The Republic of Vanuatu is a Pacific island nation located in the South Pacific Ocean.

The archipelago, of volcanic origin, is 1750km east of Australia, 540km northeast of New Caledonia, east of New Guinea, southeast of the Solomon Islands, and west of Fiji.

Vanuatu was first inhabited by Melanesian people. Pottery fragments have been found on the islands dating to 1300–1100BC.

The first Europeans to visit the islands were a Spanish expedition led by Portuguese navigator Fernandes de Queirós, who arrived on the largest island in 1606.

In the 1880s, France and the United Kingdom claimed parts of the archipelago, and in 1906, they agreed on a framework for jointly managing the archipelago as the New Hebrides.

An independence movement arose in the 1970s, and the Republic of Vanuatu was founded in 1980.

After Portuguese explorer Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, Europeans did not return until 1768, when Louis Antoine de Bougainville rediscovered the islands. In 1774, Captain Cook named the islands the New Hebrides, a name that would last until independence in 1980.

The first political party, established in the early 1970s, was called the New Hebrides National Party. The independent Republic of Vanuatu was established in 1980.

During the 1990s, Vanuatu experienced a period of political instability which resulted in a more decentralised government. The Vanuatu Mobile Force, a paramilitary group, attempted a coup in 1996 because of a pay dispute.

There were allegations of corruption in the government of Maxime Carlot Korman. New elections have been called for several times since 1997, most recently in 2016.

Vanuatu is a Y-shaped archipelago consisting of about 82 relatively small, geologically newer islands of volcanic origin (65 of them inhabited), with about 1300km between the most northern and southern islands.

The 14 of Vanuatu’s islands that have surface areas of more than 100km2, from largest to smallest: Espiritu Santo, Malakula, Efate, Erromango, Ambrym, Tanna, Pentecost, Epi, Ambae or Aoba, Gaua, Vanua Lava, Maewo, Malo and Aneityum or Anatom.

The nation’s largest towns are the capital Port Vila, on Efate, and Luganville on Espiritu Santo.

The highest point in Vanuatu is Mount Tabwemasana, at 1879m, on the island of Espiritu Santo.

Most of the islands are steep, with unstable soils and little permanent fresh water.

The shorelines are mostly rocky with fringing reefs and no continental shelf, dropping rapidly into the ocean depths.[19]

There are several active volcanoes in Vanuatu, including Lopevi, Mount Yasur and several underwater volcanoes. Volcanic activity is common, with an ever-present danger of a major eruption.

Vanuatu is recognised as a distinct terrestrial ecoregion, known as the Vanuatu rainforests. It is part of the Australasia ecozone, which includes New Caledonia, the Solomon Islands, Australia, New Guinea and New Zealand.

Vanuatu’s population has caused intense fishing pressure near villages and the depletion of near-shore fish species. Many upland watersheds are being deforested and degraded, and fresh water is becoming increasingly scarce.

Despite its tropical forests, Vanuatu has a limited number of plant and animal species. It has an indigenous flying fox, Pteropus anetianus. There are no indigenous large mammals. The 19 species of native reptiles include the flowerpot snake, found only on Efate.

There are eleven species of bats (three unique to Vanuatu) and sixty-one species of land and water birds.

The region is rich in sea life, with more than 4000 species of marine molluscs and a large diversity of marine fishes.

There are three or possibly four adult saltwater crocodiles living in Vanuatu’s mangroves and no current breeding population.

The climate is tropical, with about nine months of warm to hot rainy weather and the possibility of cyclones and three to four months of cooler, drier weather characterised by winds from the southeast.

Cool between April and September, the days become hotter and more humid starting in October. The daily temperature ranges from 20–32 °C (68–90 °F). Southeasterly trade winds occur from May to October.

Vanuatu has a long rainy season, with significant rainfall almost every month.

In March 2015, Cyclone Pam impacted much of Vanuatu as a Category 5 severe tropical cyclone, causing extensive damage and deaths, possibly the worst natural disaster in Vanuatu’s history.

The four mainstays of the economy are agriculture, tourism, offshore financial services, and raising cattle. There is substantial fishing activity, although this industry does not bring in much foreign exchange. Exports include copra, kava, beef, cocoa and timber, and imports include machinery and equipment, foodstuffs and fuels. In contrast, mining activity is unsubstantial.

