Go West: 24 hours in the Solomon Islands

In the Solomon Islands there’s world-class diving and snorkelling, traditional culture, WWII artefacts and picturesque getaways. And in just 24 hours in the Solomons it’s possible to sample it all

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Stella Lucas, marketing information officer for the Solomon Islands Visitors’ Bureau, is something of an authority on what to do and eat and where to stay in the Western Province.

Born and bred in Munda, a local settlement, though based in Honiara these days, Stella knows the region intimately. And she’s one of its staunchest promoters.

“If your time with us is limited, my advice is go West – the region has it all. All my worries melt away as soon as I get off the plane and smell the bush fires of village life. That’s what’s great about sharing this place with others – they get to share in that feeling too.” 

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If your time with us is limited, my advice is go West – the region has it all. All my worries melt away as soon as I get off the plane and smell the bush fires of village life. That’s what’s great about sharing this place with others – they get to share in that feeling too.

Stella Lucas, marketing information officer

8.00am

Start at Gizo, the region’s main town, says Stella.

“Get your bearings by having breakfast at Gizo Hotel’s open air roof top restaurant, Nuzu Nuzu. It’s a great waterfront location to take in the hustle and bustle of the port and marketplace and to see how the locals live. It’s also one of the few places you can check your email. Me, I like to forget about Facebook and get amongst it early.

“Meandering among the market stalls, you can buy fresh bananas, coconut, papaya and bone up on your Pijin while you’re there – halo (hi) and tanggio tumas (thank you).”

Gizo waterfront market produce (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Gizo waterfront market produce (image by Jacqui Gibson).

You’ll find the market on Gizo’s waterfront. Villagers come to Gizo from around the province to sell their goods. If you’re keen to try betelnut (the Solomon’s recreational drug of choice), then you can do it here. Locals recommend chewing betelnut with fruit leaf and adding a pinch or two of limestone into the mix.

Some say a cigarette finishes the whole concoction off perfectly. “Taken together this way,” says one seller, “it gives you the feeling of alcohol.”

Market betelnut, Solomon Islands (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Market betelnut, Solomon Islands (image by Jacqui Gibson).

The taking and sharing of betelnut is a strong part of cultural life and traditional ceremony in the Solomons – and is behind the red-toothed grins you’ll see on most villagers. 

9.30am

Hire a boatman and motor boat at the Gizo jetty and head off to Saeraghi for the full immersion Melanesian village experience. Enjoy a spirited, local greeting.

Receive the gift of leis made from fragrant frangipani, as well as a refreshing coconut cocktail (that’s coconut milk, still in the coconut, made from young coconut) upon arrival.

Watch a demo of locals hand making fire from rigorously rubbing wood together (and give it a go yourself).

Check out village life and see how your lunch of locally-caught fish, home-grown salad and delicious sweet potato is being prepared in an outdoor hot stone oven.

Head to the jetty and leap off with the village kids before taking in traditional dance and polishing off an outdoor banquet-style lunch served in flax baskets in the shade of enormous trees.

When you’re done, slide into a hammock for couple of zzzs or step into the crystal clear ocean to loll about and look at the fish.

“The white sandy beach is pristine at Saeraghi,” says Stella, “And the water an incredible 28 degrees with amazing visibility – leaving this place can be tough I tell you.”  

1.00pm

But leave you must for an offshore adventure – an afternoon snorkel over a submerged World War II relic.

Diving excursion under way, Western Province, Solomon Islands (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Diving excursion under way, Western Province, Solomon Islands (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Diving at Uepi Resort, Western Province (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Diving at Uepi Resort, Western Province (image by Jacqui Gibson).

By speedboat, it takes less than half an hour to locate the American fighter plane Betsy, resting just 10 metres below the water’s surface.

Extraordinarily, the US Navy Grumman Hellcat is still visible more than 50 years after being shot down during the Japanese and US stoushes of the second world war.

For snorkellers, the best time to go is low tide, when the plane literally rises to the surface. You can dive this wreck too.

