Vanuatu’s ‘second island’ isn’t second rate, it’s a wonderful unique experience and only a short flight from Port Vila, so add it to your itinerary says Craig Osment.

The short flight from Port Vila to Luganville the capital of Santo is worth taking during daylight as the views of Malakula are spectacular from Air Vanuatu’s ATR and the arrival at Pekoa airport is one of those tropical experiences not to be missed. The terminal is new and has an island-style ambience, from its thatched roof to its outdoor café and casual approach to collecting your luggage; the feeling is r e l a x e d.

We were picking up our 4WD from Joyle 4WD Rental and I’d made a prior arrangement to meet with the proprietor. Joyce at the airport. I assumed there’d be a rental car desk but in typical Santo-style it was much more casual than that – a tap on the shoulder and the question, ‘Are you Craig?’ was all it took. I decided Joyce must be a bit psychic as the airport was pretty crowded and we weren’t the only Europeans there and I hadn’t provided a description in advance.

Santo must be the only place in the world where you can rent a car without a credit card (or even a payment in advance), Joyce didn’t have her card processing device with her and I didn’t have enough folding stuff in my wallet to pay, so Joyce just said, ‘No worries, fix me up when you return the car.’

Our map was alarmingly lacking in detail but the basic compass points were easy enough to follow. It wasn’t until we got into Luganville that I realised that there wasn’t much detail to show. Luganville makes Port Vila look like the Left Bank. There’s a single, very wide main street (I suspect this was constructed by the Americans during WWII and designed to run six tanks abreast) which lends the place a frontier town quality which is reinforced by the fact that most buildings were closed for the siesta-like lunch break. We found the Natangora (sic) Café complete with a table of labelled missionaries and a terrific breakfast menu still being served at lunchtime, which is civilised. We also realised, after peering through the garden, that the entire main drag in Luganville resolutely keeps its back turned to the water. I suppose when there’s so much of the stuff you get a bit complacent about water views.

We took off up the east coast heading for our first accommodation stop at Oyster Island, one of the few things in Santo that is actually signposted. (On the road we noticed that we weren’t actually heading anywhere except away from Luganville, the markers indicate how many kilometres you’ve travelled from Luganville as you progress up the road to Port Olry.) Oyster Island is a short 100-metre boat ride from the mainland and reveals itself to be a cluster of 11 over-water bungalows ranged along a channel facing the beautiful palm-fringed coast to the west.

Accommodation here is mid-priced, mid-range and comfortable. Good value, friendly, charming, and a sociable main dining pavilion where guests congregate before canoe trips or going off exploring the local blue holes. The food is fresh, simple and tasty and the views from the deck up to Turtle Bay are spectacular.

About a 20-minute drive to the north is the fabled Champagne Beach – again, no signpost, just a vague instruction from our host to turn right at the bottom of a steep hill. This beach lives up to every description and superlative I’ve ever read or heard. It is fringed with fabulously dense greenery which seems to rise straight from the pure white talcum-textured sand and stretching away to the horizon is water which covers every shade in the blue/green spectrum. Pristine and perfect and maintained by the traditional owners who advise a token payment on arrival with a couple of charmingly worded signs penned by the village chief, ‘Mr Obed Toto land onoer’ or ‘true blood custom onouer Champagne Beach’.

Next door is Lonnoc Beach which is just as beautiful as Champagne Beach but is home to Lonnoc Beach Bungalows. Again, there is an open dining pavilion, this time run by Bob and his wife who takes care of the home cooking. Bob is a member of the family of traditional owners and oversees a basic clutch of bungalows which the French guidebooks describe as ‘farés rudimentaires’. Which sounds a little more romantic than an English description of a one-and-a-half-star resort with six-star location and views might.

The end of the road on this side of the island is Port Olry which has probably in a past life been a bit of a missionary magnet in its own right. The spectacular bay (yes, another one!) is dominated by a giant cross, not quite up there with Corcovado in Rio but large enough to make its presence felt in this scattered little settlement.

While swimming here we were joined on the beach by a herd of cattle in new-season beige, caramel, camel, and chocolate hides. They appeared to be drinking seawater but in fact, we were told later, they know exactly where the fresh water springs drain into the bay so do their drinking seaside, just like the humans do given a chance.

On the way back to Luganville we stopped by at Moyyan House By The Sea, another small resort, for a drink, a nibble and look around. This is really worth a visit. It’s small and intimate but perfectly formed. Described as an ‘architect-designed boutique hotel’ it is nestled among overhanging trees right on the beach lapped by the usual limpid turquoise Santo water. The rooms have a vaguely Japanese feel, inasmuch as they are sparingly decorated with white linen, white walls, lots of glass louvres and king-sized beds in dark timber. The elegant restaurant is small with a menu concentrating on the fresh local produce from both land and sea.

Back in Luganville to return the car, Joyle 4WD’s offices seemed to be unattended so I went off to top up the tank and contemplate how to return their vehicle, I decided to head for the Natangora Café again, where upon arrival a waitress appeared asked if I was ‘Mr Craig’ and then told me that Joyce had suggested that I just leave the keys with her, which I did in the hope that finally the car might have made its way back to its rightful owner. Having made a payment in the meantime and since I’ve heard nothing since I can only assume that all’s well.

From here we headed to Ratua Private Island which is the ultimate in luxury tropical escapes, from the personal pick-up service (again at the Natangora) to the 25-minute launch trip to and from this 146-acre secluded paradise.

At Ratua, everything is seamlessly taken care of without ever having to actually articulate a request. On arrival, two lobsters were already standing by at the beachside BBQ, a table on the sand under the trees was set and ready and as soon as we’d unpacked and returned to the Yacht Club the lobsters were sizzling to perfection.

The 100-year-old bungalows here have been completely transplanted from Java and Sumatra and lovingly reconstructed in the South Pacific by a team of Indonesian artisans all courtesy of a the French owner who donates all profits to the local education system. Ratua isn’t cheap but it is worth whatever it costs because everything about this place is magical and priceless. The location, the food, the wine, the self-sustaining philosophy of the owners and the magical location are impossible to fault. If a six-star ultra-casual indulgence in unique surrounds is what you’re looking for then you’ll find it at Ratua.

On top of these attractions Santo is geographically sensational. It’s greener, lusher and more open than Efaté and the vegetation is very different. Characterised by huge trees cantilevered over the sand and sea, with thousands of hectares of coconut plantations dotted all over the island it really is a must-visit part of Vanuatu.