Tourism brings in much-needed foreign exchange. Vanuatu is widely recognised as one of the premier vacation destinations for scuba divers wishing to explore coral reefs of the South Pacific region.

A further significant attraction to scuba divers is the wreck of the US ocean liner and converted troop carrier SS President Coolidge on Espiritu Santo island.

Sunk during World War II, it is one of the largest shipwrecks in the world that is accessible for recreational diving.

Tourism increased 17% from 2007 to 2008 to reach 196,134 arrivals, according to one estimate.[48] The 2008 total is a sharp increase from 2000, in which there were only 57,000 visitors (of these, 37,000 were from Australia, 8,000 from New Zealand, 6,000 from New Caledonia, 3,000 from Europe, 1,000 from North America, 1,000 from Japan.

Tourism has been promoted, in part, by Vanuatu being the site of several reality-TV shows. The ninth season of the reality TV series Survivor was filmed on Vanuatu, entitled Survivor: Vanuatu—Islands of Fire.

Two years later, Australia’s Celebrity Survivor was filmed at the same location used by the US version. In mid-2002, the government stepped up efforts to boost tourism.

The national language of the Republic of Vanuatu is Bislama.

The official languages are Bislama, French and English. The principal languages of education are French and English. The use of English or French as the formal language is split along political lines.

Bislama is a pidgin language, and now a creole in urban areas. Essentially combining a typically Melanesian grammar with a mostly English vocabulary, Bislama is the only language that can be understood and spoken by the majority of the population, as a second language.

In addition, 113 indigenous languages are still actively spoken in Vanuatu.

The density of languages, per capita, is the highest of any nation in the world, with an average of only 2000 speakers per language.

Christianity is the predominant religion in Vanuatu, consisting of several denominations.

Because of the modern goods that the military in the Second World War brought with them when they came to the islands, several cargo cults developed. Many died out, but the John Frum cult on Tanna is still large, and has adherents in the parliament. Also on Tanna is the Prince Philip Movement, which reveres the United Kingdom’s Prince Philip.

Villagers of the Yaohnanen tribe believed in an ancient story about the pale-skinned son of a mountain spirit venturing across the seas to look for a powerful woman to marry. Prince Philip, having visited the island with his new wife Queen Elizabeth, fitted the description exactly and is therefore revered as a god around the isle of Tanna.

Education is not compulsory, and school enrolments and attendance are among the lowest in the Pacific.

Vanuatu culture retains a strong diversity through local regional variations and through foreign influence. Vanuatu may be divided into three major cultural regions. In the north, wealth is established by how much one can give away, through a grade-taking system. Pigs, particularly those with rounded tusks, are considered a symbol of wealth throughout Vanuatu.

In the centre, more traditional Melanesian cultural systems dominate. In the south, a system involving grants of title with associated privileges has developed.[66]

Young men undergo various coming-of-age ceremonies and rituals to initiate them into manhood, usually including circumcision.

Most villages have a nakamal or village clubhouse which serves as a meeting point for men and as a place to drink kava.

Villages also have male- and female-only sections. These sections are situated all over the villages; in nakamals, special spaces are provided for females when they are in their menstruation period.

The traditional music of Vanuatu is still thriving in the rural areas of Vanuatu. Musical instruments consist mostly of idiophones: drums of various shape and size, slit gongs, stamping tubes, as well as rattles, among others.

Another musical genre that has become widely popular during the 20th century in all areas of Vanuatu, is known as string band music. It combines guitars, ukulele, and popular songs.

More recently the music of Vanuatu, as an industry, grew rapidly in the 1990s and several bands have forged a distinctive ni-Vanuatu identity. Popular genres of modern commercial music, which are currently being played in the urban areas include zouk music and reggaeton. Reggaeton, a variation of rap/hip-hop spoken in the Spanish language, played alongside its own distinctive beat, is especially played in the local nightclubs of Port Vila with, mostly, an audience of Westerners and tourists.

