The phrase “best-kept secret” is bandied about a lot in the travel industry, but in the case of the Solomon Islands, the description couldn’t be more apt.
It’s all here in these 992 islands that lie east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu: shark-callers and crocodile worshippers, WWII history, world-class diving and snorkelling, diverse cultures, and ancient customs that are still remarkably alive.
From the moment you walk off the ship in the capital Honiara, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana, who named the exotic islands in 1568, believed he had found the source of King Solomon’s wealth, but the Solomon Islands are rich in treasures in so many other ways.
Impenetrable jungles, steaming volcanoes, crashing waterfalls, mist-shrouded rainforests and turquoise lagoons are just the start.
Every Pacific race is present in this South Pacific melting-pot: from blue-black Papuans to chocolate-coloured, blond Melanesians, bronzed Micronesians, and fair-skinned Polynesians, many still living much as their ancestors did centuries ago.
Guadalcanal Island, the gateway to the Solomons, is the site of some of WWII’s longest and bloodiest battles. Led by our guide, we’re taken on a tour to a small outdoor museum. WWII remnants, such as Japanese war planes and rusting artillery, provide an insight into the clashes that took place here. The nearby sea floors are littered with warships from both Japanese and US forces, preserved in time and sea salt, and now offering some of the best wreck diving and snorkelling in the world.
But to really experience “the Sollys” you need to venture out to one of the many islands, inhabited or otherwise. With just a smattering of basic eco-resorts across the islands and little infrastructure, they are tailor-made for cruising.
Gizo, the capital of the Solomon Islands’ Western Province, with a population of about 6,000, is the second largest town in the country. It’s a short boat ride from Kennedy Island, significant for its role in the story of PT-109, when former US President John Kennedy (then a lieutenant) swam for his life after his patrol boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer.
Munda on the island of New Georgia, also in the Western Province, was originally the centre of the head-hunting Roviana people. Mysterious Skull Island is a high point, complete with the skulls of warriors and chiefs. We visit Barney Paulsen’s mini-museum, displaying relics such as hand grenades, ammunition, helmets and dog tags left by the US and Japanese in the jungle. His collection is known as the Peter Joseph WWII Museum – named after Peter Joseph Palatini, the American soldier whose dog tag was the first he found.
Josefa “Jo” Tuamoto, chief executive of Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau says the cruise sector is an important part of the country’s inbound tourism business, given the limited land infrastructure. “Many of our neighbours benefit from international cruise traffic and the positive impact they have on the local economy. If we were to attract just a small percentage of this key visitor arrival source, the benefits for our tourism industry would be exponential.”
Part of the tourism bureau’s plans include upgrading the passenger terminal and facilities at Honiara Port. Work on the $4 million project started last year and is expected to be completed by early 2016.
Ponant’s 14-night Expedition To The Magic Of Maluku & Melanesia on the luxury Le Soléal departs Manado (Sulawesi, Indonesia) exploring northern PNG and the Solomon Islands and finishing in Guadalcanal. Prices start at $5,590 pp twin-share, which includes a charter flight from Singapore to Manado. en.ponant.com
Princess Cruises has several itineraries visiting the Solomon Islands in 2015 and 2016 on board Sun Princess and Dawn Princess. Prices for a 13-day Papua New Guinea cruise aboard the Dawn Princess, which visits Honiara, start from $1,999 pp twin-share for an interior cabin. princess.com
Silversea has a 16-night cruise from Koror, Palau to Lautoka, Fiji aboard Silver Discoverer visiting Gizo, Kennedy Island, Marovo Lagoon, Vangunu and Utupua in the Solomon Islands. Prices start at $17,750 pp twin-share. silversea.com
In 2016, P&O Cruises will offer two 10-night Solomon Sea Islands sailings on the new
Pacific Eden travelling from Cairns to PNG via the Solomon Islands. Prices start at $1,629 pp twin-share with departures in September and October. pocruises.com.au
11-day Hidden South Pacific cruise aboard the National Geographic Orion sails from the Solomon Islands to Fiji, via Vanuatu, with prices starting at $12,080 pp twin-share. au.expeditions.com
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