I thought I knew the islands. I've been to Fiji, the Cooks and Samoa, a fair few times for work and pleasure over the years, and I'd visited Port Vila 20-odd years ago.
So when we fly into Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu's largest island AND a 45-minute flight from Port Vila, I'm a little surprised by what I see. This isn't just another carbon-copy Pacific paradise.
Espiritu Santo is vast - nearly 4000sq km of lush bush and tropical landscape - the second-largest inhabited island in the group.
Cyclone Pam, which tore apart the capital Port Vila in April last year bypassed Santo, and the locals want us to shout it from the rooftops. Santo is very much open for business.
Our guide, Jeffrey Aru from Paradise Tours, picks us up for a day trip covering just the northeastern part of the island. As soon as we pull out of the gateway of our boutique luxury hotel, Moyyan House by the Sea, he pulls over on the side of the road.
Jeffrey beckons and we step out of the van on to the hot tarseal. A giant spider is crawling up his arm. I hate spiders but there's something graceful about this one, and the way Jeffrey is handling it. It has a huge white body and fiery-red legs. Jeffrey lets it climb all over him, telling me: "I want people outside of Vanuatu to know there is nothing dangerous here. This spider is not dangerous. We are a very friendly country."
As much as I want to escape the eight-legged creature, I'm fascinated, and Jeffrey is a generous guide, there's no rush. "It's your tour, we're on your time!" he says and models patiently as we photograph the spider climbing all over him.
He places it tenderly back on the barbed wire fence and now I've seen one, I notice hundreds of them, they're everywhere in huge webs right along the roadway.
This kind gesture, to show us something off the beaten track, makes me realise this is the kind of tour that will allow us to get to know the place, and its people.
The roads are smooth, not a pothole in sight, rare for the islands. I'm told the Americans laid them, for Santo was the tropical bolthole for them and other allies during World War II. They built hospitals and five airstrips for planes carrying the battered and bruised from the nearby Solomon Islands frontline.
About 100,000 American troops passed through here, including John F. Kennedy. It was the largest US military base west of Pearl Harbour.
The locals love the Allies, for keeping invaders at bay, and for leaving them with fantastic infrastructure.
They also left behind tourist hot spot Million Dollar Point. Named for the millions of dollars worth of materials disposed there at the end of the war: jeeps, six-wheel drive trucks, bulldozers, semi-trailers, fork lifts, tractors, bound sheets of corrugated iron, unopened boxes of clothing and cases of Coca-Cola were pushed off the cliff, and left to rot and rust in the ocean. The site attracts thousands of divers every year, and is said to be one of the best in the world.
Santo also houses the world's largest accessible shipwreck, the SS President Coolidge, a US luxury liner that served a troopship in World War II until she was sunk by mines.
The land is unlike any other island I've seen. Tropical plantations, smiling faces and roaming chooks yes, but there are also cattle farms everywhere. And the cows are fat and healthy.
Jeffrey is gobsmacked we've never heard of Santo beef, he claims it's world-famous and indeed a very nice piece of steak. It is exported to Australia, China and Japan, and once I've tried it with its typical French fries and garden salad accompaniments, I'm convinced the accolades are well deserved. It's velvety and beefy and simply delicious.
Santo beef is one of a small handful of exports from the island, along with coconut, coconut oil, copra and cacao. But tourism is by far the main earner here, but they're hopeful their exporting efforts will gain momentum in future years. I'm told trials of bio-fuel from coconut are gaining traction.
Because Santo escaped Cyclone Pam ("a monster storm", according to Jeffrey, who was in the capital at the time), fruit and vegetables from Santo have kept Port Vila going for the past year as all of the crops there were wiped out.
Indeed the Santo fruit and vege are spectacular, and sold cheaply at roadside stalls. There's nothing better than coconut water out of a coconut.
The women are proud of their produce, and sell out every day. They grow kumara and breadfruit, bananas, mango and pawpaw and delicious nuts. We communicate semi-successfully through pidgin English and bond over a shared love of tropical produce.
I'm already falling in love with this island, the food, the people, the scenery, but nothing prepares me for the jaw-dropping Matevulu Blue Hole.
Santo has many "blue holes" but Matevulu is Jeffrey's favourite. We drive off the main road on to a disused airstrip, tropical weeds slipping through the cracked runway concrete. We veer off into a clearing where a token bush hut for an entrance fee awaits, beyond which is revealed a hole filled with the bluest water I've ever seen.
The Matevulu Blue Hole is magical. It's at least 40m deep. Limestone rocks give the water a beautiful colour.
It's like something out of James Cameron's Avatar movie; tropical plants surround it, and dragonflies of all colours flit around above, skimming the water and landing on our heads.
Underwater a "click click click" sound is revealed to be fresh-water crabs burrowing deep below, and above a lengthy vine swings from a massive banyan tree for those brave enough to climb and drop. A group of Australian teenagers are brave enough, and let out Tarzan-like screams as they jump into the deep cool hole.
