Deep blue yon­der

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Leap of faith: Lo­cal chil­dren jump off a wharf into Marovo La­goon in the Solomon Is­lands’ West­ern Prov­ince the West­ern Prov­ince. This is the place to go troppo.

Scat­tered around Marovo La­goon are dozens of is­lands, many of which of­fer ap­peal­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion char­ac­terised by rus­tic sim­plic­ity. So­phis­ti­ca­tion has no place here.

Within walk­ing dis­tance of San­bis Re­sort is Fat­boys. Named for a Dick­ens char­ac­ter, its am­bi­ence is ac­tu­ally more James A. Mich­ener.

Comfortable ac­com­mo­da­tion is avail­able in wellap­pointed bun­ga­lows but many peo­ple just cruise in, lit­er­ally, for a meal or drink at its jetty restau­rant and bar; boats are the only trans­port in th­ese re­mote is­lands.

Solomon Is­lands Re­sorts of­fers three invit­ing prop­er­ties un­der the di­rec­tor­ship of Aus­tralian cou­ple Shane and Sue Kennedy. They run the dig­ni­fied King Solomon Ho­tel in Ho­niara and the at­mo­spheric Gizo Ho­tel.

The lat­ter, of­fer­ing a pool and har­bour views, is cen­trally lo­cated in this raff­ish pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal where a few gen­eral stores and a colour­ful water­front mar­ket con­sti­tute the CBD. Gizo is a con­ve­nient base for tours and div­ing trips. But the Kennedys’ stand-out prop­erty is a new, well-equipped, three-bed­room bun­ga­low that de­rives its ar­chi­tec­tural style from the open tim­ber and thatch huts in the vil­lages. Com­mand­ing its own sandy beach on the water­front at Naru Is­land, it pro­vides a Swiss Fam­ily Robin­son ex­pe­ri­ence with an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence: a lo­cal cou­ple liv­ing nearby do the cook­ing, clean­ing and drive the boat. Though it is only a few min­utes back to Gizo, the feel­ing of iso­la­tion is de­li­ciously real. Fish­ing and snorkelling are at your door, though there is no door. Such con­trivances are un­nec­es­sary here be­cause the is­land is all your own for $500 a night.

Not ev­ery un­oc­cu­pied is­land is as wel­com­ing as Naru. We go tour­ing on Marovo La­goon in a high-speed boat to check out some pop­u­lar at­trac­tions, start­ing with Skull Is­land.

Be­nign-looking from the wa­ter, the name says it all. Dozens of toothy, star­ing skulls piled up on rocks in the cen­tre of the is­land are grim re­minders that the peace­ful Me­lane­sians of to­day, many de­voutly Chris­tian, were head­hunters only a cen­tury ago. No place for a pic­nic.

As an an­ti­dote to an en­counter with death, what could be more ex­hil­a­rat­ing than whizzing through a vast, very blue la­goon scat­tered with reef-sur­rounded is­lands? Only one thing: hav­ing a large school of joy­ful dol­phins es­cort you, leap­ing within arm’s reach of the boat. This un­for­get­table episode dis­tracts us from the trop­i­cal beauty of palm-shaded isles in jew­elled wa­ters, most un­oc­cu­pied and all looking like per­fect places to be ma­rooned un­til res­cuers ar­rive.

That, how­ever, is an il­lu­sion. Kennedy Is­land is named in hon­our of a cer­tain young Amer­i­can naval lieu­tenant who swam for many hours to reach its shores af­ter his ves­sel, PT109, was sunk by a Ja­panese de­stroyer in 1943. It is pretty but has no wa­ter source or co­conut trees among its veg­e­ta­tion, some­thing the young JFK and his crew des­per­ately needed. It seems much less in­hos­pitable now that Fat­boys, with its beer, burg­ers and beds, is within view across the la­goon.

Be­fore leav­ing Kennedy Is­land, we put on masks and snorkel in a won­der­land that the fu­ture US pres­i­dent, in­tent on sur­vival, was un­able to en­joy.

Only 30m from shore there is a drop-off into deep wa­ter where fish in luminous lava-lamp colours dart about in a coral hide-and-seek world. We are so en­tranced we can barely lift our heads, but the prom­ise of some­thing even bet­ter tears us away.

This west­ern part of the Solomon Is­lands was the scene of fierce fight­ing in World War II and the ev­i­dence re­mains, much of it on the ocean floor. Our boat takes us next to a spot where an Amer­i­can Hell­cat fighter plane lies at a depth of 10m, its ghostly out­line vis­i­ble be­fore we en­ter the wa­ter. We slip into the la­goon for a closer look. The sight of a rea­son­ably in­tact air­craft sprawled on the seabed is eerie.

The story be­hind its crash is not un­fa­mil­iar. It was brought down by friendly fire. The Solomons are known as the Friendly Isles but Amer­i­cans, bless them, can be overly friendly. The pi­lot sur­vived and re­turned to visit his plane in post-war years.

An­other wreck that draws tourists is the Toa Maru, a Ja­panese sup­ply ship sunk by Amer­i­can planes in 1943. Ly­ing in fairly shal­low wa­ter and vis­i­ble to snorkellers, it be­came even more in­ter­est­ing as a dive site fol­low­ing an earth­quake two years ago that caused the in­tact ves­sel to break up. Its mul­ti­far­i­ous con­tents, rang­ing from crock­ery to type­writ­ers to tanks, are vis­i­ble.

This part of the Solomon Is­lands has a num­ber of ac­ces­si­ble wrecks. Throw in bril­liant marine life and you have one of the best scuba-div­ing lo­ca­tions in the world.

Dive Gizo, run by an Aus­tralian and Amer­i­can cou­ple for more than 20 years, or­gan­ises tours to many sites. They have a staff in­struc­tor so vis­i­tors who would like to gain a Pro­fes­sional As­so­ci­a­tion of Div­ing In­struc­tors cer­tifi­cate while on hol­i­day here can do so. It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a bet­ter sou­venir of th­ese is­lands.

One can only write so much about div­ing be­fore feel­ing the urge to go back in the wa­ter, es­pe­cially when Marovo La­goon is call­ing. Let it call you, too, be­cause the Solomons needs tourists.

From my point of view, a large scat­ter­ing of pris­tine is­lands only 1800km north­east of the Queens­land coast, or three hours from Bris­bane, is very en­tic­ing.

Those who come here are re­warded by nat­u­ral won­ders and the sat­is­fac­tion of help­ing to build a stabler, more pros­per­ous econ­omy for great peo­ple: our neigh­bours. Leonie Coombes was a guest of the Solomon Is­lands Vis­i­tors Bureau. www.vis­it­solomons.com.sb www.solomon­is­land­sre­sorts.com www.di­ve­g­izo.com www.fat­boys­gizo.com

Pic­ture: Lonely Planet

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