Solomon Islands – Reefs and war wrecks in a tropical island paradise

Solomon Islands - Reefs and war wrecks in an off the beaten path paradise

Solomon Islands was my first trip to a pacific island nation, which I was invited to visit as a guest of Solomon Islands Tourism. I must admit that I had to Google where Solomon Islands are, and if they are even an independent country (the Oceania region is my weakest link on travel trivia nights).

They are indeed a country (as opposed to a territory), having achieved independence from Britain in 1978. They are a constitutional monarchy (like Australia), with Queen Elizabeth II being the head of state. And of course being a former British outpost, English is the main language along with the various languages spoken across the islands.

For the geographically challenged like myself, Solomon Islands is made up of over 900 islands stretching about 1,500 kilometres wide from its most western and eastern points.

One of the many Solomon Islands
[Easy to rack up the island count with little islands like this everywhere.]

To find it on the map, look for Papua New Guinea above Australia, and then go directly east from there.

There is a population of about 600,000 people, with around 85,000 people living in the capital of Honiara. Not only is it sparsely populated, but it also feels remote. There are only a few international flights, with services from Australia, PNG, Vanuatu, and Fiji.

Being based in Southeast Asia I’ve become accustomed to big cities and overwhelming amounts of tourists. Visiting such a small country that sees so few tourists was one of the most refreshing trips I’ve done in years.

Boat travel around the islands
[Boat travel around the islands is a way of life here.]

I had it described to me as being like Fiji 40 years ago. I haven’t been to Fiji (let alone 40 years ago), so I can’t verify that comparison. What I can say though is that there’s no Starbucks, no KFC (which seem to be everywhere by now), or any other chain store that you might be familiar with. There’s not even a cinema or a mall to go with it.

There’s a few business hotels in Honiara, and a private island hotel that’s fit for royalty, but there aren’t any international luxury resorts or brand-name hotel chains. There surely will be eventually, and I hope they do. I want the country to prosper and not be in a time capsule for my travelling gratification. Having said that it was fascinating to visit a place that is still like this in 2018.

I have expat friends in Vietnam who recall the early days of the country opening up, when there were none of these international comforts. I feel like I have just visited such a place, and maybe I’ll be coming back in 20 years, marvelling at all the changes.

I was travelling with three other travel writers, and even before we arrived it felt like a different trip than usual. On the 3-hour flight from Brisbane to Honiara I wondered who among the passengers were tourists. There was a fishing tour group, whose fishing-rod cases at baggage claim gave away their intentions. Most of the people I noticed though were aid workers/NGO types, or working with the Australian and New Zealand governments.

Our trip was a brief introduction to the Solomons, keeping in mind that none of us were divers. This is a summary of some of the highlights of that trip.

Honiara

At the time of my visit Honiara was the sole international gateway, so you will be coming and going from here. From a tourist perspective there’s not much to do here, but you can spend half a day to look at the sights before heading out to the islands.

The national museum is a small but interesting look at the history of the country, featuring old photographs and artefacts including currency, weaponry, and archaeological finds.

The central market is a good place to get a glimpse of life in the city and get an idea of what is grown locally.

Honiara Market
[Honiara Market.]

The Guadalcanal American Memorial is an essential stop for battlefield pilgrimages. Honiara is on the island of Guadalcanal, which is the largest island in the Solomons. Even if you don’t know anything about Solomon Islands, you’ve probably heard of the Battle of Guadalcanal.

This famous WWII battle was fought between August 1942 and February 1943 on the island of Guadalcanal and surrounding islands. It was the first major offensive by Allied forces against the Empire of Japan.

The Japanese had occupied the islands in May 1942 and built an airfield in Honiara. The allies captured the airfield and it was later named Henderson Field. This is now Honiara International Airport. While the name has changed, the terminal building still bears the Henderson name.

Honiara Henderson Airport
[Honiara Henderson Airport.]

The Guadalcanal Campaign, along with The Battle of Midway in June 1942, is considered as the turning points of the Pacific War. And as I was to find out during my week in the country, there is a wealth of World War II wreckage that can be visited at the major battle sites. Many of the sites are sunken ships and planes that have become famous dive sites. For non-divers like myself there is still plenty to see without having to strap on an oxygen tank.

Vilu War Museum

Not far out of Honiara (though a one-hour drive due to the pot-holed road) is the Vilu War Museum.

Vilu War Museum
[Vilu War Museum.]

The museum is set in a beautiful tropical garden and it houses a collection of aircraft that were part of the Guadalcanal Campaign.

Lockheed Lightning
[Lockheed Lightning.]

There are some aircraft here that are mostly intact, while other airplane parts are strewn around the garden. In some cases the parts are becoming one with nature.

