Serenity in the Solomon Islands

New Zealand is blessed to have some of the best tropical offerings lined up only a few flying hours from Auckland. Some destinations are popular Pacific destinations that Kiwis love to travel to and then there are others that have not been explored. When we think of a tropical destination, we think of warm weather, crystal clear turquoise waters, and untouched reef abundant with a variety of sea life and silver sandy beaches. Culture, food and great hospitality is also something that is on every tropical tourist’s mind. Off most popular islands in the Pacific, a cluster of some 900 islands stretching over 1,500 kms wide is widely getting popularity – The Solomon Islands.

Remotely located, Solomon Islands is 3.5 flying hours from Brisbane. There is no direct flights from New Zealand but Solomon Airlines operates code-share flights with Qantas and Air New Zealand. A mid-afternoon departure from Brisbane takes you directly to Honiara which is the primary business hub in the Solomon Islands.

Population of the Solomon Islands is roughly 600,000 people with around 90,000 living in Honiara. Honiara is also connected with flights from Vanuatu, Fiji and PNG.

A vibrant place, Honiara, is buzzing with happy locals with a busy lifestyle. Logging still is a main export earner for the nation and is bread-earner for most locals. There are major AU/NZ banks operating in Honiara but there are no major international chains of hotels or sprawling resorts that you’d see in Fiji or Tahiti. There are a few business style hotels like The Heritage Park Hotel that provides comfortable accommodation, great service with a local touch.

Don’t expect to go looking out for Mc Donald’s or Dominos as they aren’t existent but again why would you go looking for fast food chains when you’ve got some of the best Island produce and local cuisines to savour.  There’s not much touristy activities to do in Honiara unless you’re like me who loves exploring the local markets and the streets. The central market is where people from the islands come to sell produce. Striking, fresh green vegetables, fresh fish and local betelnut is what you can expect to see here.

If you’re in the mood for some cooking, trying out a simple dish with coconut and seafood and vegetables would be a great experience.

Locals are happy to be included in a photo but it’s good to ask first. If you’re in the mood to pack some gifts for people back home, colourful sarongs and local souvenirs are abundantly available on sale at the street stalls. Solomon Islands would be lesser known to the public now but it played a big part in history. The Pacific Theatre and the Battle of Guadalcanal was the turning point in WWII. The small yet engaging National Museum reflects the history of the country and also local artefacts, old currency and weaponry. The Battle of Guadalcanal was the first major offensive by Allied Forces against the Japanese Empire between 1942 and 1943. Japanese occupation of the Islands in 1942 was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1943 in a fierce battle and captured the airfield Japanese had built which is now Honiara International Airport and is called Henderson Airfield. The entire Solomon Islands is steeped in WWII history with a wealth of WWII wreckage and great tales of solidarity and bravery of the Allied Forces that saw the Japanese Empire retreat first time. Sunken ships and planes sit beneath the reef and are now world famous dive sites.

Vilu War Museum – a short drive from Honiara town takes you is an open garden setting that showcases some of the WWII aircraft salvaged from different parts of the islands. What might look like a junk yard of rotting aircraft parts gives a glimpse of the weaponry and aircrafts used in the era to gain air supremacy over the Pacific Ocean.

 

Munda – The adventure begins…

 

Nestled around Marovo Lagoon, World’s largest double barrier reef, Munda is where the adventure begins in The Solomon Islands. Flight to Munda is about 2 hours in a turbo-prop aircraft and the flight is one of the most spectacular and picturesque flights over the thriving natural reef of the lagoon.

Dotted islands with an array of blues and silver sandy beaches pass below and feels straight out of a dream Hollywood flick. The airport in Munda has a sealed runway and now has flights from Brisbane to Munda on jet aircraft. A small township with a few streets, Munda is bustling with locals coming to town to sell local produce and the catch of the day. Lobster meals are a norm here and fresh lobsters are delivered to the resort everyday.

We were staying at Agnes Gateway Hotel overlooking the lagoon. Sailboats dotted the lagoons with sailors who dock at Munda, enjoy the township in the morning and settle back in their boats before sailing to another location.

Not to miss in Munda is a visit to Peter Joseph WWII Museum. After the Guadalcanal Campaign, there was intense fighting around Munda surrounding another airfield (now submerged).

