"You’ve got to have a real sense of adventure here in the Solomon Islands,” our lovely guide, Stella, tells us when we meet her at Honiara International Airport. She’s certainly not wrong. From the islands’ spectacular diving and surfing to their almost mythical history, you could say the Solomon Islands is the stuff of romance-adventure novels. And we can’t wait to dive in and experience it all for ourselves.
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Legend has it that a 16th-century explorer believed this to be where King Solomon sourced the gold to build his illusive temple (hence the name). While he didn’t find much of the treasured stuff, he wasn’t totally off the mark – the Solomon Islands is pure holiday gold.
A blissfully tranquil destination just three hours’ flight from Brisbane, the Solomons – as the locals call it – is rich with natural beauty and still largely untouched by tourism. You will find the occasional Western-style hotel, but don’t expect any glitzy five-star resorts and familiar restaurant chains around here.
This is a place almost forgotten by time. It’s where locals sell fresh produce straight from their backyards at roadside markets, and display offerings of husk coconuts for people passing by. It’s where children play football on pretty much every patch of grass that’s available and where everyone – like, everyone – seems to know each other. Luckily, the over-development that’s taken place in similar island destinations hasn’t happened here and, if you ask us, that’s exactly what makes the Solomons so special.
Easily the Solomons’ main drawcard, its natural beauty is serious screensaver material. A mind-boggling 900-odd islands make up this impressive destination, most of which are home to palm-filled jungles and deserted stretches of sand. We were lucky enough to visit a handful of them during our stay, with Babanga our first major stop after touching down, and a night spent in the capital city of Honiara.
The short flight over alone is a memorable experience, with views of tiny islands encircled in fluorescent turquoise serving as in-flight entertainment. After descending on a landing strip that seems to just appear out of the middle of the ocean, an exhilarating speedboat ride takes us to Babanga and Fatboys Resort, our home for the next two nights. Taking its name from a character in the Dickens novel The Pickwick Papers who ate way too much and spent his days sleeping it off, the resort is perfect for those who are wanting to do exactly that.
Centring around an open-air overwater restaurant, Fatboys Resort is where you’ll find a collection of dreamy bungalows to stay in and – our amazing new home-away-from-home – a clifftop beach house. Its amenities are very comfortable, although quite basic (you might get a hot-water shower on some days), but most of your time here is well-spent chilling out (and feasting with cocktail in-hand) at the resort’s restaurant or just enjoying the ocean breezes from your balcony anyway. While I’m not normally one for afternoon naps, I’m convinced that the breezes here are a natural sedative.
As tempting as it might be, don’t spend your whole stay at Fatboys relaxing. There’s plenty to see and do here, with the resort sitting right in the heart of the Solomons’ famed diving and surfing hotspot. One experience you absolutely have to tick off while here, though, is a visit to nearby Kennedy Island. A bit of a local icon, the island sheltered real-life action man JFK (John F. Kennedy) during his naval career, when a Japanese destroyer hit his boat during World War II. Hiding from the enemy and living off coconuts for two days, Kennedy and his surviving crewmates were rescued by the local islanders and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the uninhabited island is the ultimate spot for snorkelling and fishing, and enjoying a SolBrew beer (or few) at the beachside bar afterwards. Rusted machine guns and artillery remain as reminders of the past, but thankfully the only thing we have to avoid is sunburn.
After taking a quick dip and exploring the island with Panda from Fatboys Resort, it’s an afternoon of island-hopping by polycraft (as you do) before returning to the resort’s main hub for grilled crayfish, a game of pool and feeding inquisitive reef sharks off the deck. Torture.
At breakfast the next morning, there’s a definite sense of excitement among staff and other guests. A major cruise ship is set to make port in nearby Gizo later today, drawing in everyone from its surrounding islands to sell their handicrafts and show off the best that their beautiful culture has to offer. Given get-togethers of this size are quite rare, we seize the opportunity and race over.
Pulling up to the jetty, the festivities are already in full swing. A market stretching along the main road is the place to be, filled with an array of one-of-a-kind wares. There aren’t any mass-produced ‘I love the Solomon Islands’ mugs here; no pushy salesmen selling souvenir T-shirts. Instead, friendly men and women sell intricate seedpod carvings of sea creatures – a stunning octopus carving tempts me to try my luck with customs – and strings of shell money necklaces (a traditional Solomon Islander currency). Here be the good stuff, shoppers.
