Espiritu Santo literally means ‘Holy Spirit’. Espiritu Santo is the largest of Vanuatu’s islands and its population is around 30,000. Luganville is the largest town however it is often referred to as ‘Santo’. The people of Vanuatu are known as the happiest people on earth and their happiness is contagious.
On the morning our ship arrived in Luganville I woke up and walked out onto the balcony. The site I was greeted with didn’t thrill me and in fact I thought this was one of the worst visual welcomes to a city I had ever seen. It was ugly to be sure but don’t be disheartened because this is just a mere blimp on what is one of the world’s most beautiful islands. It has so much to offer with many, many natural wonders for you to explore and experience, and the time we had available certainly didn’t do the island any justice.
We disembarked the ship at around 9am and as soon as you walk off the ship there are what seems to be hundreds of locals approaching you, almost pouncing on you, to engage you to employ them as taxi driver or tour guide for the day.
It’s a little overwhelming and it does seem quite awful that in order to earn a living these people have to accost you in the way that they do but thank goodness the cruise ships visit or I’m not sure how they would otherwise survive.
In the frenzy that was almost being ‘set upon’ by the taxi drivers, we settled on Johnnie who said he had an air-conditioned car and that he could show us around Santo for AUS$150.00. We didn’t have any Aussie dollars on us so asked him how much in Vatu and he said V16,000. Let me tell you now that V16,000 is AUS$195.00 so sadly, you need to be on high alert for the cab drivers as some are opportunists.
With Johnnie coming out well in front, he then let us know he didn’t have any petrol so we had to advance him 2000 Vatu just so the van would make it to Champagne Bay. It was about an hour’s drive from the port and although Johnnie’s car was air-conditioned, it struggled so much with any incline I was wondering if we would have to get out and push. I was impressed to see that the road we drove on was not only sealed but even had a white-painted line denoting the two sides of the road. Johnnie told us that the road was just five years old and had been funded by the USA and built by Aussies and Kiwis.
Along the way we saw so many coconut farms. There were coconut palms as far as the eye could see and then we saw the area where the coconuts are dried out and turned into organic coconut oil. Coconuts and its by-products are the island’s main export. We also saw lots of cattle. All the cattle is reared free-range and apparently, organically. The beef is exported to many countries with big orders going to Japan.
The majority of the residents don’t own cars and public transport is non-existent so on the sides of the road you pass locals walking to where they need to go and they hope someone driving by will pick them up and give them a lift on the back of their truck/ute.
Hitch-hiking is apparently very safe and it’s not only the locals who hitchhike. Johnnie picked up a couple of tourists from Brisbane who were also heading to Champagne Bay and we squeezed them into the back row of seats and continued on with our journey. Johnnie told us that crime on the island is almost non-existent and locals as well as tourists are very safe.
As you drive along the dirt road that leads to Champagne Bay, you need to pay an entry fee. This is AUS$5.00/adult or AUS$2.00 per child. There is an old man who stands in a little booth/hut to collect the money and we found out he is the owner of all the land around Champagne Bay. He lives there and two of his sons live in separate houses on the land as well. There are also very basic bures you can rent for AUS$35/night.
Sometimes the cruise ships anchor right off Champagne Bay. I was rather pleased our ship docked at Luganville instead because despite it meaning an hour’s drive to Champagne Bay, it meant we were able to see a lot of the island during the journey and once we arrived, we pretty much had the entire bay all to ourselves.
If you visit Vanuatu, a visit to Champagne Bay is an absolute must; even the name makes it sound fabulous. The beach gets its name from a phenomenon witnessed by the first travellers to the bay. The shallow waters appear to fizz at low tide, just like pouring a glass of champagne. In truth, the effect is caused by gas escaping from volcanic rocks on the sea floor.
It has been voted ‘the most beautiful beach in the world’ and I think the title is justified. Here we found the most unspoiled and non-developed and oh-so-natural beach we have ever seen. The crescent of very fine soft white sand looks upon a sparkling aqua-blue lagoon fringed with coral. The water is so transparent it’s difficult to tell where the beach ends and the sand begins.
The water is very, very warm so you’ll never become cold swimming in Champagne Bay. You need to bring your snorkelling equipment because the coral is stunning. If you’re looking for the best place to snorkel, when facing the beach the coral to the far right along the coastline that’s out beyond the buoys is the best place to view the coral. Although there are no giant clams (or clams of any size), and although you won’t see a thousand different species of fish, you will see coral in all the colours of the rainbow. It looks like an English cottage garden in full bloom, except it’s underwater.
On the day we were there the sea was incredibly calm and there were no rips and so it was totally safe to swim and just hover over the coral. Back on land there are trees overhanging the sand and so if you don’t want to become burnt to a crisp you can shelter from the sun under the shade of a tree.
There are bathroom facilities that are okay but you are in a fairly remote area as well as being on an island in the South Pacific, so your expectations shouldn’t be too high.
The local village people set up stalls along the grass beyond the sand so you can buy souvenirs and there is also a hut set up as a shop where you can buy water, soft drinks, local beer, hot chips and a few rice dishes. Soft drinks are AUS$3.00 and a beer is AUS$5.00.
I don’t think a visit to Vanuatu is complete without a visit to the pristine waters of Champagne Bay. For us this was an extremely special experience and we would love to visit again – for longer!
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