The South Pacific: A World Away, and Worth It

The Solomon Islands

Jun 5, 2001
Outside Magazine

A dive briefing goes something like this: "We know this is a wall. The current will take you to a reef. We're not sure what's there. Have fun!" Whoopie! You drop down into warm blue water with 100-foot visibility, drift along, see a bunch of reef sharks and giant sea fans, whole families of parrotfish, crinoids in every color combo, a hammerhead, a weird ray, and a Spanish dancer. You surface with a fat grin on your face, look around, and then it hits you—except for the divers you're with and a kid paddling by in a dugout canoe, there's nobody around—not another boat for as far as you can see (the dive site doesn't even have a name).
In decades past, only diehard wreck divers made the long haul to the Solomon Islands, 1,300 miles northeast of Australia. Iron Bottom Sound off the main island of Guadalcanal got its name from the sheer numbers of World War II warships, submarines, and fighter planes that haunt its depths. There was no dive operation on Guadalcanal until 1982, no live-aboard until 1988. Even today, sport diving remains in its infancy, despite numerous fringing reefs alive with uncounted coral and fish species (and at least five species of toothy sharks). Of the 922 islands in the archipelago, groups like the Russells and the Floridas opened their reefs to divers only within the past ten years, and the vast majority have yet to be explored.

A trip to the Solomons usually begins at Henderson Field Airport in Honiara on Guadalcanal, the most developed and the largest island at 2,965 square miles. Honiara, the nation's capital, is a Quonset-hutted town (populated by about a tenth of the Solomons' 300,000 citizens) surrounded by humid jungle and thatch-roofed villages. While not the most picturesque choice, a stay in Honiara makes good sense if climbing into the cockpit of a sunken B-17 bomber sounds like your idea of fun.
The Kitano Mendana (doubles, $75-$125; 011-677-20071) heads the list of Honiara's hotels, not so much because of its Sheraton-style amenities, but because of its dearth of in-room mosquitoes. You can snorkel on Mendana Reef right in front of the resort (about a 20-minute swim in shallow water), and on-site Island Dive Services (one dive, $45; 677-22103) will take you to wrecks like the B-17 bomber with intact controls and machine guns. Or do the bushwalk-wade-swim to nearby Mataniko, a waterfall next to a stalagmite-filled cave swarming with bats and swallows.
But to really get away, head straight to Uepi, a tiny single-resort island and prime scuba spot off New Georgia in Western Province. Reached from Honiara via a 70-minute flight on Solomon Airlines (round-trip, $125; 677-20031), Uepi Island Resort (doubles, $100-$135, meals included; 011-61-77-75-1323) specializes in diving, boardsailing, and scenic beaches. The bungalow-style hotel overlooks coral-lined Marovo Lagoon, the world's longest at 68 miles. Notable dives include the coral extravaganza at Landoro Gardens (more than 500 species, including gorgonian fans and comb coral) and the drift dive (about $40 per dive) among Maori wrasses at Uepi Point. Canoes are available at the resort for the trip up the Kolo River to several small villages, where you can watch weavers and wood carvers at work.
For birders, there's Rennell Island, 130 miles south of Guadalcanal in Central Province. Its 427 square miles shelter shrikebills, fantails, pygmy ibises, and cormorants that feed on tilapia and giant eels. The birds congregate in Te'Nggano, the largest freshwater lake in the Pacific outside of New Zealand. Now under consideration as a World Heritage nature reserve (as is Marovo Lagoon), the area has no lodging facilities. To camp, you'll need a village chief's permission, best secured by a guide found through the Solomon Islands Tourist Authority on Honiara (677-22442).
For a closer encounter with the Solomons, consider a live-aboard dive boat. Bilikiki Cruises in Honiara operates the only two live-aboards in the Solomons (all-inclusive weekly rates, $1,750-$2,225; 800-663-5363). Both make seven- to 14-day runs to Marovo Lagoon, the Russells, and the Floridas. The 125-foot Spirit of Solomons takes up to 26 divers; the 125-foot Bilikiki, an old ferry turned luxury cruiser, holds up to 20 divers. With advance request, either boat can stow away boardsailing, canoeing, and fishing gear.
Getting There and Around:
For connecting flights from Fiji to Honiara (via Vanuatu) in the Solomons (there's no direct service from the U.S.), book the $485 round-trip Discover Pacific Pass on Solomon Airlines (call Air Promotions Systems, 800-677-4277). The Discover Solomons Pass gets you four domestic flights for $250. Avis rents cars in Honiara ($307-$450 per week); Budget charges $253.

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