Tree in wing

The steel and aluminium parts are naturally rotting away in the tropical heat, but this stainless steel landing gear is holding up well.

Landing gear

On the way back from the museum you can drive past Mbonege Beach, where two Japanese transport ships were beached. They have all but rusted out now, but if you want to see a wreck without diving then this is a good spot.

Mbonege Beach wreck
[Mbonege Beach wreck.]

Munda

Munda is the principal town of the island of New Georgia. While Honiara is the business hub of the nation, Munda is better positioned for leisure travellers as it’s close to the Marovo lagoon, which is popular with diving and fishing groups. Marovo lagoon is the largest double barrier reef in the world, and it’s currently sitting as a tentative candidate for UNESCO world heritage listing.

Flying from Honiara to Munda (via Gizo) is one of the most spectacular flights I’ve ever taken (flight review coming next), and from the air you can see how extensive the reefs are.

Gizo to Munda flight
[Gizo to Munda flight.]

At the time of our visit the airport was being upgraded to international standards as it will soon host direct flights to Brisbane. A perimeter fence had been installed, and the New Zealand government donated a fire truck and other facilities for the airport.

James at Munda Airport
[The joy of island hopping by turboprop.]

The town of Munda is so small that there are only a few main streets, and we walked from the airport to our waterfront accommodation in 5 minutes. I couldn’t find a population count of Munda, but once international flights begin it must surely rank as one of the smallest towns to have an international flight.

We stayed at Agnes Gateway Hotel, which is also home to Dive Munda. Like Honiara, Munda is more of a base where you stay and go out on day trips. From here there are plenty of island trips and activities to choose from, or you could sit with a coffee (instant of course) and admire the view.

Morning mist
[The view from Munda.]

The land activity highlight of Munda was a visit to the Peter Joseph WWII Museum.

Museum grounds
[Peter Joseph WWII Museum.]

Following the Guadalcanal Campaign, the New Georgia Campaign saw intense fighting in and around Munda, where another airfield was located.

Machine guns

The museum houses a collection of artefacts found in the area by museum curator Alphy Barney Paulsen.

Barney

Barney has been collecting artefacts for years, going out on walks In the jungle looking for more scrap to add to the collection. Even now he still finds remnants left from the war over 75 years ago.

Knife box

The museum is named after a dog tag that he found, and everything is neatly piled into order.

Peter Joseph dog tag

Barney has a pile of books on the Solomon Islands Campaign as well as books on aircraft used in the war. He’s a walking encyclopaedia of knowledge and he brings alive the objects on display.

Helmets

Hopei Island

I didn’t really know what to expect when I came to Solomon Islands, but I had a general vision of what an island in the South Pacific should look like. It looked like Hopei Island.

Hopei Island is one of the many tiny uninhabited islands that make up this island nation. It’s about 15 minutes out of Munda, and once we were there we had the little island to ourselves to go snorkelling and relaxing on the beach.

Boat to Hopei Island

Skull Island

Skull Island

Skull Island is 30-minute boat trip away from Munda, and as the name would suggest this is an island that is home to skulls. Before we set foot onshore our boat captain/guide said a prayer to the island spirits and asked for permission to land. Once ashore, this tiny island doesn’t take long to explore. The main site is in the middle of the island, with a mound of coral that houses the skulls of warrior chiefs, as well as vanquished foes from back in the days when these islands were known for head hunting. I also asked if it was ok to take photos, just to be sure.

Skull Island skulls

Gizo

Gizo waterside

With so many islands spread out over vast distances, the population is thinly spread. In Gizo I was amazed to find out that this market town of 6000 people is the second largest city in the country. Your perspective of the city depends upon where you have just come from. If you just arrived from Honiara it will seem small country town, but after being on a small island landing, this felt like a bustling city.

Gizo Market boats

Kennedy Island

Kennedy Island

Every day on his trip I learned something new about the war in the Pacific. One thing I didn’t know was that John F Kennedy was part of the Solomon Islands Campaign. This surprised me because I have seen and read enough Vietnam War documentaries and they never mention Kennedy’s war history.

I had never thought about if he was part of WWII. He was the youngest man to be elected as U.S. president, but then the war only ended 15 years previously so he was of the right age. I would have just assumed that he was an East Coast Liberal with a well-connected family that got him out of going to the front line. On the contrary, he used his fathers influence to get into the war despite having physical ailments.

Kennedy was in the navy on a patrol torpedo boat. Here is a picture of him with his crew (standing at right). No President Bone Spurs here.

PT109 crew
[I’m not into dudes, but phwoar he was a bit of alright, wasn’t he.]