The cuisine of Vanuatu (aelan kakae) incorporates fish, root vegetables such as taro and yams, fruits, and vegetables. Most island families grow food in their gardens, and food shortages are rare. Papayas, pineapples, mangoes, plantains, and sweet potatoes are abundant through much of the year.

Coconut milk and coconut cream are used to flavour many dishes. Most food is cooked using hot stones or through boiling and steaming; very little food is fried.[19]

The national dish of Vanuatu is the lap lap.


A map of Atiu. Source: Cook Islands Sun.
A map of Atiu. Source: Cook Islands Sun.

Atiu is 187km northeast of the Cook Islands capital of Rarotonga, in the southern archipelago.

Atiu is a volcanic island surrounded by barrier reef with 6m high fossilized coral cliffs called makatea.

A small uninhabited island of Takutea, a bird sanctuary, is part of Atiu.

Atiu’s area is about half that of Rarotonga. It has a swamp, marshes and a lake, Te Roto.

The fertile area is used to grow bananas, citrus fruits, pawpaws, breadfruit and coconuts.

The Atiuans were warriors and before missionaries arrived, warring with neighbors on Mauke and Mitiaro, killing and eating them.

The first recorded European to arrive at Atiu was Captain Cook. He sighted the island on March 31, 1777 and made contact with the people.

Like most islands in the southern group, Atiu has only a small lagoon.

It does however have beautiful sandy beaches.

The makatea islands of the southern group have caves in the fossilised coral cliffs, with stalactites and stalagmites.

The Anatakitaki Cave is inhabited by the Atiu swiftlet (Aerodramus sawtelli) which navigates in the dark using sonar.

Men can enjoy the tumunu or bush beer party, banned since the missionaries arrived, but still going strong. It is a hangover from historic kava ceremonies.

The men carved themselves a barrel from the trunk of the coconut tree and brewed the concoction in there.

Visitors are very welcome if they leave a small donation. Participants sit around the barman in the centre who serves everyone from a cocnut shell – going around the full circle. One may drink or wave away the drink.

There is a table with sliced up fruit and one may help oneself. There are generally instruments strumming and everyone joins in the singing.

It is estimated that the first people arrived on the island in the early part of the 14th century.

A wharf was built in 1974 that allows ships to dock in most conditions.

In 1970 an airport was built on the plateau close to the villages. The runway however was too short. About 1984 the building of the airport near the beach was undertaken.

The airfield is served by aircraft from Aitutaki and Rarotongo, operated by Air Raro using Embraer EMB 110 Bandeirante aircraft.

Flights are 45 minutes.

In 2015, the Chinese gave the island several large machines to enable the locals to tar seal the runway.

Taro is the staple food of Atiuans. The Atiu taro is sought after by the people in Rarotonga, Aitutaki and New Zealand.

Atiu has a long history of growing coffee.

There are five villages in Atiu – visitors may not distinguish one from the other – and each village has a meeting house which is very important to them.

Most settlements are on the central hill.

The population of Atiu is about 600.

Because the island is free of black rats, it was chosen as a site for reintroduction of the endangered Kuhl’s lorikeet in 2007.

Check out Atiu prices and flight availability below.


A map of Mangaia. Source: Cook Island Sun
A map of Mangaia. Source: Cook Island Sun

Mangaia is the most southerly of the Cook Islands, and the second largest, after Rarotonga.

Geologists say the island is 18 million years old, the oldest in the Pacific.

It rises 4750m above the sea floor, with a land area of 52km2.

It has a volcanic plateau and is surrounded by a ring of fossilised coral cliffs around 60m high, called makatea.

The highest point is Rangi-motia, at 169m. The freshwater Lake Tiriara is in the south.

The population of Mangaia is 700 people.

The capital is Oneroa village, on the west coast, with half the population.

There are two more villages, Tamarua in the south and Ivirua in the northeast.

Mangaia is renowned for its shell neckbands or “eis”.

These are made from a tiny yellow snail which emerges only after rain.

The women give these away as prized gifts of friendship to visitors from other islands.

Mangaia is renowned for coconuts, an important crop even today, providing food, coconut milk, and fibre.

Before settlement by missionaries, Mangaia was ruled by warriors who fought over land and crops.

The first recorded European to arrive at Mangaia was Captain James Cook, on March 29, 1777.

