We had a really nice week in Vanuatu back in April. It's a group of quite a lot of islands, including some quite remote ones, but the three most popular are Efate where Port Vila is, Espiritu Santo, and Tanna Island. We started in Efate and Tanna was second.
Except for a few into Espiritu Santo basically all international flights go into Port Vila. There's lots of hotels and restaurants (most closed sundays and public holidays), but aside from the awesome sunsets and a drink by the water we reckon there isn't much reason to hang around in Vila – the nice bits of Vanuatu are further outdoors.
(Unless you want to get drunk and start a fight, in which case there'a good bar on the main road, popular with the sailors.)
From there though you can pretty easily get around the whole island – it's not that big. We went out to the Mele-Mele Cascades which is a waterfall followed by a series of little waterfalls that you can sort of walk up in (there's a rope) – quite cool.
Next stop was Tanna which has several interesting things going on, but let's face it, people just go to for the volcano. There aren't many places where you can climb up to the crater rim and watch it erupt!
It currently (2011) takes a long time to get there from the side of the island that has the airport and most of the places to stay – almost 3 hours straight through the middle by very bumpy rutted dirt roads, which go from almost impassable to actually impassable when heavy rain turns it to slush.
After crossing the saddle you turn in and go across a stream/river that goes around the edge of the cinder plain, a black-sand area stretching out from the volcano itself. The current route up is around on the opposite site of the volcano and the road up is even worse – we were really getting thrown around in the cab of the truck even though our guy was only going about 10km/h.
Some poor tourists were on bench seats constructed on the flatbed of a ute. This would not be a good time – we're told they didn't have seatbelts so would really have been hanging on for dear life at this point. Not to mention cold in the rain!
Anyway, so the ute can take you up much of the height of the volcano, then you walk up to whichever side of the cinder cone is currently safe enough to stand on and look in. And suddenly there is is, roaring and spewing in front of you!
There's a gentle rumbling sound most of the time, but you go through periods of 2-3 minutes between eruptions. Each is proceeded by a roar and then a shower of red lava shoots out of the vent, spraying on the side of the cinder cone then dripping back down the sides. Clouds of smoke come off the sparks as they cool, forming slowly into the giant smoke-cloud you can see in the photo above.
Although you technically can visit the volcano as a day-trip and fly back out, it's better to stay on Tanna so you can see if as the sun falls and the fireworks become the only source of light.
(Take a head-torch to get back down the slope to the vehicle.)
It's really something to see – one of my most memorable travel experiences. The volcano's eruptions vary widely in strength and at times it's too dangerous to go up the cinder cone and access is closed. There is a seasonal element to it apparently, being somewhat more active in the wet season, but otherwise I think you're just taking your chances.
I think it's worth having a couple of nights in Tanna to maximise your chances of having good enough weather to get over the saddle. It's a nice relaxed place anyway, and there's other things to do on the island – go snorkelling, go see the Jon Frum cargo cult community, go for a walk.
There is a plan to put a ring-road in around the island, in which case it'll be much quicker and easier to get to the volcano. If you have a week, you can also go on a sailing cruise right around to that side of the island from Efate, which I'm guessing would be a pretty relaxing time!
After Tanna we flew back to Tanna and then on to Espiritu Santo and Aore.