Towards the end of my long summer stay in New Caledonia, there was an adventure that was too tempting not to do. New Caledonia will remain one of the best scuba diving destinations in the world for me, but if there is something it doesn’t have, it’s a good shipwreck. Knowing its neighbour country, Vanuatu, had one of the best WWII shipwrecks in the world, the SS President Coolidge, it was enough to convince me to leave New Caledonia for 2 weeks.
To reach the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu (commonly called “Santo”), I took a 50-minute flight with Aircalin from New Caledonia to Port-Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, on the island of Efate. To be on the safe side before taking a domestic flight to Espiritu Santo, I spent a night in Port-Vila. I recommend the Travellers Budget Motel. Conveniently located, you can walk to Port-Vila Market in 10 to 15 minutes. Outside of the Airport Terminal, you can take a shared minivan for only 200 VT (about £1.30 / 1.50€) to go to Port-Vila Centre. On your way back to the airport, you will often see minivans passing in front of the hotel, easy! Drivers will speak English and/or French.
The next morning a 50-minute domestic flight to Pekoe Airport took me to the home of the legendary SS President Coolidge shipwreck. The main street of Luganville looks like a western movie, its colourful farmer market was the only indicator I was still in the South Pacific. Overall, my adventure to Vanuatu was not exactly the one I expected. As an independent solo traveller, I felt frustrated not to be able to travel the way I like. However, as a scuba diver, I maybe had the best wreck diving experience of my almost 10 years of scuba diving!
Diving the SS President Coolidge Shipwreck at a glance
How good diving the SS President Coolidge is?
History of the SS President Coolidge shipwreck
Or how the SS President Coolidge became the largest shipwreck in the world, accessible from the shore? The SS President Coolidge was an American luxury cruise liner that used to transport passengers between California and Japan via Hawaii. During WWII, it was turned into a military ship to transport troops and materials. Vanuatu was an allied army base during the Battle of the Pacific, but no fight occurred there. It was mainly used for maintenance and support. Circumstances are not clear, but due to a mistake or miscommunication, the SS President Coolidge hit a mine at the entrance of the Segong Channel just before arriving in Luganville. Almost all the crew could escape as it slowly sank near a shallow reef. Today it is one of the best shore wreck diving sites in the world, accessible to all levels of divers, beginners, advanced divers and tech divers, as the ship lies from – 20 m to – 70 m.
Before my first dive, it was great to listen to the long and detailed dive briefing done by Scott of Dive Pacific. To go further and read the complete story of the SS President Coolidge, look for the book named “The Lady and the President” in the library of the Deco Stop Hotel. I read it all, bit by bit, every night during my stay in Luganville. This is also where you will find my contribution to their mini-museum with pieces of porcelain I found on the beach.
Six recreational dives to explore the SS President Coolidge shipwreck
I had the opportunity to scuba dive six times on the SS President Coolidge shipwreck, down to a depth of 40 m, the limit of recreational diving. Trained tech divers can descend to a depth of 70 m down the stern of the ship. As you can see in the video below, there is already a lot to see as a recreational diver.
Dive 1 – Orientation dive: promenade deck & the bow
This is the orientation dive all divers do when diving for the first time on the SS President Coolidge. You start by swimming above the starboard hull, which is half covered in coral. If you pay attention, you will see the portholes along it. Some interesting artefacts coming from deeper parts of the ship have been stored there for recreational divers to see. Then you go a bit deeper toward the bow. We passed the bathrooms and then the munitions for the guns installed at the front of the ship. With a planned maximum depth of 21 m, even beginner divers can join.