Before leaving, we get a few cheeky photos with some sweet-faced children and meet an incredible local group dedicated to cleaning up the Solomons’ streets and waterways. Their work is important and definitely needed in this splendid part of the world, and it’s something we’re grateful for later that day, when we’ve arrived back to our base at Fatboys Resort.
Diving into the resort’s crystal-clear waters for an afternoon snorkel, we spot exotic fish darting past giant clams and large clusters of technicolour coral. Discovering it all is a true Little Mermaid experience that makes us want to stay forever, but unfortunately, we can’t.
The next day we hop on board a small 16-seater plane to the Eastern Province for our second stop, Tavanipupu Private Island Resort. If the name sounds familiar, chances are you heard about the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge honeymooning here in 2012.
A coconut-plantation-turned-private-island resort, this beautifully laid-back hideaway is every bit the tropical island idyll. Eleven thatched-roof bungalows sit among sprawling manicured gardens filled with countless palms, right on the edge of an azure lagoon. We can see why Wills and Kate fell in love with the place.
Arriving via speedboat transfer from the nearby airstrip, we’re met with friendly smiles and a freshly husked coconut – a sign of the sort of service you’ll get here. Our guide takes us through Tavanipupu’s lush grounds before showing us to our accommodation for the next two nights, the Royal Bungalow. As the name might suggest, it’s of course where the Duke and Duchess escaped from the rest of the world post-wedding – and we realise a stay here is probably as close to royalty as we’ll ever get. Spacious and utterly romantic, the Royal Bungalow is decked out with fresh hibiscus flowers and sumptuous traditional furnishings, including a mosquito-netted four-poster bed.
After settling in, a talented masseuse makes us feel welcome with a coconut oil foot massage, before a drum call tells us dinner is ready in the open-air dining room. One thing the Solomons is known for is its lobster, and Tavanipupu is one of the best spots here for sampling the local delicacy. Deliciously sweet and cooked to perfection, it’s heaven on a plate, especially accompanied by the house-baked bread.
Waking up to glorious sunshine on our final day at Tavanipupu, we’re inspired to get out and see the island. While only humble in size and commanding sigh-inducing views, Tavanipupu lends itself to gentle treks. You can easily get around the whole island in less than 30 minutes, and the scenery along the way looks straight from Treasure Island. If you see a coconut fall while exploring, be sure to claim it for yourself – Tavanipupu’s super-helpful staff will clean it up and serve you its water and flesh as a refreshing post-trek snack. Now that’s service.
There are also bike rides and paddles in traditional dugout canoes on offer at the resort, but it’s snorkelling at the aptly named Beach Island (about ten minutes’ speedboat ride from Tavanipupu) that’s next on our to-do list. A dot of sand with just a single tree for shade, this postcard-ready island is surrounded by colourful reefs filled with clown fish. It’s sights like these we later gush over as we enjoy cocktail hour on Tavanipupu’s jetty and sit back to watch the sunset – the perfect way to cap off our unforgettable Solomon Islands trip.
When people visit the UK or Europe, they’ll often retell their travels with the phrase, “Oh there’s another castle.” In the Solomons, islands might be what’s commonplace, but they look anything but common from the window of our plane back to Australia the following day. Saying a silent goodbye to the view we’ve almost come to take for granted, we spot a rainbow stretching from one island to another and can’t help but think that maybe there is a pot of gold out there to be found. It seems only fitting.
The writer travelled as a guest of Solomon Islands Visitor Bureau and Solomon Airlines. Solomon Airlines offers flights from Brisbane direct to Honiara, as well as between most islands in the Solomon Islands. Before transferring from Honiara to the Solomons’ smaller islands, spend the night at the stylish Coral Sea Resort & Casino or the centrally located Heritage Park Hotel.
Thinking of getting away to the South Pacific islands? Find plenty of romantic accommodation here...
Images courtesy of Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau, David Kirkland and Mike Parker-Brown