Destinations:  travel toThe Solomon Islands

SOLOMON ISLANDS TRAVEL GUIDE

One of the last areas of the world to fall under European religious and political control, the Solomon Islands remain today the best-kept secret in the South Pacific. It's all there: shark-callers, war wreckage, gold, and malaria; every Pacific race is present, from blue-black Papuans to chocolate-colored, blond Melanesians, bronze-skinned Micronesians, and fair-complexioned Polynesians. The variety of cultures and customs is striking, and the traditional ways are remarkably alive.

Like neighboring Vanuatu, it's a land of contrast and adventure, with jungle-clad peaks, mighty volcanoes, uplifted atolls, crashing waterfalls, mist-enshrouded rainforests, dark lagoons, scattered islands, and brilliant coral reefs. No other Pacific island group has a greater diversity of landforms. Once you figure out where the Solomon Islands actually are and finally get there, you won't wish to leave.

Unless you're on a tour, you'll find travel outside the capital, Honiara, an unstructured, make-your-own-arrangements affair. The number of visitors is negligible, and most of those who do come stay only a few days, mainly in the hotels of the capital or scuba diving at Munda, Gizo, or Uepi Island. This gives slightly intrepid travelers an unparalleled opportunity to get well off the beaten track and have a genuine South Sea paradise all to themselves. So you're in for something totally original!

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The Land

Fast Facts

Where
The Solomon Islands are between Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, northeast of Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

When
The country shares a time zone with Vanuatu, an hour before Fiji and an hour after eastern Australia.

Why
The World War Two relics of Guadalcanal, scuba diving in the Western Solomons, and quiet village life elsewhere are the biggest draws. It's the last frontier of adventure tourism in the South Pacific.

How
Flights arrive twice a week from Australia, Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and Vanuatu.

Who
Ninty-three percent of the country's 410,000 people are Melanesians. Polynesians account for another four percent, and there's also a Micronesia community.

With its 27,556-square-km area, the Solomons is the second-largest insular nation of the South Pacific (after Papua New Guinea) with 5,313 km of coastline. This thickly forested, mountainous country, 1,860 km northeast of Australia, is made up of six large islands in a double chain (Choiseul, Isabel, Malaita, and New Georgia, Guadalcanal, Makira), about 20 medium-size ones, and numerous smaller islets and reefs--922 islands in all, 347 of them inhabited. The group stretches more than 1,800 km from the Shortlands in the west to Tikopia and Anuta in the east, and nearly 900 km from Ontong Java in the north to Rennell Island in the south. (Rennell is one of the world's largest uplifted atolls, while Ontong Java is the South Pacific's largest true atoll.)

The main islands of the Solomons are the outer limit of the drowned ancient Australian continent and the group is on the edge of the Indo-Australian and Pacific plates, which accounts for volcanic activity, past and present. Tinakula, Savo, Simbo, and Vella Lavella are active parts of the circum-Pacific Ring of Fire, and there's a submarine volcano called Kavachi just south of the New Georgia Group which recently emerged above sea level to become a new island. The New Britain Trench, southwest of the chain, marks the point where the Indo-Australian Plate is shoved under the Pacific Plate. This causes frequent earthquakes and uplifting; consequently, many of the Polynesian outliers are elevated atolls.

The other islands are mostly high and volcanic, with luxuriant rainforest shrouding the rugged terrain. Under these conditions road-building is difficult; only Malaita, Makira, and Guadalcanal have fairly extensive networks. The wide coastal plain east of Honiara on Guadalcanal is the only area of its kind in the group. The soil ranges from extremely rich volcanic to relatively infertile limestone. The rivers are fast and straight, and often flood the coastal areas during storms. Geographically and culturally, the northwest islands of Bougainville and Buka belong to the Solomons, but are politically part of Papua New Guinea. (View a map of the Solomon Islands.)

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Weather

The Solomons are hot and humid year-round, but the heaviest rainfall comes in summer, December to March. Hurricanes build up at this time, but they move south and rarely do much damage here. Between November and April, the winds are generally from the west or northwest, though occasionally from the southeast, with long periods of calm punctuated by squalls.