Diving is extremely popular in the Solomons, with the Western Province particularly well-known for its world-class diving.

Top spots within the province include Gizo itself, Munda and Marovo Lagoon.

3.00pm

“No visit to this part of the world is complete without a visit to my hometown,” says Stella of Munda. There’s plenty to do here. Diving and snorkelling are super popular. There’s great food at the Leaf Haus, Ben and Uma Kilsby’s new eatery.

Alphy Barney Paulson, Munda (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Alphy Barney Paulson, Munda (image by Jacqui Gibson).

But, with just an hour or two up your sleeve, Alphy Barney Paulson’s private WWII museum is a must for heritage buffs.

Alphy’s collection dates back to 2002, when he stumbled across a US soldier’s identity tags at Munda Point. From that moment on Alphy became hooked on unearthing war relics and storing them in a leaf hut at the front of his property for public viewing.

Today he has an impressive collection of ammunition, machine guns, shells, crockery, helmets – and a wide range of personal belongings such as soldiers’ dog tags.

“I go out looking for relics most days. I’ve probably discovered more than a hundred thousand items left behind by the Americans and the Japanese.”

Some of Alphy’s museum artefacts, Solomon Islands (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Some of Alphy’s museum artefacts, Solomon Islands (image by Jacqui Gibson).

In 2014, Alphy received government recognition for his efforts, as well as funding for a wooden building to house the relics. Entry to the new wooden museum is $NZ5 per person. 

6.00pm

After all that action, it’s time to chill. “Head to Fatboys Bar and Restaurant Resort for a cocktail and to watch your big day melt away. It takes less than 10 minutes by boat from Gizo and the restaurant is set over the water – so you can enjoy the gentle sea breeze while you kick back,” says Stella.

The restaurant’s fresh crayfish is hugely popular (as is the wifi) and the snorkelling in the lagoon is legendary. If you’re staying, there are half a dozen spacious wooden bungalows dotted along the shoreline of Mbabanga Island – all within an easy stroll to the restaurant.

“But if you’re after total seclusion in your own private island getaway,” says Stella, “Then you might want to take a boat to Patson and Naomi Baea’s place.”

The couple run Oravae Cottage, an open-plan wooden bungalow perched over the water. “It has everything you want, great snorkelling, home-cooked food and there’s noone around – except maybe a local fisherman in a dugout canoe passing by.”

Solomon Islands’ local (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Solomon Islands’ local (image by Jacqui Gibson).

FAST FACTS

Getting there:  There are no direct flights from New Zealand. Kiwis travelling to the Solomons first need to go to Brisbane and depart to Honiara from there.

Solomon Airlines flies from Brisbane to Honiara. Fares start at $NZ417, including taxes (one way). Kiwis get a visitor’s permit on arrival for up to 90 days.

Solomon Airlines also fly from Honiara in the Central Province to Gizo in the Western Province. Fares start at $NZ292, including taxes (one way). Book online at www.flysolomons.com

Staying in Gizo and surrounds: The Gizo Hotel has rooms from $NZ172 – $NZ205 per night – best to use it as a base for heading out to the outer islands.

See www.gizohotel.com

Accommodation at Fatboys Bar and Restaurant Resort is top notch and costs around $NZ250 per night.

For more information, see www.solomonsilandsfatboys.com.au

Escape to Oravae Cottage and enjoy your own Pacific Island for $NZ115 (meals provided). Bliss. For more information, see www.oravaecottage.com

What to take: Sunblock, average temps range between high 20s to 30 degrees.  Malaria tablets and repellant – there is malaria in the Solomons. Modest clothing to wear on top of togs and bikinis (which are fine in the resorts but not accepted in the towns and villages).

Where to find out more:  Drop to the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau in Honiara. See www.visitsolomons.com.sb

This story was first published in Let’s Travel magazine.

The writer travelled to the Solomon Islands courtesy of the Solomon Islands’ Visitors Bureau.