Espiritu Santo is the largest island in the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu. Packed with natural beauty, Santo is home to stunning beaches, inviting blue swimming holes and a surprisingly high number of cows. Use this handy Culture Trip guide to tick off the best spots on this paradise island.
Espiritu Santo is the largest of the 83 islands in Vanuatu, and one of the country’s most visited. Better known as Santo by locals, the island is abundant with jaw-dropping natural beauty. Postcard-perfect white-sand beaches give way to world-class dive sites, while inland coconut groves and rainforests are studded with freshwater blue holes.
Santo’s beauty is what inspired James A Michener to write his classic, Tales of the South Pacific (1946). Do not miss the top attractions on this magical island, which includes a World War II shipwreck and a hearty beef steak.
Repeatedly voted one of the world’s best beaches, this palm tree-fringed paradise near the village of Hog Harbour is perfection personified. Turtles swim off shore in the shallows, where the water is so clear it could be mistaken for a swimming pool.
Lea Faccarello of the Vanuatu Tourism Office says, “Champagne Beach has something no other beach does. Along with sugary white sand, electric-blue water and a rainforest backdrop, Champagne Beach is the site of underwater volcanic activity, which causes the ocean to froth, fizzle and effervesce at low tide [hence the name].”
The beachside bars also serve fresh lobster, barbecued fish and cold beer, and there are souvenir stalls if you have forgotten your sarong.
Eastern Espiritu Santo is home to more blue holes than any other place in the world. The largest and most impressive of Santo’s swimming holes is Matevulu. Fresh water filters up to the surface through layers of limestone and coral, turning it a mesmerising shade of blue. The best way to take a dip is to fly in using one of the rope swings, or swim across to climb the giant banyan tree for a more adrenaline-pumping leap.
At nearby Riri Blue Hole, it is best to earn a swim by kayaking down the Riri River into the entrance lagoon, or brave the two-hour paddle along a tidal river to the bar at Nanda Blue Hole.
“Blue holes are freshwater lagoons, almost custom-built for swimming,” says Faccarello. “Vanuatu is lucky enough to have dozens of them, scattered through the jungle on the archipelago’s major islands.”
During World War II, Vanuatu was the site of the biggest US military base in the South Pacific and many American troops were stationed on Espiritu Santo. When the war ended, the Americans dumped all their surplus supplies into the ocean. The site got its name from the estimated million dollars worth of goods, including military tanks, guns and jeeps, that were discarded underwater. Today the area is a thriving reef that snorkelers and scuba divers can enjoy.
Gilbert Fries, the owner of Million Dollar View Resort, who is originally from Belgium, explains, “The American Army misused this place as a dump during World War II. These days you can snorkel and search the beach for interesting finds that wash up. Our reef with the many sunken treasures offers perfect protection for maritime life.”
The unusual abundance of fish in a very small space makes it a dream spot for snorkelers and scuba divers.
In 1942 the 200-metre (650-foot) SS President Coolidge sunk off the coast when it hit two American mines in Santo Harbour. The luxury liner, which had been converted to a troop ship during World War II, was carrying 5,000 men when it was hit. The captain managed to ground the ship on a reef, allowing the men to wade ashore before the vessel slid down a steep sandbank to its final resting place beneath the waves. Now scuba divers wade off the beach to explore the Coolidge and the chandeliers, trucks, guns and cannons that all went down with the ship.
Because of how easily accessible the Coolidge wreck is, it has become one of the most acclaimed wreck dives in the world. Malcolm James, the owner of Transpacific Holidays, a UK-based tour company that organises bespoke trips to the South Pacific, says, “The USS President Coolidge ticks all the boxes because you have the historic content and the natural development of aquatic life.”
Mama’s Handicraft and Souvenir Shop on Luganville’s Main Street is not only the best place on the island to buy traditional and locally made products, it is also somewhere you can watch the artists at work.
Ni-Van women are often found sitting in groups weaving hats, mats and bags out of pandanus leaves. The market, which is run by the DOLASA One Women’s Association, consists of several colourful stalls that offer a range of arts and crafts, including carvings, weaving, jewellery, clothing and handicrafts. Just be aware, haggling at markets is not a part of the culture in Vanuatu, so carry local currency in order to buy a few things.
James adds,“They’re very talented artists and the genuine handicrafts are really quite special.”
A trip to Leweton Cultural Village is well worth it to see the local women put on a spectacular display of their unique traditional water music. The women and girls stand waist-deep in water that they splash and slap, forming an accompanying percussion orchestra to their beautiful singing. The amazing display of sounds, rhythms and movements supposedly represents the living nature of water and life on Earth.
The village is open on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and there are morning and afternoon performances. “It’s a hypnotic sonic and visual experience, unlike anything you’ve seen or heard,” says Faccarello. “Using the ocean like a giant drum, the ladies splash, scoop, slap, skim and swirl to accompany their vocals.”
Head out of Luganville, and soon the urban sprawl gives way to coconut groves inhabited by hundreds of happy cows. It is no wonder the livestock that feast on these lush grassy pastures are developing a reputation as some of the best beef in the world.
“With a growing reputation for sweet and tender, the Vanuatu beef is a must-try,” says Faccarello. “With both cattle and coconut trees living together, is it any wonder the meat is organic and melts in the mouth?”
The best place to try lean Santo beef is at one of the meal booths in Luganville’s market. The brightly coloured huts are decorated by local school children and serve up plates of steak with rice covered in gravy for around 500 vatu (VT) (£3).
Many tour operators in Santo’s capital of Luganville offer day trips to visit Millennium Cave. After a hike through the jungle and scrambling over large boulders, visitors are greeted by a spectacular waterfall. Faccarello says, “If the idea of setting off into the jungle, hurdling river boulders and venturing beneath the earth sounds appealing, you need to explore Millennium Cave on Espiritu Santo.” The scenery is some of the best in the archipelago. “You’ll hike through the jungle, explore an underground cave system with nothing but strong shoes and a torch, then cool off in forest pools surrounded by cascading waterfalls,” she says.