Long ago, during a trip to London, Numangatini, or “King” John of Mangaia, received from Queen Victoria a Union Jack flag.

Mangaia is a good destination for those who want to relax and experience slightly cooler temperatures than on the other Cook Islands.


Rarotonga is the main settlement in the Cook Island group, and a popular holiday destination. Picture: Robert Linsdell/flikr
Mountainous Rarotonga and its tiny lagoon islands make for a popular holiday destination. Picture: Robert Linsdell/flikr

Rarotonga is the most populous of the Cook Islands, and a popular holiday destination.

It has a large variety of resorts and accommodation, as well as restaurants and local entertainment.

The main town is Avarua, on the north coast, the capital of the Cook Islands.

Rarotonga is a volcanic island that rises 4500m from the sea floor.

The highest peak is Te Manga, at 658m.

The island is 32km around and surrounded by a lagoon, which often extends more than 100m out to the reef, then slopes steeply to deep water, an exciting place for experienced divers.

The reef fronts the shore to the island’s north, but in the south-east the lagoon is at its widest and deepest, ideal for snorkelling and watersports.

Along the south-east coast are four small coral islets within the barrier reef, Motutapu, Oneroa, Koromiri and Taakoka.

Roads allow access to the island interior, which is mostly unpopulated because of the terrain.

Large cruise ships must anchor offshore as the island’s ports are not deep.

Three-quarters of Rarotonga is encircled by an ancient inner road made of stones, Ara Metua.

There is also a short tourist railway, Rarotonga Steam Railway, with a working steam locomotive.

Rarotonga has two bus routes, clockwise and anticlockwise, with pick-up and set-down anywhere en route.

Visitors from Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada, UK and the EU can now drive rentals in the Cook Islands for up to six months using their overseas license. Otherwise, visitors who rent mopeds or cars are required to get a Cook Islands driver licence.

Rarotonga International Airport has Air Rarotonga inter-island flights, with daily flights to Aitutaki, regular flights to Atiu, Mangaia, Mauke and Mitiaro, and occasional flights to the remote northern atolls of Manihiki, Tongareva (Penrhyn) and Pukapuka.


Aitutaki has been called the world's most beautiful island. Picture: Allie Towers Rice
Aitutaki has been called the world’s most beautiful island. Picture: Allie Towers Rice/flikr
A map of Aitutaki. Source: Cook Islands Sun
A map of Aitutaki. Source: Cook Islands Sun

Aitutaki has been described as the world’s most beautiful island.

Its remote beauty is such that it has been selected to host Survivor TV programs.

The island is north of the most populated island of the Cook group, Rarotonga.

The main village is Arutanga, on the west side. The overall population is 2000.

Aitutaki has a maximum elevation of 123m, a hill called Maunga Pu.

The land area of the atoll is 18km2.

The barrier reef forms a triangle with sides 12km long, with a lagoon area of more than 55km2.

The southern barrier reef edge is mostly below the sea.

The east side includes a string of small islands, such as Mangere, Akaiami and Tekopua.

The western side of the atoll has a boat passage through the barrier reef, allowing for anchorage close to Arutanga.

The main island and two of Aitutaki’s 15 islets are volcanic. The other islands are made of coral.

Aitutaki Airport is located close to the triangle’s northern point.

There is an area suitable to land flying boats in the southeastern part of the lagoon.

Polynesians first settled Aitutaki around AD900.

The first known European contact was with Captain Bligh and the crew of the HMS Bounty when they also arrived in Aitutaki on April 11, 1789, prior to the infamous mutiny.

Aitutaki was the first of the Cook Islands to accept Christianity, after a missionary visited in 1821.

In 1942 Allied forces were stationed on the island, building the airstrip seen today.

When the war ended some servicemen stayed and married locals.

Two of Aitutaki’s motus (small islands), Rapota and Moturakau, were the locations of the first series of the UK reality television program Shipwrecked in 2000.

In 2006, the island was used for the US TV program Survivor: Cook Islands. Surrounding islands were used for tribal camps and crew locations. One of the tribes was named Aitutaki (or ‘Aitu’) after the island.

Then, not long afterwards, Shipwrecked returned again, with Shipwrecked: Battle of the Islands 2006.

