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Sensational Solomon Islands

Stretched out like a satin sheet the colour of finely polished sapphire, the ocean gently nudges the craggy, volcanic peaks and tiny, rainforest-draped coral islands of Gizo, located in the northwest of the Solomon Islands. Our boat glides towards a cluster of islets that appear weighed down by coconut palms when a glistening grey fin appears beside us. Then another and then about a dozen more. Within moments, we’re encircled by a pod of frolicking dolphins, arching and spearing out of the water, then gleefully plunging back in, mere metres away from us.

As we leap in, a group of about five dolphins, almost close enough for me to reach out and touch, play beside me, whirling, swirling, then vanishing. We spend several awestruck hours snorkelling over a reef of almost implausible intricacy, beguiled by explosions of colour that resemble underwater fireworks. Lunch is laid out on the sliver of beach, shaded by giant glossy leaves. The heady sense of isolation is as privileged as it is glorious. For almost an entire day, we’ve savoured our own little slice of island heaven, which is typical of what the Solomon Islands has to offer.

Wild and untarnished

You don’t often see the Solomon Islands brandished across glossy travel brochures, an oversight that belies this archipelago’s beauty and proximity to Australia. It’s also partly what makes it so special. I was tired of the formulaic resort scene and longed for a palm–studded getaway that’s unique, imbued with a strong sense of place and where the culture hasn’t been bleached by globalisation. The Solomon Islands fulfilled my every desire — and more.

I knew I was in for something special as soon as the small jet reached the gem–coloured lagoons and innumerable islands, located just over 2000km from the east coast of Australia. Apart from the occasional leaf house on stilts, or a solitary canoe, I couldn’t make out any signs of human meddling.

There are fewer than 550,000 people in the Solomon Islands and they’re splashed across more than 900 islands, many of them uninhabited. Roads are a rarity and they’re most likely untarred. Melanesians, a people known for their gentle, friendly attitude, make up 95 per cent of the population. Despite the prevalence of Christianity, traditional life thrives in the Solomons. While English is the official language, the islands are home to more than 120 indigenous Melanesian languages, with most Islanders speaking a local dialect.

A person’s identity is intractably tied up with their birthplace and every Melanesian has a duty to their fellow wantoks (“one talk” in Pidgin), which serve as a social safety net, providing housing, food and a share in community assets as well as a sense of belonging. Villages are presided over by elected chiefs and gift–giving is a formalised way to cement relations.

The local economy, especially on the outer islands, is largely subsistence-based, with bourse conducted by barter. Shell money, which is sold at Honiara’s market (alongside shell jewellery and stone carvings), is still a revered, widely used form of currency, especially as a compensation payment or bride–price. Land is still held on a family or village basis, and on most islands is passed down by female family members. Traditional island life is rich with ritual and spiritual connotations. For instance, a dead person’s spirit is believed to reside in the body of sharks, birds and reptiles, which has resulted in many animals being tabu (forbidden) to eat.

Islands unlimited

The reason we’re here, though, is to revel in the beauty of the islands. It’s a daunting choice. We’re seeking a traditional, unspoiled island fantasy, where we can indulge our passion for diving and snorkelling. While there’s an abundance of lagoons that provide just that, we base ourselves near Gizo, a region famed for its underwater wonders.

Happily, flights into Honiara usually arrive in time to connect with flights to the outer island, which makes it possible to be floating over sublime coral come late afternoon. From a Twin Otter, the visuals en route to Gizo verge on cinematic. I stare straight into craters, then gasp at crystalline lagoons and extravagantly sculpted sounds laced by a necklace of islets.

Schools of trevally shoot beneath the jetty as we make our way to our accommodation on lushly tropical Mbabanga Island, a short boat ride from Gizo. Our bungalow — fashioned from hardwood, palm-leaf and cane — is hugged tight by huge, ancient trees whose horizontal trunks reach out over the water. From our deck, we look down on schools of fish and clam shells washed onto our private little beach. The looming Kolombangara volcano overlooks our every move. We slide into the silky water, hoping to spot one of the dugongs that regularly graze the seagrasses. Instead, we’re treated to a garden of hard and soft corals and a kaleidoscope of tropical fish.

