Beyond Port Vila: Must-do Experiences in Vanuatu's Maskelyne Islands

Posted by Crooked Compass

Sitting peacefully in the South Pacific, is the fascinating tropical paradise of Vanuatu, which includes a group of over 80 islands. Extremely diverse, with around 100 different languages spoken and an ancient culture that is still proudly evident in daily life through "kastom" (village life), Vanuatu is too often earmarked as a 'flop and drop' destination. Many travellers never make it past the alluring capital of Port Vila, with its postcard perfect beaches, turquoise lagoons and indulgent resorts.

Ladies from Vanuatu's outer Islands
Ladies from Vanuatu's outer Islands

The rewards are immense for those who travel deeper into the country, as it is in the outer islands that the true soul of the country begins to reveal itself. Here you can truly go off the grid and experience kastom (village life) and the warm hospitality of Vanuautu's Ni-Van people, far from the crowds. Travelling further will allow you to discover the sheer beauty of Vanuatu's landscape, from volcanic islands to empty and pristine white sand beaches that will feel a world away from the busy capital.

Nguna Volcano Beach
Nguna Volcano Beach

The Maskelyne Islands, (often referred to as the Maskelyne's,) are remote cluster of islands accessed by flying from Port Vila to the tiny airport of Lamap, in South Malekula. A window seat is a must for your flight as the view of the islands, sprinkled in the aqua sea is exceptional.

Sunrise in the Maskelynes - Photo credit: Ben Bohane
Sunrise in the Maskelynes - Photo credit: Ben Bohane

After driving to the coast, you travel by boat from the mainland of Malekula to the Maskelyne's, where you will step into a true laid-back tropical paradise with thatched huts, swaying palms, outrageously beautiful beaches and local fishing boats making up the idyllic scenery. Vehicle free and peaceful, you will adjust quickly to the relaxed island pace.

Malekula sunrise
Malekula sunrise

Get Festive

Experiencing a local festival is one of the most fun and immersive ways to get to know a community and understand what is important to them. Cultural festivals are frequent occurrences in Vanuatu, and in the outer islands, an unmissable local event is the Maskelyne Canoe Festival. Starting with a canoe parade that showcases the incredible skills involved in the creation of the locally carved canoes, it continues to a canoe race, open for all the village to compete in.

Canoe race - Photo credit Ben Bohane
Canoe race - Photo credit Ben Bohane

You will see incredible carved masks being painted, witness the carving of canoes and some tribal wars and mask dances. You may even have the privilege of witnessing a circumcision. The warm and welcoming environment make it the perfect place to learn about and enjoy this incredible culture.

Canoe carving in the Maskelyne Islands
Canoe carving in the Maskelyne Islands

Swim with Dugongs

A highlight not to be missed whilst in the Maskelyne's, is the chance to swim with the gentlest of giants, the adorable dugong. The Maskelyne's are a global hotspot for these shy and graceful creatures (often referred to as sea cows) and swimming with them is an extra special ocean experience because they are curious creatures, who show an interest in swimmers and are comfortable and relaxed in their company. Interest in the dugongs has helped the island communities restrict local hunting and turn towards environmentally responsible tourism to support dugong conservation instead, and guidelines are in place to ensure any interactions are a positive experience for the wonderful creatures.

Dugongs - the gentle giants of the ocean
Dugongs - the gentle giants of the ocean

Experience Kastom

Central to the incredible spirit of Vanuatu is kastom, the cultural tradition that has been passed from generation to generation, and which once governed every aspect of village life including economics, spiritual beliefs, art, performance, and magic. The island of Uluveo in the Maskelyne’s has several villages where you can see authentic kastom in action, with ceremonies still being performed in the same way that they have been for hundreds of years.

Seeing a cultural performance in this environment is spectacular - be consumed by the island chants, the swish of grass skirts, and the vibrating thump of their feet on the earth. The passion of the Ni-Van’s for their culture is infectious, and you will quickly realise what makes the country so special – it’s amazing people!

Big Nambas - a cultural group in Malekula
Big Nambas - a cultural group in Malekula

Explore the Ocean by Outrigger Canoe

Ringed by incredible reefs teaming with colourful tropical marine life, the sapphire waters of the Maskelyne’s are home to a tangle of mangrove estuaries, and giant clam gardens. The best way to experience this ocean wonderland is travelling as the locals do - by traditional outrigger canoe. Glide effortlessly across the sea, exploring isolated beaches and secluded islets. Dive from your canoe to into the warm and clear waters to snorkel pristine reefs, keeping an eye out for turtles, dolphins and of course, dugongs.

Outrigger canoe in the clear waters of Vanuatu
Outrigger canoe in the clear waters of Vanuatu

Keep It Simple

One of the best things about the Maskelyne’s is that they are remote enough that you are forced to leave the world behind and adjust your clock to island time. Not only will internet rarely be available, but electricity and hot water can also be in short supply. Accommodation on the islands is simple - imagine thatched island bungalows on the edge of a lagoon or on the beach, equipped with mattresses, mosquito nets and shared bathroom facilities. While basic, the location is idyllic, and it is the perfect opportunity to have a proper kastom experience. Embrace this incredible chance to sink into island life.

Join our Maskelyne Canoe Festival small group tour to make these experiences yours!