Just three hours north-east of Brisbane by plane, the Solomon Islands is a sparkling collection of 900-odd emerald jewels stretching across aqua waters. Here are just some of the reasons you should visit this Pacific paradise.
1. You can eat lobster every day for a week
Who ordered the lobster? For those who adore these colourful crustaceans but can’t afford price tag usually attached to a lobster dinner, welcome to your nirvana. In the Solomon Islands you can order lobster every day, in every way, without breaking the bank. Start at the Heritage Park Hotel in Honiara where you can feast on this beast bathed in garlic. At Fatboy Resort, near Gizo, the lobster practically jumps out of the ocean on to your jetty restaurant plate, with fishermen making daily deliveries. At Tavanipupu Island Resort at Marau Sound, dine lobster mornay cooked by one of the country’s finest chef. Or head to Sarbis Resort near Gizo, where you can enjoy a lobster pizza cooked in what must be the Southern Hemisphere’s only over-water pizza oven. Fancy lobster for breakfast? Order the omelette at the Agnes Gateway Hotel.
2. It’s one of the last digital-detox spots on the planet
If your idea of a relaxing holiday is truly escaping, then you’re in luck. While phone and internet connectivity is available at most Honiara hotels and in some outer resort receptions, Wi-Fi can be patchy. Even if you buy a local SIM card from Solomon Telekom, you may not always be connected. Our advice: simply switch off. At Fatboys Resort they’ll even offer to boat you out to a remote sandbank where you can enjoy the setting sun and not have to tell another soul about it.
3. There’s no place like a homestay
There’s a wide variety of lovely accommodation options in the Solomon Islands, but for a truly authentic experience consider staying in a local village or homestay. Saeragi on Gizo Island claims to be the Solomons “most beautiful beach” and here you’ll find two comfortable huts perched right on her sandy shores. During your stay you’ll be invited to interact with the local villagers, where you’ll learn anything from palm-frond weaving and coconut husking to fishing, cooking and traditional dancing. And at Oravae Cottage, a 20-minute boat ride from Gizo, you’ll find an open-plan wooden bungalow plus a penthouse and treehouse.
4. The drinks are cool
Forget the coconut water craze that’s currently sweeping Australian cities. Here, it’s the real deal: fresh coconuts plucked straight from the tree and sold at the markets and on restaurant menus. For a really cool cafe, head to Honiara’s Lime Lounge Café. You’ll find coconut and fresh juices and great coffee among the extensive food menu. For those who prefer a cold beer on a hot day, the Solomons’ own SolBrew is sold almost everywhere and is a tasty, inexpensive ale. Forget a drive-through: for a really cool experience, ask your boat driver to pull in at the Gizo bottle shop and float right up to buy takeaway wine and spirits at reasonable prices.
The “Teller of Tales” Finds His Own Treasure Island
The 19th-century Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson loved Samoa, and the Samoans – themselves great orators and storytellers – loved him, calling him Tusitala, “the teller of tales.”
Samoa has barely acknowledged the arrival of modern times, so when visiting Stevenson’s Western-style mansion on the lush slopes of Mount Vaea, it’s easy to imagine him still here. As he saw it, Upolu was “beautiful beyond dreams,” a place that caused him to undergo a spiritual change during his five final years, and write that here, “My bones are sweeter to me.”
The obligatory pilgrimage up the winding trail to Stevenson’s grave on a secluded knoll is a challenging but rewarding half-hour climb, leading to a view that overlooks his home and the mountains and sea he had come to love. It’s one of the loveliest vistas in the South Pacific.
Stevenson wrote his own poignant epitaph, even though his death from a cerebral hemorrhage (and not the tuberculosis that plagued him all his life and caused him to leave Scotland) was sudden:
This be the verse you grave for me:
“Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
Total Immersion in Fa’a Samoa
Travelers looking for the fa’a Samoa – the Samoan way of life – will find it at the Safua, where they’re likely to wind up lending a hand with the hotel’s daily shopping at the local market, helping the village kids with their homework, or attending rafter-ringing Sunday services with the host’s family.
The unspoiled volcanic island of Savai’i is one of the most “old Polynesia” islands of any in the Pacific, and the small, charming Safua Hotel is owned and operated by its most informative, knowledgeable, and charismatic character, Vaasili Moelagi Jackson.
Enveloping guests in Polynesian warmth, Moelagi, a female talking chief in her community’s otherwise male council, is a leading force in the island’s movement to preserve its indigenous culture and environment, which makes her an ideal guide to local customs.
