top of page

Cruising the Contrasts: From Port Vila’s Bustle to Island Bliss

Updated: Jul 7

After days of blue water and backwater cruising, our senses were assaulted with the smells, sounds, and eye sores of the urban jungle known as Port Vila. While PV is often referred to as the epitome of a tropical paradise, to us, Port Vila is about as exciting as a 9-hour layover at LAX; part of the journey on the way to heaven, but you have to stop by hell to pick up your wings.

Port Vila is Vanuatu’s largest town, the tourism hub, and the government seat. The pothole-riddled main road parallels the waterfront, occasionally a sidewalk appears, allowing pedestrians a chance to jump out of oncoming traffic. The fresh market, bustling and vibrant, sits at the heart of city life. Villagers from across the island camp out at their stalls for days, bringing the essence of their rural homes to the urban center.

Spreading out from either side of the market are small trinket shops, independent grocers, western-style cafes and eateries, rough-neck casinos, gas stations, hotels, backpackers hostels, quad rentals, and the glitzy Duty-Free Emporium. Pop-up tour operators offer island treks to the waterfalls, turtle watching, and snorkeling on hand-written cardboard signs with faded pictures taken during the Eisenhower era. The traffic is relentless and parts of the town have been converted to one-way streets to manage the continuous jam of taxis, trucks, and pedestrians. The city’s skyline is highlighted by the decaying sports center, a facility donated by the Chinese Government, but unused as the Vanuatu Government can’t afford to keep the lights on. Cruise ships are berthed so far out of the edge of town, that they are practically in another time zone.

As we motored into the harbor by starlight, Captain Garry navigated the narrow channel, using all the tools available; radar, chart plotter, depth sounder, and night vision camera. Partially blinded by the lights on the shoreline, he managed to avoid a couple of small boats running without lights and another anchored in the channel. In the mooring field, directly in front of the PV Yacht Club, we picked up a large can, fairly sure that the copious marine growth on the line was a good sign we weren’t pinching someone’s parking spot. We’d figure out who it belonged to in the morning and pay for its use then.

The mooring was as calm and still as if we were parked up on concrete blocks, but the night’s sleep was broken by the stink of burnish rubbish, dog fights, late-night revelers, and mosquitos buzzing our heads, feasting on our bits.

In the morning, Garry and I motored the dinghy to the nearby guest dock, trailing the stowaway kayak, loaded with window blinds, a patio umbrella, and a few liters of house paint. We handed off the cargo to the awaiting owner, then headed next door to the Port Vila Yacht Club office to organize fuel. It was there, from the office manager, that we learned that the “fees” paid for our visas in Lenakel were most likely a “donation” to someone’s slush fund, Vanuatu doesn’t charge for visitor visas. Garry thanked the club manager for her help with the mooring and fuel, gifting her a yellowfin from our freezer.

While NR was taking on 2560 liters of fuel, crewman Victor and I jumped ship with the collapsible shopping trolley and headed for the fresh market. On the way, we popped in at the pharmacy to load up on prescription drugs that don’t require an actual prescription in Vanuatu, a fact not lost of the half-dozen cruise ship passengers milling around the counter. At the gas station, we withdrew Vatu from the cash machine, purchasing a bottle of water to get “small-small, or coins for the marketplace. Big bills don’t cut it when every vendor is selling their piles of produce for 100-500 Vatu and you only have 5000 Vatu bills. First-world problems in a third-world country.

The market was crowded on a Saturday morning, and an enthusiastic preacher was taking advantage of the captive audience, screaming fire and brimstone peppered with Hallelujahs in Bislama over a blaring PA system. We scored coconuts, lettuce, peppers, green beans, pineapple, basil, pomelo, bok choy, and papaya, the same selection as Lenakel, but at city prices. Victor and I left the market with groceries and significant hearing loss.

We returned from shopping to find November Rain still berthed at the fuel dock, saving us a trip in the dinghy.  The crew offloaded the produce before we set off to the other side of town for the supermarket, Elmo tagged along as our second grocery-carting donkey. The problem with having two donkeys is you end up buying three times the amount of hay. In addition to donkey fodder which was mainly beer and alcohol, we loaded up with bags of rice, cooking oil, sugar, and UHT milk, as gift packages for trading with villagers. Our trolley was overloaded both in weight and volume,  and Victor and Elmo struggled to steer around potholes on the steep hill. On the way back, we bumped into Dave who offloaded the 24 rolls of toilet paper, easing the volume significantly. A couple of sunburned, red-faced, and sweaty cruise ship passengers stopped and begged for directions to the duty-free store, seemingly unaware that a taxi might have only set them back a couple of Vatu for the few miles. We probably should have taken our advice.