The southeast trade winds blow almost continually from the end of April to November (if the wind shifts to north or west at this time, it means a storm is on the way). The most pleasant time to visit is winter, July to September, when rainfall, humidity, and temperatures are at their lowest. On the high islands the southeast coasts, which face the winds, are far wetter than the more sheltered north coasts. Yet the cooling sea breezes temper the humidity and heat along all coasts year-round.

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Flora & Fauna

Mangroves and coconut groves shelter the coastal strips, while the interiors of the high islands are swallowed by dense rainforest. The forest climbs through 24 belts, from towering lowland hardwoods to the mosses atop Guadalcanal's 2,300-meter peaks. Where the forests have been destroyed by slash-and-burn agriculture or logging, grasslands have taken hold. Crocodiles lurk in brackish mangrove swamps in the river deltas, while sago palms grow in freshwater swamps. More than 230 varieties of orchids and other tropical flowers brighten the landscape. Of the 4,500 species of plants recorded so far, 143 are known to have been utilized in traditional herbal medicine.

sago palm, Honiara

The endemic land mammals (bats, rats, and mice) are mostly nocturnal, so it's unlikely you'll see them. The gray cuscus is the only marsupial found in the Solomon Islands. Birdlife, on the other hand, is rich and varied, with about 223 species including 16 species of white-eyes, fantails, rails, thrushes, and honeyeaters that occur only here. The most unusual is the megapode or incubator, a bird that lays large eggs in the warm volcanic sands of the thermal areas. After about 40 days, the newly hatched megapodes dig themselves out and are able to fly short distances as soon as their wings dry. There are many species of colorful parrots and 130 species of butterflies, including several species of birdwings.

The 70 species of reptiles include crocodiles, frogs, lizards, skinks, snakes, toads, and marine turtles. The five species of sea turtles nest from November to February. Several of the 20 species of snake are poisonous, but fortunately they're not common and are no threat. Centipedes and scorpions are two other potentially dangerous but seldom-encountered jungle creatures. The isolated Santa Cruz Group has fewer indigenous species than the main island chain. Each year thousands of rare birds, reptiles, amphibians, aquarium fish, and butterflies are exported from the Solomons to be sold in Asia, North America, and Europe.

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Dateline: Solomon Islands

30,000 BC

Papuan-speaking hunters and gatherers arrive

2000 BC

Austronesian-speaking agriculturists arrive

1000 BC

Polynesian migrants pass this way headed east

500 AD

back migration of Polynesians from the east

1568

Spanish expedition under Álvaro de Mendaña

1595

Mendaña returns from Peru with second expedition

1767

Captain Carteret rediscovers the Solomon Islands

1830

European trading ships begin visiting regularly

1870

islanders taken to Queensland to work in plantations

1893

British protectorate declared in the Solomon Islands

1904

most Solomon islanders expelled from Australia

1905

Australian companies establish coconut plantations

1942

Japanese troops occupy much of the Solomons

1943

Americans drive Japanese off Guadalcanal Island

1945

last Japanese garrison surrenders in the Shortlands

1949

British crush native "Marching Rule" movement

1964

first legislative assembly with some elected members

1976

internal self-government granted by the British

1978

full independence achieved

1993

clashes between Solomons police and PNG troops

1999

ethnic fighting between Guadalcanal and Malaita tribes

2000

elected government overthrown by Malaita rebels

2001

peace agreement signed by ethnic-based militias

2003

Australian-led military intervention ends civil war

2006

Honiara's Chinatown burned in post-election rioting


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Highlights

Chinatown, HoniaraSolomon Islands has many highlights, beginning with the war remains around Henderson Airport and the panpipe players who perform regularly at Honiara hotels. Another great experience is the boat trip from Honiara to Gizo, passing many romantic outer islands. Gizo itself is a delightful little town with adequate facilities, and the Toa Maru, which the American scuba newsletter Undercurrent calls "one of the top five wreck dives in the world." The small eco-tourism resorts of the Marovo Lagoon are a delight to visit. Once you've "done" these well known sights, you'll be ready for some real exploring.

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Activities

Public holidays

January 1
New Year's Day
March/April
Good Friday & Easter Monday
May/June
Whitmonday
Friday closest to June 14
Queen's Birthday
July 7
Independence Day
December 25 & 26
Christmas Days

Solomon Islands offers some of the finest scuba diving in the South Pacific. In Western Province, the Uepi Island Resort on the Marovo Lagoon caters almost exclusively to scuba divers. The Solomon's top diving facilities, however, are the live-aboard dive boats.

