8 September 2019.
When it comes to tropical island destinations, it can be far too easy to paint them all with the same broad brush strokes, pigeonholing them as either the extravagant all-inclusive Bora Bora bunch or the wild, party-all-night Thailand variety.
The Solomon Islands, however, march to a very different drum, abandoning these all too common stereotypes in favour of a raw, rustic and more authentic island experience.
Pristine reefs, dreamy castaway islands and soaring volcanic peaks sit alongside slow-paced village life, a strong cultural identity and a rich, sometimes turbulent past.
What’s more, this gorgeous string of islands remains virtually undiscovered by the hoards of tourists that flock elsewhere in the region.
For anyone starting to plan their trip, these are my top tips to help you prepare for travelling in the Solomon Islands, the essential things to know, the amusing quirks and a few helpful hints on what to expect from your visit.
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The Solomon Islands receive less than 30,000 visitors each year making it one of the least visited tourist destinations in the world.
Compare that to the more than 800,000 that touch down in neighbouring Fiji or 6.5 million that flock to Bali each year.
For intrepid travellers seeking somewhere offbeat and remarkably untouched by mass tourism, where adventure is at your fingertips and uncrowded beaches, reefs and waves are in full supply, then this tiny island chain adrift in the South Pacific is a perfect choice
In this age of over tourism and doing it for the ‘gram, it also makes a wildly refreshing change to explore a place where tourism is still very much in its infancy and that you haven’t already seen a thousand times peppered throughout your Instagram feed – sadly something that has become increasingly difficult to find in recent years.
The Solomon Islands are one of the last frontiers of unspoilt reef with its warm waters and the mingling of currents bringing an explosion of life to this corner of the Pacific.
Its seabeds are littered with wreckages from WWll, its lagoons are frequented by many larger creatures like manta rays, turtles and whales alongside numerous pelagics and it’s home to some of the world’s most pristine reef which conceals countless tiny critters.
Munda is an excellent place to begin your underwater exploration boasting spectacular reef dropoffs, vibrant coral gardens rich in macro life and several wrecks, while Gizo to the north is incredibly biodiverse and home to the second-highest fish count in the world.
In short, for inquisitive divers and snorkellers, it’s absolute heaven and should not be skipped on your Solomon Islands itinerary!
Keen divers can also attend the Solomon Islands Dive Festival in October 2019 which will celebrate the fantastic underwater world of the western province.
The Solomons may be most famous for their spectacular underwater world, rich in marine life and with more wrecks than you can shake a stick at, but that certainly doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do up on land.
These volcanic islands, blanketed in lush fertile forest, are ripe for exploration.
Just beyond Honiara, dense jungle and rugged ridgelines sprawl across the interior of Guadalcanal, concealing spectacular waterfalls, muddy trails and the archipelago’s two highest peaks. Further afield, it’s possible to clamber up Kolombangara Island, a challenging 2-day trek that involves fording rivers, tackling jungle vines and traipsing the mossy forests of the now extinct crater. The twin peaks on nearby Rendova Island also make for adventurous hiking.
For those seeking something more slow paced, birdwatching, historic WWll sites and local village tours are also an option.
Malaria infection is a risk throughout the Solomon Islands and it’s a good idea to take antimalarials for the duration of your stay and following your trip as prescribed.
Overall, I didn’t find mosquitoes to be much of an issue, however, it’s always a good idea to take preventative measures like covering up in the evenings when insects are more prevalent, using repellent as needed and a mosquito net when available.
Atovaquone-proguanil (brand name Malarone), Mefloquine hydrochloride (brand name Lariam) and Doxycycline are all effective in this region. Consult your doctor for the best option and make yourself aware of the possible side effects. Some may have psychiatric effects, while others, like Doxycycline, can make your skin more sensitive to light meaning you’ll need to be extra careful to cover up when in the sun.
Any proper trip the Solomon Islands will mean a great deal of time spent lazing on castaway islands or kicking back in your remote jungle hideaway – hardly the kind of place where you’d expect to find an ATM.
Try to pay for your big-ticket items in advance – like flights, accommodation and dive trips – but be sure to withdraw enough cash when you can for meals, market visits and other spontaneous activities.
Some of the larger island resorts do accept credit cards, otherwise you’ll find plenty of ATMs in Honiara (though note that there are none at the airport) along with a few in Gizo and Munda. As ever, try to swap your big bills at the larger establishments in town before setting out to the far-flung islands.
You’ll also find a handful of money changers at the airport and in the larger towns, though in my experience the rates weren’t great and the bills available were rather limited so I’d suggest reserving this option only for emergencies. Aussie Dollars are best for exchanging.
TOP TIP | Many ATMs in the Solomon Islands do charge a withdrawal fee. For Aussies, the ING Everyday Debit Card is great for travel as they refund all international ATM and transaction fees provided you fulfil a few straightforward requirements each month.
Banana boats and propellor planes will be your bread and butter of travel in the Solomon Islands.
