Most visitors soon head for the Western Province, a cluster of islands bordering Papua New Guinea, where the waters teem with marine life, a mecca for surfers and snorkellers.
Solomon Airlines, the national carrier, operates a small fleet of prop-driven aircraft on its domestic island-hopping routes, complemented by sea-going passenger ferries and the occasional inter-island steamship operating on ‘island time’. The ninety-minute Twin Otter flight – the co-pilot doubles as cabin crew – from Honiara to Gizo proved stunningly scenic, passing over emerald islands fringed with golden sand and scattered across turquoise waters.
Ghizo Island is so compact that its airstrip has been carved out of an islet across the bay from the one-street town of Gizo (yes, a different spelling).
My accommodation at Phoebe’s Resthouse commanded sweeping views over the islands and the reef beyond. Mbabanga, the most prominent island in view from Phoebe’s, hosts the Sanbis and Fatboys resorts and off to one side is the islet to which the US navy lieutenant – and future president – John F. Kennedy famously swam in 1943 after his patrol boat sank. Beyond looms the smouldering volcanic cone of Kolombangara.
Kennedy’s PT-109 lives on in the name of one of the town’s two most lively bar/restaurants, patronised by a motley, multiracial crew which includes a floating population of British medical students, volunteering in the district hospital.
Ghizo’s roads are badly potholed, although visiting surfers willingly tramp out to the western beaches. Apart from some charmingly tumbledown trade stores, Gizo town’s redeeming feature is its foreshore.
The waterfront market teemed with fresh-caught coral fish, red emperor and robust silvery skipjack tuna; in mid-afternoon the day’s catch joined fresh-picked papaya and sticky-sweet pineapple, fat hands of pudgy-fingered bananas, ‘bush limes’ – squeezed to make a refreshing drink – neat little mounds of peanuts, knobbly purple sweet potatoes and clumps of perfectly-formed spring onion and lettuce, organically grown.
Brian, a young university-educated Solomon Islander, had arrived to take up a position as public solicitor (legal aid lawyer) and was boarding at Phoebe’s. One night he and his Australian wife invited me to share a home-cooked, Melanesian-style bouillabaisse of fresh-caught clam, simmered with unripe papaya, then strained and mixed with fresh-pressed coconut milk and served with steamed sweet potato and spring onion. The clam meat remained rather firm but a very tasty dish, nonetheless.
Australians David and Chelsea Calton manage the small, funky Fatboys Resort, a short boat ride from Gizo and the nearest thing to pure hedonism in these parts. By Sunday afternoon the party moved across to Kennedy Island, an idyll JFK may not have fully appreciated. More images of Ghizo.