Entranced by the Solomon Islands
Jacqui Gibson visits Uepi Resort, an eco-resort in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands
It’s 83 degrees in the shade when Dili pats me on the shoulder with a huge warm hand and inquires: "You going diving this afternoon?"
"No," I say. "I can’t dive. Never wanted to learn. But count me in for snorkelling."
It’s just him and me hanging out on the shady deck of Uepi Island’s dive centre. We’re waiting for the other guests to arrive.
This 1.5 mile-long by 985 foot-wide raised barrier reef island is one of several hundred found in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands.
Uepi sits within the world’s biggest saltwater lagoon known as Marovo Lagoon, approximately nine hours (by air) from my hometown of Wellington, New Zealand where it’s bucketing down and blowing a southerly gale.
Continuing our conversation, we establish Dili is that rare citizen in this deeply traditional South Pacific country: an unmarried man in his 40s. And I’m that rare breed of tourist in this diving-obsessed resort: a non-diver.
Naturally, we’re a curiosity to each other.
"Why don’t you dive?" Dili asks, fixing me with his dark brown eyes. He looks perplexed. I explain I’m scared of diving. The sea can be a dangerous place with things under the surface that bite.
He takes a moment to mull this over before adding: "You should dive, I think. And you should learn here at Uepi. Why don’t you?"
It turns out I seriously consider Dili’s suggestion many times in the couple of days I spend at Uepi resort. It’s hard not to. There are exuberant divers around every corner, crowing about what they’ve seen on their latest scuba – their smiles a mile wide.
On this week’s list are mating octopus, groups of eagle ray, dolphins galore and talk about a pod of roaming Orca sighted a few months back.
Seated around the resort’s breakfast table each morning, I listen to Uepi guests inquire into the day’s diving prospects as they fuel-up on fresh papaya, fresh plunger coffee and reloadable plates of toast, bacon and scrambled eggs.
Australian resort owners Grant and Jill Kelly, experienced divers themselves, are quick to answer their guests’ questions and contribute to the morning hype.
Jill outlines what’s in the water right now and details the tidal and weather conditions. Grant notes exactly where in the Marovo lagoon their diving guests will plop overboard.
Both are quick to say the water temperature is a delightfully warm 78 degrees.
Uepi - A diving, snorkeling mecca
Every day starts this way at Uepi resort. Typically, by breakfast’s end, the diving buzz is at fever pitch.
The afternoon Dili and I catch up, guests from Southern California and South Africa are hoping to swim with hammerhead sharks at ‘The Elbow’ in flawless conditions.
The thought of joining in (hypothetically, of course) fills me with both awe and dread, notions I sheepishly share with Dili as I look for suitably-sized snorkel and fins from Uepi’s lending library.
"You just start with snorkelling off the jetty," he says, pointing to the bluer-than-blue water out front. "Right there," he says, "you’ll see fish, coral, maybe even a couple of black tip reef sharks."
"Oh, nooooo," I say, feeling a bit shivery and wanting to disbelieve the sharky bit. "Oh, yes, yes," counters Dili, handing me a child’s mask and snorkel. The perfect fit for a small face like mine, he says.
Time to get in.
Pretty soon, I’m nosing my way along the coral reef in Dili’s wake. I’m careful not to let him get too far ahead, at the same time I want to take the slow lane and linger; savour the moment, gliding atop this massive lagoon.
Then I see a black tip reef shark appear out of the deep and start to shadow my movements. Shit. What to do? But it soon disappears and, before I can think too much about it, Dili stops to tread water and pass me an electric blue starfish he’s snatched off the rocks.
Its chunky tentacles are stiff in my hand. And like everything in the water today, it’s completely and utterly entrancing.
Setting up Uepi
Resort owners Jill and Grant first arrived in Uepi in 1982. At the time, Grant was a surveyor and Jill a teacher. They came to Uepi on one of their many dive adventures from their hometown of Adelaide.
They’d read in a magazine the diving was good in the Solomons – so they grabbed their eight-month-old baby (son Wesley), a bit of dive gear and went to check it out for themselves.
It was a life-changing vacation.
"The diving really is that good. And the people, too, are amazing," says Grant. "Most expats who’re up here in the Solomons love the place and the people.
"And that’s how it was for us. After three months diving the lagoon and photographing the reef, we’d basically fallen in love with the place and wanted in on the business," he says.
Their wish came true shortly afterwards. And by 2000, Grant and Jill were headed back to the Solomons – this time with their youngest son, Jason – to take over from managers who’d called it quits.
At last, Uepi resort was theirs.
The millennial year wasn’t an easy one for the developing country’s half million population – or for the Kelly family, either.
A militia-led coup forced the prime minister to resign. About 100 Solomon Islanders were killed and Australian peacekeepers called in. New Zealanders joined the regional assistance mission three years later.
"Our business stopped over night and was affected for quite some time," says Grant. "But Jill and I are both from farming backgrounds so we adapted. And we knew The Tensions, as they were called back then, weren’t anti-white – so we felt okay about security.
"The people of Marovo are incredibly self sufficient and confident of tomorrow taking care of itself, which was reassuring at the time. And still is. We’ve learned a lot from this community over the years – and we’re very much people who believe in earning our right to be here."
These days, business is good, says Grant. People travel to Uepi from all over the world, but Australia, Europe and the United States mostly.
People come for the diving to start with, but are soon impressed by the overall feel of the resort itself, he says.
“We consider ourselves a no-star resort in a five-star environment. We’re low-key, I suppose. But what we offer – the food, the grounds, the staff and the environment – is extremely high quality."
The Kellys employ all 50 staff from one extended family. They run a regular carvers’ market within the resort for locals to sell their work.
Jill has been instrumental in helping lagoon locals set up as fish mongers and chicken and egg farmers for the purpose of keeping the resort menu fresh and locally-sourced, while giving sellers a chance to make some money.
Both she and Grant have upskilled locals, like Dili, to dive and become dive masters and invested in others to become mechanics, builders and chefs. Five years ago, the couple set up a charity to finance a range of social initiatives in the Marovo area.
"It’s one of our biggest achievements – that and operating a sustainable business for more than 25 years in a remote location.
"We’re not aspiring to get bigger as a business. Instead, our aim is to keep attracting the kinds of people we do and to maintain the amenity, appeal and feeling of this place for years to come."
The Solomons is a stunning archipelago of nearly 1,000 islands in the South Pacific located approximately 6,109 miles (9,831 kilometres) from Los Angeles.
Covering more than 430,000 nautical miles (800,000 square kilometres) of ocean, it is home to about 500,000 people of mostly Melanesian descent – 75 percent of whom still make a living from subsistence farming and fishing.
English is widely spoken, alongside dozens of local dialects, with Pidgin the common language. The country is possibly best known for its world-class diving and as one of the battlegrounds of the Second World War.
If you go to the Solomon Islands
Getting there: There are no direct flights from the United States. Solomon Airlines flies from Sydney and Brisbane, Australia, to Honiara. It also flies from Honiara in the Central Province to Gizo in the Western Province – the stop off point for Uepi Island and the Marovo Lagoon. Book at www.flysolomons.com
Stay at: Uepi resort
What to take: Sunblock, malaria tablets and insect repellant (there is malaria in the Solomons). Modest clothing to wear on top of swimsuits.
More information: Solomon Islands Visitors' Bureau
This story was first published for a US audience in Food, Wine & Travel, the magazine of the International Food, Wine and Travel Writers’ Association.
The writer would like to thank the Solomon Islands Visitors’ Bureau for hosting her.