First-time visitor Pauline Webber finds that you don’t need to get underwater to enjoy all the delights of Espiritu Santo – from blue holes, spectacular greenery, sophisticated resorts, welcoming locals to cultural delights and WWII relics it was smooth going all the way.

All I knew about Santo before my visit was that it is big and has some of the world’s best dive sites. I’m not really at home in flippers so the island had not come up on my radar before, but that’s all changed now.

I was invited to visit Vanuatu shortly after TC Pam made its unwelcome visit. The cyclone battered much of the country but left Espiritu Santo virtually untouched so it is business as usual in this particular piece of paradise.

Santo is an easy 45-minute flight from Port Vila. First thing I notice when I touch down is the road. Anyone familiar with Vila will know that getting from A to B on wheels is an adventure in itself. But on Santo it’s smooth tarmac all the way. Then there’s all that green – dense forest interspersed with coconut palm plantations and with a backdrop of emerald mountains. Small villages appear briefly beyond the foliage then are gone.

Luganville, Santo’s only town, is a wide main street with a bunch of stores and businesses haphazardly ranged along its length. It’s a laid-back place where you can linger over coffee and local organic produce in a tapas-based menu at Restaurant 1606. On the day I visit, Bev takes me to meet Esline Turner, who runs Cruising Safaris. But we’re not going out on her glass-bottom boat today. Instead we get to sit in on a traditional women’s water dance performed by the troop that Esline works with. Esline is a ni-Vanuatu who spent many years in Australia where she and her Australian husband John raised a family. She is one very impressive lady with a gift for making people welcome. I would happily have stayed chatting with her all day about ni-Van life and culture.
Bev too is passionate about local culture and can point you towards all sorts of music, dance and art events when you’ve had enough of hanging out poolside. She’s one of the enthusiastic organisers behind Santo’s annual music festival, a three-day extravaganza held in October.

Many of Santo’s other resorts and tourist attractions are strung along its east coast, and with such a good road at your disposal, it’s easy to reach them. There’s a big range of them from simple beachfront fares at Turtle Bay and Lonnoc Beach resorts to exquisite waterside bungalows at boutique resort Moyyan House by the Sea at Barrier Beach, where the coral quays begin just a few metres offshore. Rejuvenate after your swim with a treatment at Moyyan’s luxury day spa. From Lonnoc you can kayak to famous Champagne Beach or across to Elephant Island.

At Oyster Island Resort, when I’m not in the water with the fishes I’m keeping my eyes peeled over it. I’m hoping to catch sight of a dugong with a new baby that’s been seen around in the past few days. Oyster Island is set in an exquisite marine reserve area. Lying in my hammock, strung across my bungalow deck, I can gaze out into turquoise waters and emerald-green, bush-clad hills. I don’t see the dugong sadly but I do take a tour by outrigger canoe to Riri River Blue Hole, one of many “blue holes” in the region. The sapphire-blue colour of these pools is caused by deep underwater caves in the limestone rock, the deeper the cave the bluer the water. Other pools are at Matevulu and Nando, take lunch or a snack and really enjoy the day. We went across to Riri by car but the resort can get you there with a splash of style by motorboat too.

This really is heaven

Back at Oyster, I take a wander around the resort and the island. It’s peaceful and still, with just the sound of the breeze and the birdsong. There are walking tracks through the resort farm, where honey-coloured cattle graze among the coconut palms. The resort grows about 80% of the produce it uses and sources as much of the rest as possible from local suppliers. Like most of Vanuatu, many of Santo’s farms are organic. You can eat very well on this island.

Oyster has a lovely relaxed feel to it. The staff are friendly and attentive without being intrusive. You can do your own thing, even if that’s just lying around with a beer and a book from one of the shelves in the nakamal. But if you want a little more adventure than that, Oyster Island’s tour manager can arrange it for you. Among many on offer, the resort has a couple of cultural tours to a local village and a regional school as well the Mount Hope River Tour passing by waterfalls, cascades and lush rainforest along the Sarakata River. All the east coast resorts can arrange local tours and your dive tours too.

And it’s easy to get about on your own here. Most resorts offer mountain bikes, kayaks and other transport options so you can explore for yourself. Ni-Vanuatu are friendly and very welcoming and this is a great way to get to meet them.

With its natural beauty, fascinating French colonial history and traditional village way of life, Espiritu Santo offers the visitor something rare, an unspoiled paradise with great food and superb accommodation. Add the welcoming smiles of the Ni-Vanuatu and this really is heaven.