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 which 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 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-enshrouded rainforests, and crystal clear 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, bronze-skinned Micronesians, and fair-complexioned Polynesians, many still living much as their ancestors did centuries ago.
What’s there to see
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 its many islands – inhabited or otherwise. With just a smattering of basic eco-resorts across the islands and little infrastructure, it’s tailor-made for cruising.
Gizo, the capital of the Solomon Islands’ Western Province, with a population of around 6000, is the second largest town in the country. It’s a short boat ride away 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 craft 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 highpoint, complete with the skulls of past warrior 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 he first found.
Growth in cruise tourism
Josefa ‘Jo’ Tuamoto, chief executive of Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau (SIVB) says the cruise sector is an important segment 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 the upgrading of the passenger terminal and facilities at Honiara Port. Work on the AUD$4 million project started last year and is expected to be completed by early 2016.
Little has changed in the Solomon Islands since WWII, and therein lies its charm. It’s aeons from any place in the South Pacific I’ve experienced. With just 25,000 annual visitors and around 15 cruises visiting the island nation nearly every year, adventurous travellers should go now, before the secret gets out.
Cruises to the Solomon Islands
Ponant’s 14-night ‘Indonesia, Papua and the Solomon Islands’ on the luxury Le Soleal departs Manado (Sulawesi, Indonesia) exploring northern PNG and the Solomon Islands and finishing in Guadalcanal. Prices start from $6,520 pp ($465 per day) twin share for a deluxe stateroom which includes a charter flight from Singapore to Manado. https://en.ponant.com
Lindblad Expeditions has two voyages aboard the National Geographic Orion that take in the Solomon Islands. The 11-day ‘Hidden South Pacific’ cruise sails from the Solomon Islands to Fiji, with prices starting from $12,080 pp ($116 per day) twin share. https://au.expeditions.com
Princess Cruises has six itineraries visiting the Solomon Islands in 2016 on board Sun Princess and Dawn Princess. Prices for a 13-day Papua New Guinea cruise which visits Honiara start from $1679 pp ($129 per day) twin-share for an interior cabin www.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 from $15,250 pp ($1089 per day) twin-share. www.silversea.com
P&O Cruises is offering two 10-night ‘Solomon Sea Islands’ sailings aboard the new Pacific Eden travelling from Cairns to PNG via the Solomon Islands. Prices start from $1,999 pp ($200 per day) with departures in September and October. www.pocruises.com.au
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