Getting to Santo
Continuing my journey around the South Pacific, I visited another island in Vanuatu, Epiritu Santo (better known as Santo to islanders). I arrived in Santo after taking a connecting flight from Tanna through Port Vila. Once again, the flight left 30 minutes early after the headcount was taken and all expected passengers were on board.
I was now aware of Air Vanuatu’s strict guidelines for electronic devices and didn’t turn on my phone during take off or landing. Additionally, I made sure and every item was substantially under the forward seat for the drill sergeant flight attendants.
The Espiritu Hotel
The Espiritu Hotel, where I would be staying for the next four days arranged my pick up at the airport for $750 Vatu, $250 Vatu less than a taxi. The airport shuttle is operated by Paradise Tours who I used for a tour during my stay on the island as well.
Upon reaching the non-descript entrance and checking in, I was thrilled to find a large room, comfortable bed, refrigerator, small closet, bathroom, wifi, and air conditioning. I felt like I was checking into a five star resort compared to my last several days of travel.
After organizing my things, I enjoyed a nice lunch at the Espiritu beneath the open air pavilion next to the pool, before I strolled through town. Luganville is nothing to write home about. Cars speed along Main Street which is lined with shops, banks, a club and a restaurant or two.
A big park on the bay with the Luganville market and food stands is located on the west side of town. Compared to Tonga, Samoa, and Efate, Santo’s main market wasn’t the best, but I managed to find one bunch of bananas that weren’t too ripe and were ready for eating.
Locals played Pétanque, the French version of Bocce Ball, in which players stand still and toss a steel ball as close as they can to a smaller ball. I didn’t get invited to play like the Tongans invited me to play checkers, but I also probably needed to know French! In fact, English is generally the locals third language, behind Bislami and French, though all three are the official language of Vanuatu.
After rounding up some lunch foods, watching some other locals play soccer (the official sport of Vanuatu), and waiting out the short deluge of showers, I finally returned to the hotel where I booked two tours and a day of diving. The girls at the front desk, as with everywhere I’ve been in the South Pacific, were incredibly helpful.
The Millennium Cave Tour
My first tour for the following morning was the Millennium Cave, so named because the tour began in 2000. According to the website, the tour included a hike to a cave, upon which a guide would take any of our belongings which needed to remain dry. Then we’d navigate the river bed through the cave with a provided flashlight and stop for lunch. We’d continue over some boulders before swimming in the river.
I was to bring water, lunch, walking shoes or sandals, insect repellent, dry clothes to change into after the tour and an optional light weight wetsuit. I had focused on what I needed to bring more than the tour itself other than that it is “a must see”.
Getting to the Cave
The truck picked up me and four other guests from our hotel. The other guests included a father and son from the USA who spent a week diving the SS President Coolidge and had one land day before heading to the airport as well as Dimitri and Vanessa, a young couple from Australia.
The old lady, me, got the front seat while a few loaded in the back and other in the bed of the pickup. Upon arrival to the cave headquarters, we joined others, got a briefing of the activities, and signed our life away.
We all loaded in the truck again, with even more people in the very back as we bounced along a dirt road and an old American WWII runway where we reached a village. Here, we walked 20 minutes to a second village, where we left our pack of belongings and handed over our lunch.
This was a very disconcerting procedure for me, as I never hike without my pack of food, water and clothing. Not to mention, the website said we’d hand over our pack after the hike and before the cave entrance. As a result, I had to change out of my dry clothes and into my skin (a light wetsuit) before the main hike.
I could not understand why I couldn’t just keep my dry bag with everything in it. It turns out, I could have, but they were trying to make it easier on us by carrying nothing. Not to mention, most tourists don’t carry around dry bags. Ultimately, I felt like the under prepared person as everyone waited on me to change clothes.
The real hike began at the second village which mostly included sliding through mud, wading through creeks, and climbing down countless ladders through the jungle. I thought to myself, why did I sign up for this tour? I hate hiking in muddy jungles!
Soon, however, we reached a grand entrance to a massive cave. It was more like a giant limestone tunnel with a river running through it. Before entering, we underwent a face painting ritual for a safe passage.
Exploring the Cave
With torch in hand, we slowly waded down river through the very dark cave, taking care to watch our step in the knee to waist deep water. In the middle, a waterfall tumbled down its side and birds nested in crevices. It only got better upon reaching the exit into a tropical canyon with waterfalls galore, and a deep teal colored river.
