The Solomon Islands' main tourism hub is a divers’ paradise with a surprising presidential connection.
The sound is hypnotic.
A 60-horsepower engine gliding seamlessly over water that is the closest thing to real-life liquid glass.
On either side, little tropical islands are littered with tiny grass huts that overlook untouched white sand beaches, with coconut trees hanging like hammocks over the water.
Below, coral that can only be described as pristine is home to an abundance of fish life — like an over-stocked tropical aquarium.
Above, the blue sky lets the tropical sun beat down, lighting up the turquoise water below.
We’re on a banana boat exploring the islands of the Gizo Lagoon in the Solomon Islands — and it’s like being inside a postcard.
Gizo, the capital of the Solomon’s western province, is the country’s main tourism hub.
A picturesque 45-minute flight from the capital Honiara, arriving at the Gizo Airport is in itself an experience.
The airport, locally known as the Nusatupe Airstrip Terminal, takes up a whole island, meaning all planes approach the strip over water until the very last second — making it surely one of the most spectacular airports in the world.
As the plane touches down — after flying over the gorgeous lagoon below — boats, locally known as “kanoes”, taxi you back to Gizo town, or to your chosen resort.
For us, the first stop was the town itself.
Virtually flattened by a tsunami in 2006, Gizo town is no postcard: picture Fiji perhaps 30 years ago, before the word got out.
Dusty roads turn to mud during afternoon tropical storms, and the town’s main strip offers up very little in the way of “things to do”.
But it does have its charms.
The local market — which is in the process of being rebuilt — offers up delicacies such as local seaweed (which taste like little balls of salt water) and smoked fish, known locally as “bone bone”, caught fresh that morning and cooked before your eyes.
“The fish tastes so good because it’s cooked on a special type of stone,” one of the market traders, Jean Hoala, tells me in her native language, pijin.
“They (the stones) come out of the sea near Ranongga Island (about a 45-minute boat ride west of Gizo). And no other stone has got what it has — they warm up really hot and cook the fish well.”
She’s right — it is delicious.
But if the local delights are a little too rustic, the upstairs restaurant at the Gizo Hotel offers a great lunch spot, overlooking the lagoon and the taxi boats below.
But Gizo town itself is not the attraction — it is the surrounding islands, and what’s below the surface, that gives Gizo its appeal.
The lagoon is a divers’ paradise.
With an all-year-round 28-30C water temperature and fish life that can only be described as utterly ridiculous, it is no surprise that the area attracts divers from all over the world.
And then there’s the WWII shipwrecks and shot-down planes, plus coral that would make Sir David Attenborough swoon.
Dive Gizo, the town’s only dive shop, is run by Australians Danny and Kerrie Kennedy and hosts divers from all over the world, with multiple sites across the lagoon for divers to explore.
Gizo also offers luxury resort stays — that is luxury, Solomon’s style. Sanbis Resort and Fatboys Resort are two of the most popular.
Sanbis, literally a stone’s throw from the airport, offers six bungalows with guest numbers generally limited to 12.
The bungalows, typical of accommodation in the Solomons, are all “leaf hut” style — like a luxurious version of the traditional huts most Solomon islanders live in. At Sanbis (pijin for “sand beach”) each bungalow sits on its own private beach.
The restaurant-bar area hovers on stilts over water, like a more traditional version of Maldives-style accommodation — the perfect place to sit and nurse a SolBrew, the country’s delicious national beer.
It is a similar scenario at Fatboys Resort, arguably the country’s best-known tourist spot.
Its name is derived from Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. The character “Joe the fat boy” consumes great quantities of food and constantly falls asleep in any situation at any time of the day — this is the life the team at Fatboys tries to encourage.
And it is an easy rule to abide by.
The resort’s five bungalows all look out onto the water, with meals at the resort cooked fresh from local seafood caught that morning.
But if relaxing isn’t your cup of tea, there are plenty of activities to keep you occupied. Charter fishing is one option. Sailfish are in abundance, as are other huge game fish, with even novices having a good chance at picking up a prized catch (although I didn’t have any luck).
Another is to hire a boat for the day (about $120) and go island hopping, snorkelling and sunbathing on your own private island.
This was the option we took.
Fatboys overlooks Kennedy Island, the island then future US President John F. Kennedy was stranded on during WWII — and that was our first stop.
After his cruiser PT-109 was sunk by the Japanese, Kennedy and his men survived for six days on coconuts on the island before they were found by local Solomon islanders.
The island itself is nothing much to look at, but there is a small shrine to Kennedy and the story — which was instrumental in creating his war-hero image.
It is an interesting historical side note for the area.
Our next stop was just around the corner.
“This is the island that was made from the tsunami,” our guide for the day, Trevor, tells us.
“It doesn’t really have a name, so we just call it Tsunami Island.”
It is fascinating to think about — we were walking around an island that didn’t exist 11 years ago.
From there it was a cruise around the lagoon, and then back to Fatboys for a well-earned SolBrew and to soak in another postcard scene.
Luxury, Solomon’s style.
You may also like
Driving: Road to red heartland
It’s all about the journey as much as the destination, as STEPHEN SCOURFIELD takes the Great Central Road to Uluru
On the Road Video: Awesome tidal territory
On Tuesday, The West looked forward to the predicted tourism boom that may come on the Dampier Peninsula, north of Broome, when the road is sealed. Here, Ben Robinson joins one of the businesses that may benefit, boarding a boat for the Giant Tides tour at Cygnet Bay Pearl Farm.
On the Road Video: Great adventure to central Australia
The Great Central Road lives up to every element of its name. It’s a great adventure. It takes us to the centre of Australia, and the heart of WA’s inland and ancient and contemporary story. And it is, indeed, a road — a big road.