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Vanuatu islands archipelago consists of some 83 islands. The main island is Efate island, where Port Vila is located, as well as the Bauerfield International Airport and the domestic airport, which offers flights to other Vanuatu islands in the archipelago.
The largest is Espiritu Santo island, also known as just Santo island. Other better known and more popular islands are Tanna, Pentecost, Epi, Ambae, Erromango and Malekula islands. Below is brief info on some of those islands, best known or most popular islands in the archipelago with visitors.
For those looking to invest in Vanuatu, best real estate properties can be found in Port Vila and other parts of Efate island, as well as in Bouganvile on Santo island. If your property interest is not Vanuatu islands, but European islands, you will find here more Island property information.
Many of the islands present names come from the Captain James Cook, who sailed through in 1774, from north to south. He named the archipelago the New Hebrides, after the islands off Scotland, and chartered most of the islands on the map. In 1980 Vanuatu gained its independence from combined French-British Condominium and got its present name of Vanuatu – meaning ‘our land forever’.
This 7-minute Vanuatu video presents the country's highlights: Efate island and Port Vila, Epi, Tanna, Aniwa, Futuna, Aneityum, Malekula, Paama, Ambrym, Santo, Malo, Ambae, Maewo, and Pentecost islands, province by province.
Efate island, Vanuatu
When you at first arrive to Vanuatu, the first place you will visit is Efate island and Port Vila, after you go through Bauerfield International Airport.
Efate Island is the administrative and political centre of Vanuatu. Home to some 50,000 people, it's also the most populated island in Vanuatu archipelago. Administratively, Efate island is in Shefa Province, one of 6 Vanuatu provinces, which were established in 1994.
More about Efate island history and attractions, including a large Efate island map, on our Efate island page.
Iririki island in Port Vila
This is the largest island in Vanuatu, more commonly called Santo, over 4,000 square kilometres in size. When the Spanish explorer, Captain Pedro Ferdinand De Quiros discovered Vanuatu islands in 1605, he named them “Tierra Australis del Espiritu Santo”, mistakenly believing he discovered Australia. The island where he landed, Santo, thus still bears the name – Espiritu Santo.
The island is also known as the inspiration for James A. Michener’s classic “Tales of the South Pacific”, from which the musical South Pacific was born. Michener was a lieutenant in American Army during the WWII, stationed in Santo. (See also Ambae Island, below.)
Luganville, Vanuatu’s second urban center, was an important operations base during World War II. The American Army left behind airfields and bomber wrecks, and sank their military equipment after the war, providing the famous dive sight Million Dollar Point, now inhabited by colourful fish and corals. This world-famous dive spot is attracting divers from all corners of the world because of the peaceful feeling that some dive aficionados call the million dollar feel.
The 200 metres long, 30,000 tones “SS President Coolidge”, a 1930s luxury liner converted into a US troopship, lies in 20-70 metres of water. With its amazing collection of Jeeps, trucks, cases of rifles and abounding sea life, it is the largest shipwreck accessible to scuba divers in the world. There are another 20 or so good dive sites in the area, including the destroyer USS Tucker.
Santo also boasts Vanuatu’s first National Park, the recently opened Vatthe Conservation Area. This spectacular natural wonderland is set over 2,300ha of protected jungle, the Jordan River and 15km of sandy beaches, is home to native birds, coconut crabs, flying foxes, boa snakes and turtles. Santo has one of the finest beaches in the South Pacific, Champagne Beach, and is famous for Oyster Island and the Blue Hole.
Emao island north of Efate
The writer James Michener, an American Army Lieutenant based at Santo during World War II thought Ambae the most beautiful island in the South Pacific. Legendary as the Bali Hai in Michener’s famous Tales of the South Pacific and sung about in the musical South Pacific, Ambae is a volcanic island often shrouded in cloud due to a high rainfall. In the 1500m high volcano are three craters each containing a freshwater thermal lake and a ready supply of prawns.
