The largest island in the South Pacific country of Vanuatu is Espiritu Santo. While the ancestors of the native Ni-Vanuatu came from the north many thousands of years ago, the first European visitor is believed to have been Pedro Fernandez de Quiros in late 1605. A Portuguese religious zealot in the service of the Spanish, he "discovered" Santo believing it to be the great south land (Australia). In 1906, Espiritu Santo eventually became part of the New Hebrides, under joint French/Great Britain control (the Condominium - or "pandemonium").
Until World War II, Santo (as the island is more popularly known), was only inhabited by a few hundred Europeans. These were mostly French and some English, but I understand that there were also some Australians and New Zealanders. A large percentage were involved in plantations, a few stores (including Burns Philp) and some were missionaries. The only "town" of sorts was located on Segond Channel, Luganville, although its location was south of the Sarakata River whereas now it is virtually all north of the river.
After the entry of Japan into the War on 8 December 1941 (Vanuatu date), it was not long before Santo was seen to be a key player in the battle to retake the South Pacific, especially Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.
In March 1942 the first US personnel arrived in Port Vila and Santo was visited in late April 1942 by Brigadier General W.R. Rose and a Squadron Leader from the Royal Australian Air Force to look for prospective sites for airfields. On 28 May 1942 Rose returned with three warships and 400 troops to establish a base. In July 1942 the first airfield on Santo was constructed in 21 days. This was Bomber One, on the present site of the Santo Golf Club. It was later extended to 6,000 feet. By this time there was a lot of infrastructure in place and thousands of troops present in transit to the Solomons. In August 1942 a minefield was laid at the entrances to Segond Channel. See the article on the sinking of USS Tucker for information on the mines.
Of course the Tucker sank on 3 August 1942, less than a day after the minefield was laid, by hitting one of the mines. One of the major impacts on Santo was the sinking of the SS President Coolidge on 26 October 1942. Not only did the sinking cause over 5500 men to be stranded on Santo without clothes and equipment, it caused the loss of a large amount of equipment and supplies and created a tourism industry (diving) that now gives Santo a large amount of its income.
More works were constructed over the rest of 1942 and 1943. Fighter One airstrip at Matevulu was finished 18 November 1942 and another airfield, Bomber Two, was built on the site of the current airstrip in November/December 1942. A further airstrip, Bomber Three, was built on the hill above the present location of the Bougainville Resort. This was finished in July 1943 and was the commercial airport till the 1970s.
By the end of the war, Santo had five military hospitals, an oxygen plant, fine roads, a floating dock capable of handling a battleship, a widespread telephone system and defence industries of all sorts. There are many reports of how many people passed through Santo during the war. Reports vary of anywhere between 500,000 and 2,000,000, but more likely 500,000.
After the war, there was not much action in Santo till some Australians and New Zealanders arrived to salvage what they could of the Coolidge (although some salvage of Million Dollar Point occurred in the late 1940s). The town never really took off, although it was bigger than it was before the War (it remained on the north side of the Sarakata River where the Americans had built their bases). However, by the late 1970s, it was a bit more prosperous, with a hotel, a resort and some other attractions.
In 1980 the French and Great Britain Governments decided to grant independence to the New Hebrides. On 30 July 1980, the independent country of Vanuatu came into being. Unfortunately, a problem was about to come to the new country. On Espiritu Santo, Jimmy Stevens, a native of Vanuatu, led a rebellion against the new Government. Nicknamed the "Coconut Rebellion", it was funded/encouraged by a group of Americans and perhaps some French with the aim of establishing a new country centred on Espiritu Santo. The short lasting rebellion was finally put down by the Papua New Guinea Army (invited by the new Government) and Stevens was jailed for treason. In November 1991 he was released from jail and arrived in Luganville to a raptous welcome (I was there at the time). He returned to his village of Fanafo (more later) and died in 1994.
After the rebellion, there was a slow recovery, especially at Santo. I travelled to Port Vila in 1981 and there was little sign of any decline caused by the action but Santo was different. In 1985, 1987 and 1991 I visited Santo and there was little positive change. However, since then I have visited Santo in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2007 and there has been a lot of improvements, new resorts, new buildings, repaired buildings etc. However, the main improvement between 1999 and 2002 was that they roads, which had fallen apart in the previous 14 years, were all totally new (at least the tarred roads in town). The gravel road outside town was in pretty good condition and still is in June 2007.