There are unlimited possibilities for hiking in the Solomons. Good day hikes are from Honiara to Mataniko Falls and Gizo to Titiana. A guide is strongly recommended on the first. The really adventurous hiker will find many hiking areas where a white face is seldom seen on outer islands such as Choiseul, Isabel, and Makira. The Marovo Lagoon area is being developed for sea kayaking.

Fishing is the main pursuit at the Zipolo Habu Resort on Lola Island near Munda. The resort boat is available for trolling in the lagoon or open sea, with rods, reels, and lures provided. Some of the Pacific's most productive fishing is in and around the Vonavona Lagoon, and manager Joe Entrikin is one of the Solomon's top fishermen. Game fishing is also offered at Gizo.

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Handicrafts

Solomon Islands woodcrafts generally range from small domestic items such as combs and bowls, through a variety of figures and heads to objects as large as whole canoes, complete with decorated hulls and figureheads. The most distinctive item is the nguzunguzu (pronounced "noozoo noozoo") of Western Province. The carved sharks and dolphins of the same area are made to European taste but are of exceptional workmanship. The shark is a popular figure because it's believed that the soul of a successful fisherman is reincarnated in a shark. Carving in the west is done in brown-streaked kerosene wood (Corsia subcordata) or black ebony, both hardwoods, which may be inlaid with nautilus shell or mother-of-pearl.

storyboard carver

Another excellent purchase is the shell money of Malaita, made into beautiful necklaces. Handicrafts from Malaita are often useful items like combs, bamboo lime containers (for use with betelnut), rattles, flutes, panpipes, and fiber carrying bags. Watch too for traditional jewelry, such as headbands, earrings, nose and ear plugs, pendants, breastplates, and armbands, mostly made from shell. Bone and shell fishhooks make authentic souvenirs.

Guadalcanal people excel in weaving strong, sturdy bags, baskets, and trays from the asa vine (Lygodium circinnatum). These items are known collectively as Bukaware. The Polynesians of the Solomons make fine miniature canoes. The small woven pandanus bags of Bellona are commonly used by the people. Santa Ana and Santa Catalina in Makira Province are other sources of quality handicrafts, especially the striking black ceremonial pudding bowls inlaid with shell.

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Practicalities

Everyone needs a passport and an onward ticket. Commonwealth citizens, Americans, and most Western European nationals are given a passport stamp allowing a 30-day stay, or until the flight date on their plane ticket. Almost everyone with a confirmed onward reservation within seven days is eligible for a transit visa issued upon arrival.

The Solomon Islands dollar (SI$) is linked to a trade-related basket of currencies, and the rate is adjusted daily. Before independence in 1978 the Australian dollar was the currency used in Solomon Islands, and the SI$ was originally introduced at a rate of one to one. Since then it has depreciated to about A$1 = SI$4.50, or US$1 = SI$7. Although inflation is high, this is a very inexpensive country for most visitors.

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Getting There

The government-owned carrier, Solomon Airlines, flies to Honiara twice a week from Auckland, Brisbane, Nadi, and Port Vila. These services are code shares with Air Pacific, Air Vanuatu, and Qantas. From North America, the most direct way to get there is via Fiji. From Europe, you have a choice of Fiji or Australia. Air Niugini has flights from Port Moresby twice a week. The departure tax is SI$40 on international flights only.

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Getting Around

boarding a ship, HoniaraSolomon Airlines offers almost 600 scheduled flights a month linking 31 airstrips in the Solomons. Their 18-passenger Twin Otters and nine-passenger Britten-Norman Islanders are fun to fly in. Island-hopping routes such as Honiara-Gizo-Munda-Seghe-Honiara and Honiara-Bellona-Rennell-Honiara allow you see several islands without backtracking. All domestic flights are heavily booked--reserve as far in advance as possible.

Interisland travel by ship is more colorful and economical than air travel. Boat service from Honiara to Auki and Gizo is frequent and fairly regular, and virtually every other island in the country is accessible by boat. Although the fares are low, conditions aboard are rather basic though the Solomon Islanders themselves are very friendly.

abridged from the 8th edition of Moon Handbooks South Pacific
Copyright © 2001-2014 David Stanley, reproduction prohibited.

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