Port-Vila is the capital and largest city of Vanuatu. It is situated on the island of Efate in the province of Shefa. At a population of 44,000, Port-Vila is slowly growing, but remains a small and laid-back capital. The city extends across the length of Vila Bay, with parks, markets, and restaurants trailing the waterfront. Host to Vanuatu's largest harbor and airport, Port-Vila is a popular destination for cruise ships and a base for tours and adventure activities across the island of Efate.
It may not look like it, but Port Vila is one of the most multi-cultural towns on Earth. Its 40,000 Melanesian inhabitants come from over a hundred language and cultural groups, and bring those languages and cultures with them when they come to settle in the capital. All retain links with their home islands: ask someone on the street where they're from, and you're almost sure to get an answer other than "Port Vila". In addition to the ni-Vanuatu population, there is an assortment of Australians, New Zealanders, Europeans, Chinese, Indians and other expatriate nationalities who call Port Vila home.
Life in Port Vila is expensive. There is no income or corporation tax here, so the government must earn money instead with taxes and duties on goods, which were expensive anyway because of high transport costs. As a Western visitor you'll find the prices mildly high, but to locals earning the minimum wage of around $2 an hour, they're horrific. As a result, there is a certain amount of dissatisfaction in the air, particularly among young people who can find nothing to do apart from sperem pablik rod (stand around on the highway). However, this dissatisfaction is seldom aimed directly at the foreigners who have helped to create the problem by turning Vila into a tax haven, and mostly the local people continue to smile, enjoy life, and welcome visitors warmly. They do still live on a beautiful tropical island, after all.
Port Vila is tropical, and at times very hot, but during the June-August cool season the weather can be surprisingly chilly by tropical standards. During these months, pack a sweater and don't expect to spend all day in the pool.
Bauerfield International Airport, on the edge of town, has regular flights to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, New Caledonia and other Pacific destinations, as well as Air Vanuatu and charter flights to other islands. There is an international terminal and a domestic terminal, a short walk apart. If you're hungry while waiting for your flight and the croissants don't look appetising in one terminal, wander across to the other.
Taxis from the airport into town typically cost around 2000 vatu, depending where exactly you're going (a price list in displayed in the terminal). Buses (minibuses with B on the license plate) into town cost 150 vatu. Don't be a tourist by asking for the price - in that case it will likely be more, just tell the driver your destination and pay on arrival. Consider rounding up to 200 vatu if you have significant luggage. Note that buses are not allowed to pick up passengers outside the International terminal so you might need to walk to the domestic terminal for pickup.
In Port Vila the buses are mini-buses with a B on the number plate. They largely traverse the main roads and take you wherever you want to go. There are no scheduled services and are perhaps best thought of as cheap, but shared taxis. Wave at one that looks like it's heading in the right direction, and tell the driver where you want to go. The driver will either nod, in which case climb on board, or (less commonly) explain apologetically that he's in a hurry to get somewhere else, in which case wait for the next bus. Buses will stop pretty much anywhere (don't pay too much attention to Bus Stop signs), but try to be responsible and avoid stopping them in hazardous places like blind corners. Buses flashing their hazard indicator lights, or which flick their lights at you as they pass, are not in service. Pay the driver as you get off (or earlier if the driver needs change). The cost is always 150 vatu per person unless you are traveling a significant distance out of town (to Mele Cascades expect to pay at least 200 vatu per person). It's a good idea to have exact change.
The buses are very friendly, cheap, and easy to use; the only downside is the risk of a long detour, depending on where the other passengers want to go. Buses are plentiful within the city and outside the city you can usually arrange for a bus to meet you at a particular time. There are significantly fewer buses on the road on Sundays, although if you wait a while you can usually find a bus even at slow times, including fairly late in the evening.
Taxis are plentiful within Port Vila. Fare is calculated per taxi. There are standard fares for journeys to and from the airport to most accommodation around Port-Vila a list of which should be available in the arrivals section of the airport. 1500VT to the city centre. Around Port Vila, taxis can be hailed for journeys. They are unmetered so you should agree a price with the driver beforehand. For short journeys around town, expect to pay a few hundred vatu.
Unfortunately, Port Vila is oversupplied with public transport, and charging relatively high fares to tourists travelling from the airport and the wharf is often the only way taxis can sustain a living. At other times there is some scope for negotiating the price (if you're in a group and a taxi driver seems really desperate for your business, try asking for "bus fare") but do not expect to be able to barter it down too much. If the fare seems high for the distance, this is mainly because importing fuel and car parts, like many things, is expensive in Vanuatu.
Duty free alcohol and cigarettes are cheap in Port Vila. Buy your duty free before going to the airport as the airport duty free prices are slightly higher and the range not as great.
Mama's Market The large market in the center of town has Vanuatu-style meals. The food stall workers have been trained in food safety. Typical meals consist of rice, vegetables, and a protein, often in curry or soy sauce. The prices will be clearly listed and run between 300-600 vatu. There are also vendors selling take-away tuluk (like a chewy dumpling or tamale filled with meat) and lap-lap (root crop and coconut milk baked pudding, often with meat.)
Chinese stores Many of the Chinese stores around town sell quick snacks like banana bread, egg sandwiches, and hard-boiled eggs. Chew Store and Tebakor are good.
Chinese takeaway There are several inexpensive Chinese takeaways and restaurants around town selling meals from 200-400 vatu. They usually have rice and egg or meat dishes. The quality varies but is not so bad.
Many restaurants in Port Vila have a lunch special costing around 1200-1500 vatu. This can be a very good deal compared with dinner prices.
Spice This is Port Vila's best Indian restaurant. It is located near Au Bon Marche 2.
L'Houstalet Local French place with pizza, pasta, and other dishes. The flying fox dish is famous.
Chill This overlooks Iririki Island, above the Sea View takeaway by the Mama's Market. It has a good lunch special.
Jill's Cafe This is the best western-style breakfast place. They also have salads, burgers, and Mexican dishes.
The Brewery Australian-style dinners, craft beer, and a good pizza special once a week.
Alcohol is reasonably expensive in Port Vila. In a tourist bar, expect to pay between 300VT and 500VT for a local beer or between 400VT and 600VT for imported beers, though you can get a local Tusker beer for 200-250VT in a supermarket or kava bar. Shops and kava bars are not allowed to sell alcohol on Saturdays after noon, or on Sundays.
The suburbs of Vila also contain literally hundreds of kava bars. Some are little more than garden sheds; a coloured lantern outside indicates that kava is on sale. Tourists are an unfamiliar sight in most kava bars but are usually made very welcome. Some larger kava bars also sell beer, soft drinks, tobacco and local food items. A small 'shell' of kava costs 50VT, a large one 100VT. Most bars open at sunset (though a couple are open 24 hours a day) and close two or three hours later when the kava bucket has run out. Kava is much less likely to disagree with you if taken on an empty stomach - go to the kava bar before dinner, not after. Down your shell in one go, suck on a sweet to remove the taste from your mouth, then sit back and enjoy the relaxing effect. See the main Vanuatu page for some other important "do"s and "don't"s around kava drinking.
As developing-country capitals go, Port Vila is extremely friendly and safe, but petty crime is on the rise, so take usual precautions. Lone women should take particular care. Wandering the streets at night is best avoided due to dogs, drunks, and muddy potholes.
The tap water is safe to drink.
The malaria risk in Port Vila itself is reckoned to be minimal, but do take precautions against malaria if venturing out of town.