Aitutaki is famous for its turquoise central lagoon, uninhabited islands and palm-fringed beaches.

It has the only over-water bungalow accommodation in the Cook Islands.

Tapuaetai (One Foot Island), a small islet in the south-east of the lagoon, is often said to be the most important attraction. It is regarded as providing the visitor with the best views of the Aitutaki lagoon.

The trip to this island is the most frequented trip available on Aitutaki.

Air Rarotonga offers daily flights and a day tour from Rarotonga.


Tubuai is located south of Tahiti, offering a cooler climate for holidaymakers.

The Tubuai group includes Rimatara, Rurutu, Raivavae and Îles Maria, part of the Austral Islands in far southwest French Polynesia.

The Austral islands are a great art area in the South Pacific.

Artifacts include sharkskin drums, wooden bowls, fly whisks and tapa cloth.

Tubuai has a population 2200 people.

The island is ringed by a lagoon and encircling barrier reef.

A break in the northern reef enables passage for ships.

The barrier reef creates a lagoon of 85sqkm, up to 5km wide.

Because it is shallow it is usually bright turquoise or jade in colour.

Eight offshore islands surround the main island.

Tubuai has two volcanic domes, with Mt Taita’a being highest at 422m.

Seven islets (motus) are located on the reef that encircles the island.

Captain James Cook learned the island’s name when natives surrounded his ship in canoes in 1777.

The next Europeans to arrive were HMS Bounty mutineers, in 1789.

A conflict arose while the mutineers were still on the ship and islanders were killed in their canoes.

The location is now called Bloody Bay.

The climate of Tubuai is cooler than Tahiti, with temperatures averaging 20–25C. The lagoon waters typically reach 26C in summer but only drop a few degrees in winter.

The humidity is lower than Tahiti, which appeals to some prospective visitors.


Taha’a and neighboring Raiatea are enclosed by the same coral reef in the Leeward Islands, part of the Society Islands in French Polynesia.

The two main resorts of Taha’a are both on their own islands, offering both luxury and affordable holiday accommodation.

Le Taha’a Private Island and Spa is one of the most luxurious resorts in the Tahiti region.

Located just off Taha’a in a lagoon surrounded by white sand, it has spectacular views of both Taha’a and Bora Bora.

In the middle of the lagoon is Vahine Island Private Island Resort, which has gleaming white beaches, three over-water bungalows, and six beach bungalows.

La Pirogue Hotel is on a private island in the north of Taha’a. It has nine bungalows.

Taha’a island itself is scenic, reaching a height of 590m.

It produces up to 80 per cent of French Polynesian vanilla.

It also produces pearls of exceptional quality.

The administrative centre is the settlement of Patio.

Taha’a and its small islets can be reached by boat and outrigger from Raiatea.

These parts of the Society Islands are less modernized, but the resort on Vahine Island is globally regarded as an exclusive getaway.

Tahaa has a perfect combination of white sand and crystal clear water. Picture: Kat Kellner/flikr
Tahaa has a perfect combination of white sand and crystal clear water. Picture: Kat Kellner/flikr


The spectacular profile of Raiatea. Picture: clr_flkr/flikr
The spectacular profile of Raiatea. Picture: clr_flkr/flikr
Maori dancing at Raiatea. Picture: Alessandro Caproni/flikr
Maori dancing at Raiatea. Picture: Alessandro Caproni/flikr

Ra’iātea is the second largest of the Society Islands, after Tahiti, in French Polynesia.

A traditional name for the island is Havai’i, homeland of the Māori people.

The Māori of Aotearoa regard this place as a sacred marae of their ancestors.

The main township on Ra’iātea is ‘Uturoa, the administrative centre for the Leeward Islands.

There are colleges for students from the regional islands of Bora Bora, Taha’a, Huahine and Maupiti.

The extinct Ulieta bird originated from this island, along with other unknown species, there is only one drawing of it, in the Natural History Museum London.

The islands of Ra’iātea and Taha’a are both enclosed by a single coral reef.

Ra’iātea is the largest and most populated of the Leeward Islands, with a land area of 167km2 and 12,000 inhabitants.

