Travel agent Linda Gutekunst in Vanuatu // © 2015 Linda Gutekunst
Feature image (above): Gutekunst counts the island nation of Vanuatu among the best places in the South Pacific for scuba diving and snorkeling. // © 2015 Thinkstock
Longtime South Pacific specialist Linda Gutekunst, who owns Colorado-based South Seas Adventures, has traveled to the island nation of Vanuatu seven times, including her most recent visit just last year. An avid scuba diver, Gutekunst insists that Vanuatu offers some of the best underwater adventure in all of the South Pacific and described her experience at the summit of Mount Yasur — an active volcano on the island of Tanna — as one of the most memorable experiences of her life.
Gutekunst shared some of her Vanuatu expertise with TravelAge West while painting quite a picture of the volcanic archipelago down under.
Why should clients consider a trip to Vanuatu?
People should visit Vanuatu because it offers a combination of many great destinations in the South Pacific. It has sandy beaches like Fiji, the exotic qualities of Papua New Guinea — without being as expensive or as hard to get to — and you also get some of the flavor of Tahiti. Vanuatu also has such an attractive culture, including fire walkers, kava ceremonies and cultural dances. On the island of Tanna, you get a chance to go to Mount Yasur and stand near one of the most active volcanoes in the world.
What sort of traveler would you send to Vanuatu?
Vanuatu is a good fit for all kinds of travelers, whether you are a 30-year-old millennial looking for an adventurous honeymoon or you are in your mid-60s or 70s and want to do more culture-related travel. Or if you’re a scuba diver, Vanuatu has some of the best scuba diving you can do in the South Pacific. And [the island of] Espiritu Santo offers scuba diving and World War II history. Even if you’re just someone that I refer to as a “flop and drop” — somebody who is looking for a white-sand beach, good meals at a really great restaurant and really nice accommodations — you can do that as well.
What’s the best way to get to Vanuatu?
The best routing is going to be on Fiji Airways. You go from Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji, and then it’s just a quick hour flight from Nadi to Efate, which is the island you fly into for Vanuatu.
How much travel time should people expect?
From LA to Nadi it’s about 11 hours, and then you have another hour from Nadi to Port Vila [on the island of Efate]. It’s about 12 hours total, but you do cross the dateline.
You mentioned Tanna. Why should people be sure to visit that island?
You really step back in time on Tanna. There are still custom villages there, and that means the people have never taken on Western ways. Women are topless and wearing skirts they have pounded out from pandanus (palm-like trees). They still have pigs inside their homes, and the pigs are just as important as the kids. From there, you typically travel by jeep over to the base of Mount Yasur.
What was your Mount Yasur experience like?
On the way up, the jeep was already rumbling underneath us, and then we got out and heard just one big boom after another. We saw what looked very much like fireworks while we walked up to the summit. The earth was moving and shaking. Once we finally got to the top, there were these masses of lava, just about the size of a Volkswagen, shooting up in the air and then coming back down. Sometimes they landed around the rim, and other times, they just fell back into the caldera. It was just so amazing. It’s probably one of the top five things I’ll ever do in my life.
How close were you to these masses of molten lava?
They got pretty close sometimes. I’d say some were only about a block away when they landed. It’s something that would never happen in the U.S. — no way. There were no fences. We were just with the local guides, exploring at our own risk. Our guides kept telling us to keep looking up and always be aware. Often, the lava would just land back in the caldera, but occasionally, it landed pretty close while we captured videos and photos and just took in the over-the-top, crazy show Mother Nature was presenting to us.
What’s the best way for an agent to arrange that experience for a client?
Well, I booked it with my inbound operator, which is Adventures in Paradise, and I also booked inner-island flights, transfers and our accommodations with them. There are pretty limited resources in Vanuatu. It’s not like Fiji or the Cook Islands or Tahiti where there are lots of entities for an agent to work with. I imagine people staying at White Grass Ocean Resort, where we stayed on Tanna, could also have the hotel help them book it as well.
Do you have some other Vanuatu hotel properties you recommend?
Right off of the island of Espiritu Santo, where guests can scuba dive (among the wreck of the SS President Coolidge), there is a great resort called Ratua Private Island. On the main island of Efate, which is where everyone will fly into, I really like The Havannah, and there is also the Iririki Island Resort, which has overwater bungalows and looks right out over the harbor.