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The nation of Vanuatu is an archipelago of about 80 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean. This isolated country is just over 1,000 miles to the east of Australia and around 150 miles north of New Zealand, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Vanuatu is one of the least visited countries in the world. Those who do make the trek discover stunning coral reefs, volcanic peaks, tropical beaches, and vibrant local culture. Find out more about this fascinating island nation with these seven facts you probably didn’t know about Vanuatu.
It's One of the Happiest Countries on Earth
In the latest data available from The Happy Planet Index, Vanuatu ranks fourth out of 140 countries featured in this global comparison of overall happiness. The HPI uses four indicators to calculate a country’s score: wellbeing (how satisfied residents say they are with their lives), life expectancy, inequality, and the country’s ecological footprint.
Vanuatu has the highest happiness score outside of the Americas — aided by the country’s tight-knit social communities which tend to increase residents’ wellbeing, as well as the country’s high dependency on renewable energy sources. The Happy Planet Index hasn’t been updated since 2015, but it’s likely that the country will maintain its enviable position when a new report is published.
It's a World-Class Diving Destination
Colorful coral reefs, including a pair of columns called the Twin Bommies, and even underwater volcanoes make diving in the waters off Vanuatu an extraordinary experience. Another draw for divers are the standout wreck dives. Close to the island of Espiritu Santo, divers will find the SS President Coolidge, a U.S. cruise liner turned naval troop carrier, which sank in 1942. The ship’s hull is mostly intact, and divers can explore the control room and guns. A statue of a woman riding a unicorn still exists in the submerged dining room, and there’s even a barber’s chair in the cargo hold.
Off the coast of Efate Island, divers can explore the unusual wreck of a plane which hit a reef on takeoff. Because it requires a deep dive into often murky water, the site is recommended for experienced divers only, but the reward is a chance to swim through the cockpit of an almost intact Qantas Short S.25 Sandringham flying boat.
You Can Post Your Mail at a Drive-up Volcano
All of Vanuatu’s islands are volcanic in origin. Though some of its volcanoes have long been extinct, several have erupted in the 21st century, including Ambae, Lopevi and East Epi. Two volcanoes, Ambrym and Yasur, are experiencing ongoing eruptions. Despite this, Mount Yasur, located on the island of Tanna, is one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes — it’s possible to drive over its ash-covered flanks almost to the edge of the lava flowing from the crater rim. There, visitors will find what’s arguably the most precariously positioned postal drop box on the planet, where you can jot down a few thoughts on this perilous but thrilling place on a postcard to share with friends back home.
Vanuatu’s Land Divers Inspired the First Bungee Jumpers
Land diving is a death-defying ritual performed on Pentecost Island that is considered the precursor to bungee jumping. The practice — found nowhere else on Earth — heralds the start of the yam growing season, when men of the Sa tribe build a 98-foot tall tower out of wood. They tie lianas (jungle vines) to each ankle before diving head first from the top. If they judge it right, only the top of their hair should graze the ground. Their courage is believed to bring good fortune to that year’s harvest.
Despite the obvious risks, when word of this dangerous activity spread, the islanders realized there was money to be made from tourism. Now, in April and May, visitors can pay to watch the ritual. Participation by outsiders is still strictly forbidden, however, as it’s thought to curse the harvest.
More Than 100 Languages Are Spoken Here
For a country with a population of less than 300,000 people, Vanuatu has incredible cultural diversity. There are 113 languages (and many more dialects) spoken across the islands of Vanuatu, but only three of them are official. Travelers will recognize English and French, but the third is likely to be something new: Bislama, a pidgin dialect (sometimes referred to as a creole language) which is unique to Vanuatu. Words are spelled phonetically or are adopted based on a literal description in Bislama. If you want to pick up some Bislama on your visit, it helps to say the words out loud.
Locals Swear By a Potent Drink Called Kava
Kava is a ceremonial drink integral to Vanuatu’s kastom or traditional culture. It is made from the roots of a plant related to the pepper family, which has been cultivated in Vanuatu for over 3,000 years. To prepare it, the root is cut up and chewed to a mushy pulp which is spat out. The pulp is squeezed and strained, and the resulting liquid is poured into a coconut shell bowl.
Across the islands, men gather at the end of the day in communal village huts called namakals to share a coconut shell of kava. Some believe that this medicinal drink provides pain relief, helps to alleviate anxiety, or even enables them to connect with their ancestors. If you do try it on your visit, be warned: Its strong, earthy taste takes some getting used to and leaves the tongue and lips numb and tingling. Kava contains lactones which slow the heart rate, relax the muscles, and dilate the pupils. Although it’s not addictive, the elixir can still leave you feeling nauseous and lethargic.
Prince Philip Was a Huge Deal to Some in Vanuatu
For decades, the traditional Kastom people in the villages of Yaohnanen and Yakel, in the center of Tanna Island, idolized and worshipped Prince Philip. They considered the late husband of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II — with whom he visited Vanuatu in 1974 — a divine being, the son of a mountain spirit who traveled overseas to marry a powerful woman. Representatives of the Prince Philip Movement even visited Buckingham Palace in 2007 for a private audience, and received gifts of an official photograph and the Union Flag.
When Prince Philip died in 2021, a special mourning ceremony was held on Tanna Island. Ritualistic dancing, a procession, and a feast accompanied by plenty of kava marked his passing. It is expected that the community will announce their choice of successor, which some speculate could be Prince Charles.