VAN­U­ATU: SANTO'S HIGH­WAY TO SWELL

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY JAC TAY­LOR

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.

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