Three hours from Brisbane, sprawling coral reefs teeming with life, a network of flawless tropical islands and a colourful history; the Solomons has it all! So why isn't it packed with tourists!?
In December 2018, I managed to sneak out of the office for 10 days and escape to the stunning waters of the Solomon Islands. I split my time between Munda and Gizo, both of which are nestled amongst a breath-taking archipelago of islands in the Western Province of the country, bathed in sunshine and complemented with distinctly island vibes.
I'll get on to both Munda & Gizo and provide some tips later in this post, but I just wanted to touch on the bizarre reality of visiting this country of almost unparalleled beauty.
Getting There (and the Cost!)
The Solomon Islands has it all, but it comes at a cost! Flights from Sydney to Honiara (the capital) are short and sweet (only about 7 hours, via Brisbane) but not dis-similar in cost to a return to London (from Sydney), at around AU$1,000.
The Solomons are made up of over 900 islands, so a second or third flight internally would typically be required if you're on a tight schedule. Flights on to the second most popular airport, Munda, from Honiara are about AU$500 return too, bearing in mind the flight is only around an hour!
My flights looked like this:
SYD > BRISBANE > HONIARA > MUNDA >GIZO > HONIARA > BRISBANE > SYD
Diving, accommodation and food is also expensive - with a day of diving (which is, as I'll get to, absolutely gorgeous) costing AU$200-$250 and meals generally in the region of AU$20 if you are going to eat out. All of this seems enough to keep the backpackers away and there isn't the luxury resort culture you associate with the Fiji's of this world. So the Solomons will be almost exclusively...yours!
Now for some useful tips about my two destinations, accommodation and activities if you're lucky enough to be headed to the Solomons yourself!
Munda is the second most accessible airport in the Solomons and with a direct flight from Brisbane imminent, it should see it become more popular (I should add that the locals have been told the flight direct to Munda is imminent for years!). The relative accessibility of the town does not, however, mean that it is buzzing with life. Munda operates at a very relaxed pace and is made up of a tiny, simple airport, a few shops and a charming waterfront with a regular food market.
Cost: AU$50 a night
Accommodation is limited and Agnes Getaway seems to be the most popular - it's only a 5 minute walk from the airport, down a dusty road and on to the waterfront!
I stayed at Agnes water and was put up in comfortable accommodation, with tasty food and an opportunity to wander the waterfront, chatting to the locals. On my afternoon strolls I would easily get into conversation with the friendly the locals, who would invite me to play football, attend wedding ceremonies and even meet their pet crocodiles!
Whilst Munda itself is quaint and pretty, the islands it looks out to are where the real magic is! The view flying in to Munda airport is extraordinary, as the tiny plane banks over the insanely vibrant turquoise rimmed islands of the archipelago (note for fellow drone enthusiasts, Agnes Getaway is within a no fly zone because of the airport, so wait until you're out on the islands!!); the view when you head out to them in a boat is equally awe-inspiring, as is the view from beneath them...
Cost: AU$250 per day (3 dives, snacks and lunch included)
Having qualified as a PADI Open Water (and then Advanced Open Water) diver shortly before I set off, the plan was to spend as much time as possible submerged in the beautiful waters.
The only certified dive operator in and around Munda is, appropriately, Dive Munda, who operate on the premises of Agnes Getaway. A combination of Solomon Islanders and internationals, Dive Munda are a professionally run and very friendly outfit.
A little depleted in numbers during my time, I was exceedingly fortunate to be treated to a personal, private trip each and every day (for 4 days!). It came with a price tag (although it would have been the same had I been with other guests) but was the best way to get out among the islands and up-close-and-personal with the stunning marine-scape (sharks, rays, sea-snakes and dozen of vibrant nudi-branchs).
Dive Munda offer full-day dive trips, with 3 dives, surface interval snacks and lunch included (as well as gear rental if required). 4 days of this meant I got to visit the majority of the sensational dive spots in the region. The real highlights were Bigga Bigga, which takes you off a breath-taking drop off for the big stuff and then through a network of pristine corals; and the wrecked Douglas Bomber & P-39 Airacobra planes and local dolphins. Munda is full of WWII relics and stories, with over 700 planes downed during the war and now littering the ocean floor.
Lola Island (Zipolo Habu Resort)
Cost: AU$120 per night(!)
After 3 nights in Agnes Getaway I moved away from the relative buzz of Munda and out to Lola Island and the Zipolo Habu Resort. Lola Island is about a 30 minute boat trip from Agnes Getaway Lodge and Dive Munda can pick you up from (and drop you back off) there if you're out with them for the day.
Again, I was lucky enough to have the island to myself (not so fortunate for the owners and staff) and was treated to near-perfect tranquility, abundant wildlife and the simple life. I did two more days of diving whilst staying on Lola Island and spent the rest of the time enjoying the island.
| Native Sharks
Thanks to years of feeding (no longer happening, from what I saw), Lola Island's jetty is constantly patrolled by dozens of friendly Black-tip Reef Sharks. As a shark lover, I just loved sitting down to my breakfast and dinner out on the jetty as they circled just beneath the surface; an Eagle Ray even cruised past at one point. The sharks are very bold and I spent the morning prior to my flight trying to photograph them in 2ft of water!
| Bush Walk & Kayaking
There's also a great short walk on offer if you're keen on a change of scenery - it starts at the back of the village and cuts through the forest, appearing again on the south of the island. There are a few critters along the way (nothing too scary) and it's a nice adventure (about 30 minutes return).