Solomon Airlines offer a wide network of domestic routes that connect Honiara with key hubs in the outer islands. In fact, my flight from Honiara to Munda, tracing the verdant hills of Guadalcanal and the iridescent thread of fringing reef leading the way north, was one of my favourite experiences in the Solomon Islands.
Chances are, you’ll be starting your trip in much the same way before transferring to a boat.
This speck in the South Pacific plays host to just shy of a thousand islands – everything from hulking jungle-clad volcanoes to the teeny, patch-of-sand-sprouting-a-single-palm-tree variety. Out here, the ocean is the crucial lifeline that connects them all and the communities they support and the best and really only way to fully experience that is by zipping about on the water.
Thankfully, travelling within the lagoons generally means calm seas accompanied by spectacular views, but as you leave the protection of the outer reef things can get rather choppy. I’d suggest always having a dry bag on hand to protect your valuables, just in case (I use one like this!).
For most short distance boat trips and tours, your accommodation will be happy to help you organise your transportation.
Across longer distances, there’s a weekly ferry service that departs Honiara on Sunday morning bound for Gizo via Munda. The 2-day crossing can be rough but is a decent option for those on stricter budget and looking to avoid the costly internal flights. Visit the Honiara port for bookings.
TOP TIP | Flights are occassionally overbooked so be sure to confirm your tickets before hand and arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare to avoid missing out.
I know, I know, I just said that flight was a highlight, but these internal flights do also come at a considerable cost.
Thankfully for your wallet, it’s now possible to fly direct from Brisbane to Munda with Solomon Airlines which departs every Saturday morning, returning in the afternoon. You’ll still be able to enjoy the stunning aerial views as you descend over the reef, as well as saving yourself a couple of hours of waiting in airports and a few hundred dollars in the process.
Munda acts as an excellent base from which to explore and is just two hours by boat from Gizo for those looking to venture further across the western province.
These flights, however, are in high demand so be sure to book well in advance.
Underwater camera | With diving and snorkelling being the must-do activity in the archipelago, you’ll want a decent camera to capture all the underwater action. After kicking myself for not taking a suitable camera for my last few months in Asia, I wasn’t about to make the same mistake again. Now equipped with the Olympus TG-6, I was super impressed with the image quality, especially using the specialised underwater and macro settings which are excellent for photographing the small critters. It’s also waterproof up to 15m (so perfect for snorkelling) and has a large LCD screen so you can actually see what you’re doing. For those wanting to take it diving, the PT-059 Underwater Housing extends its depth capabilities to 45m and supports external flashes and lens accessories.
Light rain jacket | A rain jacket may not be the first thing that comes to mind for a beach holiday, but in the Solomons it’s an absolute essential! Despite being dry season, I had plenty of rain during my trip and while I often managed to find shelter, if you’re unlucky enough to be clambering about in the jungle or on an extended boat ride, a rain jacket will definitely come in handy. I love my Patagonia Torrentshell which is lightweight and packs down small when you’re not using it.
Reef safe sunscreen | If you’re here to see the reef, you wouldn’t want the chemicals in your sunscreen to destroy it. Honestly, I’m still trying to find a brand of sunscreen that I love, but these are a few that come recommended: Stream2Sea, Sun Bum Mineral, Tropical Sands and Blue Lizard. I was also very impressed that Dive Munda provides reef-safe sunscreen at their shop for all divers.
Antimalarials | Malaria is a risk throughout the Solomons so don’t forget to take your antimalarial medication. To be effective, most treatments need to begin a day or two before you arrive, be taken every day of your trip and continuously for a period following your return.
Sun protection | The sun way out here is blazing hot and you can definitely get horribly sunburnt, even if there’s a light layer of cloud and especially if you’re taking antimalarials like doxycycline. Along with your reef-safe sunscreen, a hat, polarised sunglasses and a long-sleeved shirt are essentials for any outing.
Reusable bottle and water purification | Generally, it’s not recommended to drink the tap water in the Solomon Islands, so to avoid churning unnecessarily through dozens of plastic bottles during your stay, be sure to plan ahead. Bring a reusable water bottle (I use Klean Kanteen) and a way to purify your water. I normally use a SteriPen, but for this trip stuck to water purification tablets.
A dry bag | Most boat trips are thankfully contained within the lagoon but if the wind picks up or you need to take a detour across the open ocean, expect to be hit by plenty of ocean spray. Add in a bout of rain or two and chances are you’re going to get a little wet. Always take a dry bag – like this one – with you just in case to avoid damaging your camera or smartphone.
Helpfully, the Solomon Islands grant access to 72 countries visa-free or with an entry permit upon arrival.
If you’re from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK, the United States and most countries in Europe, you’ll be able to enter with no fuss for up to 90 days.
A few nations from Asia, the Middle East, South America and the Carribean are also granted visa-free access.
The wet season runs from November to March with the rest of the year falling under the dry season, though weather can be temperamental at any time of year. In late August, for example, we received plenty of rainfall across the week.
Temperatures are deliciously hot and humid throughout the year, usually hovering around 30 degrees.
