WOW! What a place!
I don’t think my wife and I have ever had such a fun island adventure like we had on Espiritu Santo. First, where the heck is Espiritu Santo, more commonly just called Santo?
Santo is the largest island of the island nation of Vanuatu, located in the South Pacific, about 1100 miles from Brisbane, Australia. While Santo is the largest of the islands, it’s not actually the main island. The main island, Efate, is home to Vanuatu’s largest city and capital, Port Vila. The flights are not daily so you must plan with care, but you can get flights from Port Vila to Brisbane, Noumea, Fiji, Auckland, and a few other spots. Our time on Efate was limited to just airport transfers. We spent our entire trip on Santo. There aren’t many Americans that make it to Santo. Most tourists on the island are Australian. While we had plenty of fun for a week on Santo, the other islands of Vanuatu look just as cool! Tanna is home to one of the world’s most fantastic active volcanoes, Pentecost is the home of land divers, and the main island of Efate has a large population and set of attractions.
We started our Saturday morning off in Melbourne, Australia, and we flew from Melbourne to Brisbane to Port Vila on Virgin Australia. I inadvertently started our island adventure off a bit early by accidentally booking my wife’s plane ticket under her maiden name. Um. WHOOPS. A big thanks to Virgin Australia for helping us fix the issue in time to make our flight, but it was not easy! After that causing us to nearly miss our flight, we quickly stopped at a coffee shop in the Melbourne airport. In the heat of the chaos, I left my passport there as we headed to the gate. Once I discovered that my passport had gone missing, I ran back to security, didn’t find it there, and then finally found it at the coffee shop. After that incident, not only did we just barely make the flight, but we definitely started our morning with a high stress level! Even seasoned travelers mess up :-). In Brisbane, if you’re going between the International and Domestic terminals, you actually need to leave security, wait for a train, and take the train. While we never had to run or anything like that, we didn’t have any time to kill in Brisbane. We hopped on our next plane Port Vila, Vanuatu. We purchased these Virgin Australia tickets with money, as the only option I had for redeeming was Virgin America Elevate points, but the fees were quite high so I opted to skip. Plus, I don’t fly Virgin America that often so these Virgin Australia flights were useful to help extend the expiration of those points. Our two Virgin Australia flights in Economy were uneventful, but we did purchase a meat pie on the second leg that was pretty tasty!
Port Vila Domestic Terminal: Pure Luxury (Click for High Res Photo)
We had 3 hours to kill at the Port Vila airport before departing to Espiritu Santo. It’s not exactly a comfortable place to kill a couple hours… WiFi? Nope. Quality food options? Nope. Clean bathrooms? Not exactly… That being said, we sort of expected this. We’re in Vanuatu after all! The domestic terminal in Vanuatu is just a single small room, and while all proper procedures were followed when we traveled internationally, they never even checked our ID for our domestic flight to Santo. We hopped on our Air Vanuatu ATR-72, and we were off to Santo, about a 30 minute flight away.
The Santo airport is even smaller, and it was dark when we arrived. Round-trip airport transit is included with the Moyyan House rate, and someone was waiting for us with a sign to take us to the hotel. We checked into the hotel, but I’ll limit all hotel commentary to the upcoming review.
Katy and I have pretty bad luck with weather when visiting tropical islands. Instead of beautiful sunshine, we usually get rain storms. Our first morning in Santo didn’t deviate. It was pouring. We went to the lobby of the hotel to figure out some activities to do, and the manager helped us plan an itinerary for the week. We decided on taking a SCUBA course to get fully certified. We had been talking about this for years, but with the weather not starting on the best note, we figured now might be a great time to get it done. I also really wanted to explore the blue holes of Santo, and so we made plans to grab bikes and ride them through the rain to the blue holes that afternoon. Lastly, we also booked a day trip to take us to some popular spots on the island like Champagne Beach and Million Dollar Point.
Biking through a downpour
We started on our bikes on the 7km trek through the downpour to see the Riri Blue Hole and Matevulu Blue Hole. It was pouring so hard that it was on the border of miserable and comical. We eventually made it, though, and just as we arrived, the rain began to let up. A blue hole is essentially an inland cave or sinkhole, and as they’re inland, they are freshwater and support a some sea life that is very different than the ocean. The blue holes in Santo are especially famous for their crystal clear colors and rope swings to enjoy them with. The pictures of the blue holes are clickable if you would like to see larger versions. I didn’t use any filters on these pictures. This is seriously the natural color of the water. I think the best way to describe it is a real-life Avatar world. I made a video of our experiences at the blue holes:
The blue holes are all owned by local chiefs, and there is someone there to collect the equivalent of 5 USD to enter and explore the area. The blue holes are a great place for a picnic lunch to soak in the views or a great place to play in the water. They’re crystal clear. We chose not to go snorkeling in the blue hole, but many people say it’s a pretty interesting experience as they are freshwater, and such the fish and rocks are much different than in the ocean.
