Vanuatu is an interesting country. The past week we spent on an island that is off the “tourist trail.” We left Lakatoro and headed to Espirito Santo. Santo, along with Port Vila, are the two main cities that tourists visit. Vanuatu is only a three-hour flight from New Zealand and Australia, and is often thought of similarly to how we think of beaches in Mexico, but with more expensive alcohol.
When we arrived at the Santo airport, there was someone with a sign for where we were staying, which had three rooms. I wasn’t expecting this, and I went up to ask him if it was for us (he was one of the owners), and he said that he didn’t know who it was for, but it must be for us. We took the truck ride to the accommodation and were put in a room different than we ordered, which irritated me since it was a less expensive room with fewer amenities. We eventually get moved to the bigger room, but there was a lot of confusion about our reservation. It turns out the transfer was for someone else, and he had overlooked our reservation (his wife who normally handles reservations was out of town) and assumed we were the guests booked in to the smaller room.
After unpacking, we then grabbed a taxi to head downtown, get some lunch, and some groceries. Since our accommodation was a little outside of town, it took a few minutes to get a ride, and we ended up on a “bus.” A “bus” in Vanuatu is a novel thing. It is a 12 passenger van that does not have a set route and travels wherever people want to go. If your destination is far out of the way from the other people on it, the driver will decline the ride. It costs a set price of $1.50 per person (long distances can be a little more). Before we headed back, we stopped at the market to grab a papaya for $0.50 and some coconuts (Katy’s favorite). On our ride back to town, we arranged for our cab driver to pick us up the next day to take us for a tour.
Our driver arrived a few minutes before our 9am meeting time to do a tour of a few sites on the island. One of the reasons that we selected him was that his English was good, and he agreed to what I had seen as the going rate of ~$70 for all-day use of the taxi. We first headed to Champagne Beach. Someone at CNN, who has probably never been to Vanuatu, rated Champagne Beach as the ninth-best beach in the world. The beach gets its name from gas escaping from volcanic rock at low tide causes hissing and crackles like champagne. We did not hear it on the beach, but a few areas snorkeling we heard sounds that sounded like champagne hissing. I thought the beach was crowded, as there were about 15 people on it, with a group every 20-30 yards. I guess that is pretty good for a famous beach but busier than I had grown used to in Vanuatu.
The weather was great beach weather, hot, humid, and cloud-free. We spent two hours swimming, snorkeling, and reading our books on the helix beach chairs that my parents left. We were the only people on the beach that had beach chairs, I guess that most people do not travel with them… We got back in the car, and our driver indulged our multitude of questions about life in Vanuatu. We then headed to Port Orly for lunch. Port Orly had a nice beach, but it was not protected and was really windy. We had a good lunch, that wasn’t the speediest, but was just what we needed.
We then headed to the Nando Blue Hole. Vanuatu is a country that apparently has multiple types of blue holes. They have ocean ones with amazing snorkeling and freshwater ones with super clear, albeit cold, deep blue water. During the drive to the blue hole, we passed our driver’s village and saw his family’s 52 head heard of cattle. There are several blue holes that you can visit, and they all charge between $5 and $10, so we went to the one that our driver said was the best (inevitably it was a $10 one). Unfortunately, the clouds rolled in on our way to the blue hole. When we got there, we were the only people there and were able to get some great photos before people descended into the hole. It was chilly without the sun, but we finally built up the courage to jump into the hole. It definitely was chilly, but not as cold as I was anticipating. A family event soon descended onto the hole. Like the Cook Islands, Ni-Vanus tend to wear a lot of clothes when they go swimming. Men sometimes don’t wear a shirt, but often do. Women frequently wear their entire outfit into the water, including denim. The weather did not perk up, and so we decided to head back to town. The blue hole was fun for a little and would have been more fun if it was hot, humid, and sunny outside.
We came back and had a beer and played another game of settlers. Following the game, we headed into town for dinner. It turns out that even on a Saturday most things in Santo close early. We realized that there were a couple of things that we wanted from the store for our next step, Gaua. We did a quick google search and realized that the last grocery store closes at 6 pm. We wrapped up our game and headed downtown and grabbed the last things that we wanted for the trip. We ended up at a Chinese restaurant for dinner. I was surprised at the cost of the meals, thinking that it was a little expensive at around $12 for a meal. The joke was on us since the meals were really enough food for two people.
The following morning we took a “bus” to the “hardware store wharf” to go diving. It was a little stressful since it took over 10 minutes to get a ride at 7:30 am on Sunday morning, but we eventually got one. We did two dives and were done by noon. I had told the operator that I wanted to do reef dives, not wreck dives so of course, the first dive that we did was a wreck. I thought it was a cool dive, but Katy would have preferred it to just be a reef. A slight bummer was that we went to the area that has one of the best wrecks in the world to dive, The Coolidge, and ending up diving another wreck. We then did a shallower drift reef drive to finish up the day, which Katy loved. The owner of the operation, an Australian, was a stereotypical Australian and definitely was a bit racist with a very colonial world view.
We finished up diving, grabbed lunch, and then took a taxi to Million Dollar Point. Million Dollar Point is where the US military dumped millions of dollars of equipment after WWII when the government of Vanuatu did not respond to a request about the US government selling them the equipment. When we got there, the place was deserted; normally any place that has an entrance fee has someone to collect the fee. It was windy, and the surf was pretty rough. I swam in through a bunch of murkiness and came across a ship. I then swam around and saw jeeps, trucks, forklifts, and a whole bunch of other undistinguishable things that have been on the bottom of the ocean for 70 years. Unfortunately, visibility wasn’t the best, and it was pretty rough, so Katy did not make it out very far. Eventually, someone came to collect our fee, and some more tourists came. We then spent over 20 minutes waiting for a taxi back to town and eventually one came, and it had 4 kids and a women in it already. They were just going a little further, so we jumped in the back and had an entertaining ride for a few minutes (Katy saved one of the kids from leaving her sandals in the car at the end of their ride). We then got dropped off at our accommodation, and a miscommunication between Katy and I caused us to get ripped off, but it only cost us an extra $4.
We had dinner in, eating leftover Chinese, ramen, and some other snacks that we were trying to finish up before we headed to our next stop, Gaua. Katy did do a little snorkeling right in front of where we were staying, but it was below average, and she soon came back in. While Katy was snorkeling, I was trying to swing on the swing they had in front of where we were staying, but whether there was a design flaw in the swing or I have lost some of my swinging skills with age was unclear. We turned in early that night, ready to set off for Gaua in the morning.