Nowadays, the economy of Santo depends on timber, cattle, copra, coffee, cocoa and tourism, although not necessarily in that order. One thing you must do is try the Santo meat, it is simply amazing.
The following is a summary of information for the visitor to Santo, with details of accommodation, dive operators, restaurants, tours and other useful facts.
Until 2006 there was only one way to get to Santo from overseas. This was to fly to Port Vila and then fly onto Santo. See the Port Vila article for more information. From Vila you fly Air Vanuatu in a smaller plane to Santo. There are a number of different planes used for this route, DeHaviland Twin Otter, and the newer Aerospatiale ATR-42. This last plane flies to Santo twice a day and is very comfortable. It carries 42 passengers.
|The Aerospatiale ATR-42 at Santo
The other way to get to Santo is Air Vanuatu's new flight that will start in August 2007. This will go Sydney - Port Vila - Santo - Brisbane and then returns Brisbane - Santo - Port Vila - Sydney. I presume that these two flights will replace one of the Sydney and one of the Brisbane flights currently running to Port Vila. These flights are in a Boeing 737-300.
Solomon Airlines operates two flights a week using an Embauer 170 jet from Brisbane to Santo. One goes Brisbane - Santo - Honiara - Brisbane and the other Brisbane - Honiara - Santo - Brisbane.
The accommodation here ranges from basic diver's shared accommodation out the back to air conditioned rooms in the hotel proper. Located on Boulevard Higginson, the main street of Luganville, the hotel has a pool, covered outdoor area, bar and restaurant (more later). The accommodation is not even three or four star, probably two and a half at the best. The pricing of the diver's accommodation is not too bad but the main hotel is probably overpriced. Provides best access to other eating and drinking locations as well as shops. A little crowded for my liking.
Deco Stop Lodge
This is the best value accommodation in Santo. Located on Boulevard Winston Churchill on the hill above the town, the lodge was started by Margaret and Russell Donovan and after some periods where their son and then their daughter ran it, they were back in charge in mid-2002 but in late 2002 it was purchased by Cathie de Koeyer. It has six rooms (with between three and six beds) which are suitable for sharing and another six rooms (four with a double and a single and two with two singles) that a especially good for couples.
|The best rooms at Dec Stop
The older accommodation is as you come in from the roadway and is single story concrete. The newer accomodation is the other side of the dining area. This is constructed of timber. Two of the rooms are on a second level above two other rooms. These two rooms are the best ones (shown at right).
The rooms are spacious enough, have fridges and the showers/toilets work. There are ample power points in the rooms for recharging torches/videos and the rooms all have ceiling fans. Tariff includes cereal, toast, tea/coffee and fruit for breakfast.
The lodge also has a pool (partly shaded), grass lawns, the best view in Luganville and a semi-open dining area (see the photo above and later). It also has excellent washing and drying facilities for divers. It is about 12 minutes walk to town, about 14 back (up hill) although you can easily get a lift to town after your first dive with the dive operator and get a cab back for 100vt (about $1.25) per person.
There is also a games/TV room with Australian TV stations.
For most divers, I would recommend this location over all the others, although families may find Aore better.
|A photo of the Deco Stop pool at sunset
|Another shot from the dining area of Deco Stop
Coral Quays Resort - formerly Bougainville Resort
I have stayed here on my first two trips to Santo when it was Bougainville Resort and enjoyed it immensely. However, some of my friends and some others I have met have not had the same feelings. I cannot really understand this as I (and most of the people who came with me on my trips) thought that this place was amongst the best places they had ever stayed.
Coral Quays is located about seven kilometres to the south of the centre of Luganville, right on the edge of Segond Channel. You can get into town easy during the day, but at night it is a bit harder and can cost a bit. Getting back is more difficult as taxis do not really run after dark unless you prearrange them. The resort is set in very nice grounds, of palm, mango and paw paw trees. There are 18 bungalows, a main restaurant (more about this later), bar, outdoor living area and a 10 metre pool. Each of the bungalows is well finished, with toilet, shower, ceiling fan and clothing storage. Nine of the bungalows have air conditioning and fridges, but the non-air conditioned ones do not have fridges.
