“Santo has over 30 small islands surrounding its coastline. But that’s just the start of the story. The Vanuatu Islands archipelago consists of around 83 larger islands, each with their own mini-islands, spread over 1,300 kms of ocean. Add up the total land area and you’re talking about over 12,000km2 of mountains, reef and rainforest to explore….”
Alex Bortoli (owner, Turtle Bay Beach House)
Espiritu Santo is the largest and most diverse of the Vanuatu islands. It’s the ideal base for exploring both the smaller, inner islands that lay scattered around its coastline like a necklace of turquoise jewels and the larger, outer islands that form part of the northern section of the Vanuatu Island chain. And while all the Vanuatu islands offer a unique combination of untouched remoteness and spectacular scenery, they also differ dramatically in their culture, geography and lifestyle.
ESPIRITU SANTO – EAST COAST
INNER ISLANDS (TURTLE BAY)
There are around half dozen islands that make up Turtle Bay and surrounds directly in front of Turtle Bay Beach House. Locals often refer to it as “the bay of islands”. It’s one of the prettiest areas on Santo and in the Vanuatu islands. Some of the islands are privately owned, however there are still quite a few that are uninhabited and can be easily accessed by kayak. Turtle Island, for example is a beautiful little island directly opposite our house and has some fantastic snorkelling. (*Note – Turtle Island recently sold and has been renamed Dany Island – the owner is now charging visitors 1000vt pp including children to visit the island). And at the back of Oyster Island (main photo at top of page) there are some beautiful beaches, fringing reef and protected bays to explore. Oyster Island Resort is free to visit. It can also be reached via a free ferry from the mainland (see Watersports page for more details).
Heading north from Turtle Bay, there are two small islands near Velit Bay (privately owned) and a large, uninhabited island directly opposite Champagne and Lonnoc Beach (aptly named Elephant Island). You can get to Elephant Island by hiring kayaks from Lonnoc Beach Bungalows or organising a boat ride over (it’s about 4.5km offshore). There’s some great snorkeling on the SW corner of the island but no outstanding beaches to speak of.
At the sleepy village of Port Olry (20 mins north of Lonnoc) , it’s possible to walk/wade across to a small island directly offshore (approx. 200m) at low tide. There’s some good snorkeling on the far side of this island, and if you’re lucky you’ll see some turtles and dugongs. Another larger island called Thion Island (or Dolphin Island) sits just nearby but is only accessible via kayak (or you can hire a boat and guide from the locals). There’s a beautiful white sand beach and a short walk that leads up to a freshwater lake. In the distance you can Sakau Island to the north. All Vanuatu islands are volcanic in origin and generally have rugged mountainous interiors. Santo and its chain of islands is no exception.
Heading south from Turtle Bay, there are two large offshore islands (Mavea and Aesi), which are only accessible by kayak or hire boat (and only in good weather). Although people live permanently on both islands, there’s no tourist accommodation available there. Some beautiful white sand beaches and awesome coral can be found on the the NW points of both islands. All Vanuatu Islands have extensive fringing reef
Directly opposite the town of Luganville, is Aore Island. There’s a free ferry that leaves daily from Phillips Wharf, it takes about 15 mins to cross the channel to Aore Island Resort. From here you can snorkel, dive, fish, explore the island’s beaches and coconut plantations via pushbike or simply relax and chill out at the resort restaurant.
On the south side of Aore island is the beautiful Ratua Private Island Resort, a 100% non profit resort recently voted as one of the top 5 private island resorts in the south Pacific. It resembles a rustic Indonesian fishing village partly because all the buildings (many 200 years old) were brought over in pieces from Indonesia and carefully reassembled by a team of Balinese craftsmen. The resort is not cheap to stay at but we highly recommend it as a splurge and a wonderful island holiday option (it does not cater to day trippers). It’s about a 30 min boat ride from Luganville.
Bokissa Private Island Resort on Bokissa Island (just to the west of Aore) is another upmarket resort located on a stunning beach with fantastic snorkelling and reef directly out front. The resort is very laid back, the Ni-Van staff are wonderful and relaxed and the food and the pool are awesome! It is one our favourite island destinations in Vanuatu. It’s about a 30 minute boat ride from Luganville however they do not currently cater to day visitors. So you will need to book in for the night to enjoy it!
If you want the island experience without the resorts, then Tutuba Island (just off Bokissa) is the go. It can be accessed in good weather by chartering a boat from the locals at Million Dollar Point (there are footpaths around the southern end of the island, golden sand beaches on the west coast and some amazing snorkelling). Many Vanuatu Islands are privately owned so always check first before visiting.
Malo Island sits just to the south of Aore Island and is huge in comparison (17km long x 13km wide). It’s a bit more of an adventure to get to but well worth the effort. You need to either hire a car or catch public transport from Luganville to Malo Landing (about 25 mins south on a bumpy dirt road). From there you can hire your own boat and guide for around $30 return or jump on board a water taxi with the locals for under $5 (we suggest you only attempt this in good weather as the boats are small, often overcrowded and have open cockpits). It takes about 20 minutes to cross the channel.
Once there, you can chill out at Pantanas Guest House (run by the beautiful Vomalehi), snorkel on the reef, eat lunch, explore the old missionary village of Avunatari nearby, catch a transport to explore a nearby cave or blue hole, visit the tiny village of Small Nauku where there is a little beachside restaurant and then return to the mainland from the wharf there.
Did You Know?
Ambrym Island features twin active volcanoes and is known as the “black island” partly because of its black sands and volcanic ash and partly because of its ancient “black magic customs” which still play a significant part in daily living. Locals also practice a form of sand drawing where a single flowing line is used to create complex patterns and images. There are over half a dozen volcanoes in the Vanuatu Islands. Ambrym is one of only 7 volcanic islands in the world with an active lava lake!
MALEKULA – AMBAE – PENTECOST
The next nearest island to Santo is Malekula, just south of Malo Island. You can get to it by ferry from Luganville or by plane. Makekula is the second largest island in Vanuatu and is known as the island of custom, cannibalism and coneheads. For more information click here . Most Vanuatu islands can be reached by either plane or ferries. Ferries are cheap but they are often slow, dirty and have no set schedules, so always check details first.
Ambae (or Aoba) is slightly farther out than Malekula and is located to the east of Santo. It’s by far the largest of Vanuatu’s volcanoes because its base extends about 3000ft under the sea while its cone reaches almost 5000ft into the sky. Access is via ferry or plane. Stunning twin crater lakes (one blue, one green) adorn the summit of the volcano – for more info click here.
Pentecost lies to the east of Ambae and is world famous for its annual land diving ritual (called the Nagol), which takes place between May and June. The ritual involves men and boys jumping off a 20-30m high tower with vines tied around their legs (the original bungy jump!). Pentecost can be reached by ferry or plane from Luganville. Click here for more info.
BANKS AND TORRES ISLANDS
The Banks and Torres are Vanuatu Islands northernmost islands and extend almost 450 kms NW of Santo towards the Solomon Islands. Many of the main islands are volcanic in origin with active volcanoes on Gaua and Vanua Lava islands.
Thanks to the high humidity and rainfall, there are spectacular waterfalls everywhere, with Waterfall Bay on the west coast of Vanua Lava being particularly well known. The dancing and culture on these islands has to be seen to be believed! The only way here is by plane from Luganville. For more info click here.