dive parameters: 21 m deep – 37 minutes bottom time – water temperature 27°C
Dive 2 – Cargo 1 & 2
Due to its depth, the Cargo dive will be for advanced divers. The dive usually starts from one of the gates through the hull, which makes an impressive vertical descent into the enormous Cargo 2 hold. At 30 m, there is an incredible number of jeeps still in great condition considering their age. If you are still an Open Water diver, take the opportunity to pass your Advanced Open Water in Vanuatu to understand what it involves to dive at 30 m down and pursue your exploration of the SS President Coolidge
dive parameters: 33 m deep – 49 minutes bottom time – water temperature 26°C
Dive 3 / 4 – The Lady
The Lady is a porcelain relief which is the iconic jewel of the SS President Coolidge. It used to ornate the wooden walls of the first class smoking room on the promenade deck. Unfortunately, the promenade deck collapsed, and a rescue mission was organised by local divers to restore it and re-install it in the first class dining room, 5 m above then its original position. This dive includes mild penetration, and due to its depth, it is will be for experienced divers with good air consumption and ideally the deep specialty. It was my favourite dive, and I was so happy to be given the opportunity to do it a second time!
dives parameters: 40 m deep – 43 minutes bottom time – water temperature 26°C
Dive 5 – Cargo night dive
My previous incredible night dive memory was from Honduras in 2017 with the ostracods “pearls of strings”, but what I saw that night in the cargo hold of the SS President Coolidge was a level above. 30 minutes after sunset, the numerous flash fish hiding inside the wreck during the day get out while releasing a phosphorescent light. Once we completely switched off our torch lights, I wasn’t diving anymore, I was in outer space! Luckily, I could shoot a quite sharp video of it, but it will never do any justice to the once-in-a-lifetime experience I had. Before heading back to the surface, I took the opportunity to take a look at the giant basket stars that had fully deployed their arms on the edge of the cargo hold. Night diving on the SS President Coolidge shouldn’t be missed.
dive parameters: 31 m deep – 37 minutes bottom time – water temperature 26°C
Dive 6 – Medical Supplies
It was the last dive I could do as a recreational diver. Starting from the cargo hold, there are some additional rooms that can be penetrated to see some of the most interesting artefacts I saw during my dives on the SS President Coolidge: the medical supplies, including many intact glass bottles with bright colour liquids inside, the chair of the barber shop, a pile of uniforms, weapon munitions and the alien-like aircraft drop tanks.
dive parameters: 30 m deep – 42 minutes bottom time – water temperature 26°C
If you are a tech diver with appropriate training, you may see the engine room at – 45 m, the first class swimming pool at – 55 m and the stern between -60 and -70 m. This shipwreck is so amazing that I started researching what kind of training it would take me to go that deep in total safety. In the meantime, I added the SS President Coolidge to my list of the best diving in Asia-Pacific.
The other dive sites of Espiritu Santo
Million Dollar Point
It is a quirky and disconcerting shore dive site. It is the perfect check dive before diving on the SS President Coolidge. The amount of material stored during WWII in the American base of Luganville was unbelievable, and in 1945, when it was time to go, it would be too expensive to send everything back to the States. Apparently, the American Army would have made a purchasing offer to the French-British condominium who was co-administrating the country (until its independence in 1980). They declined, so the American forces decided to throw into the sea thousands of tons of military gear!
Today, you can dive as deep as 30 m among rusted trucks, jeeps, or bulldozers. So, artificial reef or just underwater littering? As surprising as it may sound, I also saw some octopus, nudibranch and sea anemones which made this historic mess their new home. And we went out of the water, a dugong even came to hi! Not to be missed, but one dive will be enough.
Dive parameters: 29m deep – 40 minutes bottom time – water temperature 27°C
Unfortunately, I hardly found any fish on this beautiful coral reef for some reason. Honestly, you can skip it, except if after all that rust you need a little bit of coral reef. The dive sites are accessible from Million Dollar Point shores after a boat ride of 10 minutes crossing the Segong Channel.
Dive parameters: 21 m deep – 49 minutes bottom time – water temperature 27°C
Who to dive with in Luganville?
Pacific Dive is a dive centre based on the premises of the Espiritu Hotel, right in the centre of Luganville. This top-notch dive centre offers fun dives on the SS President Coolidge and Million Dollar Point daily. They go for 3 to 4 dives a day, including a night dive on the Coolidge.
First, they will welcome you at the dive centre where they have all the rental equipment, then you will board one of their trucks with all the gear for a sensational shore wreck diving session. The long and detailed dive briefing of Scott about the SS President Coolidge and Million Dollar Point were always enthralling.