With the help of a rope guideline, we crossed to the shore where the guides, one per two people, gave us the lunches we had packed. After a relaxing lunch on the river shore, we jumped into the water for a float down the river until we reached some boulders and wooden ladder the climb out.
Canyoneering and Floating the River
The next 20 minutes we spent scrambling over boulders and then climbing down them via metal handholds via ferrata style. It was totally insane. One slip off the rock, we would have been barreling down rapids which we occasionally crossed while holding on to a rope. At least we had life jackets, though poorly fit. The website did warn the tour is not for the faint-hearted.
After climbing over the boulders, we jumped back in the river for another peaceful float with waterfalls tumbling down both sides of the tropical canyon. It was truly magnificent! The bouldering and swimming in the river wasn’t conducive to carry a camera easily. Not to mention, my lens kept fogging, so the photos do not do the canyon justice.
We finally reached the end, where we climbed out up a ladder and then up a waterfall. We hiked back to the village across a bamboo bridge, where we were served some refreshments before our ride picked us up for the long, bumpy drive back to the hotel. This all day tour was a complete blast. I consistently found myself surprised and saying, “I wasn’t expecting this!” Best said, the tour is not for the faint of heart.
By the end of that day, I didn’t have any exploring left in me and had dinner at the hotel restaurant, The Tu. My large portion of stir fry, served by friendly staff, was tasty and filling.
SCUBA Diving with Pacific Dive
The following day, I scheduled a day of diving. Pacific Dive, based out of the Espiritu Hotel, drove a full van of people to the shore where the SS President Coolidge, the most accessible big wreck in the world, is located.
The dive shop had a small shelter with equipment and a covered patio for gearing up. Donning my booties, wetsuit, BCD, tank, and regulator, I carried my fins and mask onto the coral beach littered with broken glass. I joined my fellow divers in the shallow surf, as I strapped on my fins and mask and prepared for our descent.
The SS President Coolidge
The Coolidge was a luxury liner converted into a troop carrier during WWII. Upon entering the harbor, the captain mistakenly passed through the wider of the two channels which was lined with friendly mines. As a result, the 650 foot vessel sunk just offshore on a sloping bottom. All but the captain and the fire fighter survived the now world famous wreck (at least among SCUBA divers).
The bow of the Coolidge begins in 60 feet of water and the ship extends into no deco diving depths at 240 feet. The first dive on the Coolidge with Pacific Dive is always a check out dive for the dive master to assess divers’ abilities and buoyancy, so we didn’t penetrate the wreckage except in one open area. Instead we floated around the collapsed deck while looking at guns, gas masks, and ammunition.
Generally not a big fan of wrecks, I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It has been underwater for so long that there was good marine life on it. While I only planned one dive on the Coolidge, I suspect I would have enjoyed another one or two. Having said that, I don’t think I would want to complete the eight different recreational dive profiles that Pacific Dive offers, especially at depths of 125 to 150 feet to see the main attractions, such a porcelain lady that divers kiss and fancy chandeliers.
Million Dollar Point
Not too far down the road is another World War II dive site called Million Dollar Point. When the war ended, the US military offered their equipment to the English. The English didn’t respond, so the soldiers dumped it into the bay. Artifacts include trucks, bulldozers, fork lifts and the like.
Dive Pacific split the group into two. Those of us who wanted to see Million Dollar Point hopped into the back of the pick up for a short drive to the site, while the rest of the group stayed put for another dive on the Coolidge. While the point featured a lot of steel and a variety of marine life, aside from tires, I could hardly decipher what was what. As a result, I preferred the wreck.
With the 8am start delayed to 9 due to disorganization, we didn’t return until just before 2pm. Therefore, after lunch, I didn’t make it past the hotel pool for the evening.
For my third day in Santo, I signed up for a Paradise Tour to Matevulu Blue Hole, Champagne Beach, and Port Olry. I ended up being the only one on the tour with Chris, thus I had to pay a little extra, but it wasn’t double like many operators require for a two person minimum.
Along the way to our first stop, Matevulu Blue Hole, we stopped for coconut water and Nangai nuts on a skewer, and a pastry at a roadside stand. I would have never ordered the nuts or the bread on my own, so it that was fun. Chris also pointed out the coconut plantations, other crops, and webs of giant spiders lining the road.
