Ambae is the island whose misty silhouette inspired Bali Ha'i in Tales of the South Pacific, although its landscape is dark and volcanic, not a picture-postcard paradise. Its coastal villages are among the most developed in the three islands, and include Saratamata, the provincial capital (which is little more than a cluster of tiny government buildings). At its centre is a huge, active volcanic caldera containing coloured lakes. The entire island of Ambae was compulsorily evacuated following volcanic eruptions in 2017-2018, and at the time of writing (October 2018), remains off-limits to everyone except disaster-relief workers.
Pentecost is a long, tall, mountainous island famous for its kastom (traditions) and its kava. The North is a centre of Anglicanism in Vanuatu and was the home of Vanuatu's independence leader Walter Lini, who was both a kastom chief and an Anglican priest, who is buried there in the grounds of Lini Memorial College. Central Pentecost is a major kava-growing area and is dominated by the French-speaking Catholic mission at Melsisi. The South has kastom villages and the famous land diving ritual. The eastern side of the island is wild and inaccessible.
Maewo is the smallest and least visited of the three islands. Geographically it resembles a smaller version of Pentecost. It has Vanuatu's highest rainfall and is famous for its waterfalls.
There are no real towns or cities in Penama, only some large village centres, such as Nduindui and Saratamata on Ambae. Most of the population live off their ancestral land in tiny villages.
Penama is an extremely traditional corner of the world. Society is organised around hierarchies of local chiefs, who rise in status by trading and ceremonially killing tusker pigs and by engaging in all manner of 'politics' (and occasional black magic). However, do not go expecting a land untouched by time. Culture in Penama, like elsewhere in the world, is a blend of the ancient and the modern, where chiefs who uphold ancient rituals may wear jeans and own laptops. The culture is also diverse: though it has only the population of a medium-sized town, Penama has nine languages, with dozens of dialects between them, each representing a cultural group with its own history and traditions, including some (like the land-diving) that are restricted only to small areas and guarded jealously.
The people are welcoming and you are unlikely ever to be left short of food, or a place to sleep, so long as you don't mind endless root vegetables and a mat on the floor. However, Western luxuries are a very long way away, and although there are village stores they sometimes run out even of essentials. Anything you really can't enjoy yourself without, whether it's hand lotion or barbecue sauce, ought to be brought with you from town. As far as clothing and gear are concerned, pack as you would for a camping trip.
There are no modern banking facilities and nobody accepts dollars or credit cards, so carry plenty of cash in local currency. You may not end up spending that much compared with what you'd spend in Port Vila, but if seeing the land-diving or travelling long distances by vehicle or boat, the cost will add up substantially.
Stereotypically, Ambae islanders are more bookish and intellectual in a Western sense, while Pentecost islanders are more focused on their kastom (custom) and traditions. However, in practice the whole range of philosophies from Western to traditional can be encountered within the same island, the same community, or even the same individual.
Christianity came with the missionaries a century or so ago, and is now everywhere except for a handful of kastom villages on South Pentecost, and the North-east Pentecost village of Lavatmanggemu which is the headquarters of the Turaga cargo cult. The chief at Lavatmanggemu aspires one day to make improbable amounts of money showing his (admittedly quite interesting) village to tourists, but like many of his dreams this may never come to fruition. In the meantime, you can get a guided tour to the South Pentecost kastom village of Bunlap, where you will be parted with (slightly) less money and have a (slightly) more authentic experience. Or you can stay at a guesthouse in an ordinary village in a remote area, where you will see fewer grass skirts and more tasteless second hand T-shirts, but will see a lifestyle that is otherwise not all that different to that of a kastom village.
English and French are the languages of education, but are not used much outside school, and since the majority of people have only a primary level education, not everyone speaks these languages well. Bislama, the national lingua franca, is known by most people, although at home and around their villages they use their native languages, which differ every few miles. If staying in a village, learning a couple of phrases in the native language - such as "good morning" and "thank you" - will be greatly appreciated.
Air Vanuatu has generally had flights two or three times a week from Port Vila and Santo to Lonorore (South Pentecost) and Longana (East Ambae), both of which have good tarmacked airstrips, and slightly less frequently to Sara (North Pentecost), Walaha (West Ambae), Redcliff (South Ambae) and Maewo. Since the island's evacuation following volcanic eruptions there are no longer scheduled flights to Ambae, but are more frequent flights to Maewo, which hosts some of the evacuees. Charter flights are also available. Baggage over 10kg may be subject to excess charges, though for international travellers with a single rucksack or suitcase, this is sometimes ignored. If travelling in a group with very large amounts of baggage be aware that it may not physically fit on the plane.
Flights are not that reliable and schedules change regularly, so it's a good idea to plan for at least a couple of days back in Vila before you're due to catch your international flight home, in case something goes wrong!