The crew enjoyed dinner at the Waterfront Bar that night, with surprisingly good live music and resort-style food. Garry and I were tricked onto the dance floor by the restaurant owner when she asked us to liven up the party. Garry offered that the only song he would dance to was “Stayin’ Alive”, which just happened to be in the talented musician’s extensive repertoire. The restaurant’s owner, upon hearing we had given tuna away earlier, offered to buy whatever we caught, but we didn’t have any more to sell. Tuna was notably not on the menu and we had already heard there was a shortage of fish in the area.

November Rain’s generator failed to start that night. It was critical to power our fridge/freezers and I was in panic mode that we might lose all our groceries. After tearing apart the settee to expose the battery compartment underneath, Garry quickly diagnosed a flat starter battery. The battery had been replaced once before, in 2015, when we had to air freight it from NZ to Tonga in an emergency. It seemed as if the battery had decided to come “home”  to die.  Fortunately, Garry had grabbed his jumper leads on the way out the door from New Zealand, at the last minute. The jumper cables were left in situ so that we could put our saloon back together, but continue to jump-start the battery on demand from the panel.

The next day was Sunday, so there was not a chance in paradise of sourcing a new battery.  Rather than suffer through another day in PV, we decided to head over to Havannah Harbour, to catch up with some friends. We met up with  Lynn and her husband, Mitch, who was a primary schoolmate of Garry’s, and Russ and Laura, a former crewmate who traveled with us in 2015.  Both Mitch and Russ run fishing charter operations out of the harbor and the evening was spent telling lies to one another. Our crew got to enjoy a few beverages and mostly avoided getting mauled by Mitch’s sweet but protective Rottweiler.

boat at anchor
November Rain at anchor in Havannah Harbour

Mitch drove Garry by car, 45 minutes into Port Vila the following morning for a new battery, saving us four hours of boat bashing around the point. It gave me a chance to catch up on boat chores, washing mosquito blood out of white sheets while the rest of the crew wandered around the shoreline, walking off their hangovers. Mitch and Lynn joined us later for sundowners, gifting us a delicious watermelon from their garden.

Departing Havannah Harbour for points north the following day, we tiki-toured passed the washed-up super yacht, Blue Gold, a reminder of Hurricane Pam’s destruction almost 10 years prior. A small whale in the harbor allowed us to approach quietly before taking leave, nose down, tail up.

ship wrecked super yacht
Lost during Hurricane Pam, Blue Gold

On route to Emae, Dave picked in his first marlin, a small blue about 80 kgs and the first marlin of our expedition. The winds were easterly, about 15 knots and Garry paid Dave a kindness by keeping the fish down sea while being played. I leadered the fish, and Elmo assisted with hook removal. Later, near Undine Island, Garry stumbled upon an unmarked FAD, which produced an XL bull Mahi-Mahi for Victor. Unfortunately, the fish jumped off the gaff, only seconds after hearing the dinner menu had changed to fish and chips. The leader was cut off by the prop, (even though the motor was out of gear), and sausages were back on the table.  Bad luck…

The weather was forecast to be rough for the next week, the crew consensus was to abandon open-water fishing for the relative calm of in-shore species, with promises of smooth anchorages on western shores. It would add a few more days, hiding behind islands, to reach Santo, but hey, we’re in no hurry.  To be honest, we are still struggling to get into “Island Time” after leaving New Zealand, ditching schedules and agendas of modern life. With a timeline of 5-7 years allotted for our circumnavigation, we can afford a few diversions along the way.

We had some luck with a double hook-up of marlin, halfway to Malakula.  I jumped on the starboard corner rod, which Victor grabbed the rigger on the same side…but the bad luck continued…the leader snapped on Victor’s line, while I pulled in a 200-gram eyeball, ripped out of the socket of my fish. Surprisingly, Victor’s not keen to make his soup again, seems like even he has his standards, tuna eyes, or nothing at all.   A large Barracuda was released later.

