The Solomons are attracting travellers seeking unique, remote experiences, writes Richard Rogers.
IT'S not often you'll see a hosepipe used to catch fish but the lad opposite me, brandishing a fearsome-looking rusty harpoon, used a length as his snorkel. With just that length of hose, a rusty iron arrow and a rubber slingshot to shoot it underwater, he sets out every afternoon to spear his family's fish supper. Watching him paddle away in a dugout canoe, I felt more than just a twinge of envy.
The ocean was as calm as a mirror, the beach that I stood on sparkled in the afternoon sun. The Solomon Islands is 900 tropical paradises scattered through the Pacific, four hours' flying time from Australia's east coast and ranging in size from Guadalcanal's 5200 square kilometres to outcrops of a few square metres.
Resorts and coral reefs off islands such as Gizo and New Georgia have long been a mecca for scuba divers. Yet recently the Solomons has seen a growth in both historical and eco-tourism as it recovers from civil war.
Aside from a few beautiful beachfront hotels, the capital, Honiara, isn't really a place to linger. But for those interested in Guadalcanal's World War II history, in which the Solomons saw battles between Japanese and American troops fighting for control of the Pacific, short tours with local guides are surprisingly moving and a great excuse to explore the island's beautiful scenery.
At Bonigi beach, I snorkelled through the surf until the rust of a sunken Japanese transport wreck sprang into view. At Bloody Ridge, overlooking lush green countryside, a few hundred US marines held off a charge of more than 3000 Japanese soldiers, a battle captured in all its brutality in the opening episodes of last year's TV series The Pacific.
The Solomons are defined by the ocean that surrounds them. Ideally you would spend months exploring the entire archipelago; I just explored the Florida Islands, a cluster gathered around the island of Nggela, about an hour's boat ride north of Honiara.
I set out from Honiara Yacht Club, a beachfront bar, with Stanley the boatman.The ocean stretched out ahead, a vast plain of blue, suddenly broken by the spurt from the crested back of a pilot whale.
As we neared Nggela's shore our boat was chased inland by a 30-strong pod of dolphins.
After just under an hour on the water, we arrived at a picturesque village called Boro.
A tour of Boro gave us some idea of what life on the islands is like - a peaceful life of subsistence fishing and farming which, sadly, is now increasingly threatened by falling fish stocks.
We set off again in the boat to the smaller island of Mana, famed for its coral reef, and that afternoon
I watch a fisherman unloading the most fearsome-looking beasts from his boat. Coconut crabs look like giant tarantulas and have claws strong enough to crack open a coconut, their principal food. I ate one for dinner that night, at the Tulagi Guest House, washing down the mound of crab flesh with the local SolBrew lager while I watched a full orange moon rising over the water, like a sunset in reverse.
Luxury tourism in the Solomons is small-scale: the Heritage Park Hotel opened on the site of the former governor general's residence in Honiara last year; the Uepi Island Resort, on a reef island on the Marovo Lagoon, has just 32 beds. Local conservation groups are doing what they can to ensure the islands are protected. On Guadalcanal, I met Willie Atu from The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an organisation that works with islanders to conserve fish stocks and the islands' iconic turtle populations. The organisation's great success story is the Arnavons, a tiny collection of islands off the Western Province, which are the last refuge of the critically endangered hawksbill turtle. The region is now a marine protected area.
"The hawksbill is an important resource," says Peter Ramohia, a TNC marine scientist.
"Many coastal communities in the Solomon Islands rely on this resource for their food and livelihood. If we lose the turtle, everything goes with it: we lose the food, we lose the income from shells and we lose our culture."
The project, begun in 1995, is now used as an example for other communities in the Solomons, many of which are working to establish their own protected areas and benefiting from the rise in fish stocks and eco-tourism that follows.
The model has been taken up in Choiseul Province, where several eco-lodges have been set up. Tourists wishing to go off the beaten track can now fly from Gizo to the town of Taro in northern Choiseul.
Landing on the grass airstrip, you'll be met by a guide from the Poroporo community and taken on a short boat ride to the Pasa eco-lodge, on a small island within the Parama marine protected area.
For $25 to $35 a night you get basic lodging (bring your own mozzie net) and meals cooked by friendly locals in a traditional stone oven.
On your doorstep is 200 hectares of sea offering encounters with turtles, sharks and large parrotfish, as well as other species no longer seen outside the protected areas.
Virgin Blue flies from Sydney to Honiara via Brisbane, priced from $923 return. 13 67 89, virginblue.com.au. Solomon Airlines has return flights from Brisbane to Honiara priced from $515. 1300 894 311, flysolomons.com.
The Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel in Honiara (+677 20071, email: firstname.lastname@example.org) and its neighbour, the Heritage Park Hotel (+677 24007) have double rooms priced from about $160 a night. The Chester Rest House has rooms with shared facilities for about $25 a night. +677 26355, email email@example.com.
A seven-night Honiara, Munda (on New Georgia Island) and Gizo Explorer, with fares from Brisbane to Honiara, domestic flights to Munda, transfers, accommodation, guided tours and some meals, is priced from $3843 a person, twin share, until March 31, for travel until June 23. 13 67 89, virginblue.com.au.
Taro Island in Choiseul Province has budget-price stays, priced from $8 a night. Village tours to Poroporo can be arranged through your host.
visitsolomons.com.sb, travelsolomons.com, nature.org.