Cargo ships on their way between Port Vila and Luganville ply the coasts of the islands, and will carry passengers, but do not follow fixed schedules and will take anything from a few hours to a few days to take you from town to your destination in Penama, depending on the ship and the route. These ships also provide the only direct way of getting between Pentecost and neighbouring Ambrym, apart from a rough and very expensive speedboat ride.
There are no sealed roads anywhere in Penama. Larger villages are connected by rutted dirt roads, but these are in terrible condition. When the road is passable you can pay for a trip in a 4WD 'truck', or if you're on the coast and the weather isn't too rough you may be able to find a boat. Both are expensive but the cost can be shared if you're in a group. If there's no room in the cab of the truck, standing on the back right behind the cab is the least uncomfortable, though not necessarily the safest, position to ride in. Watch out for overhanging branches!
Passing ships are a cheap and easy way to get along the coasts of the islands if one happens to be passing by, but schedules are erratic. The locals will know approximately when the next ship is expected.
Hiking can be a fun way to get around if you know where you're going, are reasonably fit, are travelling light, and aren't fussy about where you end up sleeping. If it rains torrentially beware of mud and swollen rivers.
Bush paths, even those connecting major villages, can be astonishingly steep and treacherous. A guide is essential.
Walking around in Penama you will attract a good deal of friendly curiosity: be prepared to stop and tell a lot of people where you've come from and where you're going. These conversations can be useful sources of travel advice, but if people recommend short-cuts, try to establish whether the proposed route is steep and muddy before taking their advice! When getting directions, be aware that in Penama, south is "up" and north is "down".
To get between islands within Penama, there are occasional flights and ships, but the quickest route may be to get a plane to Santo and back. South Maewo is best reached by speedboat from North Pentecost, but the straits between the islands are rough and the crossing is only advisable in good conditions.
Pentecost Island is most famous for being the spiritual birthplace of the extreme sport of bungee jumping, originating in an old ritual called the nanggol, or land diving. Between April and June every year, men in the southern part of the island jump from tall towers (around 20 to 30 metres) with vines tied to their feet, in a ritual believed to ensure a good yam harvest. The ritual is also now used to show acceptance into manhood. Land-diving for tourists is done every Saturday during the season at one or two locations not far from Lonorore Airport. Entry costs 10-12,000 vatu per person. It is possible to witness the ceremony during day trips from Port Vila, though visitors who make the effort to stay a couple of days in local guesthouses will get far more out of the experience, and some find their village stay even more fascinating (and certainly much better value for money) than the land diving they came for.
There are also waterfalls (especially on Maewo), coral reefs for snorkelling, jungle treks, traditional kastom villages on South Pentecost, volcanic crater lakes on Ambae, and fascinating cultural encounters to be had everywhere.
There is a lot to see and experience (see above), but in between those, be prepared to spend a fair bit of time hanging around not doing very much except enjoying the natural beauty and the bemused stares of the locals as you do foreign things like filtering your drinking water and reading your Kindle.
Things run on island time here.
When planning your activities, be prepared too for a certain amount of rain. East Pentecost and Maewo are particularly rain-soaked, as the islands' mountainous spines catch damp prevailing winds, but it can chuck it down anywhere in Penama and at any time of year.
Some communities in Penama have guesthouses, usually family-run enterprises delightfully constructed from local materials. Depending on whether the proprietor is present, or has gone away and left the place in charge of his wife or neighbour, you will either get a wonderful welcome or a rather nervous and subdued one (often due to lack of confidence speaking English, although with a bit of friendliness this can be overcome). Unless it's South Pentecost in the land-diving season or your visit happens to coincide with that of a party travelling on government business, you are likely to be the only guests. Facilities are basic - running water if you're lucky, but definitely no hot showers, and an electricity generator if you're lucky, otherwise perhaps a solar lamp. Carry a torch and don't rely on being able to charge your phone.
Noda Guesthouse at Waterfall Village on South Pentecost is one of the more developed guesthouses, though still very basic by Western standards, and is in a fine location by a beach and a short walk away from a waterfall and natural swimming hole.
Church missions may also have guestrooms that you can use for a small payment. These can be bleak and in a handful of cases downright creepy (such as the abandoned convent in Baie Barrier in South-east Pentecost), but it's a bed for the night.
In villages with no guesthouse, travellers stuck for a place to sleep for the night will often be offered one by hospitable strangers. Men may be invited to sleep in the nakamal (village meeting hut), and there may be a village club house for visiting women, but it's more likely you'll be taken into someone's home. Do what you can to repay their kindness. People are usually happy to share food and space and won't expect payment, unless it's a formal guesthouse, but when it comes to things that people pay for with scarce cash (such as fuel and tinned foods), try to make sure that your visit does not leave your hosts out of pocket.
