The Marovo Lagoon has been proposed as a world heritage site and has received praise from a Pulitzer Prize winner. No wonder, says Elio Stamm, considering the many miracles on offer, above the water and under the surface of the biggest saltwater lagoon in the world.
This is not a place where you need to look twice to realise its beauty. No, the Marovo Lagoon, more than 100 kilometres length, is the biggest saltwater lagoon in the world and is awe inspiring upon first sight.
As your small plane slowly emerges from the white clouds, you can see islands scattered across the horizon. The intensity of the colours is outstanding. The green of the more than one hundred small, and mostly inhabited islands, the blue of the deeper parts of the sea and the white of the shallow coral reefs make you understand where the Solomon Islands flag got its colours from.
The Marovo Lagoon is a double barrier reef enclosed lagoon, which in practise means a chain of coral reefs and islands that encircle the big Vangunu Island. The 12,000 people living in Marovo’s 70 villages refer to Vangunu as the ‘mainland’, while the chain of islands and coral reefs forming the border to the deeper sea are known as the ‘barrier islands’.
The lagoon is part of Solomon Islands Western Province, and one of the country’s most popular tourist spots. It is only an hour’s flight from the capital Honiara and offers two airstrips: Gatokae, situated in the eastern part of the lagoon, as well as main hub Seghe, located in the west. From the grassy airstrip in Seghe, visitors walk only twenty metres to transfer by banana boat to the resort of their choice.
There are over a dozen accommodation options, mainly guesthouses and eco-lodges, which is more than in most other parts of the country. This provides visitors with plenty options to choose from, but does not spoil the experience; as the total number of visitors to the Solomon Islands is still rather small, large parts of the Marovo Lagoon are nearly as untouched as in 1946 when American Author James A. Michener in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Tales from the South Pacific described it as the eighth wonder of the world.
Michener’s description refers to the outstanding diversity and richness of life, both above and below the water. Once you snorkel or dive the waters of the Marovo Lagoon, you will understand Michener and also why the lagoon was once proposed for World Heritage listing. It is brimming with an impressive variety of fish and corals, numbering more than 1000 and representing every colour of the rainbow.
The diversity and abundance is easily experienced throughout, but there is one particular spot where Marovo snorkelers are treated to the best of the best: the Welcome Jetty of the Uepi Island Resort. You literally only need to step into the water to be surrounded by up to half a dozen black tip, white tip and grey reef sharks. It is a mind blowing, adrenaline pumping experience, even though everyone around you will assure you that they do not bite.
Uepi (rates from AU$200 per person, per night including food) is by far the most luxurious resort in the Marovo Lagoon. It is situated on one of the barrier reef islands on the northwest edge of the lagoon. The six bungalows, two units and two guest rooms are quite simple but offer everything you need including a warm shower, and they lay on the lagoon side of the island, so guests can enjoy a perfect flat white sand beach with crystal clear water and colourful fish in front of their bungalows, with the only disturbance coming from one of the many metre-long monitor lizards walking by occasionally.
The resort accommodates a maximum of 32 guests at any given time, and Australian hosts Grant and Jill Kelly and their team of local staff deliver a high quality and very personal service. Lunch is delivered to each guest at their accommodation, whereas the dinner buffet is eaten in the communal leaf hut with Grant and Jill, enabling visitors to feel part of a group and to exchange tales of the day’s many underwater adventures.
Uepi is a diver’s paradise. The resort offers a dive shop and first-class dive sites only minutes away. Some are accessed directly from the island itself, while many others are reached by a short boat trip. The dive sites are very diverse, ranging from lagoonal coral gardens to vertical drop-offs into 2000 metres of ocean on the Slot, the outer side where Uepi Island gives way to the open sea. Here, where a near vertical reef corner is coated with corals lies, with Uepi Point, one of the favourite diving spots of the entire lagoon. An endless array of coral, schooling barracuda, rays and hammerhead sharks make most divers leave the water only when their dive computer tells them to do so or they’ll run out of air.
Uepi is such a great place that many tourists spend their entire holiday there and forget to conquer the rest of the lagoon. There are many other beautiful spots. For example the Wilderness Lodge situated in the east of the lagoon, the second most luxurious resort in the region. This is the perfect place for a romantic getaway. It is just 15 minutes by boat from Gatokae Airport and is most noted for its two spacious waterfront bungalows with private facilities (from AU$110 per person, per night including food). Although you can easily spend a whole day in your bungalow or on the terrace (the perfect thing for a rainy wet season day) you should join one of the activity tours Wilderness offers. They range from visits to local villages, remote beaches or world class snorkel and diving sites to spearfishing adventures or bush walks.
Travelling in the Solomon Islands is not cheap. But visitors with a more modest budget have a chance to experience the miracles of Marovo, too. It is possible to travel to Marovo by boat from Honiara, and to stay in one of the dozen or so local guest houses and eco lodges starting from AU$35 per night.
Close to Uepi at the Sunset lodge in Kajoro, famous carver John Wayne explains to guests how traditional war canoes are built. In Chea, one of the largest villages in the lagoon, visitors can stay in a community lodge on a small inhabited island where the chief’s bones are traditionally buried; and from there head out to the village to experience a life that still relies mainly on fishing, trade and subsistence agriculture. Last but not least, Matikuri close to Seghe, should be mentioned for being one of the most relaxing places in the Solomon. Just sit on the massive wooden deck of the main house, read a book, chat with the friendly host Benjamin Kaniotoku and try the reef fish cooked by his talented wife Jilly, a meal that is simple but stunning.
The list can be extended. It just depends what you are looking for. There is something for everyone in the Marovo Lagoon, and everything is beautiful.
For more information on the Marovo lagoon and contacts to its lodges go to the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau at Mendana Avenue in Honiara, call +677 22442 or check www.visitsolomons.com.sb.