The bungalows are a tactile treat and the setting is sublime, but what really makes this haven so soulful is the warmth and homeliness. I’m soothed by two contented dogs and, within a very short time, the staff anticipate our quirks: a pot of strong coffee in the morning, meals that are spicy and hearty. A maximum of 10 guests ensures you meet like-minded people but never feel like you’re part of a throng. Each evening, the slow, sensuous lap of the still ocean lulls us to sleep. We awake to kingfishers in the garden and crab prints on our beach.

Gizo’s cultural and natural attractions lie a short boat ride away. At Gizo’s market, islanders arrive by dugout canoes. We visit villages where a cone shell is sounded to announce our presence. Between islands, we’re privy to the secret lives of seabirds hitching a ride on coconut shells or swooping seawards in a chaotic feeding frenzy. Much of our time here, however, is spent relishing Gizo’s underwater magic. It’s not for nothing that this lagoon is the stuff of legend among divers. But, happily, it’s not just about diving. This region, like so many of the lagoons in the Solomons, has many marine marvels that lie within snorkelling depth.

There are countless seductively empty islands to explore — above and below the water — and each site is unique. One morning, heading out to snorkel over the Toa Maru warship’s eerie hulk, we wave back at a procession of school children threading their way through coconut groves. Snorkelling is one of life’s most gripping diversions: every time you put your head underwater it’s a given that you’ll encounter something new and wondrous. Each centimetre is crammed with texture, compelling colour combinations and shapes that challenge the rules of geometry. I’m captivated by hundreds of incandescent purple fish, huge sprawls of plate coral, startlingly electric-blue characters, willowy angel fish and anemones that change hue before my eyes.

It’s the ultimate antidote to attention deficit disorder. Unfathomable and festooned with layer upon layer of intrigue, reefs are the ultimate way to lose yourself; the more you look, the more fascinating they become. And, just as I soon learned to find wonder in even the tiniest nook of a reef, I inevitably slipped into the “let’s be happy with what’s in front of us” attitude of the islanders. And that, surely, is the mark of a great escape.

Escape routes

Getting there

Several airlines connect Brisbane with Honiara, several times a week.

SkyAirWorld offers services on smaller jets, which is perfect for making the most of the oceanic visuals, W: www.skyairworld.com. If you venture beyond Honiara, fluid domestic airline schedules mean it’s best to be back at least the day before international departures.

When to go

The Solomon Islands are extremely humid year-round, with an average temperature of 27°C. The cooler period is June through to August, while November through to April generally brings more rain.

Surfing in Gizo

Australian surfers, who relish the Solomons’ vast array of reef breaks, rave about perfectly formed waves, an untouched environment and the fact that they almost always have wave after wave to themselves. The warmth of the islanders is another winner. Solomons surf is best between November and March.

Snorkelling

Wreck snorkelling is a Solomons specialty. Some of the most intense WWII fighting occurred here and detritus of Allied efforts to repel the Japanese — tanks, aircraft and ships — has settled on the ocean floor at depths easily accessible to snorkellers. Aside from Gizo, excellent locations include the Marovo Lagoon and eastern Guadalcanal, as well as the Russell and Florida Islands.

Appealing getaways

  • Snorkelling over the eerie and mysterious wreck at Bonegi Beach, a short drive from town.
  • The nearby island of Savo, famed for the pods of breeding dolphins that play close to shore each day. This volcanic island features interesting villages, very friendly people and a beachside walking track. Organic, hearty meals at Sunset Lodge are delectable.
  • Further information

    The Solomon Islands official tourist website, www.visitsolomons.com.sb, offers plenty of advice about accommodation, things to see and do and travel tips. The Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands Lonely Planet guide provides details about lesser–known attractions.

    The WellBeing Team

    The WellBeing Team

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