At her hotel, every day is a chance to laze about, join an organized jaunt to gorgeous waterfalls or a nearby village ceremony, or even pick up a Samoan tattoo. A high point of the week is Safua’s legendary umu feast; beginning at dawn a suckling pig is steamed in a pit oven and the lavish results are enjoyed by Moelagi and her guests after church services.
Paddling through Paradise
The Pacific’s best kayaking destination is Tonga’s enchanting Vava’u group, some fifty reef-encircled, bush-clad islands separated by narrow waterways and protected within an emerald lagoon measuring about 13 by 15 miles.
Vava’u’s unsullied beauty is a prime destination for water sports and yachting, but the best way to visit the hidden marine caves, secluded coves, and turquoise waters lapping sugar-white sand beaches is by guided kayak trip. Guides will introduce you to both the local Polynesian environment and culture, visiting small outer-island villages and the traditional umu feast, where suckling pig is steamed in a covered underground pit to the accompaniment of Tongan song and dance.
Vava’u’s protected channels and coral reefs afford glorious opportunities for snorkeling and spotting dolphins and whales, which head from Antarctica to these shallow, warm waters June through November to bear their young. You won’t be the first to abandon your kayak to slip into the water and swim with them.
Uninhabited islands are the ideal spot for beachside barbecues or pitching camp under waving palms and the Southern Cross.
A Royal Birthday Party
With his Thirty-three Nobles of the Realm, King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV rules the last pure Polynesian chiefdom in the Pacific, and you are invited to his birthday celebration, the Heilala Festival, held every July 4 since his elaborate coronation in 1967.
Unlike other South Pacific nations, the Kingdom of Tonga was never claimed, nor even invaded, by a Western power, and the octogenarian King Taufa’ahau can trace his lineage back more than 1,000 years. The affection the Tongan people feel for him and their pride in the cultural heritage of this tiny island kingdom is everywhere evident during the weeklong festivities, which include dance and beauty contests, military parades, float contests, concerts, yacht regattas, sporting events, and parties. The entire country turns out for the fun, and Tongans living overseas often come home to attend.
Everyone seems to be caught up in some competition – whether in nabbing the scale-tipping dogtooth tuna or in vying for the Bartender of the Year award—or at least using friendly rivalry as an excuse to hoist another Royal (the local Tongan beer) to another year of health and happiness for Polynesia’s last surviving monarch.
Wigmen, Birds of Paradise, and Luxury in the Wilderness
This modest luxury lodge would surprise a discerning traveler anywhere; in Papua New Guinea, it astounds. Nestled at an altitude of 7,000 feet in the Southern Highlands, it offers a bird’s-eye view of the lush rain forest of the Tari Valley, a secluded Ireland-green region that has only recently opened to the outside world.
Built with natural materials, decorated with local Sepik carvings, and sporting large picture windows everywhere to take in the sweeping view, the Ambua is the ultimate luxury wilderness accommodation, offering fine dining, excellent Australian wines, and, to take off the highlands chill, open fireplaces in the lounge and electric mattress pads and fluffy down comforters in each of the thatched, round bungalow units. Just a few minutes down the road from all this civilization live the Huli people, only a few years removed from the Stone Age and known as the Wigmen for their flamboyant headdresses.
There is a good chance of encountering a sing-sing – a show of hopping, vocalizing, and drumming that reenacts the courtship of the male bird of paradise so revered in these parts.
Thirteen species of the bird inhabit these lush green jungles, together with hundreds of species of high-altitude orchids and miniature tree kangaroos. The Ambua’s network of nature trails will lead you to all these and more.
Cultural Heartland and River of Art
Long a lure for anthropologists, naturalists, and adventure seekers, the mysterious Sepik River inspires the same reverence to Papua New Guineans as the Congo does to Africans and the Amazon to South Americans. Today an expedition up the river is an exploration of one of the world’s last unspoiled reservoirs of nature, culture, art – and even humanity itself.
Some native peoples here are only just emerging from complete isolation, and their riverside villages are so unique in their customs and artistic traditions that many collectors consider the Sepik Basin one of the world’s best sources of primitive art. Unlike Papua New Guinea’s Highland tribes, who express themselves in face and body painting, the proud Sepik people’s contact with the spirit world is through their creative wood carving – their sacred tambaran spirit houses, embellished with intricately carved wooden posts and gables, are living museums of their tribal past.
River trips are available on the expeditionary, nine-cabin MV Sepik Spirit, launched in 1989 as the first vessel bringing visitors to much of the Middle Sepik. For a more grounded experience of the area, the handsomely rustic Karawari Lodge is located on the jungle-fringed Karawari River (a tributary of the Sepik and the only way to reach the lodge), in the middle of Arambak country, one of the most remote and unspoiled parts of Papua New Guinea.
