Deep blue yonder
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