Vanuatu vs New Caledonia… I’ve travelled a few times there. Which destination do I recommend? These beautiful archipelagos in the South Pacific are neighbours yet very different. And it’s impossible to give you a straight answer if you ask me which one of Vanuatu or New Caledonia is the best destination. Still, this article will help you choose according to the criteria that are important to you.
I based this article on our visits to:
- Espiritu Santo, Efate and Tanna in Vanuatu
- The main island, the Isle of Pines, Lifou, Maré and Ouvea in New Caledonia
Vanuatu vs New Caledonia: should you visit both?
Spending a few days in Noumea and Port Vila, respectively the capitals of New Caledonia and Vanuatu, will not bring you the best experiences the two archipelagos have on offer. Many cruises do it and only stop for one day in each port. I see it as an appetiser: a small taste to make you want to come back.
So if you have limited time, don’t waste it travelling internationally and sticking the capitals. I recommend exploring more in depth one of the two destinations. And plan a second trip to the other.
Languages in Vanuatu and New Caledonia
I am putting the language topic at the start of the article as it is an easy way to differentiate between Vanuatu and New Caledonia, and a deal breaker for some travellers.
They speak French in New Caledonia
New Caledonia is an independent region of France. So French is the official language of New Caledonia, and they have local languages on the different islands too. They learn English at school, as most French people do. And they’re not particularly good at it, as most French people! They are used to receiving international tourists and people in hotels will speak English. You can travel to New Caledonia if you don’t speak French and have an excellent time. My friends did it. But if you don’t enjoy trying to express yourself in a foreign language, you will have limited interactions with the locals.
They speak English and/or French in Vanuatu
Vanuatu claimed its independence in 1980. For about one century before, it was managed under an Anglo–French condominium. That’s why they ended up having three official languages in Vanuatu: English, French and Bislama (a pidgin English that’s also spoken in Papua New Guinea). Plus many other local languages. Although they learn the official languages at school, not all inhabitants can speak the three languages.
Some went to French schools and others to English schools, so they don’t have the same level in each language. And not everybody went to school. So you may end up meeting locals who do not speak your language. But on the most touristy islands, you will mainly find people who do.
Both New Caledonia and Vanuatu are expensive destinations. As a comparison, prices are generally as high as in Australia. When you are budget conscious, I found New Caledonia slightly cheaper:
- For accommodations, we managed to share traditional houses at four or six people, bringing down the price considerably.
- For transport, we could hire a car and organise our visits ourselves rather than depending on a driver and tours
- The budget for food was quite similar to Vanuatu.
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I don’t need much to be happy with my accommodation. When I travel, I’m even happy to sleep outside if there’s no danger. But for this review, I put on the shoes of travellers who have higher expectations.
New Caledonia is the winner for two reasons:
- The broader range of offers for all travel styles and budget
- The hot showers
Although I don’t need a hot shower every day, especially when I travel to warm countries, I know it’s a deal breaker for some of us. So New Caledonia scored points there as we had a hot shower available everywhere we went to (well, except that time where we did a bivouac on the beach). In Vanuatu, it was great news when it was available – because we don’t stay at the expensive resorts.
When looking for accommodations in New Caledonia, we could choose from:
- Expensive resorts
- Cosy or budget bungalows
- Traditional houses
It also meant there was something available for different budgets. The offer in Vanuatu was often not as broad. We usually only had a choice between expensive resorts or basic bungalows (that weren’t cheap). We managed to find lovely views and experiences of both destinations.
I appreciated that we could find local cuisine in the restaurants of New Caledonia. And the food is delicious. It’s a mix of Pacific Island ingredients with a touch of French cuisine. As they produce vanilla, they use it a lot in their dishes. And for the French expats that miss French food, it’s a paradise to find the French bakery, creperies and other French specialities in the South Pacific. Just make sure you always book in advance.
In Vanuatu restaurants, I was frustrated to mostly find western food (still made of local ingredients). But I highly appreciated they were open for extended hours and did not require bookings. It made the trip easier; I almost gave them a draw for this.
I also loved the markets in Vanuatu. We were able to taste many fruits we had never heard of. We also found local food to buy near the markets or on the side of the road for very cheap (like 1/10th of the price of a meal at a restaurant). From their reactions, I don’t think many tourists buy food from them. Their loss: it was delicious!
It depends if you are comfortable renting a car and driving around by yourself, or if you want to stick to having a driver.
Roads in New Caledonia were a lot better than most roads in Vanuatu. We had no problem renting a car on the island of New Caledonia. It was very convenient not to depend on having a driver or finding a taxi. Public transport is excellent in Noumea. We didn’t try it elsewhere. Hiring a driver for the day is possible, but expensive.
We could rent a car from Port Vila in Vanuatu, and on Santo. But the car we rented on Santo limited us to the main road – which was enough but still a bit frustrating. In Port Vila, we opted for public transport as it was the cheapest option. But on Tanna, it is complicated to go from one side of the island to the other, and the only option for tourists is to hire a driver. We met many tourists who were frustrated by not being able to go from one place to another, or from spending all their money on transfers.
I have compared the activities we did at each destination. It was a hard exercise to pick a winner as I love both trips. I suggest you check out these two articles to find out more about:
Snorkelling and diving
New Caledonia is the world’s largest lagoon. There, I found the best snorkelling spot I have ever been too.
