“Where are you?”, “Where is this?” and “Looks like paradise”. The messages flooded into my Instagram inbox. I’d been sharing photos of Vanuatu, specifically of one of the roughly 90 islands in the South Pacific nation: Espiritu Santo.
I’d just spent the day swimming in a blue hole, which reminded me of the cenotes in Mexico, visiting a beach with chalky, light blue water, and watching a traditional women’s water dance in a pool.
Despite being a travel writer for the past five years in Australia, visiting most of its corners, I hadn’t heard much about Vanuatu. Though it’s in the South Pacific like Fiji and has roughly the same flight time from Australia’s East Coast, the island nation doesn’t get nearly as much hype.
Flights to Vanuatu are 2.5 hours from Brisbane, three hours from Sydney or 3.5 hours from Melbourne, arriving at the country’s biggest airport in Port Vila and with frequent service on Virgin Australia. You can also fly direct to Santo from certain cities in Australia.
Ahead, I’m sharing all the reasons it’s worth a visit. I’ll focus on things to do in Santo, where I spent the bulk of my five-day Vanuatu visit, but it’s also worth noting that the nation also lets you get closer than anywhere else on Earth to an active volcano. That experience is at Mount Yasur on Tanna Island, a 40-minute flight from Vanuatu’s main hub of Port Vila, roughly the same time as it takes to get to Santo from Port Vila.
I didn’t experience the volcano viewing first-hand, but half of our tour group who did said it was a travel experience they’ll never forget and that they were blown away seeing the sheer power of nature. So, if you’re headed to Vanuatu, be sure to pencil in some time on Tanna Island to see Mount Yasur, in addition to stopping at Santo Island to do everything else I’m mentioning below.
Float Down Mount Hope
Even if you’ve travelled extensively, chances are you haven’t floated down a river in just a life vest (no water vessel). You can do this for 40 minutes with Mount Hope Float Tours. While the river has a consistent current, parts of it are slower paced while in other areas it turns into rapids. Finish at a waterfall where you’ll be treated to local fruit and snacks before walking back to the parked truck your group arrived on.
Visit a Cultural Village
While you’ll no doubt experience some of Vanuatu’s culture interacting with staff at your hotel or on the tours, if you’re keen to learn more, visit Leweton Cultural Village. There, you can taste handmade kava, be taught about local traditions, and get to watch a women’s water music show, which takes place in a pool.
See Natural Fizzing at Champagne Beach
One of Santo’s most visited beaches is easily Champagne Beach, a cove about the same size as Tamarama Beach in Sydney. In parts of it, gas escaping from volcanic rocks become bubbles and looks like fizzing Champagne, hence its name.
The beach is about an hours’ drive from Santo’s airport in Luganville and most accommodations will be able to connect you with tours heading there. I visited as part of a day trip with Santo Heritage Tours.
Swim at Port Olry
Port Olry was another stop on the Santo Heritage Tours’ day tour. Though I was impressed by the clear water of Champagne Beach, the sea at Port Orly blew me away — the colour was so bright, it almost appeared fluro.
After swimming in the ocean, I went for a beach stroll on its white sand and then dried off on a chair already on the beach, with a palm tree gently swaying above me. Depending on your tour and group size, you can stay as long or as little as you’d like.
Jump into a Blue Hole
Santo is home to about six blue holes that are open to the public, with the largest being Nanda. The others are Riri, Matevulu, Blue Lagoon, Hog Harbour, and Malo. If you’re visiting on your own and not part of a tour, be sure to bring some cash as there might be an entrance fee.
I visited Nanda, also known as Jackie’s Blue Hole, spending about an hour jumping into and paddling in its freshwater, feeding the fish, and taking about 1897 photos of it — every angle made it look like a tucked-away paradise.
Stay at Aore Island Resort
Many resorts on islands in the South Pacific claim barefoot luxury, but Aore Island Resort nails it with its bungalows spread along the island’s coast, many of them with just a strip of beach separating them from the gently lapping waves. Take a snorkel out front of the resort to see colourful fish, book a day tour to scuba dive, or simply sit on your bungalow’s front porch, listening to the sounds of the jungle.