with the village’s name, Mele Maat, as well as images that represent the community, such as a lizard and a type of plant.

As for the woman in the portrait, she’s a girl named Joana, who the elders recommended would make for a great subject.

The 34-year-old street artist claimed that this has to be one of his most memorable works, seeing as how it has made the villagers so happy.

“I think what makes it such a great experience for me is people appreciate it so much more,” he said.

“I’d just been in Miami and every second wall in certain areas is painted. People walk past and they won’t even look at you… you’re just another entertainer for them.

“But here [in Vanuatu] we’re really doing something for the community.”

These are but only a few of the many things, places, and experiences that cater to travellers who like to take the road less travelled. But in a country with such an array of riveting experiences, the question shouldn’t be ‘where to begin?’ but rather, ‘when do we start?’

The answer is right now.

Inspired? Book your next holiday in Vanuatu. Lost At E Minor recommends staying at Tamanu on the Beach Resort and Spa, located on its own private white sand beach just 20 minutes from downtown Port Vila. Find out more at Vanuatu Travel.