Just returned from a 12 night trip to Santo - loved it - so thought I'd share our experience for the benefit of others planning their trip.
We (myself, husband and young adult son) flew direct from Brisbane to Luganville with Air Vanuatu - so convenient. We decided, as first-timers, to try a range of (five) different accommodation from locally run bungalows to more commercial mid-range 'resorts'. That way, we can decide where to plant ourselves next time (and there will be a next time as absolutely loved Santo). Here are our notes:
TRANSPORT: Decided not to hire a car this time. The little (and I mean little) taxis are very plentiful and affordable. Having been to Vila previously, I expected to see hundreds of little 'bus' vans - but not so here. There were a few but mostly the tiny taxis. From the airport to our Luganville motel our fare was 1000vt (stopped at ATM on the way), around town was 200vt and up to Oyster Island (20min) was 2000vt. Other trips were organised as private transfers by the accommodation owners and again, were reasonable in price for the distance (eg. 5000vt Luganville to Port Olry and 3000 Champagne Beach to Luganville). The Millenium Caves tour people picked us up at no extra charge from Turtle Bay.
ACCOMMODATION: Our first two nights were spent in a locally run motel just off the main shopping strip in Luganville, at the Hibiscus Attraction Centre. It was extremely affordable (3500 per night for the 3 of us) very clean with the convenience of a modern ensuite and basic kitchenette - and Marie was always available if we had any questions. Easy walk to the markets, supermarkets, butcher, bakery, wine store, banks etc. Once we had done our 'essential shopping' we walked up to the Caves tour office (past the market on the opposite side just before the bridge), and enjoyed browsing through the Chinese run variety stores. I think a couple of days in the town centre is a good way to start a trip.
Our next two nights were up the 'top' at Port Olry in Little Paradise Bungalows (4000vt per night with breakfast supplies). We had arranged for Tarcisius to collect us from our motel and he kindly took his time on a three hour trip back up to Port Olry, very generously sharing his time and knowledge on the way as we stopped at places of interest (total transfer one way 5000vt). Bungalows very basic but setting great and we really enjoyed it. (New linen and mattress would not go astray.) There was a single gas burner so we cooked half our meals (we always travel with a small self-catering kit) and ate at the handy restaurant on-site (lobster 2500vt, steak/chips/salad 1200vt, tusker 400vt and glass wine 500vt). We were the only guests but some daytrippers during the day. Tarcisius is half way through (slowly) building two new bungalows (ensuite I think) and another family is building some on the other side of the restaurant (two in trees). The guys walked into town to tour the coconut electricity generation plant, but mostly we just relaxed. Loved watching the fisherman in their dugout canoes and the other locals going about their daily activities - with cattle and chooks roaming around checking us out. Beach was nice but sun didn't show its face so to us, the beach wasn't near as nice as the ones in the Champagne Beach area but we'll check it out in the sunshine next trip.
The next three nights were spent at Towoc Bungalows right next door to Champagne Beach. Janeth and her family have finished two new ensuite (cold water only) bungalows to add to the two original. We were the only guests and took the two new ones (I think they have a far superior position right on the beachfront a little away from the restaurant) - fresh and clean and screened with a small covered verandah (6000vt for our double and our son paid 3000 for the other one - both with a nice breakfast supplied in the restaurant - warm coconut hotcakes with banana and honey and a platter of tropical fruit, and unlimited tea and coffee). There was a few water supply issues to sort out in future but these didn't bother us this trip. The restaurant (just us each day) was good and well priced - lunch from 650-1000vt and all dinner meals 1200vt. Bottled wine was 2000 and Tusker was cold. No fridge or tea/coffee making facilities in bungalows. The beach was gorgeous and just how a south pacific island beach should be - soft white sand and clear warm water. Champagne beach next door was lovely too but we just as soon swam and snorkelled at Towoc. (Lonnoc on the next bay also looked to have a great beach). Enjoyed watching the family go about their day, and again cattle, pigs and chooks roamed everywhere. Truly enjoyed out stay here and will definitely be back.