I'm mesmerised and can't help but wonder about the American troops who would fly in, dusty and broken, and have this at hand to cool off. If only these beautiful banyan trees could talk, I bet there are some epic stories to tell.
We could stay here all day. But Jeffrey has another tourist spot he is anxious to show us. Kayakers are paddling upstream to the hole as we leave and will now have it all to themselves.
Champagne Beach is another short drive away but we spot it first from up high. It's hard to miss the fact that this day is cruise ship day. The massive ship stands out like an iceberg docked in the tiny bay.
Jeffrey is apologetic and says Champagne will be filled with people, but that the boats are necessary to fund the economy.
We pay the landowner's fee to drive in, where we're met with the most unbelievable scene. The whitest sand beach I've ever seen is in front of us, and hundreds of Australians are frolicking in the water fresh off the boat.
Local stalls selling everything from beer to sarongs have sprung up to make the most of their two-hour stop. Seals and Crofts' Summer Breeze pumps out from loud speakers. It's surreal. I pick a space between the crowds and dive in, deciding immediately that this is the Best Beach in the World. A big call, I know.
I've been to many, many amazing beaches, many of them secluded and deserted. But the combination of crystal-clear cool seawater, super soft sand and the quick drop-off from the shoreline are an instant winner. It's absolutely incredible, even with the throngs of Aussies whooping and diving around me.
I can't imagine what it's like on a day when the ship isn't in. But it doesn't matter. I'm happy to share this paradise with the others. Even the cows swim here to cool off.
There are many stories as to how this beach got its name, but I like the one about the limestone rocks creating tiny bubbles, giving the water that "Champagne" feel.
Jeffrey tells us to ditch the crowds and whisks us away to nearby Port Olry just a bay over which is equally as beautiful and absolutely deserted.
We dine at a beach shack restaurant called Chez Louis, where we order coconut crab the size of a dinner plate. I'm horrified as Jeffrey gets the paltry-sized regular chicken but he refuses my offer of a crab claw or two, it's not a delicacy to him, simply everyday fare. On a good day, you can watch dugongs and turtles play in this bay while enjoying your meal. Here backpackers, writers, surfers and families stay in pretty beachside bungalows for weeks on end.
But our tour is over as we head back for a sunset beachside dinner at the divine Moyyan House. We spend the next day visiting nearby family friendly Aore Island Resort a five-minute ferry ride from "downtown" Santo, Luganville.
This is a one-stop shop for families. Our kids would love it. Beachside fares and that beautiful crystal-clear water endemic to Santo. I could stay here for a month.
Our visit to this place is too brief, and we head back to Vila to see how it's getting on following Cyclone Pam. It's election weekend at the time, and locals have been out in droves voting for a "more democratic" and honest parliament.
We pass polling booths on the edge of the jungles and queues of people waiting their turn. Last October 14 MPs were convicted of corruption and now sit in jail. They're hopeful of new beginnings here, a more honest parliament, one that will get things done.
Our home in Vila is Nasama Resort, a beachside Mediterranean-style building that withstood Cyclone Pam. There is sign of a real economic return here, many new buildings and vegetation blossoming.
The locals want to forget the horror of Pam, and laugh nervously every time they talk about it.
When we visit Hideaway Island by boat, owner Mark Proper tells us it took four days to carve the track back around his island, and that they've lost a metre of beach.
But there is no sign of that carnage today; dozens of tourists are snorkelling just offshore. I'm delighted to spot a rare camouflaged stonefish, and other tropical fish life to rival any other dive spot. It's a marine reserve and there are real efforts here to regenerate the cyclone-smashed coral.
The nearby Mele Beach bar back on the mainland was wrecked by Pam, but is back to business and rocking the day we visit, a perfect spot to drop in for a cooling cocktail. It's recently been voted TripAdvisor's Best Vanuatu Bar, and you can see why.
The Kiwi managers' son, Hunter, takes great delight in showing me his pet lizard, a glaringly green thing with a ridiculously long tail, another "harmless" Vanuatu local.
The nearby Banyan Bar puts a smile on my face. Beanbags and campfires by the beach, nuts to snack on and cocktails served in a jar.
I zone out listening to the Saturday night gathering of the many expats who've made this their local, and Vanuatu their home. Financiers, lawyers, teachers who love this place and I can easily see why.
I hear whispers of remote black-sand beaches and active volcanoes; there is so much to do here, I'm dreaming of Champagne Beach on a deserted day, and of bringing the kids.
Air Vanuatu flies twice weekly from Auckland and currently has a special - $499 return Economy Class, on sale until June 2 for travel from August-March (blackout periods apply). From June 2, they add a third service departing Auckland on Wednesdays, Thurdays and Saturdays.