After hanging out at the RiRi Blue Hole for a while, we headed off to the next one, which is only a few extra kilometers up the road. By the time we were on our way out of the RiRi Blue Hole, the rain had stopped completely, which made it much more comfortable to bike. Moyyan House packed us a lunch, and we planned to picnic at the Matevulu Blue Hole. To get to the Matevulu Blue Hole, you go up the road a bit more and then turn off onto a semi-paved straightaway road. It turns out that this straightaway is actually an old World War II runway. Vanuatu played a relatively large part as a U.S. base in the South Pacific during World War II. We turned off the runway at the end, went down and up a large dip, and then we pulled up to the Matevulu Blue Hole. This blue hole was significantly larger than the RiRi blue hole, both in terms of total amount of water as well as the height of the rope swing! It was incredibly beautiful, but I found the RiRi Blue Hole to be the more spectacular of the two. Matevulu had a decent crowd, with kids playing around on the rope swings and swimming. Katy and I had our lunch there and then biked back to our hotel.
I mentioned that we usually have terrible luck with weather, but after that first day of downpour, we had absolutely fantastic weather for the rest of our stay in Vanuatu. We would get a few drops here or there in the late afternoons or evenings, but by and large, we had sunshine everyday after that. LUCKY US!
The next day we took our first SCUBA lesson, choosing to get certified with Allan Power Dive Tours. I wrote a tripadvisor review of Allan Power already but in sum, my wife and I essentially got a private SCUBA certification course throughout the week, diving a total of four times. Lionel was our instructor, and he really helped make our experience special. The first day of SCUBA lessons was really more about learning skills than it was about actual diving. We learned about the equipment, how to check it, what it does, how to put it on, etc. We also practiced some skills underwater, like BCD removal and buoyancy control.
After a long day of SCUBA we came back and did some paddle boarding in front of our hotel. It’s nice when our lodging is only five steps away from the paddleboards and beach :-). At the end of every night, it was always great to come back to Moyyan House for the fantastic meals and meeting some of the other international travelers.
Tracy, the manager of Moyyan, booked us the next day on a day trip around the island, including stops at places like Million Dollar Point and Champagne Beach. Million Dollar Point is VERY cool. It’s a snorkeling location, and while there are plenty of fish, they aren’t the primary attraction. I’ll explain. When World War II ended, we (the USA) had a lot of equipment that we needed to take back to the mainland. Cars, planes, supplies, ammunition. It wasn’t worth the cost to haul it all back. We offered to sell it to the French, who were occupying the region. Their response (best said with French accent): “No, No, No! You silly Americans… We know you can’t take all that crap back with you. We’ll just wait for you to leave it here and have it for fwee.” Apparently we didn’t like that answer. Thus, we built a jetty into the ocean, drove all of our equipment off the jetty, and blew it up. Seriously. It’s so ridiculous and so American. Fast forward 50+ years, and Million Dollar Point now makes a fantastic snorkeling destination! You can see flipped over cars, medical supplies, artillery and more, as sea life roams around it, having called it home for some time now.
Million Dollar Point!
Another stop on our day tour included Jackie’s Blue Hole, our 3rd Blue Hole of the trip. Having already seen two, we were less enamored with this one, but still, it was absolutely gorgeous. And yes… it had another rope swing!
We went to Champagne Beach, which is famous for being one of the nicer beaches on the island, if not the world. We enjoyed swimming here for an hour or so. I ended up playing some volleyball with local children, and then we left. The beach was very pristine, but I prefer beaches in front of a resort, even if they aren’t quite as nice, so we have all of our stuff nearby.
On another day we took the complimentary glass bottom kayaks out in the bay in front our hotel. We did a bit of paddle boarding as well.
When it was time to leave Santo for New Caledonia, we were not ready to go! The island was beautiful, our weather was perfect, and everyone we met was so nice. We were happy to have our PADI SCUBA certification as well; getting certified was something we always talked about, but we never had made the time to do it. Our last dive of the trip got us to see the SS Coolidge, the famous shipwreck. The blue holes were magnificent.
Would we return? Absolutely. We typically like to explore and see new places, but it would be great to go to some of the other islands in Vanuatu like Tanna or Pentecost. I really recommend a trip to Espiritu Santo.