Woman in fishing gear holding fish eye on line
Eye-eye Captain

We anchored in the early afternoon and made friends with a local fisherman named Thompson.  While trading cooking oil, rice, milk, and biscuits in exchange for the dubious promise of fruit in the future, Thompson pointed out a reef that was promising for lobster. Victor offered up the retired generator battery in return, which Thompson cautiously positioned into the narrow dugout, being careful to not overturn himself.

NiVan in dugout canoe at back of boat
Thompson in his dugout

That night, Elmo and Victor foraged out on yet another crayfish mission but returned disappointed and empty-handed. Thompson had failed to show up as promised with fruit, so the guys were convinced Thompson had probably sent them on a wild goose chase, perhaps even directed AWAY from the cray grounds.

But the next morning, at sunrise, Thompson appeared in his dugout, silently waiting for us to wake, unloading a bushel of juicy pink grapefruit and the finest bunch of bananas we’ve seen since we arrived. He apologized for flaking out on us the night before, professing he got on the kava with his mates. Thompson promised to return that afternoon and personally escort Victor and Elmo out to the lobster grounds, which he did.

We bummed around Uvelei, a tiny island off the southern end of Malakula for a couple of days. We swam, snorkeled, strolled on the sand spit, spearfished, kayaked, collected shells, and just savored our privilege. Both Elmo and Victor reported sightings of dugongs, coming within five feet of the American, and a meter and a half from the Kiwi. Elmo speared three Unicorn fish, which he offloaded to Thompson in the canoe and Thompson repaid Elmo’s fish with lobster and bananas, which I repaid again with some sugar and cotton gloves. The trading kastom is strong here.

man in dugout on  tropical island Vanuatu
A little bit of paradise

Man holding lobster in Vanuatu
Elmo with a lobster

Victor returned from his dive with five Top shells, playing it up as a delicious delicacy. Garry broke out the new micro BBQ grill for the special occasion and Victor got to cooking the shells before the sun beat him to the job. The meat was tough and rubbery, with little flavor, and had to be sliced wafer thin, just to choke it down. Unfortunately, the grill proved to be severely underpowered without a built-in cover. Seems like we were sold a crock of garbage from more than just Victor. Garry commented that he’d rather eat a jandal and went about raiding my galley in search of a pot to repurpose as a BBQ cover, for future cookouts.

Man cooking top shell in Vanuatu
Victor made us lunch

Thanks to Elmo, Dave got a real-world lesson in the dangers of the free-surface effect on the stability of watercraft. Earlier, Elmo’s kayak had been swamped in converging surf, and unbeknownst to him, the kayak’s hull was half-filled with seawater through the unsecured hatch. Later, when Dave got hit side-on by a tiny ripple in the water, it tipped him out. Confused as to why he was overturned, Dave managed to swim the kayak to the beach, and discovered the water, draining it before returning to the boat and giving Elmo an earful.

Another villager made the paddle trek, over a mile from his village, and after 1/2 hour of chit-chat, offered up oranges in exchange for supplies. We already had oranges for Africa, but it would have been rude not to, so accepted them for one of the care packages. We asked if he needed anything else and discovered he wanted shoes, as well as bottles of any kind that could be used for carrying water. The empty milk jugs were gratefully accepted, but we kept our shoes. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It was time to leave before the rest of the village cottoned on to the supply ship known as November Rain.

That night’s dive was canceled due to high winds around the boat, too risky for water-logged kayaks in the dark. I think the extra helping of pudding might have also been weighing down some of the crew.

As the weather forecast was still blowy to the east, we meandered our way through the narrow channels that separated the small islands nestled around Malakula’s southern end. Two rapala-style divers were towed on the Tiagras. Along the reefs, the popper rods were brought out.

Popper fishing is hard work that takes a bit of skill. Two people are nominated to stand on the foredeck, one in each corner, as Garry points out possible targets from the tuna tower. Underhanded-backhanded casting is done from the side of the boat and the careless angler that swings a triple-hook lure above the kayaks or dinghy is going to get a proper “talking to” from the Captain. When poppering, the lure is cast out, and then jerked back to the boat in a series of “pops”, hopefully, creating large splashes on the water’s surface.  It takes coordination, strength, and skill to make the lure look realistic to a predator reef fish. There’s a lot of infighting among the crew as to whose turn it is on the bow, given that not one of us is particularly fond of this style of fishing. (I usually get a pass by getting busy in the kitchen, cooking up the Captain’s favorite desserts).