A good wall mounted shelf is provided which has two 240 volt three pronged power outlets, excellent for recharging torch, video and electronic flash batteries. The bungalows have beds for two or three, in double and singles. The resort is now completely set up for divers, with enclosed hanging lines and rinsing tubs in the laundry. If you prefer, hanging pegs are located outside each bungalow.
|A photo of the Coral Quays pool
The Resort has the best restaurant in Santo (more about it below) and a bar. Tariff usually includes a breakfast of tea/coffee, juice, toast and fruit. One thing that in my view makes Coral Quays such a great place to stay is the extremely friendly and personal nature of the current owners, Phil and Charmaine.
I would recommend this to couples, small groups who like their accommodation to be a bit further up the scale and people who want a quieter holiday and are happy not to travel into town to eat.
This is a newer and up market resort located on Aore Island, straight across Segond Channel from the town. The resort is very attractive, and from all reports, excellent in all aspects. It has a pool, nice snorkelling, the restaurant looks nice. I had lunch here in 1999 and while a bit expensive (850vt for a burger), it was quite apertising. Its only downside appears to be the difficulty of getting into the town. At the very least, this requires a trip in a small punt which takes over 25 minutes (including walk). Secondly, this only runs five times a day, three hours apart in the afternoon. Thirdly, it does not run at all after about 4.30pm, meaning that if you want to eat in town or visit someone you might have met diving, you are up for big money to get a special trip.
However, for families, couples, divers with non-diving partners and the better healed, this is the place to stay.
Unity Park Motel
This is located just up the road from the Santo Hotel opposite Unity Park and just down the road from the markets. During our June 2007 trip we met a couple of divers who were staying here. They said that it was clean and had good showers, although the rooms were a little small.
This is located just out of town, about two kilometres west from the centre of the town. It is right on the water. It has nice grounds and the rooms are self contained. Some people we met in June 2007 who were staying there were quite impressed with it. It is managed by Dave Cross who used to run the Pro Dive operation in Santo.
I am not sure how many cabins there are, but there are a few. It costs about 100 vt for a bus to town or about 100 vt a person for a taxi.
There is one other major accommodation but as they attempted to sue me for defamation a few years ago, I think that says it all.
This was started by Kevin and Mayumi Green in 1988. In the early 2000s they sold a half share to Barry Holland. Kevin no longer had any involvement in the day to day running, but Mayumi still led dives at times. Barry was also the Manager. I dived with them on each of my six trips.
In about 2008 the Greens and Barry sold the company to someone else. I never dived with them so I cannot offer any opinion about their operation now other than comment that I did not hear anything good about the operation since 2009 and a diver died when diving with them in 2013 which I feel was totally their fault. Anyway, as of March 2013 I am happy to say the operation has closed and the person who owned it has left Vanuatu.
Santo Dive Tours - Allan Power
I used to have a review of Mr Power's operation from what I had observed on my first four dive trips to Santo but since I did not praise him wholesomely (nor did I attack him or his actual dive operation), some people attacked me in the Australian dive press and have also taken to e-mailing me in abusive terms and Mr Power also attacked me in an Australian diving publication. Therefore I will not provide any information at all about his operation, so use at your own descretion.
Santo Island Dive
The newest operation, only starting perhaps about 2006. I have no knowledge of their operation except that they use a small boat for all their dives. They did not seem to get many customers then as over a 14 day period in June 2007 we only saw them out at the Coolidge three times. Perhaps this was because they were a new operation. They are still in operation in 2013.
Pro Dive Santo
Has now closed
Prices as at 2007.
Deco Stop Lodge
The restaurant has quite a few options for entree and main meals and a couple for dessert (entree 800vt - A$10 and mains 1500vt - A$18.00). Lunches are also available from a small but excellent selection (av 750vt). Prices are quite reasonable and excellent when the quality and quantity of dinner is considered. Beer (370vt - A$4.40) and soft drinks are also available.
