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What Should I Know about Vanuatu?

Coral reefs, like this one, are found around Vanuatu.
Vanuatu is a great place for snorkeling.
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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2014
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Vanuatu is a small nation in the South Pacific. It covers roughly 4,700 square miles (12,200 sq. km), making it a bit larger than the state of Connecticut. It is located just a bit east of Australia, and just south of the Solomon Islands. The country consists of more than 80 islands, the majority of which are inhabited.

Vanuatu was likely populated originally sometime around 2000 BCE by Austronesian people. A tribal culture developed on the islands, eventually uniting into kingships. Unfortunately, not a great deal is known about the early history of Vanuatu before the appearance of Europeans, as there are no written histories, and the oral record is somewhat sparse.

The islands were first visited by Europeans when the Portuguese arrived in the early 17th century, although it wasn’t settled until the end of the 18th century, when the British established permanent bases there following Captain Cook’s travels to the islands. For the next century the islands were under European control. For a brief period near the end of the 19th century, however, the island of Efate, where the capital now lies, was an independent nation. This nation is notable in that, although it only allowed whites to hold office, it allowed all races and both men and women to vote, making it the first nation on Earth to adopt universal suffrage.

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The French and British shared the islands as the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides, and the region served as a military base during World War II. Beginning in the early 1960s the people of Vanuatu began moving towards independence, which they finally achieved in 1980.

Although Vanuatu is made up of more than 80 islands, there are a handful that serve as the base for the majority of the population. The two largest islands are Espiritu Santo, at about 1500 square miles (3900 sq. km), and Malakulu, at about 800 square miles (2,100 sq. km). The third largest island, Efate, is only about 350 square miles (900 sq. km), but is home to the capital city of Port Vila, the largest town on the islands with around 40,000 people.

Vanuatu is a great place to visit year-round, although in summer it does get quite wet. The beaches of Vanuatu are spectacular, and the clear waters make for amazing diving and snorkeling. There are extraordinary coral reefs around the islands, as well as a number of shipwrecks dating from the distant past and World War II. Siri Falls is one of the nation’s largest attractions, with a 360’ (120m) drop down through the lush greenery. Yasur Volcano is also a sight well worth seeing, particularly for those who aren’t up to the long treks often associated with volcanoes. The easy slope makes it simple to drive quite close to the rim of this volcano, although it is active, so care should be taken to ensure it’s safe at the time. Spewing molten rocks and sulfurous gasses make Yasur an unforgettable experience capturing the mythic quality of this island nation.

There is an international airport just north of Port Vila, which receives flights regularly from major Pacific hubs and Australia. Cruise ships show up occasionally, and it is still possible to hitch a ride on a cargo ship to the islands, although this has become somewhat more difficult in recent years.

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