Curated by Munda local, Barney, the Museum houses artefacts found in the jungles around Munda left from the war over 75 years ago. His brave efforts to collect this piece of history sees him venturing into fox holes where sometimes he finds full skeletons of soldiers including live ammunition.

The museum has an impressive collection of Japanese bayonets, deceased soldiers’ dog tags, medical equipment and other items that were carried by soldiers through the lush rain forests.

Barney has tremendous knowledge of the items he has in the collection including their importance at that time in history.

Munda is home to the best diving and fishing that one could bargain for. Dive Munda operates diving charters and there are various locations that one could go diving depending on their abilities. Some of the best wreck diving sites can be found a short boat ride from the pier. I’m not a deep-sea diver so decided to take a small boat trip out to one of the islands around Munda, Hopei Island. An inhabited island with the softest of sands, tall coconut palms leaning into the sea and crystal clear waters with the best corals and sea life.

Striking blue starfish, clown fish, gouramis and the occasional reef sharks visit you as you float away in awe looking at the marvellous sea life under shallow surface.

 

Gizo – the adventure continues…

 

The adventure was getting better as we were about to leave for the town of Gizo in the boat through the mighty lagoons. This is another first and one of the most spectacular boat rides that I can ever imagine. Our boat captain was an expert sailor cum boat-rider who exactly knew how to navigate around the reef where the tides can get notorious and run the boat around.

As we set sail from Munda, we took a brief stop in the most important Skull Island. As the name suggest, the island is home to human skulls. The mount on the island is where skulls of ancestors are preserved with offerings.

Skulls of warrior chiefs, village leaders that were collected and preserved back in the head hunting days now rest at the Skull Island without disturbance. Locals still follow the decorum of respect and solace to these departed souls and our boat captain demonstrated that as we entered and exited the island.

Next was the extensive cruise to our destination of Gizo. As we swirled around the islands and through the mighty lagoon, the long ride had its own charm. As we left the lagoon and headed towards deeper waters, we hit a small weather system and got soaked in the rain – again the love of it all was an experience that connects you to nature to its fullest. No other experience can compare.

Gizo is the second largest city in the country. Almost 5000-7000 people inhabit Gizo and is a much more of a bustling town. The marketplace is spectacular with happy locals showing off their produce and catch of the day. There is culture oozing from the way people go about their business and day to day life. The community is welcoming and local artists show creations made from coconut shells and stone. The artistic designs of fish, turtles are a must buy if you’re in the mood of some local souvenir shopping.

One island that you can’t miss in Gizo is ‘Kennedy Island’ – named after the 35th President of the United States. John F. Kennedy was in command of patrol boat PT-109 and on a routine patrol on 1 August 1943, it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer and cut into half. Surviving crew members including Kennedy swam to the shares of a local island called Kasolo. Kennedy swam across the channel with an injured crew member in tow on a lifejacket which he dragged through the shark infested water with his teeth.

This Kasolo Island is now called Kennedy Island. Such was Kennedy’s leadership and bravery that he swam across the shark infested channel every night dodging enemy ships to look for allied forces PT boats so they would be rescued. With the help of island scouts Kennedy ensured rescue of his entire surviving crew. This effort went into shaping the 35th Presidency of United States.

Today, Kennedy Island stands testimony to the bravery of the crew of PT-109. We had an opportunity to soak up some of this history with a bbq seafood lunch on the island and reading more about its history.

If you’re into fishing, a few minutes boat-ride from the resort is home to some of the most exhilarating fishing experiences. Fat Boys Resort supplies the fishing gear and the services of an experienced boatman to troll some lines and if the time and the tide is right, you can land some big fish like this 25kg Barracuda.

and Giant Trevally hooked minutes apart from each other.

If you’re in the mood of 5-Star luxury or a sun-soaked family holiday in the Pacific then Solomon Islands is not a destinations that going to cut it. You don’t expect to find the usuals of what you’d expect in a top holiday destination. Solomon Islands is about happy people and if you’re in the mood of some digital detox and take life as it comes – then the Happy Isles is a place to visit. But one thing is sure that once you arrive in The Solomon Islands – it’ll definitely throw a few special surprises your way which will change perception about how beautiful this Pacific Jewel is.

Fast forward ten years, we might just see this become another commercially driven destination over-crowded with people. Don’t mind a bit of extra privacy right now? Then see you in the Happy Isles…

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