VANUATU: SANTO'S HIGHWAY TO SWELL
Espiritu Santo’s only road takes you to a paradise of hidden beaches, fantastic snorkelling and secret spots.
It’d be easy to lose yourself in Espiritu Santo’s paradise
of hidden beaches, fantastic snorkelling and local secret spots, except it’s impossible to get
lost when there’s only one road.
Ithrow a few bags in the startlingly fancy black four-wheeldrive, parked in a suburban-looking garage shelter in the back of the little hotel. “You can tell you’re going in the right direction if the road’s paved,” Mary Jane from Hotel Santo tells me as she hands me her keys. “It’s pretty much the only paved highway on the island. And when it runs out, you know you’re at the end.”
It’s one of the many reasons why heading up the east coast of Vanuatu’s largest island, Espiritu Santo, might be up amongst the most easy going road trips you can take. ‘Easy going’ is certainly Vanuatu’s main flavour, anyway, and the fact you don’t truly need a map for a return drive that could take you a whole day, or a weekend if you take your time, just makes things even more relaxing.
Espiritu Santo may be the biggest island in the nation, but it’s not the most built up – that honour goes to the island of Efate, home to the national capital Port Vila and such international-type pursuits as zorbing, bar-hopping and duty-free shopping.
This island, however, you can just nickname Santo for short. Take your shoes off and keep them off. Don’t plan too much in the heat of the day so you can sit down on a woven mat at the markets in the main town of Luganville to chat with the shopkeepers. It’s the kind of island that doesn’t have many swimming spots marked on a map – the shoreline is close enough to that bath-like azure sea surrounding the island that you can strip down to your shorts and step into the waist-deep waters for a splash around wherever you see locals doing the same, which is everywhere.
Need a car? Just ask around. Once it was time to explore further afield than the breezy, modern villas of our digs at Village de Santo, our smiling host Nabil simply picked up the phone to speak with Mary Jane at Hotel Santo down the road and we were sorted for a set of wheels for a decent price, some cursory paperwork and a handshake.
Right: Local kids at Matevulu Blue Hole. Below: Dining at Oyster Island.
Luganville itself is small and colourful, spread across the flat south-east shoreline of the island, sheltered by surrounding smaller islands, and the slope of the sharply rising hills. The markets are the vibrant social centre, stocking mostly fresh produce, great home-cooked meals and local gossip. Other eateries are fairly few; most are found in the resorts, and serious development is only just beginning to rear its airconditioned head.
To the west and north-west, the island continues to rise in height and becomes dense with bush and topographical challenges – driving is not really an option over a surprisingly large proportion of Santo, with light planes the best choice. But point your borrowed wheels east, to the south-east tip of the island, and then north along the coast for as long as there is land, and you’ll find a length of (paved) road lined with breathtaking scenery that postcards would envy. You’ll also find refined resorts, local hangouts and as many easy going adventures – there’s that word again – as you’d like to take on.
Firstly, though, it is indeed worth detouring off the paved road just east of Luganville, to take the well-worn 10-minute stretch of dirt road to Million Dollar Point, named after the millions of dollars’ worth of cars, machinery, clothes and everyday-living detritus simply bulldozed into the sea here at the end of the American occupation of the island during World War II. The Point – and time over the decades – have turned this wasteful exercise into a wonderful time capsule for enterprising divers and snorkellers, or even just beachcombers at very low tide. It’s not unusual to turn up a 1940s Coke bottle, or duck dive down to see families of fish making their home in a vintage crane or truck, as the sea is slowly reclaiming the huge haul with maritime crust and the vibrant hues of Vanuatu’s underwater world.
As one of Santo’s more famous beaches, Million Dollar Point has caretakers who lounge casually under the trees and ask politely for a $5 entry fee. Don’t baulk at the cost – this is fairly standard for Vanuatu, and the beach is accordingly kept clean for the next visitor, with shelters and tables provided.
Throw on a sarong but keep your swimming gear on as you leave and backtrack to the main road to head north. The coast, all the way up, is riddled with waterways, beaches, pools and swimming holes, and this is also where you’ll find Vanuatu’s famous blue holes. Incredibly deep, amazingly cerulean blue and beautifully refreshing, these freshwater springs arise from rainwater coursing down the mountains in the west, wearing through the limestone to create underwater rivers and then bursting back up to the surface on the coast.
The Matevulu Blue Holes come complete with friendly local children ready to show off their diving skills, a mosquitorepelling smoky fire that does wonders to keep the bugs at bay, and canoes if you’d like to explore. If you’re more the showing-off type yourself, the giant fig tree on the far side includes a ladder and a suitably lofty rope swing that will fulfil all your Instagramming dreams – if you nail the dismount.
Slightly further north, the Nanda Blue Holes have an even more relaxed vibe – if that’s possible – being owned by a lovely family who include a fresh coconut to drink in your small entry fee. Their tea shop-slash-bar is also an ideal place to do nothing except snack on papaya in the shade and wonder at the scenery before you.
A road tripper cannot live on papaya alone. Nearby, road signs point to the short road that leads to the five-minute punt ride over to Oyster Island, and here you have a choice. Book a waterfront bungalow with private outdoor bathroom and shower and a zen soundtrack of blue-green waters gently lapping below the balcony, or simply visit for the day if you want to push on after lunch. Call ahead if you’re keen to take a pina colada class, or to ensure they have enough of their famous oysters to keep you happy as you dine alfresco on the deck.
Santo is a blissfully quiet place, but a little planning is required if you’d like to experience the next stop in calm and comfort. Known as one of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Champagne Beach is the rock star of the island – and it has its fans accordingly. Some of the biggest cruise lines that ply the waters around the Pacific love to stop just off the beach and spew forth hundreds of visitors on this one stretch of perfect, white sand and gentle, clear water, transforming it into a circus of towels and sunscreen. Actually, cruise days do have their own charm, as associated market stalls seemingly materialise out of nowhere to do business with experiencehungry passengers with money to spend. Outside of cruise days, the beach is the domain of nearby residents and the handful of tourists who venture this far up the coast.
If you do not venture further, however, you’d be doing yourself a disservice, as the world-famous Champagne Beach has a less famous sister further up the coast again, as it was my sheer pleasure to discover. Port Olry has all the makings of paradise: swaying palm trees, white, powdery sand, lowhanging branches over the water to clamber up to and make a makeshift hammock, and calm, caressingly warm waters in a wide and sheltered bay of the most eye-assaulting shades of blue. And this crescent of paradise has only a family of locals
bobbing about in the water, although a nearby beach volleyball court shows others have been and gone over the years.
On the beach, you can scrunch your toes in the sand as you enlist Louis, the quiet, helpful owner at Chez Louis restaurant, to put on a spread of local fruit curry sauce over fat steaks or fresh-as-anything seafood to enjoy at rough-hewn timber tables.
It is at about this stage of the journey that I do just that, and something wonderful catches my eye. Louis has built a number of thatch-roofed bungalows for guests to stay here in paradise – I poke around a little with his permission and find them clean, tidy and perfect for this kind of scene. It’s a great spot
to leave the car, favouring your own two feet to explore the last kilometres to the north-eastern tip of the island, including the tiny Catholic mission town that adds yet another flavour to your adventure.
Yet right alongside the bungalows are something even better: bungalows made of similar materials, and furnished comfortably inside, but set up in the trees overlooking the beach. A treehouse overlooking all this, near the tip of the island, and just about all to myself? I realise I’ll have to call Mary Jane straight away – I’ll be needing the car at least a few nights longer.