Smiles And Serenity
26 October 2014
More than just sand and sea, the Solomon Islands offer the sort of authentic escape that's not easily fond these days, writes Tatyana Leonov.
It’s just a small accident,” chuckles the skipper, his smile widening to reveal gleaming white teeth. The rest of the locals on board join in laughing as the boat thumps into the wharf again. Soon the tourists are smiling, too. Smiles here are contagious.
Although listed by the International Monetary Fund as a developing economy, the Solomon Islands is a country where many modern notions are yet to catch on.
Life here is lived in much the same manner as it was 200 years ago, and 200 years before that. What matters is enjoying it to the fullest. Days are spent fishing and foraging in the jungle, and nights sharing food and laughter alongside family and friends in traditional wooden huts.
On arrival in Honiara, the capital and first port of call for most visitors, I’m immediately met with smiles. Even the customs officers have beautiful wide grins. Although there’s plenty to see in the capital, particularly for those interested in World War II history, my plan is to go somewhere I can immerse myself in the natural world.
It’s not hard to find this type of sanctuary in the Solomon Islands; indeed, it’s almost everywhere. A lot of the time, hotel rooms really are just places to sleep. In some, hot water is only intermittently available, most have noisy ceiling fans, and Wi-Fi is a rarity.
The real attractions are all outside the rooms. In Gizo (the capital of the Western Province, reachable via a domestic flight from Honiara), I spend my days strolling through the perpetually busy seaside markets, where betel nut- chewing vendors barter and joke.
One day, I go exploring with tourism operator Dive Gizo, which specialises in both above- and below-water activities (its village tours are a highlight).
In a four-wheel-drive, we traverse the island’s bumpy roads, passing through communities where giggling, naked children run among the trees and adults bashfully smile, revealing teeth stained bright red from chewing betel nuts. (Interestingly, red teeth are considered beautiful in the Solomon Islands, and although the government discourages chewing betel nuts – its long-term side effects can include oral cancers and dependence – it is part of the culture and many locals are proud of their red-tinged smiles.)
Underwater there’s a whole other world. Danny and Kerrie of Dive Gizo purchased the nearby Njari Island in 2002, simply because it was beautiful. In 2004, an ecological assessment recorded that the waters around Njari are home to 279 different species of fish – the only higher fish count in the world is in Raja Ampat, Indonesia.
The fish come in all sorts of vibrant colours and patterns. They dart in between my legs, whiz above and below, and loop around me, as if playing a game. Back on the boat, I can’t stop gushing about them. Although Danny and Kerry have heard it before, their eyes still light up as they listen.
Next, I head by boat to Oravae Cottage, on its own tiny, tranquil island. There I find two beach huts, perched on the water overlooking the lapping waves and offering the sort of serenity that is hard to find in this day and age. You can get dropped off with cooking supplies or you can have the charming owners of the island, Patson and Naomi, prepare dinner for you.
Sitting and chatting with the duo overlooking the turquoise sea, content after a wonderful meal of freshly caught tuna and crisp-fried cassava, I lose track of time. That’s become a habit; a good one. Eventually, when the sun starts to set, casting an elongated shadow over the water, I set off to another resort.
The amusingly named Fatboys is located on the large and beautiful Mbabanga Island. At the nearby village, I play with gleeful children, gather seashells and watch long-limbed teenage boys titter as they catch fish. Like many other businesses in the Solomons, Fatboys works with the local community, and the boys’ catch is dinner for resort guests that night.
The next day, after a breakfast of soft- poached eggs and fresh papaya, I’m off on a day excursion. We bypass Kennedy Island, where John F. Kennedy swam ashore when his boat was hit during World War II, and stop at Olasana Island for a traditional Melanesian lunch.
Two jovial women skilfully prepare reef fish, caught that morning, using hot stones placed atop a blazing fire to barbecue the fillets. The women laugh and natter as they casually squat next to the fire, rotating the fish. After some probing, they begin to chat. They have never heard of McDonald’s, they don’t know what a muesli bar is, they are aware that some people use computers. I’m simultaneously flabbergasted and awed. The biggest revelation is their authentic happiness. These women are truly blissful because they have a roof over their heads and food to eat.
As we stare at the ocean, eating fresh, succulent fish with our bare hands from baskets made of bamboo, I get it. It’s as simple as this.
Solomon Airlines (flysolomons.com) has direct flights from Brisbane to Honiara.
Where to stay
In Honiara, the Heritage Park Hotel (www.heritageparkhotel.com.sb) is one of the best in the country. In the Western Province, Oravae Cottage (oravaecottage.com) is about 20 minutes by boat from Gizo, and 10 minutes from Fatboys (solomonislandsfatboys.com.au).
What to do
Visit the tourist centre in Honiara; book a tour with Dive Gizo (divegizo.com).
What to wear
Swimmers, shorts, thongs, and a smile.
What to eat
Fresh fish; fruit juices and smoothies.
Mother-of-pearl earrings or carvings.