This has a small restaurant with a smallish selection of meals. The best bet here are the pizzas, excellent taste and value. A small pizza is more than enough for one person, a large will give you enough for two or leftovers for lunch. Small pizzas are 800vt (A$10). Beers are 320 vt.
The dining room here is quite nice, although a bit hot. The menu is not too bad, with some very nice dishes on offer. The price is average, with coconut crab (2200vt - A$27.50), Chilli Chicken Satay (1275vt - A$16.00) some samples. The food was good to above average, with the crab a huge meal, the satay just adequate in size. Beer was cold (230vt - A$2.90), wine selection fairly good (15-1800 - A$18.75-22.50), desserts excellent (350-450vt - A$4.40-5.60), the rum ice cream especially recommended. Bread is included and the service quite good. All in all, better than I had expected. Worth a couple of meals. I did not eat here in 1999, 2002 or 2007 (except lunch). Do not say I recommended it as the owner appears to hate me for some unknown reason.
Santo Chinese Restaurant
This is located next to the Aquamarine's new shop which is in the old Coolidge Bar building but closer to the main street. The restaurant is very plain and not very inviting. The owners and waiters do not speak English, so it can be a bit difficult to get things (eg a missing meal) or to figure out the bill (it is written in Chinese). The only intelligent person there is a young child of about seven or eight who can speak English. I had a meal there (the waiter or owner told us there was no banquet meal but locals swear there is) and it was a bit of a disaster. The dishes arrived in wrong order, with the rice not coming out until well after all other dishes, even after asking. In addition, some people who were eating separate meals did not receive theirs until just before the rice arrived, that after the rest of us had almost finished.
The food was below average, with some dishes not even resembling what they should look or taste like. The cost was 1350vt (A$16.90) each. A big mistake eating here, try elsewhere!! Note that in June 2007 it was closed as the owner had died a few days before we arrived and its future was unclear.
This was closed down as of my September 1999 visit. However, in June 2007 it was open. Located at the western end of the town on Cook Street (walk past then Santo Hotel then turn right at the restaurant sign - not sure if still there - into Cook Street just before markets), this was a new place in 1998. The restaurant is not licensed, but there is a shop around the corner that sells beer and wine. You can eat inside or outside on the verandah.
In July 2007 it is supposed to be moving to the Apex Gardens Hotel in the main street in the centre of town. However, as this move has been supposed to happen for a few years, it may be later in the year.
We had excellent meals here in 1998 and in June 2007, heaps of food, tasty and excellent service. The owner in 1998 had worked in Chinese restaurants in Sydney and the current owners also appear to be from Australia. The wife speaks perfect English and know what Australians expect from Chinese food. Our banquet meal cost 1120vt (A$14) each (1998) and there was a small charge for corkage. In 2007 our meal with soft drinks cost 2000vt (A$23.80) each. A very good dining experience that I would recommend.
As indicated above, the restaurant is five kilometres out of town so you will need to arrange a taxi to get here and another to get home. An excellent dining experience, you can eat inside, outside next to the pool or on the verandah overlooking the water. The food here is very good, if not excellent. Some of the best, most interesting meals I have had were here. In 2007 I had the best meal that I had in Santo.
The restaurant is well run, a very good selection (you can order something made to order if you want) but the price may be a bit higher than other locations at Santo (two meals, garlic bread, five beers and two wines cost 6,600vt - A$78).
Aore Island Resort
I ate lunch at Aore in 2002 and it was good although expensive. The resort offered a special smorgasbord dinner at 2500vt, very expensive compared to 1500vt at Deco Stop (when they have it). See comments under accommodation above.
As well as the bars at the Santo Hotel, Aore Resort and Bougainville Resort (all mentioned above in accommodation and dining), there is the following place to drink.
This was formerly called the Santo Club and is located in the main street on the corner of Boulevard Winston Churchill. This is the major intersection of the town centre and the Club is on the ground and first floors. It is a good place for a drink or to watch some TV if something special is on (eg Rugby Tests). A beer is 300vt (A$3.80) in 2002.
If you want to change money, this used to give the best rate but in 2007 it was well below Vila money exchangers.