Jinek natural aquarium on Lifou Island is breathtaking. And many other places were amazing for snorkelling and scuba diving on every island we visited:
- Mare had a bay full of turtles,
- The Isle of Pines had a natural aquarium with visibility that cannot be beaten,
- Ouvea gives easy access to a pass with rays and sharks, and
- You’ll find beautiful corals in front of Noumea’s main beach.
Still, I picked Vanuatu as the best destination out of the two archipelagos for diving and snorkelling.
Vanuatu has many excellent spots for snorkelling and diving on coral reefs. I had never seen that many clownfish during a trip than in Vanuatu. The reefs weren’t as big as in New Caledonia, but we would still spend hours in the water enjoying their beauty. I particularly loved the blue holes on Tanna and the reef near Port Olry on Santo.
But snorkelling or diving in Vanuatu is not only about coral reefs.
The military activity around Vanuatu during WWII gave them interesting underwater features to explore, especially on Santo Island. We found a couple of plane wrecks while canoeing where we could snorkel. But the most famous spots are Million Dollar Point, where the Americans dumped all their equipment, and the SS Coolidge, a shipwreck full of history and amazing marine species.
So for the diversity of the snorkelling and diving sites, Vanuatu was my favourite.
Don’t get me wrong: you’ll find exceptional beaches in Vanuatu. On Santo, we spent four nights on the stunning Port Olry beach wondering why the next door Champagne Beach got ranked in the World’s most beautiful beaches instead. And we understood when we finally checked out Champagne Beach.
But I have never seen a more stunning beach than the one I saw in Ouvea in New Caledonia. They call it “the closest island to Heaven”. Imagine an atoll with a lagoon and a 25-kilometre beach of pure white sand. The view as you arrive by plane is incredible. And it only gets better when you stand on the small bridge linking the two parts of the atoll, with stunning beaches in front of you and beautiful schools of fish and a few rays swimming just below you. And that’s only one of the beaches in one of the islands of New Caledonia. The Isle of Pines is nearly as beautiful, and the rest of the coast is full of great surprises too.
We did a few lovely hikes in the forests and along the coasts of New Caledonia. But they cannot compete with the diversity of landscapes we saw in Vanuatu.
Tanna Volcano was one of the best places I explored in my life. You don’t often get the chance to stand in an ash plain next to an active volcano. Millenium Cave hike on Santo was also amazing in a completely different way. We did a lot in just a few hours with a mix of jungle trekking, caving, canyoning and swimming.
In Vanuatu, the Europeans were sent away when the country became independent. Although they share the same base, each island seems to have its identity and traditions.
In the south of the main island of New Caledonia, there is a mixed population of Kanaks (with Melanesian origins) and Caldoches (those who’ve been in New Caledonia for many generations but whose ancestors were Europeans). When you travel to the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia, the lands are still owned by the Kanak tribes and their culture has been protected.
The ni-Van culture and the Kanak culture are different, but they also have many similarities. And that’s not surprising considering how close they are from each other. Both managed to preserve kastom traditions, dialects and strong link and knowledge of surrounding nature. What I love the most is how much they were willing to share with visitors. We had great exchanges with locals in both countries, talking about many different topics.
We felt very welcome in both destinations. As long as you show respect and interest, ni-Vans and Kanaks make excellent hosts. On both archipelagoes, we were a few times welcomed as part of the family and invited to the church and the party after.
I nearly gave them a draw again. But I remembered a couple of places in New Caledonia where the service didn’t deliver to our expectations. The staff wasn’t making any efforts to provide the best experience possible for its clients. They weren’t rude, but not always helpful. That’s something we never felt during our time in Vanuatu. On the contrary, people were coming to us to offer help without asking for anything in return.
Vanuatu vs New Caledonia: the winner is…
Sorry, but it’s a draw! I would feel bad picking a winner as I loved my trips there. Both Vanuatu and New Caledonia are worth a visit and do not provide the same kind of experiences. So how can you choose?
Select what’s the most important for you (language, accommodation, transports, activities…) to calculate your score. And if you draw again, give them coefficients. Or visit both, it’s worth it!
Summary of the scores Vanuatu vs New Caledonia
- Language: Vanuatu (they speak English, French and Bislama)
- Budget: New Caledonia (both destinations are expensive but budget options in New Caledonia are easier to find)
- Accommodations: New Caledonia (the accommodation offer is broader in New Caledonia)
- Food: New Caledonia (easier to find local cuisine and we loved the French touch)
- Transport: Draw (New Caledonia wins if you can drive, Vanuatu is better if you need a driver)
- Diving/Snorkelling: Vanuatu (both destinations have amazing coral reefs but Vanuatu also has great wrecks)
- Beach: New Caledonia (both destinations have amazing beaches but those in New Caledonia were our favourite)
- Hiking: Vanuatu (mostly for the unique views of Tanna volcano and the Millenium Cave adventure)
- Culture: Draw (both destinations have preserved Melanesian culture and locals are happy to share about it)
- Welcoming: Vanuatu (ni-Van people often went the extra step to enhance visitor experience)
Vanuatu vs New Caledonia: which destination wins according to you? Share your feedback in the comments below!
Where are Vanuatu and New Caledonia?
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Eloise lives in Brisbane (Australia), but you won’t find her often in the city. When she is not disconnected underwater or in a national park, she loves sharing her travel tips and inspiring her readers to take care of our beautiful planet. She considers every weekend as a two-day holiday break. Her approach: you don’t always need to go far to travel. Still, she also enjoys exploring the world and discovering new cultures. Eloise is originally from France and, before moving to Brisbane, she lived in Sydney, Istanbul and England.