A visit to Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu
by Danielle Diehm
As you all know I love Vanuatu! My family & I have had some amazing experiences in this tropical paradise, met some wonderful people & made memories to last a lifetime. We have visited 6 of the Islands & recently were lucky enough to experience the stunning island of Espiritu Santo.
Being the largest of the Islands in the group we felt like we could not say we had experienced the whole Vanuatu package unless we paid it a visit.
On previous trips we had not really even considered Santo because, as tourists, it was always marketed to us as a place to go if you are into diving, which we are not; in fact, we are not even particularly brave snorkelers!!!
Having now been to Santo, I have to say that I don’t know why more tourism marketing is not done to promote this gorgeously unspoilt island to the non-diver as much as the dive enthusiast.
The plan was to stay for a week in total, 4 days on the main island & 3 on Ratua (WOW!!! but that is a story for another time). Hubby & the kids were a little concerned that there would not be enough non-diving things to do & that the we would all kill each other in the first few days – they need not have worried.
After a short Air Vanuatu flight from Port Vila, we were all intrigued as we flew in over many lovely little islands off the coast. Touching down at Pakoa Airport, we were surprised to see such a modern building with better facilities then Bauerfeld international. We also discovered that you can fly here direct from Australia & New Zealand several times a week with Air Vanuatu.
Steve, the driver from Village De Santo, was patiently waiting to pick us up in his pride & joy, his van, there were plenty of taxi’s available also. Driving from the airport towards the Luganville CBD we were happy to see that Santo had not been even slightly touched by Cyclone Pam & everything was green & lush. As we drove past the harbour we discovered that certain cruise companies call in here also to offer their passengers a quieter option to down town Port Vila, something we didn’t know.
After spending the previous week on Efate & experiencing the after effects of Pam, it was great to drive past the Luganville produce markets & see them teaming with locals, travellers & plenty of colourful fruit & veggies.
Village De Santo can be found on the ‘Red corner’ perfectly located just on the edge of town. We were greeted with big smiles from the friendly staff, a welcome drink & then shown to our very comfortable, modern villa. This resort is small & intimate but beautifully maintained & the grounds are lovely. Our villa had all we needed with 2 beds for the kids in the living area, a kitchenette, bathroom & an upstairs loft-style parents room. There is free Wifi in the communal areas, the pool was great for the kids & a delicious breakfast is included in your stay.
The real highlight here is the restaurant ‘1606’, which is open for breakfast, lunch, dinner & fantastic cocktails. This place has a great feel to it & we ate here for most meals as the food was just too good to go anywhere else! We really enjoyed getting to know all the staff but especially the owners, Nabil & Bev, who were very warm, welcoming & knowledgable. They are Aussies who just love Santo & are really community minded people & great at what they do.
We planned to see as much of Santo as we could in our short stay so we booked a driver to take us around to all the main points of interest. First stop was the famous Champagne Beach. The weather was perfect & we had a great time snorkelling & swimming in the aqua water. This is a great place to relax as the lagoon has no waves & the water temperature is just so comfortable. The colour of the water almost looks as though it has been photoshopped & the sand is so white & fine in texture that it’s like walking on flour.
As you dive under the surface you can hear the sand bubbling & popping, hence the name Champagne Beach. We were lucky to have this paradise almost to ourselves, but be aware that the cruise passengers do stop in here occasionally, so if you are not into crowds best to ask a local before you go.
Next port of call was the very interesting ‘Million Dollar Point’. The American army were based here during World War II & once the conflict had ended they dumped millions of dollars worth of trucks, jeeps, planes, tanks & artillery straight into the ocean just off shore. As I mentioned we are not divers but really enjoyed pulling on our reef shoes & exploring in the knee deep water. We were amazed at the treasures sitting just under the water & spent hours as a family here. If you are into military history there are many easy to access sites that have links to the war in the Pacific, you just need to know where to look.
There is nothing like a little local knowledge & our driver knew just the guy to tag along with us. Glen Russell knows everything there is to know about Santo’s involvement in the war, he is well know around these parts & is a true local. He was more than happy to share his knowledge with us as we drove around, we were amazed at what he knew & we found out that the place we were staying in was the location of a brothel during the war (hence the name ‘red corner’!). Glen & Steve showed us where the survivors from the famous ship wreck ‘The President Coolidge’ came ashore. We also learned about bush medicine skills which were taught by the locals to the U.S. troupes. We visited an airstrip, a bunker, a plane crash site & the site of the troupe hospital. We had no idea that there was so much military history in Santo & all really enjoyed learning & listening to Glen’s stories.
Next we headed to a place we did not really have on the ‘to do list’ but were glad we got to see it. Port Olry is at the very end of the sealed road that runs along the East Coast of Santo. What a beautiful paradise this calm, turquoise bay is. This really is the stuff pacific Island dreams are made of.
We had lunch at the restaurant here which included crab & fish curry & chips & burgers for the kids, all were delicious & cooked very nicely. We enjoyed swimming & snorkelling in the pristine water & walking along the white, sandy shore. On our way back towards town we stopped at Metavulu Blue Hole for a swim in the crystal blue water – what a refreshing way to finish the day.
That night back at Village de Santo, we were lucky enough to enjoy being serenaded by a group of talented young musicians from the local youth centre while we enjoyed yet more delicious food & wine. We also got to try the world famous Santo Organic Beef mmmmm!
Next morning we were back up bright & early for a walk past our neighbours at Mango Village & into the markets. After a yummy breakfast & a quick coffee we were back on the road again.
We had a lot of rain overnight so our plan to trek to Millennium Cave for the day had to be abandoned (That’s ok with me as it gives me an excuse to come back!).
The weather was typically tropical so we decided if we were going to get wet we may as well do it properly. Billy’s family own the land that Riri blue hole is on & despite the lack of sunshine he was more than happy to paddle us up through the jungle in a traditional, handmade outrigger canoe. We have been to several blue holes throughout Vanuatu, all are beautiful & unique but I have to say Riri is my favourite! We loved that we had to be paddled in by outrigger to access it & the trip winding through the rainforest & clear blue water was a real highlight. This stretch of the jungle is beautiful & teaming with life. The fact that it was lightly raining made it even more memorable & the water is truly amazing! It is so blue that it really does look as though food colouring has been added. Billy stayed with us while we swam in the refreshing blue hole & took pictures. The kids had a ball swinging off the rope swings & we spent a long time here just soaking up the pristine beauty as the rain gently fell.
My only tips here would be to make sure you take plenty of insect repellant & once again, if you are not into crowds ,check what days the cruise ship calls in here. I am sure it would not be quiet as magical when crowded, once again we were so lucky to have Riri all to ourselves.
We finished off our morning with lunch at the lovely Oyster Island Resort, yet another amazing spot to swim, snorkel, eat, drink & chill out.
The more of Vanuatu we explore the harder it gets for me to play favourites. Each Island we have visited seems to have its own pulse & personality & I really do love them all for different reasons. I am so glad to have been able to experience Santo & I have to say, I have a real soft spot for this unspoilt island paradise.
We went from being concerned about not having enough to do here to feeling like we have only scratched the surface. That is totally fine with me as I will forever be looking for an excuse to come back. Pristine Santo, not just paradise for divers!!!