That said, many locals did also note that as climate change intensifies, the seasonal shifts have been increasingly unpredictable over the past few years. Basically, this is the tropics and wet weather can occur at any time so don’t forget to bring that rain jacket.
The peak tourist season is December and January coinciding with the major school holidays in Australia and New Zealand, followed by June and July when many in the southern hemisphere choose to escape winter in search of warmer climates.
Given their remote location in the middle of the ocean, it should come as no surprise that seafood is a staple of the Solomon Islander diet.
And they do it so. damn. well!
Fresh sashimi, lime and coconut cured reef fish, garlic buttered crayfish and honey barbecued squid are just a few dishes that will have your mouth watering.
While there are some larger scale fishing operations, in the outer islands it’s mostly local villagers who aim to catch only what is needed, selling it directly to the various island resorts or at the local market.
Most meals are accompanied by locally-sourced root vegetables, like sweet potato, taro or cassava, and a serve of tropical fruit, but if you’re a vegetarian or not a big seafood eater, be sure to communicate this with your accommodation before arrival so that they can accommodate you.
Now, all the fruit I ate in the Solomons was a big step up from what we get in Australia (special mention to the pineapple and papaya which were absolutely delicious) but the bananas were without a doubt the best I’ve ever tasted. They’re much smaller than your usual supermarket variety and are packed full of flavour.
Fun fact, the Solomon’s Makira Island grows almost 100 different species of banana, and if you’re really bananas… for bananas (sorry, I had to) they also hold a banana festival.
The Solomon Islands are not the place to come expecting oversized mega-resorts and extravagant luxury.
Instead they’ve put their very own spin on the all-inclusive ideal, focussing on small locally run establishments woven with a touch of adventure, cultural immersion and much-needed relaxation, and honestly, it’s one of the things that makes a trip here quite so special.
Here you’ll find charming beachside bungalows and simple cabins tucked up in the rainforest, all united by a focus on sustainability and a simply spectacular setting.
Oh, and the best part, you’ll likely have the place all to yourself!
Find out more more about where to stay in this guide to Solomon Islands accommodation.
So, I won’t beat around the bush – the wifi way out here in this remote corner of the Pacific ain’t great.
But instead of getting frustrated with a slow (or nonexistent) internet connection, it’s a far better idea to embrace this rare opportunity to disconnect altogether. Ignore the mounting email notifications, forget about updating your Instagram feed, order yourself another round of drinks and sink a little deeper into that blissful island life you’ve come in search of.
That said, if you do desperately need internet, you can find it at most big hotels in Honiara, however, even at the best spots, you’ll be limited to a kind of fast connection for about an hour or a painfully slow one for as long as you like. As you move toward the outer islands, some of the bigger resorts do offer internet, at least that’s what their websites say, but honestly, it’s barely fast enough to check and reply to emails so I wouldn’t recommend you rely on it for anything urgent.
You’ll most likely see the signs of betel nut before you see the fruit itself – the bright red smile of a friendly local, the hotel and shopfront flyers demanding ‘No Betel Nut’ and the rust-coloured splatters along the roadside.
Found in the fruit of the areca palm, a small green thing you’ll see piled up at any local market, chewing betel nut is a universal past time in the Solomon Islands, akin to a social beer or coffee in the western world, though with a bit more of a kick.
“World War ll was not our war. It was the war of two countries who came to fight on our land.”
It’s a desperately sad sentiment of a time that brought about irreparable change to the Solomon Islands where some of the war’s most brutal battles raged in the hopes of gaining control over this strategic outpost in the South Pacific.
Today, the souvenirs of conflict are scattered across the islands, both in the warm waters of the Solomon Sea and on land, including the numerous Japanese-built airstrips, many of which are still in use today. Beyond the battles, however, perhaps the most famous tale to emerge from this savage period, and one you’ll see recounted many times across the islands, is the rescue of John F Kennedy, before he became, well, just the President, helped by the heroic efforts of two local scouts.
Brutal as it was, this war was merely a few years sandwiched between centuries of change, from the days of trading and headhunting expeditions, to British colonisation and missionary infiltration, to their eventual independence and a period of violent civil unrest.
Despite it all, Solomon Islanders maintain a strong cultural identity, where some indigenous communities, like the Kwaio people on Malaita, still live largely separate from the modern world upholding their traditional practices and social structures. Elsewhere, other remote villages continue to live largely off the land, often trading goods for services.
In the face of sweeping modernisation, however, there’s a constant tug-of-war between innovation and tradition, the old-timers determined that the younger generations will not forget the old ways, and neither will its visitors.
Oh, island time.
Has there ever been a concept so widely embraced as the laidback, slow-paced, it’ll-happen-when-it-happens amble of island life.
It’s endearing, refreshing, and at times a wee bit frustrating, but mostly it’s a timely reminder for us city folk, so often consumed by the keeping of schedules and rushing about, to just chill out and slow the eff down.
In a world where looming deadlines, endless to-do lists and constant distractions fill our day-to-day, simply slowing down is a luxury we rarely afford ourselves these days, so seize the opportunity while you can.
Take your time, wander slowly, savour the moment.