The next three nights we moved further south to Turtle Bay Lodge. For a very economical resort, we were pleasantly surprised - loved the feel of this place and made to feel very welcome by the Australian managers (Cam and Kath) and their great team. Grounds well groomed, pool clean (if needing repainting) and restaurant a lovely place to relax and mingle with like-minded fellow guests. Room was in a row of units beach-front (80's style) but clean and breezy with 24 hour fan and lights (but main electricity off between 10.30pm and 6.30am - including fridge and power points). We also liked the convenience of a kitchenette as we like to do a combination of self-catering and restaurants - very handy too for keeping your own drinks cold/making ice. Beach was rocky (no soft white sand here) but a close-by reef handy for snorkellers. Was a bit windy for us (trade winds appear to arrive late May) to do much swimming/snorkelling but guys spent a full day tour of Millenium Caves from here so time went fast. A great value resort with a nice 'feel', great staff and the convenience of self-catering.
The last two nights of our trip we transferred over to Oyster Island. I can't imagine anyone I know not enjoying a stay at Oyster. It is superbly run by David and Ollie and their fantastic team. You are genuinely welcomed into their Oyster family. The grounds are immaculately groomed, the restaurant very well run with quite an extensive and affordable menu and the bungalows a pleasure to stay in. We had a delux - set over the water at high tide with great front verandah for relaxing. Only 11 bungalows in total and all in equally good waterfront positions. Our delux had a large open-roof bathroom, comfy beds, screened and with a small fridge and tea/coffee making facilities - 24 hours mains power. Again the beach was rocky (again no white soft sand here - take reef shoes). There were well marked tracks around the island and the guys went snorkelling over the sunk plane wreck - look forward to snorkelling and swimming more next time in less wind. We also hired the kayaks and paddled to Matevula Blue Hole - a lovely way to spend a few hours - especially drifting back down the clear river in the silence of the forest. The blue hole wasn't as 'wow' as Jackie's blue hole but we enjoyed a swim. The guys also did the Mount Hope Waterfall Float one morning (3 hours) and truly enjoyed that - much less challenging than Millenium Caves (which they also enjoyed) and they'd recommend that. Unfortunately I didn't get to try many activities as bad timing of an accident/injury (is there ever a good time) meant I did this trip on crutches - but still enjoyed it immensely. Highly recommend an Oyster Island stay - how a resort should be run!
Note on Self-Catering: We shopped in Luganville at the start of our trip and again mid-way through before going to Turtle Bay. The market is excellent for fruit and vege (but unlike Vila where Mon-Sat are fully stocked, it is really only worth going in Santo on a Monday, Wednesday or Friday as very little left on the Tues/Thurs/Sat as three separate groups sell over three two day periods). The LCM supermarket is good and has a range of cold/frozen meat and wine/beer as well as a bakery section with 'goodies' (morning is best). We found the bottle shop on the other side of the street the best for OP Tusker (1250 cold six pack) and wine (from 1150 bottle). The bakery (which you can smell) is not far from the bottle shop (next to the hardware) - go down the side door - fresh baquettes 60vt. The butcher is opposite the markets (again mornings are best) and there is a Chinese run store (one of many) between the bakery and market on that side of the street) with fresh fish but we didn't try that on this trip. The supermarket has lots of tinned products so even if you don't have self-catering facilities, you can still enjoy tinned french pate on fresh breadsticks or similar easy snacks. The market fruit is so cheap - 40vt for hand of lady finger bananas and same for a paw paw - enjoy it while you're there. Best pineapple we've ever eaten. We always carry a little kit with sharp knife, thin chopping board and plastic plates/utensils with a small cooking pot - very handy). And the disposable ice-cube plastic bags are very handy as well if you like ice in your duty free drinks (note: need to buy duty free at home airport - none in Santo).
All in all, we loved our trip and think Santo is a wonderful destination. Hopefully we'll make it an annual holiday.