The Solomon Islands are a slice of paradise largely unknown by the crowds who flock to other South Pacific destinations. LEE MYLNE unlocks some of the secrets of these beautiful islands.
From the air, the Solomon Islands are a scattering of emerald jewels in a turquoise sea. There are more than 900 of them, gleaming below in that impossible blue… making getting a window seat a priority. This is a sight not to be missed. Travelling to and within the Solomon Islands – less than three hours flying time from Brisbane – is part of what makes a visit to this island nation so different. Travel light, if you can, because much of your time getting around will be on small planes or even smaller boats. From the capital, Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal, experiencing “the Sollies” is all about getting to other islands and discovering their differences. It’s worth spending at least a couple of days in Honiara, either at the beginning or end of your trip, to get a perspective on the history of the Solomons. During World War II, this peaceful archipelago was the scene of some of the most fierce battles in the Pacific, on land and sea, and in the air. Iron Bottom Sound, the waters off Honiara, is named for the 42 wrecks that lie there, aircraft and ships that sank to a watery grave during and after the war. Many relics of war can be seen on guided tours that are well worth taking. We headed to the Solomon Islands Peace Park Memorial and Guadalcanal American Memorial, on the hill above Honiara, which pays tribute to the Allied Forces soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought seven major naval battles against the Japanese, between August 1942 and February 1943. Bringing some of the reality of this past home is the Vilu War Museum, an openair display of a vast collection of aircraft, cannons and other war relics, set in beautiful tropical gardens. While battlefield tours are a drawcard for some, the main attractions of the Solomons are the simple pleasures of island life. It’s easy to fall instantly in love with this place when you arrive at Fatboys Resort on Gizo island. Reception is in a grass-roofed overwater pavilion, where fishing boats pull up in the morning to deliver the night’s catch – and if you want lobster for breakfast, lunch or dinner (or all three), you’ll never find anywhere that it’s fresher!
A long jetty leads to the scattered bungalows, and it’s worth getting up early for spectacular sunrises. Two more bungalows are under construction, but it’s never going to be crowded here, with only about 20 guests catered for. Hang in a hammock on your private verandah, relax in the bar looking out towards the extinct volcano Kolombanga or snorkel with tropical fish and reef sharks in the clear waters around the jetty. Kayaks and small inflatable boats are available for guests to rent, and it’s worth taking one to head across the lagoon to Kennedy Island. Take a picnic or the makings of a barbecue lunch and explore this tiny tranquil island that is named for the former American president. During World War II, as a naval lieutenant, Jack Kennedy earned hero status for his actions in saving his crew after his patrol boat was run down by a Japanese destroyer. They came ashore on this uninhabited island, which you can walk around in about 15 minutes. Among the best experiences you can have in the Solomon Islands is a village visit, which can be arranged through your accommodation. We took a short boat trip
from Fatboys to attend Sunday service at the tiny Church of Zion at Babanga and were welcomed warmly. Homestays in selfcontained bungalows are also available at this village. On Rendova Island, Titiru Eco Lodge runs walking tours to the nearby Ugele Village, where lifestyle traditions – weaving, toy making, carving, cooking, music and other traditional practices – are demonstrated. You might even get involved in the dancing! At Munda, there are more war relics at Barney Paulsen’s backyard Peter Joseph World War II Museum. These are smaller and more personal, including a heartbreakingly large collection of dogtags (the museum takes its name from the soldier whose name was on the first dogtag Paulsen found in the bush surrounding his home). He’s still finding them…water bottles, uniform buttons, grenades, cutlery, cigarette holders and more…and tracking down as best he can the families of those they belonged to. From Munda or Lola Island, where Joe Entrikin from Zipolo Habu Resort runs fishing tours, take a trip to Skull Island for a look even further back into the history of the Solomons. Here lie the remains of the tribal chiefs and warriors, visible to the elements, surrounded by jungle. Simple pleasures are the key to visiting the Solomons. Snorkelling or diving, kayaking, hiking, and learning about the traditional life of the largely Melanesian population will soon have you in relaxed mode. Internet access – even in Honiara – is mostly slow and patchy, so this is an ideal destination for a “digital detox”. Don’t expect five-star luxury; comfortable, clean bungalows built in traditional style or motelstyle accommodation is the norm, with the emphasis on good, fresh food and outdoor pursuits. Honiara’s best hotel is the Heritage Park Hotel, with all the trappings of city hotels including a pool, restaurant, business centre and souvenir shop. If you want to name-drop, head to Tavanipupu Private Island Resort, where William and Kate – the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – stayed during their Solomon Islands visit in 2012. It’s really the only luxury resort in the Solomons and takes a maximum of 18 guests (or you can book the whole place out for greater privacy). Discovering the secrets of the Solomons – and maybe learning a few words of Pidgin along the way – is a richly rewarding travel experience. It might well be one of those places that you want to keep a secret!