Finding a Lady

I recently sampled a selection of the most exquisite cheeses from a contemporary European food store famous for their Raw Milk Roquefort and Holy Goat La Luna Ring. Since then, Coon toasties have never tasted quite the same.

 

And since a recent trip to Vanuatu, neither has coconut crab.

Eight years ago my family and I spent an unforgettable week in Vanuatu diving some of the world’s most spectacular reefs and enjoying regular midday naps. So when my (ex) boyfriend Tom* and I decided to book a trip to Vanuatu I was obviously thrilled – a quiet, romantic week away was exactly what I needed…

“Okay guys, let’s go!” says our divemaster Max. He’s perfectly calm as we begin our descent. I on the other hand already feel like I can’t breathe and I’m still above water. Tom gently takes my hand and together we make our way to a small coral garden 10 metres below. A few more metres down and finally … there she is – magnificent, enormous and completely intact.

Like many others travelling to Santo, we’d come to explore the famous SS President Coolidge – one of the most accessible and largest wreck dives in the world.

Originally one of America’s biggest luxury liners, she was stripped of her finery, re-dressed with 20 millimetre cannons and employed as a troop carrier during WWII. While there is not much marine life, there is a never-ending trail of artefacts – rifles, helmets, toilets, ovens, a mosaic-tiled swimming pool, ammunition and medical supplies remain in situ since the date of her death on October 26, 1942.

Not far from the Coolidge site is Deco Stop Lodge – a well-known retreat for divers and lovers and our resting place for the next four nights. Although it’s dark by the time we arrive the candlelit tables, set neatly upon a large, open deck reveal everything their site had promised: comfortable rooms, excellent dining and ‘tranquillity with a million dollar view’.

The following morning we surface after a wonderful night’s sleep and eat breakfast overlooking Santo’s quiet Segond Canal. Breakfast is a basic spread of cereal, fruit and toast however guests are welcome to order a hot breakfast at an additional cost.

I’ve just finished my second glass of freshly squeezed pineapple juice when Jim, a smiling, middle-aged man from Allan Powers Dive Tours arrives to take us to ‘The Lady’ – a beautiful ceramic figure that attracts thousands of divers each year.

Despite having survived our first two dives, I’m still feeling nervous – today will be our deepest dive inside the 654-ft long wreck. “Don’t worry Blondy, you’ll be fine”, says Tom. I only believe him because I know I’m in safe hands – Alan Power and his dedicated team have been operating out of Luganville, Santo’s main town, for over 35 years and are known to be the most experienced in the area.

We arrive at the dive site and follow Jim to the familiar coral garden below before making our way across the ship’s promenade deck. As we enter the wreck through a narrow sea door the sun quickly disappears behind the ship’s thick, gun-grey exterior. Panicked by the sudden darkness, I grab Jim’s hand – there is absolutely no way I am going any further. Judging by his reaction, I’m clearly not the first frantic diver he’s had to deal with. He calmly reaches over and turns on my torch (so that’s what it was for!).

He waits for me to recover and signal I’m okay before we continue on. I wave my torch around, hoping to spot more pots and wheels and guns and pans but instead all I notice is that there is no obvious exit. Enclosed by her enormous metal frame, it feels like I’ve been led into her private chamber. Or swallowed whole. Either way I need to get out!

But then I see her.

Like a seraph from the celestial gloom, she sits brightly at the end of the first class dining saloon, 40 metres below. Perfectly preserved by Alan Power and his fellow caretakers she is far more colourful and imposing than I’d imagined.  In that moment, I’m glad I’ve arrived. She is a truly, lovely lady.

Before our second dive we have time back at our lodge to relax by the pool and enjoy a simple feast. Regular menu options include Thai beef salad, salt and pepper squid or a traditional beef burger. Luganville is only a short walk from our accommodation however it’s not a particularly charming town so we opt to have a nap instead.

Our final dive for the day is at Million Dollar Point – named after the millions of dollars worth of military equipment dumped there by the Americans after WWII. The quantity of wreckage that lays submerged just offshore is quite astounding. Expect to see jeeps, six-wheel drive trucks, bulldozers, semi-trailers, forklifts, tractors, bound sheets of corrugated iron and more.

“It’s definitely time for a beer”, announces Tom as we’re dropped back to our lodge. I couldn’t agree more. We both order an ice-cold Tusker (Vanuatu’s local beer) and place ourselves on the deck to enjoy the final hours of afternoon sun.

By the time we sit down for dinner I’m feeling very content, I’ve sun-baked, showered and sampled a long list of delicious, fruity cocktails. Dinner arrives – a coconut crab the size of my face – and as I chew on an enormous piece of succulent white flesh I wonder if life could possibly get any better.

I thought it was a rhetorical question but by 11:30 that night the answer is obvious. I hug the toilet bowl for hours until I find the strength to crawl back into bed but before my head even touches the pillow I’m back in the bathroom where I decide to stay and die.

Days later however, I’m somehow still alive. In fact I almost feel human and manage to enjoy one more day of sunshine and a solid meal before flying home. It’s a bitter ending to an otherwise lovely holiday.

*Tom is my (ex) boyfriend because he suggested I order it.

Where to Stay:

Deco Stop Lodge

Address: PO Box 105, Luganville, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu

Phone: +678 36175

Email: deco@vanuatu.com.vu

Getting There:

Air Vanuatu

Flights from approx. $900

High season = May – Sep

Things to Do:

Alan Powers Dive Tours

Nando Blue Waterhole

Millenium Cave

Mount Hope Waterfall

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