I also appreciated the divemasters always carried an additional spare tank. Big Thumb up to Scott, the managing director of Pacific Dive; this young Australian instructor is fluent in Bislama, the official language of Vanuatu and shows incredible respect for his Nivatu divemasters who speak English and even French for some.
What to do in Espiritu Santo
- Luganville Farmers Market: The market and its surroundings quickly became my favourite place after finishing diving every day. I would go there to enjoy a local lunch on the cheap (400 VT, about £2.70 / 3€ ). Between the market and Unity Park, there is also a village of colourful “meal booths”. The first time, the owner of the restaurant gave me a tour of the market explaining to me all the plants, veggies and fruits that were on offer. There were, of course, many bananas and coconuts, but I saw for the first time the kava roots, tobacco leaves and taro yams. If you looking for a fancier alternative there is a Japanese café (Natangora Café) and a French café (Aoré Art Café) I can recommend.
- Blue Hole mini road trip: Thanks to one of my dive buddies at Pacific Dive, we booked together a taxi driver for a day and organised our own tour. We started with Port Olry Beach in the north of Espiritu Santo. The beach is beautiful, and the access is free! After a delicious coconut crab meal (it was so big I take to take away half of it), we went to some of Santo’s Blue Holes. Contrary to ocean blue holes, these are natural pools in the middle of rivers surrounded by jungle. Quite a fantastic place for free diving training as it is only 8m deep. I visited the most famous, Nanda Blue Hole (also nicknamed Jackie’s Blue Hole), which has the most beautiful shade of blue with very clear water. Don’t forget your mask and fins! As we ended up running a bit out of time, we ended our tour by a visit to Matevulu Blue Hole. It looks a bit less like a pool but has a more natural setting than Nanda Blue Hole. Entrance for Nanda Blue Hole is 1000 VT per person (about £7 / 8€ ), and Matevulu Blue Hole was 500 VT per person. My travel buddy and I paid our driver 10,000 VT for the day, so it was 5,000 VT per person (about £36 / 39€ ).
- Millenium Cave: I am so happy Scott from Pacific Dive insisted I go. It was the next best thing after wreck diving in Santo! This tour is a great sustainable tourism initiative allowing the villages of the area to make a living out of the guiding and homestay experience. I only did the day tour, but I wish I could have stayed overnight, as I ended up playing a fun volleyball party with the girls of the village before I had to leave. The Millenium Cave Tour is a great way to see the beautiful nature of Santo but be careful a certain level of fitness will be necessary as it is long and intense. For 4 hours, we hiked on muddy and slippery ground, we climbed up and down an endless series of daunting wooden ladders, we walked and swam in rivers, we did some via-ferrata without any harness, and at the end, we still had an hour of walking before making back to the minibus! The next day my entire body hurt, but it was one of my best adventures ever! Important pieces of advice: only bring the bare minimum with you! I only had my GoPro, sandwich and bottle of water inside my waterproof bag. I was wearing surf shorts, a t-shirt, my swim-suit below and my scuba diving booties (best idea ever). Price for tour: 7500 VT (about £50 / 58€ ), Price of the overnight in a homestay: +3500 VT (about £25 / 29€ ). More info: millenniumcavetour.weebly.com
Where to stay in Luganville, Espiritu Santo
The Deco Stop Lodge was a highlight of my stay in Vanuatu. I am so happy I had booked in this beautiful resort overlooking the Segong Channel and Aore Island from the top of the hill in Luganville. It was only 10 minutes walking to the town centre or 50 VT taxi ride on the way up. But as most of the time, the staff from Pacific Dive was picking me up and driving me back, it was never an issue.
If you try to book a double room for yourself as a solo traveller, it would be maybe too expensive, but you have to know that the Deco Stop Lodge has some shared rooms with 3 single beds for a very affordable price (I paid 49€ a night). And as I visited during the low season in September, I had the entire room for me. It was super clean, it had a big bathroom and a kitchen corner with a fridge, a kettle and free tea, coffee and milk.