You can have lunch at your own accommodation, the other dinging places (all diving is done as two individual dives) or at one of the following places.
|The main street of Luganville
Located in the main street in the centre of town, this is probably the classiest of the spots to eat lunch. It has expanded down the side and back of the build and is no longer cramped. The meals are quite good, reasonably priced and efficiently cooked and delivered. A cheeseburger with bacon costs 450vt (A$5.40) and a Coke 200vt (A$2.40).
This is, as you would imagine, at the Markets. It is a row of food outlets with a small table each. There are many to chose from, Catherines and Ruths being two that I would recommend. Most appear to have the same dishes and prices. We had satee beef and chicken with vegies and rice for 250vt (A$3) each. Comes with free lemon water. Very good and excellent at the price.
Open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner.
One of the other attractions of Santo are the local nakamals. What is a "nakamal" you may ask? A nakamal is a traditional place where kava is prepared, served and consumed. Kava, the narcotic beverage of Vanuatu (and other islands) is a foul tasting muddy looking concoction made from the root of the kava plant (a relation of the pepper tree) and drunk from coconut shells. A trip to Santo would not be complete without a few shells and there are many nakamals to pick from. There are two nakamals near Bougainville Resort, the better one about 100 metres up the road from the resort. It only costs 50 vt a shell (about 60 cents) and you can watch the drink being made at the back door. A special tip, the 7.30pm vintage is quite a good one!
Near the Deco Stop, try one of the dozens at the top of the main road to the north from Luganville (ask Cathie). The kava was varied depending on which on you use. In 2002 the Turtel (Turtle) was the best. There are other nakamals in the streets behind the main Police Station.
A tip, buy some chewing gum and after downing the shell, spit out the remnants in your mouth and chew the gum.
There are many Chinese owned shops in Luganville. Most are similar and to get what you want, you may need to visit a few, although LCM between the Sanma Club and Santo Hotel is the biggest and best laid out. You can get beer, Tusker is recommended, for 200vt (A$2.40) each (you will only save a few dollars purchasing 24), Coke at about 140vt (A$1.70) and you can get peanuts and chips as well. VB and Vanuatu Bitter are also sold. If the rooms in your accommodation have a fridge, then you can save a bit of money by getting some beer and drinks in from these shops.
You can get to anywhere in the town for 100vt (A$1.20) by taxi or bus. The cost is per person. You can hire a cab or a bus for longer journeys, for example, out to the Coral Quays should cost about 150 to 200vt (A$1.80 to $2.40) each passenger each way. For journeys at night, you may need to prearrange the travel in both directions during the day (for Coral Quays at least). Try any bus or cab. It used to be even difficult to get a taxi from the Sanma Club to Deco Stop after 8 or 9pm but in 2007 taxis appear to be in better supply at night.
There are a number of tours you can do on non-diving days. Non-divers (and divers when not diving) can arrange to go on tours of Santo with a number of local operators. There are some locals who run trips. You can do trips past some excellent cattle stations, the IRCC Research Station (for coconut trees) to the location of the US ammunition bunkers. There are dozens of these bunkers, iron Quonset huts covered with soil and then vegetation. The camouflaging is not really much use, as each of the bunkers have quite prominent roads leading straight to them from the main road. From the air they would have been easy to spot.
From here the road passes the Nagriamel flag (the flag was there on my 1991 and 1995 trips but not in 1998). This was where one of Jimmy Stevens' sons was killed by the Papua New Guinea army in the one and only real confrontation of the 1980 coconut rebellion. The rebellion was over after this and the rest gave themselves up.
The rebellion was centred on the village of Fanafo (or Vanafo). This village is really a collection of small villages, each of 10 or 15 huts with their own chief. The idea of Fanafo is to have a place where Ni-Vanuatu can live in a traditional manner. They are called custom villages and the original concept was the idea of Jimmy Stevens back in the 1950s or 1960s. He was concerned about the loss of traditional living and so he established the village and invited people to come and live there in traditional ways. People came from all over Santo and even other islands. Today they all live with very little of the western world's luxuries. The men and women wear lap laps and the children wear nothing or the same. The villages do not have electricity (it is available if they wanted it), all cooking is done using traditional ovens and food is mostly self grown (pigs, chickens, yams, fruit etc). Not sure if you can still go to this village.