Dugout canoe is still the favored means of transportation (shades of the European adventurers who first explored this area little more than 100 years ago), but the lodge’s canopied motor launch also makes forays to nearby villages, where you can see firsthand the collision of ancient and modern cultures. A young bare-breasted woman recently bought as a bride for five pigs may be wearing a digital wristwatch.
The birdwatching alone makes a late-afternoon boat ride unforgettable: cormorants, cockatoos, hornbills, kingfishers, and parrots are regularly sighted on the otherwise quiet waterways. Breakfast on the open veranda and listen as the Sepik Basin comes alive.
Man as Art in the Greatest Show on Earth
During the incomparable Highland Festival, drums thunder and the earth trembles as brilliantly painted bodies stomp and chant in friendly intertribal “sing-sing” competition. Hundreds of men and women travel for days on foot or by boat, bus, or truck to gather for this annual traditional event, and spend hours applying lavish face and body paint and elaborate headdresses before the shows begin.
Anthropologists, journalists, and visitors mingle with locals representing many of Papua’s 700 tribal groups, most of which have their own style of body decoration that shows their powerful sense of tribal kinship. In an effort to halt centuries-old tribal rivalry and warfare – euphemistically called “Highlands football” – the government instituted these annual shows so that traditional enemies could meet on neutral territory under peaceful circumstances. Although the shows have inevitably become more commercial since their early days in the 1960s, there’s still nothing like them anywhere.
Ornate wigs are made from human hair and translucent plumes; wild pigs’ tusks adorn pierced noses; and masks painted in vivid primary-color striped and dotted patterns continue to excite the senses, defy description, and exhaust film supplies.
Grass Skirts, Stone Money, and the Home of Gentle Giants
Yap doesn’t even make it onto most maps, but it nevertheless stands out among Micronesia’s 2,000-plus islands as the nation’s cultural storehouse – and also as the world’s best destination for swimming with 1,000-pound manta rays in their natural habitat.
On land, visitors may observe one of the Pacific’s last island cultures still resistant to modern Western ways. Bare-breasted women wear traditional grass skirts, and men and women alike chew betel nuts day in and day out. A subtle narcotic, they produce a mild high that disappears as soon as the chewing stops – so why stop? Giant stone money units line the roads, still used but too heavy to transport. Their value is determined by size, shape, and the difficulty of acquisition.
Yap was first discovered by divers who came to swim with the manta rays, gentle giants with wingspans of 10 to 20 feet that return to the same spot every day and accept the divers’ nonthreatening presence. Mating season (late November through March) is a dramatic time, during which females pirouette and soar through the waters, leading trains that can include fifteen or more males – a haunting spectacle. But the mantas are only one of many attractions.
To discover them all, contact Bill Acker, a Texas-born Peace Corps worker who came to Yap twenty years ago. Today, he’s proprietor of the harbor-front Manta Ray Bay Hotel, the first and best dive operation in the islands.
A High-Voltage Water World and First-Class Island Life
One of many island constellations in the Pacific galaxy that is Micronesia, Palau’s 343 islands are surrounded by spellbinding waters that many cognoscenti say offer the best diving in the world.
The meeting place of three major ocean currents, these waters support more than 1,500 species of fish and four times the number of coral species found in the Caribbean, and are known for their extraordinary drop-offs and wall diving: the Negemelis Drop-off is widely considered the world’s best, a technicolor reef that begins at 2 feet and plummets vertically to more than 1,000 feet.
The legendary Blue Corner is one of the planet’s most exciting sites for the sheer abundance, variety, and size of its fish life – and those schooling gray reef sharks! More than fifty WW II shipwrecks – the remnants of an aircraft carrier attack – rare and exotic marine species, and visibility that can exceed 200 feet add to divers’ wonderment.
Sprouting like emerald mushrooms along a 20-mile swath of transparent turquoise waters, the 200 Rock Islands are Palau’s other crowning glory. Covered with palms and dense jungle growth, some of these low limestone mounds are rimmed with white-sand beaches and are home to a rich bird life, including cockatoos, parrots, kingfishers, and reef herons. Beach potatoes will find the perfect place to lose the rest of the world, and snorkelers will find the surrounding waters teeming with fish. The islands are uninhabited and have no electricity, but campers are rewarded with star gazing that is second to none.
In Palau, the world-class Palau Pacific Resort offers a first-class land-based dive operation called Splash. For nondivers, the island’s best snorkeling is just feet from the hotel’s chaise lounges. Carp Island Resort, on one of the outer Rock Islands, has rustic but welcoming beach cottages that are filled mostly with young international divers who appreciate its proximity to Palau’s famed dive sites.