Matevulu Blue Hole
The Matevulu Blue Hole is one of many. Others include Riri Blue Hole, Thar Secret Blue Hole and Nanda Blue Hole. Having not been to all them, I can’t say which is the best, but I can report Matevulu is one of the largest on Santo. The freshwater hole features a rope swing and a few picnic tables though the area for relaxing around the hole is limited.
For those who like swimming, it is a lovely place to visit. Since I only prefer swimming when I can see marine life, I think a better option for me would have been kayaking to Riri Blue Hole. Chris provided me the flexibility to visit additional blue holes for the entrance fee, but I decided to keep going.
After a short visit at Matevulu, we continued on to Champagne Beach which is famous for its crescent shaped, white sand shoreline. It is a very picturesque location with a restaurant that is likely open when cruise ships arrive. Otherwise there are showers for rinsing off and a place to camp.
Chris suggested I swim in the buoyed area to see fish and turtles, but they were limited at best. Others claim they see “heaps of fish”, so perhaps they snorkeled near the rocky point. I didn’t spend much time near the shore, as the reddish water indicated a possible algae bloom which isn’t the safest for swimming. That said, the beach is certainly lovely and I was happy to be there on a quiet day without cruisers.
Continuing farther north along Santo’s east side, we next visited in Port Olry. What a great little fishing village right on the shore. The local kids played see-saw on a canoe, swam fully clothed, and pointed out a turtle as I walked the beach. Adults shoveled sand to make cement. Cows took cover from the sun with a nice view of the ocean. Fishing nets laid near the point for the men’s next venture into water. It was just a great working village with picturesque views.
I couldn’t have enjoyed a better place for lunch than the Port Olry Harbor Beach Restaurant. Their specialty is coconut crab which they, along with two other nearby restaurants, buy from the locals who hunt it at night in the jungle. The restaurants hang enormous inland crabs from a tree until someone purchases them for lunch. While I felt a little sorry for the guys, my meal overlooking the multi-colored aqua bay was delicious. I just loved Port Olry and could have spent the whole day relaxing in the restaurant’s lounge chairs.
Port Olry is 39 miles from Luganville. Along the way, we picked up a local school teacher to take him from one school to another. Chris asked if it was OK first and said it was hard for people to find rides out this way. Of course it was. We had an empty van and many villagers without cars.
The gentleman tried to pay as the Paradise Island vans also operate as buses when not on tours. He profusely thanked me when Chris explained he didn’t have to because we were on tour. I just said, keep teaching those kids. I can’t imagine not knowing when my school class would start because it was dependent on a teacher finding a ride.
The Kava Bar
Despite only three stops, it was close to 4pm by the time we arrived at the hotel. Chris invited me to drink kava at the local bar he goes to after work. I took him up on his offer and extended the invitation to Dimitri and Vanessa who I met upon my arrival in Santo. Chris organized a taxi for us at 6:30. We went to the Kula Bamboo Kava Bar. We learned the proper way to drink kava to avoid the bad taste as well as the numbing sensation.
Kava looks like dirty dishwater and is stirred in a bucket or large bowl. It is ordered by the cup. A three scoop, full cup costs $150 Vatu. A half cup which is two ladles costs $100 and a single scoop costs $50. We started with a full cup which we drank like a shot and then we washed our mouth out at the row of water spigots. Then we followed up with a small local snack. We repeated the process with half cups a few times while playing darts and pool with the owner, Bruno.
Unbeknownst to us, the taxi was waiting, so after a few hours of enjoying the local vibe, we returned to the hotel with Chris’ assistance. What a nice host he was!
A Day by the Pool
My final day in Santo, I planned to take the ferry to Aore Island which features a nice resort and good snorkeling. There are three to four departures a day at 7:30, 8:30, 11:30 and 2:30, or thereabouts. I walked to the nearby dock for the 8:30 shuttle where I found out that only hotel guests are allowed on that crossing. Day guests had to wait until 11:30.
By then, I was relaxed poolside at the Espiritu and didn’t feel like walking to the dock in the heat of the day. The farthest I made it was across the street for lunch at Natangora Cafe for “the best burger in Santo”. It was a bit long to wait around for my afternoon flight, but I didn’t really want to pack wet clothes. I’ve learned for the future to stick with morning flights which generally have a better on time performance anyway.
I had an awesome time in Santo. I highly recommend visiting both Santo and Tanna while in Vanuatu. I’m off to Efate next. To be continued…ETB
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