Honiara’s domestic airport is an airless, dark place and there’s a pungent odour in the air. I’m on my way to Gizo in the Solomon Islands and it seems so is every other person in Honiara today.
Finally I get my boarding pass, am offered no further instruction so follow the crowd. The heat is oppressive, the airport is dusty and there is nowhere to sit. It’s safe to say I’m not in a great mood. Honiara can be hard work but I push on with the promise I’m about to see one of the most spectacular sights on earth.
On board Solomon Airlines’ comfortable Dash-8 aircraft we leave Honiara behind. Within minutes the view out my window is indeed spectacular as we fly towards the western province of Solomon Islands. The water is shallow and clear with islands dotted everywhere and for a minute I think I am in the Maldives rather than the Pacific.
A quick stop in Munda and we’re on final approach to Gizo. The water – oh the water – it’s the thing of fairy tales, movie scenes and billboards promoting exotic destinations one could only dream of visiting. We land and taxi to the little airport terminal but there’s no one here. I have no luggage but wait around for the other passengers to collect theirs in the hope I can follow one of them to town as there is no signage, no waiting transport and I have no idea what to do next.
Eventually the small crowd heads down a walk path towards a jetty and board the waiting banana boat. I follow and hope I’m not invading a private charter. The boat captain smiles and offers his hand to help me aboard. Okay, I think, this must be what I’m supposed to do.
I’m the only tourist and my fellow passengers look at me with curiosity. Wherever I am, wherever I’m going I’m surrounded by beauty so I smile back and think there are worse places to be lost.
A few minutes later we arrive at another island – turns out this one is actually Gizo. A beautiful local woman approaches me and offers to help with my backpack. I’m not sure of her intentions for it but again she seems friendly.
“It’s okay – we’re expecting you,” she says.
The port area of Gizo is buzzing and we cross the road to the Gizo Hotel. There is absolutely no one in a hurry here, despite there being a hive of activity. There are three girls behind the counter checking me in yet none of them say a word to me.
Finally in my room I step out on to the balcony and am greeted by the happy sight of the street below. There’s a market selling fruit and veg, a live band performing on a timber stage and people laughing everywhere. Finally, I see the happy isles.
Christina, my backpack carrier turns out to be the manager of the Hotel and would become my Godsend for my two-day stay in Gizo. She arranges transport for me to see as much of the western province as possible and tells me not to worry, everything will be fine.
My boat driver is tall and handsome. He’s excited to be my guide and keen to get underway.
Less than 10m from shore we’re scooting over coral gardens in iridescent water. And it continues. For ages. Coral and fish and glorious clear water. This is the stuff you see in brochures but the reality often disappoints. Here off the coast of Gizo it’s the opposite there are no brochures so I wonder if there’s no expectation am I’m simply pleasantly surprised? But no, it is more than that. I wish I could describe how truly beautiful this place is.
Soon enough we arrive at Orevea, a Solomon islander operated guesthouse. Patson the owner greets me and his proud smile tells me he’s a man who’s worked hard to build his little resort.
Two semi-over water guesthouses are available to rent here. They are simple and pretty. The main house has two rooms, a breezy sitting room/family bedroom and a separate master bedroom. The deck has stunning 180-degree views of the lagoon and, Patson tells me, most afternoons resident dugong swim close to shore.
The second guesthouse, accessible by an elevated timber walk way is the honeymoon suite. Raised high with even more commanding water views, this one has an outdoor shower, which makes Patson laugh. I think a visitor somewhere along the line has told him this would be popular and he doesn’t really understand why. To him, it’s probably nothing special.
Patson cooks meals for his guests, but if you prefer you can self cater, the all-inclusive price is $SBD1200 ($AUD185) per person, per night.
Next we’re off to Saeragi Beach, it’s not on our agenda but Patson tells me it is an absolute must-see and the place he sends all of his guests on day trips.
William Giroi greets me as we pull the banana boat up on his sandy white beach. He seems to be expecting me as well and he smiles broadly.
“Yu kam storian wit me.” Let’s talk.
Saeragi Beach was devastated by a Tsunami in 2011, most of the villagers moved to higher ground and never returned. William thought the tourists would eventually come back and spent the next two years building two bungalows in the hope they would stay.
Saeragi is secluded and beautiful, a perfect honeymoon destination and at just $SBD200 a night ($AUD30), paradise is a bargain. For those that have travelled to Vanuatu’s famed Champagne Beach, this is her rival – but thankfully, there’s no sign of a cruise ship here.
I don’t want to leave but short on time and much to see, we’re off again. About 20 minutes later after being joined by dolphins on the way we are on approach to Sanbis Resort. With its overwater reception and long jetty leading to the main resort I wonder when the beauty of this region ever stops.
Sanbis offers comfortable waterfront bungalow accommodation and a lodge which offers totally privacy for small groups. Bungalows have ceiling fans to ensure cooling breezes all day and night whilst the lodge has air-conditioned comfort.
SCUBA, game fishing, surfing and boating are all on offer at Sanbis. It’s a different category of resort than the others I have seen, with more Western comforts. Bungalows start at $AUD268 per night, the Lodge from $AUD855 per night.
Back in the boat and the next stop is an under-construction resort in the most stunning location I’ve seen yet. There is a strong sense of confidence in this region, the troubles of the past seem all but gone and in fact, I’m later corrected – the Solomon’s well-publicised civil war never affected this part of the country. The Western Province people are friendly and welcoming and I feel completely safe during my stay.
We can’t get in to the new resort for a closer look; the workmen can’t hear us over the banging of tools so we depart for Fatboys.
What a terrible name for a resort, I think, but on the way we’re again joined by dolphins, a sea turtle pops his head up to say hello and I see stingray in the shallow water.
“All we’re missing are sharks,” I joke. Of course I speak too soon, around the jetty at Fatboys we spot several harmless black tip reef sharks. All of a sudden the name of the resort is irrelevant, I’m in a water-lover’s paradise and think my guide has saved the best ‘til last.
Turns out Fatboys is named after a character in the Dickens classic The Pickwick Papers. “Joe” liked to eat a lot, drink a lot and avoid work as much as possible, which is exactly what the staff at Fatboys encourage their guests to do as well.
It’s laid-back cool, the open-air restaurant may not have seen much in the way of maintenance in the last few years and the décor leaves a bit to be desired, but the atmosphere is so cool and relaxed you immediately want to kick off your shoes and make friends with the barman.
Jimmy Buffet is playing on the stereo, I’m offered anything I want to eat for lunch and provided they have the ingredients, the happy kitchen team will make it. The drinks are cold and the view out to Kennedy Island (the very one where JFK found refuge after his boat sank during WW2) is, well, it’s just spectacular and I’ve completely run out of superlatives to describe this place.
Again I don’t want to leave, I’ve fallen in love and find myself wanting to settle in for an afternoon of drinking beer and avoiding work as much as possible.
But this is work so therefore I must tell you to get on a plane to Gizo immediately; it is absurd that there are not more visitors here. It is safe, friendly, beautiful and welcoming. After two days I’m back in Honiara and find myself looking at the capital in a different light. Everything seems better now and I know I have Gizo to thank for that.