For a good wash, your hosts can fill a bucket of water for you, but in wet parts of Pentecost and Maewo the local river may be a better bet - ask where a good swimming hole is, and take along your shampoo. Stripping semi-naked in the river is fine only if you're not in the presence of members of the opposite sex.
Penama is not known for its cuisine. The traditional staples are yams and taro, though in some communities bland imported rice is also increasingly popular. On special occasions animals are butchered, but at other times the meat is likely to be cat-food-quality tinned beef or tinned fish from the local store. On the bright side, depending on the season you may encounter particular tropical fruits growing in such abundance that the locals cannot give them away fast enough. Locally-caught fish is surprisingly uncommon - these are big mountainous islands, not little atolls - and if you do consume it beware of the risk of ciguatera poisoning. However, the freshwater prawns found in the rivers are delicious, and edible crabs are in abundance.
If the above doesn't appeal, or you have particular dietary requirements, bring favourite food items with you from town. Sauces and spices in particular go a long way towards making the food less bland, and trail mix comes into its own on jungle hikes. You can also usually find biscuits in the village stores, and the breakfast crackers that are a staple for foreign travellers in rural Vanuatu. On a good day there'll even be a jar of peanut butter or Nutella to go with them. If you carry any food that isn't in tins, make sure it's stored somewhere rat-proof at night. Hang it from the ceiling if you have no better place to put it.
The traditional dish, like elsewhere in Vanuatu, is laplap, a chewy slab made from mashed vegetables cooked in an earth oven. There are numerous varieties - taro laptop, banana laplap, manioc (cassava) laplap, breadfruit laplap, etc.
Kava! Penama (and Pentecost in particular) is one Vanuatu's two main traditional kava drinking areas, together with Tanna, and kava growing for export is the economic lifeblood of many communities. See the Vanuatu page for more on this intoxicating drink.
The kava differs between islands: Pentecost is the traditional home of boroguu kava (nowadays the most popular variety throughout Vanuatu), while Ambae is known for the yellower melomelo. Both are "noble kavas" and great to drink. Any other kava variety you may encounter, such as the fast-growing but hangover-inducing "white kava", is best avoided.
In the largest villages and around kava-tolerant church missions (Anglicans and Catholics are fine with kava, evangelical denominations generally frown on it), there are commercial kava bars. Elsewhere kava is drunk communally in nakamals (village meeting huts), which are traditionally male-only, although in non-kastom villages an exception is sometimes made for female visitors. The traditional way of grinding kava in Penama is using hand-grinders made of coral stones, which produces an exceptionally strong mix. Kava in bars and less traditional nakamals may be mashed instead with a ram or meat-grinder.
There are no bars other than kava bars, and alcohol is hard to find in local stores. If you really want it, bring it with you from town. Air Vanuatu do not mind liquids in your hand luggage on domestic flights.
Penama is one of the friendliest places in the world, and crime against visitors is almost unheard of (with the exception of occasional sexual assaults on female travellers, who should never wander alone). However, there are natural hazards aplenty, such as getting swept away in a flooded river or getting lost in the bush. Take local advice before venturing into either.
Water sources vary from clean rainwater tanks to filthy holes. Pay attention to where your drinking water is coming from and carry a good supply of purification tablets. In some communities tap water is piped from mountain streams. This is unlikely to give you anything nasty but the hardness of the water may upset your stomach if you aren't used to it.
Malaria is a problem - take anti-malarials and avoid mosquito bites.
There are no dangerous animals in the bush, but beware of the nettle tree (nanggalat), saplings of which can hide in undergrowth. If you experience a moderate sting that returns every time the affected area gets wet, and continues to do so for days, the nanggalat has got you.
Beginning in September 2017, Ambae's Lombenben volcano experienced a series of moderate eruptions that left much of the island uninhabitable due to heavy ash fall, and raised fears of catastrophic damage to villages if the eruptions should worsen. At times, ashfall also reached Maewo and northern Pentecost, where it disrupted flights. The entire island of Ambae was compulsorily evacuated (twice), and at the time of writing (October 2018), it remains off-limits to everyone except disaster-relief workers. At times when travel to Ambae has been permitted since the initial eruptions, a strict 3 km exclusion zone has been imposed around the volcanic vent. The government encouraged Ambae islanders to resettle on Maewo (in practice many migrated to town instead), where they live in difficult conditions and await news on if and when the volcano will be deemed to have quietened down sufficiently for them to return home.
Apart from occasional flight cancellations due to ashfall, this disaster has not affected travel to Pentecost or Maewo. However, travel to Ambae is currently impossible, and likely to remain difficult even if the state of emergency is lifted.