On both my trips to the villages (different ones), we were shown around by the chief and saw much of interest. Some of the most interesting things were the children, playing with a toy made from two food tins nailed to a piece of wood which was then nailed to a bigger piece of wood. This gave a wheeled toy that could be steered and the children played with it all the time we were there. Another toy was a new wheelbarrow, the only non-traditional item of substance we saw, being pushed around by a boy of about eight. In it was his brother who was about two. The older boy made truck type noises and his younger brother cried when the pushing stopped.
On my last trip to Fanafo, I had a video camera which had a pull out screen. I video the children and they were simply fascinated by looking at themselves in the screen as I videoed them. They laughed, giggled and spoke in excited voices as they saw themselves looking back at them. We provided a small donation to the village during our visit. They are using this money to build a couple of water tanks and associated capturing structure (a roof) so the women do not need to work five kilometres to the river to collect water.
When doing this trip with Russell Donavan (then owner of Deco Stop) it used to go to his property. We enter and cross the Sarakata River (the river in Luganville). Here it is a deep sided, crystal blue stream that has its start in the limestone caves, some of which we are about to visit . The first stop is a blue hole. This is 54 metres deep and has been explored by cave divers more than 600 metres. The water flows out of the cave and goes who knows where. We go to another cave which is entered by climbing down a steep wall using a ladder into a crater. You then duck under a low roof into a small cavern. From here you put on a mask and pull yourself about six metres along a rope into a larger cavern. This has been nicknamed the "Duck Dive". The cave contains a stream that flows from further up the cave system and exits through a very small hole near the ladder where you first entered. After walking along the cave, there is another sinkhole which is about 24 metres deep (I think). Cave divers have also explored this section. Even if your are not cave divers, this is a very interesting thing to see.
From the village or the armament bunkers, all trips continues through plantations (coconut, coffee, cocoa etc) and on to World War II establishments. There are many roads, buildings, boilers (probably a laundry) and other signs of the huge amount of infrastructure put in by the Americans.
If you are on a longer trip to Champagne Bay you head up the coast and go to one or more of the Blue Holes. Champagne Beach is without a doubt the best beach in the World. The sand is like talcum powder, the water a brilliant blue and the setting with coconut trees behind the white sand magnificient. Recommended very strongly.
On the way back some trips pass over the Golf Course and then the remains of Bomber One (hardly visible from the ground let alone the truck). You may even be taken you to the wreck of a Boeing B-17 which is located at the southern end of the strip. From the photo on page 56 of Peter Stone's book The Lady and the President, the wreck seems to be right on what was part of the taxiways or aircraft hardstands. I am not clear if this aircraft is the one referred to on page 55 of the same book. This was a B-17 that crashed after a bombing raid. It is not certain if the plane crashed near the airfield, but this is what is implied to me. In any case, the plane is totally wrecked, smashed into dozens of pieces, with engines and wings separated from not only the main fuselage, but from each other. The plane obviously caught fire as many of the metal parts are melted into lumps of aluminium. A tragic reminder of war.
Tours returns the few kilometres to town from here.
|The blue hole
You can also hire a taxi or bus and head out of town. Just before the Matevulu airstrip there is a river/creek. This is the Riri River. If you drive about 100 metres further on and on the right go into the house here, you might be able to hire them to take you on a dugout canoe trip. This goes up the river to a blue hole. It takes about 15 minutes of paddling to get to the blue hole.
This is fantastic! The water is crystal clear and blue in colour. It is about 15 to 18 metres deep here, although it only looks about 7 due to the clearness of the water. There is a small wharf on which you can land and put your gear while you have a swim.
The Matevulu airstrip is worth driving down. There is a school along here and at the end of the airstrip is another blue hole. This is excellent. There are lots more places to see, including Champagne Beach at Hog Harbour, the most beautiful beach I have ever seen.
Espiritu Santo is one of the most interesting countries I have visited. Like all Pacific island countries, the nation of Vanuatu is not for those who like their luxuries, who could not sit in the back of a ute (pickup) as you travel to the dive site or on a tour. However, if you like exciting diving, fascinating and friendly people, then Vanuatu and Santo are for you. Go for it!
NOTE: Prices generally as of June 2007.