Not only was he in the war zone, but he has an epic survival story which propelled him to national fame after the war.

Kennedy was in command of boat PT-109 that was scouting the islands for enemy activity. On the night of 1 August, 1943 their boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer, and the surviving crew members swam for the nearest island. This was locally known at Kasolo Island, and is now known as Kennedy Island. Before you go any further read the full story about JFK and the PT-109 here.

On the island itself there’s not so much to see, and – as the crew found out – no fresh water or anything to eat. But it is spine-tingling to stand there and read the survival story of the crew on the information board.

PT 109 storyboard

While I was reading it I thought that it would make a great movie. I looked it up later and they did make a movie about the PT-109.

Kennedy Island
[A paradise now, but a barren hellscape for the crew of the PT-109.]

Nothing on the island is related to the PT-109, though war relics have since been added for visitors interest. There is a little bar which is set up for when occasional groups turn up, and we had a bbq lunch on the island.

Island bar

There is a caretaker that lives on the island, who is kept company by a parrot named Kennedy.

Kennedy the parrot

Like the other islands we visited it’s a tiny island that could be walked around in less than five minutes. If this island was in Fiji or Thailand it would probably have been converted into an exclusive island of luxury villas.

Beach

Indeed, I saw so many islands like this which made me wonder if they have been looked at by developers. As I gorged on my seafood lunch I thought of the crew of the PT-109 and how I wouldn’t have survived their epic swim.

BBQ lunch

Thinking of the crew, one thing that the memorial should have done was list the other men of the crew on the monument board, and not just the most famous crew member.

Monuments

Back to Honiara and Australia

Canoe boys

After four nights travelling around the islands, returning to Honiara felt like returning to a heaving metropolis. Here I saw more foreigners in one afternoon of waking around than the entire trip (and they were most likely expats or visiting business people).

Outside of Honiara I met one guy who was backpacking, along with another fishing group, and a few divers in Munda. There was a South Korean aid group, and some independent Japanese travellers. I mention this because I can pretty much remember every foreigner we saw the whole time.

Yes I keep going on about the visitor numbers, and I had to look it up out of interest. The number of international arrivals are low.

Urilolo Beach, Ghizo Island
[Urilolo Beach, Ghizo Island.]

Apart from the lack of flights, I can understand why there are few visitors. Tourist facilities are basic. Travelling around can be gruelling with small boats and broken roads. Plus being an island economy where most things have to be imported it’s not a budget destination (a problem for most Pacific nations). And did I mention the crappy wifi? (There goes my digital nomad readers.) This is off-the-beaten-path travel, which is a travel writing cliche I don’t use lightly.

It’s not for everyone, which is part of its appeal. Here you will have an entire reef lagoon to yourself, island hopping with not another boat in site. The water is so clean, and plastic rubbish doesn’t seem to be an issue here like in Southeast Asia (probably due to the small population, but it was still a nice change). We saw so many fish, and a pod of dolphins accompanied us on our boat ride to the airport, which happened to be in the middle of a reef (like I said, flight review of that trip is coming up).

If you are looking for a digital detox, or if you want to be that guy who says “you should have been here 20 years ago”, or if you’ve been complaining of too many tourists while visiting Thailand for the 5th time, then perhaps this is for you.

bungalow
[My bungalow.]

I’ll have some more posts coming up about where I stayed, and flight reviews of Solomon Airlines.


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Comments

  1. Aloha James,

    Awesome article and very much enjoyed reading about a place I am interested in visiting.

    Look forward to the next articles in the series. Great pictures.

  2. Aster Ceniza says:

    Hi James,

    This write up is a contrast to your metropolitan blogs…but I like it, the simplicity of lifestyle and way of living in Solomon Islands. I may not have the chance to visit the place but with this, I saw pictures and read about the place.. I really appreciate how you dig up histories to come up with a beautiful article.

  3. Really like how well you portray the key differences in heavily urban areas vs tropical islands like these. It does seem like a place to really get away.

  4. This seems to be one unique place! I remember doing some research 7-8 years ago about an essay in history and I stumbled upon the Solomon Islands. I have seen some photos back then, but it’s great to see the photos of an independent traveler, from his personal perspective.
    I’m really looking forward to your upcoming posts -especially the flight review!
    Take care,
    George

  5. Sadly, “I want it to prosper” (by getting more tourists, hotel chains and franchise restaurants) means “Ah, I guess it will become polluted like everywhere else.”
    But maybe since the islands are far-flung, the ones that get trashed will be far enough away from the others that *they* will still seem pristine.

  6. Great article! The Solomon Islands look amazing, and I loved the deep dive into the history of the Islands, may have to really look at a vacation there in the near future!

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