The first European to sight Ra’iātea was Pedro Fernandes de Queirós in 1606.

The Polynesian navigator Tupaia, who sailed with explorer James Cook, was born in Ra’iātea around 1725.

Cook visited Raiatea in 1769 and again in 1773-1774.

King Tamatoa VI was the last monarch, reigning from 1884-1888.

Ra’iātea has a small road that runs around the entire island.

Ra’iātea Airport is an airport in ‘Uturoa.

There is less tourism compared to other islands in the archipelago. There are two marinas, a four-star hotel The Hawaiki Nui, and a port for cruise ships.

The economy is mainly agricultural with exports of vanilla, pineapple and coconut. Fa’aroa Valley cultivates vanilla, and pearl farming is an important industry, while the farming of cattle, sheep and pigs has decreased.

Explore Ra’iātea and the nearby islands with this map. Zoom in and toggle between map and satellite modes as needed.


The pier at Kia Ora Resort on Rangiroa Atoll. Pic: Dany13/flickr
The pier at Kia Ora Resort on Rangiroa Atoll. Pic: Dany13/flickr

Rangiroa is one of the largest atolls in the world.

It is part of the Palliser group, 355km northeast of Tahiti.

Its nearest atoll is Tikehau, 12km to the west.

Rangiroa is home to about 2500 people. The chief town is Avatoru. Only two islands, at the northern end of the atoll, are permanently inhabited.

The atoll consists of 415 small islands and sandbars with a land area of 170 km². The atoll is 80km in length and from 5km to 32 km wide.

There are about 100 hundred passages through the fringing reef.

The lagoon reaches 35m deep and is so large it has its own horizon.

Rangiroa is a major diving destination because of the lagoon’s clear blue water and impressive marine fauna.

During the 1950s, the economy of Rangiroa was driven by fishing and and copra production. The building of Rangiroa Airport in 1965 allowed development of tourism.

Breeding of pearl oysters in the lagoon has produced black pearls.

These pearls vary from white to dark are the only cultured pearls with so many different natural colours.

Pearl farming is done in more than 30 atolls of French Polynesia.

Rangiroa is also known for vineyards, which are unique. The vines grow on the edge of a lagoon beside coconuts, and produce two harvests a year. The winery is in the heart of the village of Avatoru. The first vines were imported in 1992. The vineyard is Domaine Dominique Auroy.

For divers, Rangiroa has some of the best dives in the world in and around the Tiputa Pass, which lies at one end of the one main road and runs 3.5km to the Avatoru Pass.

When the tidal current is flowing inward through Tiputa Pass, about 200 sharks gather at the entrance to the Pass, at 50m deep.

The sharks can remain motionless. Large manta rays, green sea turtles and humphead wrasses can also be seen. In January, large number of stingrays gather in the Tiputa Pass, as well as hammerhead sharks that feed on them.

A notable site in the atoll is the famous Blue Lagoon, which is a smaller lagoon formed on the southwestern edge of Rangiroa. Its shallow waters accentuate the bright blue color of the water. The Pink Sands are sandbars on the southeastern portion of Rangiroa.

There are daily flight connections with Tahiti via Rangiroa Airport, located on Avatoru Island. There is a road circling Avatoru.

Explore Rangiroa and its resorts with the zoomable Google map.


The bridge connecting the two islands. Pic: Dany13/flickr
The bridge connecting the two islands. Pic: Dany13/flickr

Huahine is twin islands in French Polynesia surrounded by a fringing coral reef and several small islets, or “motu”.

Huahine Nui (Big Huahine) is to the north and Huahine Iti (Little Huahine) to the south, separated by a channel which becomes a sandspit at low tide.

A bridge has been built connecting Huahine Nui and Huahine Iti.

In the northwest of Huahine Nui lies a 375ha brackish lake called Lac Fauna Nui, the remains of an ancient lagoon.

One of the attractions on Huahine is a bridge that crosses a stream where large freshwater eels can be fed.

An archaeological site in the north of the island has revealed remains of birds exterminated by the earliest Polynesian colonists of the island.

Air transport is via Huahine Airport on the north shore of Huahine Nui.

Explore Huahine with the map below, zoom in on the island to find the many resorts.