As the Zipolo Habu staff didn't have too much on, I invited a couple of them along for a sunrise kayak around the island one morning (kayak's are free to borrow). We waded in past the reef sharks and across the shallows, then set off around the island as the sun beamed through the ever present clouds to provide a glorious backdrop. The resort's dog, Coolie (translated as sea grass), paddled along in tow and it took Jessica, Albert and me about 45 minutes to circle the island back to the jetty.
Being out on the water at that time is the best way to start the day and the shallow waters surrounding the island are beautifully sheltered from any swell, making it very peaceful and easy-going.
A crazily short and absolutely spectacular flight from Munda, Gizo is less tranquility and more hustle and bustle. The "airport" is just a landing strip on an island (there's no room for anything else!) and the town is a short boat journey away (which you'll need to hitch lift with someone for if you don't have anything pre-arranged).
The town is dominated by the market, which has an incredible array of fresh produce every day but extends a little way along the coast. It doesn't quite have the charm of Munda, but there is a lot more going on. I was met by Stephen, an extraordinary local man, who picked me up from the dock and whipped me up the accommodation for my first few nights.
Tali's Ocean Waves
Cost: SBD$250 (~AU$45) a night
Maybe not the most stunning place I stayed on my trip, but definitely the best, Tali's Ocean Waves is a homestay style accommodation that I came across online (not easily!).
A 10 minute drive up the ragged tracks away from the town of Gizo, the tiny village has a wonderful sense of community and the hosts (Stephen and Esther) are the most fascinating, welcoming and warm-hearted people you could hope to meet.
Their guest house is huge, far bigger than their own property and has a great balcony to enjoy the peaceful surroundings from. If you dip down a muddy track on foot you also get to a stunning spot to enjoy the sunset after a hard day diving!
Stephen cooked for me, ate with me, introduced me to his family and told tremendous tales of the wonderful work he's doing to help drive sustainable forestry, women in business and tourism around Gizo. The Solomon's certainly have their struggles, but the family is doing their bit to help.
The owner and lead divers from Gizo live up in the village, so were able to swing by and collect me each morning without issue.
Cost: AU$200 per day, including 2 dives and lunch
Cheaper by the day than Dive Munda, but with only two dives, Dive Gizo proved to be a mixed bag for me. Of my three days, some were an absolute joy, with great dive spots, crew and delicious lunch (fresh BBQ'd pork, fish and rice) served in flawless surroundings. Whilst other days they seemed to consider lunch as an after-thought (tinned tuna, bread and pineapple) on a rocky, dirty island.
Overall Dive Gizo were great though, especially the acting manager in my time there, Sammy. Sammy is from the Seychelles and was a great host, with extensive knowledge and an infectious enthusiasm. The dive spots were all pretty special, but a day that includes Tao Maru (a 157m long Japanese wreck) and Grand Central is an absolute must. Grand Central (https://www.diveplanit.com/dive-site/grand-central-station-gizo/) boasts one of the most diverse reefs in the world and is situated just off the beach of an island that defines paradise, the best way to enjoy your BBQ'd lunch during your surface interval. Done with my diving, I planned to put my feet up for my last 48 hours in castaway heaven...
Cost: AU$200 a night
The most sensational setting and the most gorgeously crafted living space(s), Oravae was scheduled to be my last stop and a real treat for my last two nights. However, it didn't quite live up to those expectations, as for some reason the host family seemed a little down and disconnected during my visit.
I had a great time, but didn't feel particularly welcomed by them for my visit (kind of important when you're the only guest on a remote island!) and ended up only staying for one night. The accommodation really is great, although simple (to be expected given you're so far removed) and the sounds of nature, glinting stars and volcanic backdrop are stunning, but it needed a better vibe to be worth the crazy price tag! I really felt for the owners and hope it's a real success in the future, as it is the only locally owned 'resort' in the region (I believe).
Cost: AU$120 (I think) a night
Given the slight disappointment of Oravae, I was recommended to get over to Imagination Island by Sammy (from Dive Gizo) as a decent alternative (although it is quite different) and was picked up by their boat shortly after my return to the town.
I knew Imagination Island was more of a resort, lacking in the authenticity and tranquility of Oravae, but the island and its surroundings are almost as stunning and great to snorkel around. The bar set-up is a little tacky, but friendly & fun, and when you can sleep in a hut over the water and hop into the coral fringed waters, it's easily overlooked!
I spent my last morning diving off the jetty and exploring the shallow corals before whizzing off on a boat bound for the airport island (which is 5 minutes away!).
There ended my 10 days in the extraordinary world of the Solomon's - a place with such stunning natural beauty, abundant marine life and friendly locals...but a worryingly high cost of living and lack of tourism, which could quickly lead to reef destruction and deforestation. I hope the natural beauty isn't destroyed and the people can live happily, but it's not going to be an easy path. If you've got the chance, don't mind the heat, and you're not on a tight budget, get yourselves to the Solomon Islands and experience it for yourself!
You can also check out a 2 minute video of my trip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UroePWvszE0