Diving: Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

Northern end of Champagne Beach at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Introduction

Diving Espiritu Santo is synonymous with diving the SS President Coolidge, but it’s not the only dive in town – there’s the infamous Million Dollar Beach and the USS Tucker. There are plenty of other activities and places to see on Santo, and they are all accessible within a day trip from the capital Luganville. The place is steeped in history, particularly World War 2, which is worth reading up on before you go.

Making a splash in the Blue Hole on the Road trip at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Not so easy to get to as Port Vila, but somehow more pleasant for its remoteness.

Location

Espiritu Santo is roughly on the same latitude as Cooktown, in far north Queensland and Fiji, and the same longitude as Norfolk Island.  It is the north most of the large islands, and about 3 hours flying time from Brisbane.

Dive Centres

We tried out two dive operators on Espiritu Santo: Allan Power Dive Tours, and Santo Island Dive operated by Mal Davies. They are very different operators:

Allan Power Dive Tours is a name synonymous with the SS President Coolidge – Allan Powers was one of the original salvagers to survey the wreck nearly 40 years ago and has remained ever since as its unofficial caretaker, guiding divers through the hulk for over 35 years. They also take divers on shore dives at nearby Million Dollar Point.

Santo Island Dive operates three boats, and accesses many more sites, visiting both wrecks and reefs, in and around the Segond Channel and wider area.

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Dive Sites

The usual reason to be on Santo is to dive the SS President Coolidge, and I guess it would be the rare diver who came to Santo and didn’t dive the Coolidge.  But the Coolidge is a very particular dive: it is big and deep. Imagine wandering around a cruise liner – how long would it take you to explore it. Now imagine you can only explore it for 30 to 40 mins at a time: how many times would you need to go? Also imagine the lights are out and it’s dark inside – would you go without a guide? Don’t plan a dive on the Coolidge – plan many, and plan them with someone with years of experience. This is not a ‘hire a tank and wander off the beach’ type of dive.  Just so you know.  Both operators serve the Coolidge.  However, there are many other interesting wrecks and reefs, not to mention Million Dollar Beach.  We dived four very different sites – a small sample of what’s available.

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Where to Stay

Accommodation is plentiful around Luganville, and up the east coast and on nearby Aore Island – very convenient obviously for diving all the main sites which are closeby.

Aore Island Resort

Located on Aore Island, 3km from Luganville, the main town in Espiritu Santo, accessed via a 15 minute ferry trip from the main jetty.

View on arrival at the Aore Island Resort at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

The resort is set on a private waterfront with a picturesque backdrop of coconut palms, jungle, and a view across the water back to Luganville.

The resort is the perfect family or couples getaway, with a total of 18 bungalows spread out along the sandy beach surrounded by palms and tropical gardens.

Spacious room at the Aore Island Resort at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Each bungalow can easily fit a family of four or five with clever shared access to the bathroom.

Perfect for drying out gear in the shade at Aore Resort Bungalow Balcony at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

They each have a beachfront balcony overlooking the ocean, which can comfortably house a party of eight; i.e., it is not just a widow’s peak and you can spit into the Pacific Ocean lapping gently just metres below.

Pool in manicured gardens at the Aore Island Resort at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

As well as a pool, there is great snorkelling, a kiddies reef right underneath the jetty and more adventurous clumps of coral reef about 200m left of the jetty looking out to sea i.e. off to the south-west. Take a kayak, basics, a hat and a bottle of water and paddle in the shade of the overhanging trees.

Snorkelling with territorial Clown fish at the Aore Island Resort at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Park the kayak on the sand and while away an hour just counting the different types of fish that you can see: from yellow pipefish and juvenile triggers (who are very hard to keep up with) to the occasional very territorial clownfish.

The resort does not have its own dive operation but all the other boat owning operators will happily pick you up here. There are also many reefs at the 6 to 9m mark right in front of the resort worth exploring, with Cindy’s reef on the top end of Aore Island just a short boat ride away.

Beachfront Resort

The Beachfront is Luganville’s only true beach side resort located just 2kms from town, laid out amongst spacious waterfront lawns and gardens. The Resort offers a variety of excellent accommodation overlooking the sheltered waters of Segond Channel and Aore Island, from single, double and triple bungalows to 6-room dorms.