Every morning, it was an absolute delight to enjoy their delicious breakfast buffet by the swimming pool with their incredible view (included in the price of my room). Highly recommended!
Why I left Vanuatu with mixed feelings
To be fair, I think there was maybe an issue with my own expectation. What follows are just personal thoughts I wish I would have read somewhere before my trip to Vanuatu. I think I came to realise in Vanuatu how difficult travelling in the South Pacific can be if you are trying to make it on a budget and/or without enough preparation. South Pacific is not South East Asia, even in countries like Vanuatu.
When I travelled to New Caledonia and Hawaii, I was prepared for a higher budget, but not in Vanuatu. Considering the difference in the level of living between New Caledonia and Vanuatu, it came as a bit of a shock some things or services were about the same price or even more expensive.
I couldn’t understand the dramatic price difference between the local markets with everything in abundance at a very low price and the cost of everything else. Lunch and dinners would come around 2000 to 3000 VT at the few restaurants in Luganville. Renting a car would cost 10,000 VT, the same as hiring a taxi driver for a day (and with the rental car you need to add the price of the petrol and the insurance cost). And as there is no public transportation in Santo, I quickly felt stuck!
The cherry on top was during my mini road trip when I was asked to pay about 2,000 VT (about £13 / 15€) to access Champagne Beach. As I’m not a beach bum, I just refused to go. Hopefully, Port Olry Beach was free to access, and I preferred somehow to pay to see the blue holes (for a total cost of 1,500 VT)
“This is what tourists want“
One highlight of Vanuatu is its tribal culture which is well alive, colourful and diverse. Because of the lack of transparency, I was lurked into a “kastom village”. Nobody would clearly answer my questions about what exactly these kastom villages were. I finally got some interesting insights by having an honest discussion with the kind staff of the Luganville Tourism board. They kindly explained that if I wanted to pay a visit to some real villages, it would require a 4-day/3-night hike. Unfortunately, I wasn’t equipped for it, not to mention the cost of the guide, which was way too much for a solo traveller. If you can make a group of 3, it starts to be interesting.
During my second stopover in Port-Vila, I finally book an organised tour of the island of Efate, hoping for interesting sights. This tour included a visit to a kastom village, so I thought at least I would be able to make my own opinion on it. Not only the only thing that made me book the tour, the hot springs in the north of Efate, was removed last minute for obscure reasons, but this kastom village was everything I was worried about: fake all the way and made up to westerners’ expectations. Honestly, I would have prefered to visit Ekasup Cultural Village, which is clearly advertised as a reconstituted traditional village. If you don’t have the time or the budget to visit a real village, I would recommend visiting Ekasup instead of doing the tour of Efate, which was pretty boring in the end.
So, my lack of preparation may be to blame, but I hate overplanning, and I also think tourism in Vanuatu is too much geared towards resort holidaymakers. My experience in Vanuatu certainly gave me some food for thought for later. I will not give up that easily on exploring more of the South Pacific. But now I know why I saw so many people exploring the South Pacific aboard a sailboat…
How long should you stay in Vanuatu?
I spent 2 weeks in Vanuatu, but due to the high prices of some activities such as visiting the volcanoes of Tanna Island (I saw volcanoes in Hawaii for way cheaper, I’m good), I ended up feeling it was too long, even as an underwater photographer who had plenty of pictures to sort and edit. I honestly think with a week you will have a great time in Vanuatu. Here is what I would recommend based on my experience:
- Day 1: Fly from New Caledonia or Australia to Port-Vila, visit Port-Vila seafront promenade and farmers market
- Day 2: Fly to Espiritu Santo, Dive at Million Dollar Point, Visit Luganville farmers market
- Day 3 : 3 dives at SS President Coolidge shipwreck
- Day 4: 3 dives at SS President Coolidge shipwreck
- Day 5: Millenium Cave Tour
- Day 6: Port Olry Beach & Blue Holes, fly back to Port-Vila
- Day 7: Mele Waterfalls or Ekasup Cultural Village, fly back to New Caledonia or Australia.
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