Pentecost land dive mural
Famous for the Naghol or land diving ritual, which usually takes place on Saturdays in April and May. Jumpers select their own vines and construct the platform on the jump tower which can reach to 30 metres height. The significance of Naghol is to guarantee a plentiful yam harvest the following year, although its tradition is based on an ancient legend – see Land Dive section, at the bottom of our Activities page.
Father Walter Hadye Lini (1942-1999), Vanuatu’s founding Prime Minister, came from the northern part of the island, where the people are Anglican. (The road running past Worawia Holiday Haven is named after Father Lini – Fr Dr Lini highway, previously known as Kumul highway.)
In the centre of Pentecost island, people are Catholics, while the south part of the island is where the culture and customs are quite different and where the ritual of Naghol or N’ghol has been practiced for centuries. The land diving ritual probably inspired the modern bungy jumping, after the New Zealander A.J. Hackett watched the ceremony and invented the modern version in 1986, when he did probably the first modern bungy jump off the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Two years later bungy jumping became a modern craze.
Home of Mt Yasur, one of the most accessible active volcanoes in the world. 360m above sea level and surrounded by an ash plain, it provides an outstanding fireworks display on a night visit. A 20-minute walk from the carpark takes you to the rim of Yasur, where you can look into the fiery cauldron of molten rock spurting from the three vents.
Vanuatu Islands Music - clips from various parts of the islands, taken from the author's Vanuatu islands journey, featuring local string bands, drums, etc.
Tanna also has many other attractions such as the wreck of the Fijian sailing ship which sank in 1916 and lies in 20 metres of water. There are wild horses that inhabit White Grass Plains, white sandy beaches and the black sand of Imlao Beach. Visitors can also see waterfalls, hot springs, spectacular Yamiplmai Cascades and dugongs at Port Resolution, particularly popular with eco-tourists. Port Resolution was named by Captain Cook when he landed in 1774, attracted by the great glow of Yasur in the night sky.
Erromango is one of the larger islands, sparsely populated, mountainous, rugged and mainly forested. Like Aneityum, it once supported a large population (up to 10,000) as a base for Sandalwood and Kauri traders. Some majestic 1000-year old Kauri trees still stand.
It was heavily exploited for its Sandalwood and the local population suffered at the hands of infamous Blackbirders – they captured islanders and took them to work on Fijian and Australian sugar plantations. Even nowadays Malayan logging companies exploit the island’s hardwoods, although the local communities have been effective in resisting unsustainable logging practices. With assistance from the European Union, a Kauri Reserve is being established on the island, to protect Kauri and other tropical hardwoods.
This island is essentially the remains of a large volcano, whose 12 kms wide caldera is in the island’s centre. Two active volcano cones, Mt Benbow and Mt Maroum, sit side by side on the edge of this large volcano caldera. These two volcano cones are amongst the most active and most voluminous volcanoes in Vanuatu.
A triangle shaped island has two airstrips, one on East and one on West costs of the island. Both aircraft and helicopter flights are available from Port Vila. The volcanic ash makes this a “black” island, although when you go inland you will find a lot of green vegetation growing from the ancient lava flows.
One of the most peaceful Vanuatu islands, with beautiful white sand beaches and coves, some black (volcanic) sand beaches and many reefs. Epi also has two volcanoes, Mt Nitaia and Cape Kone, both part of the collapsed Kuwai volcano. Both of the volcanoes are occasionally active, steaming or bubbling up from time to time. Traditionally Vanuatu people believe that magic works best near active volcanoes, where islanders often make magic and invoke ancestral spirits.
As all other volcanic islands in Vanuatu archipelago, Epi also bears marks of volcano activity, one of which are lush tropical forests and rich underwater life in its several small lakes. The coastal land in particular is fertile, populated with coconut plantations.
There are two airstrips on the island – Valesdir to the south and Lamen Bay to the north.
The above are but a handful of Vanuatu islands, best known and most popular. But the regular Vanuatu visitors who like exploring the islands know of many more islands. Watch this space and we’ll bring you more info about other islands during 2006 and beyond.
Vanuatu Islands Articles