How to Drink Kava In Vanuatu (A Tourist Guide!)

Tristan Balme How to drink Kava in vanuatu

Trying Kava is a fantastic way to experience Vanuatu culture on a deeper level.

The drink itself is an *acquired taste* (It’s horrendously bitter and vegetally) but induces calm, relaxing, and euphoric sensations.

Kava is such a big part of Vanuatu’s culture you really must try it while visiting but can be a little intimidating if you don’t know the etiquette.

Here’s everything I learnt about how to drink kava in Vanuatu as a tourist. 

What Exactly Is Kava

Tristan Balme 1 10

Kava is the national drink of Vanuatu. It’s made from the ground root of the kava plant (piper methysticum) and is often consumed in ceremonies, social gatherings, and for simple relaxation after a hard day’s work.

It’s important to note kava isn’t alcoholic! It may be drunk like its beer, but it’s a natural psychotropic that is very different from alcohol.

The active ingredients in kava are called kavalactones. They’re responsible for the relaxing and anxiety-reducing effects. Unlike alcohol, kava doesn’t impair your thinking but not a lot of research as been done on the compound and it can be hard to tell fact from fable.

How Kava is Made

Tristan Balme how to make kava

In the past, the root of the kava plant was chewed, releasing its active compounds. You might find this method practiced in some remote villages but is unlikely to be what you encounter as a tourist. 

Modern nakamals, like the one I visited, use either pre-ground dried kava root, or grind the fresh root themselves, which is thoroughly mixed with water in a large bowl. This mixture is then strained to produce the earthy-looking, slightly muddy beverage, with a bitter and earthy taste.

Having spent time in both Vanuatu and Fiji, i noticed that Fijian kava tended to be made from the dried powder, and Vanuatus kava moreso from fresh root. This may be why the Vanuatu kava was MUCH more potent!

Where To Find Kava?

You’ve got a few options to get some Kava;

  • From a roadside stall – Many locals make Kava at home and sell it outside their homes. This is the cheapest way to buy Kava but as a tourist you don’t really know who’s good, how strong it is, and if it particularly sanitary.
  • From a Nakamal – These local kava bars are social joints where people meet, socialise, and enjoy some light food while drinking their Kava.
  • At a Kava ceremony – If you go on some of the tourist experiences, or get lucky enough to spend time in a local village, you may be invited to a kava ceremony. This is a really cool experience and a great way to understand the cultural significance of the drink.

My Reccomonedation: The best placed to try kava is at a kava bar, a.k.a, a nakamal. Nakamals come in various forms, from simple open-air structures to enclosed buildings, but they’re easy to spot. 

Look for the telltale red or green lights glowing outside, indicating a place where kava is served. Don’t hesitate to ask locals for directions–they’ll be happy to point you to the nearest bar. 

Besides, offering directions is a sign of the welcoming Vanuatu spirit. 

Tip: Everyone has a favorite Nakamal, and each owner pride themselves on making the best, strongest, or cleanest Kava in town. Talk to a couple of locals to find their recommended spot to visit!

Nakamal Recomendation: Bultahi Kava Bar (For The Local Kava Experience)

Tristan Balme Bultahi Kava Bar

Bultahi is one of the many nakamals where you can get a good kava experience right in the heart of Port Vila town (about a 10 minute walk from the city centre) . It’s newly built and attracts a lot of locals and tourists alike. The bar has a couple of windows leased to different vendors from various parts of Vanuatu. 

A shell cost around 300 vatu ($2) when I was there.

Highlights

  • An authentic local experience with no other tourists in sight!
  • Party vibe: When I went there they had the BBQ pumping and music blaring. Definitly the place to go for a good time.
  • Strong Kava! (Every Nakmal reckons their kava is the best, and I’m no expert, but we sure left feeling the effects!)
  • A Bit awkward to figure out how (and what) to order since this is a locals’ bar and people may look surprised to see you there.
  • TIP: Try and get a local to show you the kava drinking etiquette

How to Drink Kava (Well, At Least How I Was Shown..)

1,How To Order Your Kava

Kava is served in ‘shells’ and ordered in scoops.

Traditionally, a shell is half a coconut shell, but now it’s more common for these to be small red plastic bowls of the same size.

A scoop is a ladle full, approximately 50ml.

A shell holds 2-3 scoops, or 100-150ml of Kava.

As soon as you ente the nakamal, head up to one of the vendors (inside a little shack the size of a garden shed). This is where you’ll also order the number of shells you’d like (one or two to start for newcomers). Sometimes you’ll be asked about your preference–weak, medium, or strong. 

Being a kava novice, I started with the weakest option; just 2 scoops – to gauge my tolerance before I went back for seconds. 

(Full disclosure: my first time at a Nakamal I was so repulsed by the taste I barely finished my first round. Tips on getting through it later on..)

2. How to Drink Kava

For the most pronounced effects, it’s ideal to drink kava on an empty stomach. This allows the active ingredients to kick in. Great for 5pm after work!

Aim to have your kava session at least 3-4 hours after your last meal. 

Now you’re ready to take your first sip! 

  1. Receiving Your Kava: When your shell is offered, accept it with both hands. It’s also nice to call out “!” as a gesture of appreciation.
  2. Paying respects: Its traditional to stand up when drinking kava. Turn to face the sun, and bow three times. Pour a little on the ground to pay respect to those left behind.
  3. Drinking Up: Traditionally, kava is downed in one gulp. As a newcomer, it’s completely fine to sip your beverage rather than downing it all at once. I recommend you have some water or fruit handy to chase the earthy kava flavor. Spitting after drinking is a traditional practice, but tourists are not expected to adhere to this strictly. Just do as feels comfortable for you.
  4. Returning the Shell: Once you’ve finished, return your empty shell to the host with a smile and a thank you as a way of acknowledging the hospitality you’ve been shown.

What to Expect When Drinking Kava

Kava takes some time to take effect (around 20-30 minutes). You’ll first notice a numbing sensation around your mouth and tongue.

Depending on the chosen strength, this will likely be followed by a wave of relaxation. 

At some point, I found myself feeling more sociable and talkative. Not alcohol-intoxicated rambling, but relaxed with a mild sense of contentedness. 

Frequent drinkers even mentioned how it tends to sharpen their focus. 

As the effects deepen, expect your muscles to relax and a pleasant drowsiness to set in. 

How Long The Effects Last

You might be wondering, how long do I have to wait out these effects? Kava’s effects depend on the strength and variety of the kava, how many servings you drink, and your metabolism. 

I experienced the initial euphoric and uplifting effects for up to 2 hours. But the calming sensations lingered longer.

Kava Etiquette

There’s really not much preparation needed for visiting a nakamal. It’s a casual experience, much like visiting your local bar. ]

The kava experience is meant to be social and relaxed. But basic humility/ humanity goes a long way and shows a willingness to engage with these local traditions.

Be open to conversation, try to understand local customs, and let the welcoming atmosphere of the nakamal wash over you.

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