crayfish on grill
Elmo warmed up the lobster for lunch

We were in Port Sandwich by 11 am, hanging out, enjoying our lobster nibbles with toasted cheese-tinned spaghetti sammies, expertly prepared by Elmo, when some drama unfolded on the yacht closest to the shoreline. Garry had noticed a NiVan row out but lost sight of him on the far sight of the yacht. The canoe drifted off and ended up on the near shore. Suddenly, we heard a loud and long blast of an air horn and looked over to see a young NiVan man jump off the yacht, trying to abscond with the yacht’s dinghy, rowing it towards the shore, before giving up and jumping into the sea, swimming furiously to the beach. From where we sat, it appeared as if the yacht owners had returned unexpectedly, surprising the intruder aboard. We had just been discussing the documented shark attacks in this particular bay, so it would have certainly explained the herculean speed at which the young NiVan covered the 50 meters to shore.

We continued to watch the drama unfold as the yachties returned to the shore, to seek out the council of village chief. There is sure to be some island justice, most chiefs keep a firm hand on their villagers, and often, stolen items are mysteriously returned just as quickly as they disappeared. The perp’s dugout rested on the beach, as incriminating and bungled as dropping one’s wallet at the scene of the crime.

Tired of all the relaxing, some of us decided it was time to stretch our legs ashore. Elmo nominated himself to stay aboard and keep watch, given the recent crime spree. As we wandered along a dirt road, we came to a crossroads, with a sign directing us to the Rainbow store.  I was keen for some fresh veg, so we followed the sign to a small wooden gate and followed a friendly dog who seemed to be inviting us in. The “store” was a small chest freezer, stocked with chicken parts, serviced by an old generator. The shopkeeper, an elderly woman with a snow-white afro, directed us to the fresh market, only 3 clicks down the road.

NiVan store
Practically a supermarket

The four of us sauntered along, enjoying the idyllic countryside of vegetable gardens and homes nestled between coconut farms. There were fat farm animals everywhere, and even fatter dogs, clearly a sign of a prosperous village. Thatched homes were edged with neat gardens, even ornamentals, and chickens, pigs, and the offspring free-ranged. Everyone we met wore jandals, and some of the kids rode bicycles. There were schools with soccer fields, a couple of solar-powered street lights, and even what appeared to be a bus stop under a large shade tree. The villagers were very friendly and kept reassuring us that the market was just around the next corner.

NiVan children on road
Shy sisters

By now, my feet were beginning to chafe badly in wet jandals, and after a couple of km, I was debating about walking barefoot on the track. Unfortunately, after a trek of 5 km, we arrived too late in the afternoon, the market had already closed for the weekend. We had a quick tour of the bank and post office, remarking that this was truly a proper town. Victor asked around if there was a place to buy a beer and was directed to the store, a small shack that sold dry goods, with three Mamas in front managing a makeshift food stall. There was no beer to be found, so Victor treated us to Fantas, then tried recruiting the only vehicle in town to taxi us back to the beach. The truck had a flat tire and the driver was inflating it with a bicycle pump, so we moved on.

Bare feet had won out and I was picking my way along the road, trying to decide whether to risk walking on grass with the potential of stinger vine and pig poop, or tough it out on the coral gravel. Victor was keen to try some kava and called out to a group of men sitting on benches under a canopy, who welcomed us into the kava bar. We watched as they prepared the kava and enjoyed a bowl together, surprised at how good the quality was. Garry and I have sampled kava before, but never enjoyed it as much. The taste of the kava was rinsed away with complimentary samples of bananas and pawpaw.

As we walked on, some of us were stumbling, although our heads were clear. My feet no longer hurt, thanks to the effects, and I was able to put my shoes back on. Being that it was now a pub crawl, we stopped at the next kava bar 500 meters down the road and had a top-up. Victor bought a pint to go for Elmo so he could partake back at the boat. After 5 km of hiking back, we were passed by the truck with the formerly flat tire, 10 people in the bed, and the village bus back in operation.

Back at the boat, Elmo had traded gossip with a neighboring boat about the recent yacht invasion. There were two boys involved and the tribal council was taking the issue very seriously. The yachties were summoned to attend a meeting with the chief for some kind of apology ceremony. We decided it was time to escape Port Sandwich before the chief could issue a subpoena for additional witnesses. See you next time...Be sure to follow our adventures and never miss an update at

You can support my efforts with a small donation, it is much appreciated and helps with the costs of publishing.

337 views4 comments
bottom of page