Coolidge Bar & Grill Restaurant at the Beachfront Resort at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

The fully licensed restaurant, The Coolidge Bar & Grill, provides first-class food from both regular and black board menus plus a selection of cold beers and wines all enjoyed in relaxed Melanesian-style surroundings overlooking the swimming pool, lawns and ocean.

Poolside at the Beachfront Resort at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

The Beachfront can organise any of the island’s land tours, and if you’re diving with Allan Power, their minibus will pick you up from the car park, and the other operators can you up at the water’s edge.

 

Where to Eat

Luganville is no restaurant mecca, and our schedule did not allow us time to explore any local eateries. So we can thoroughly recommend dining in! Each resort has a sufficiently varied menu to last you a week of variety, and many resorts have one day in the week when they cook their own particular speciality.

How to Get Around

On Santo there are plenty of taxis (probably many more than are required) and the cars are small Korean jobs which appear smaller than a Fiat 126. Amusingly, these are often packed with five or six rather large locals. The roads in Santo are pretty good, with a wide Main Street left behind by the Americans and a new coastal road tar-sealed in 2010 with funding from New Zealand and the EU.

Though having said that, unless you have a particular need to be very mobile there’s little point in hiring a car, as in most cases, the operators, whether a resort or an attraction, will get you to where you need to go in reasonable comfort. Failing that – ask them to call you a taxi.

Other Activities

All of which we can recommend, either for the non-diving days, or for the non-divers in the party.

Santo Safari Tours

A trip from Luganville, north up the east coast to Port Olry, made all the more memorable by Glen, our guide and font of all local knowledge.

Port Orly in the north the Road trip at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

The road to Port Olry passes many plantations of sandalwood, coffee, cocoa and kava, a few resorts, and Hog’s Harbour (so named by the Catholic missionaries who brought the pigs to wean the cannibals off human flesh and also to give them something else to sacrifice). Our trip included a kayak trip on the Riri River, a dip in the Nanda Blue Hole, and a stopover at Champagne Beach. (Email: santosafaritours@vanuatu.com.au or call: +678 7742178)

Blue Hole

The water comes from down the mountain and surfaces at the Blue Hole – a perfect ‘swimming-hole-sized’ hole. There’s a platform on one side with tables and chairs and a swing on the other side for the kids. The blueness of the water is simply stunning, and completely natural (no added chemicals); the water is crystal clear having been filtered through limestone and volcanic rock.

Making a splash in the Blue Hole on the Road trip at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Canoe Trip on the Riri River

A ride aboard a traditional wooden dug-out canoe with a local guide (who does all the paddling) along the wonderfully quiet and picturesque Riri River.

Riri River Kayak Tour on the Road trip at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

The water is so clear it occasionally looks like the canoe is suspended invisibly above the river bed. There is another blue hole at the end of it too.

Champagne Beach

Much of the infrastructure of Santo has its origins in the US base that housed over 100,000 US soldiers from 1942.

When the Americans were based here at the Aore Island Resort at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Many of the stories of that period are captured by James Michener. General Ross was a guy in charge of the operation to capture this particular beach first, which he did in an overnight sortie. In the morning he woke to name the beach Champagne Beach (possibly because of its crescent shape, pale yellow sand and foamy white surf, or possibly because he’d just got married prior to shipping out and had missed out on his honeymoon).

Now when a cruise ship disgorges a bunch of oikes they come to Champagne Beach for champagne and lobster. The beach is owned by a local chief and all visitors must pay a small bounty or entrance fee – though this goes a little way to cleaning up the mess many leave behind. The locals also set up a large market in the stalls behind the beach built explicitly for that purpose.

Champagne Beach on the Road trip at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Port Olry

Although Champagne Beach is more famous, Port Olry is more beautiful. Chez Luis is a great beachfront bar-restaurant here and there are some bungalows which can be used for short overnight stays or day trips.

Port Olry beach front restaurant on Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Millennium Cave Tour

This is something that we couldn’t squeeze into our itinerary, however it comes very well recommended by locals and tourists alike. The description here is pretty accurate and this could sensibly fill your ‘no fly’ day.

Getting There

We always promote flying the local flag, so Air Vanuatu has to be your first choice.

Air Vanuatu – fly the local carrier at the airport at Espiritu Santo diving Vanuatu by Diveplanit

Air Vanuatu has direct flights to Santo from Brisbane. But not every day. However, the flights between Port Vila and Santo are twice daily and connect well with the international flights.

Check out their schedules here.

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