By Doug Hansen
The Solomon Islands, a 992-island archipelago, sit northeast of Australia and about 6,100 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Most of the 550,000 citizens are Melanesians. Almost everyone speaks English, but among themselves they often speak Pidgin, a language devised in the 1800s by English-speaking traders to facilitate communication.
To reach the Solomon Islands my wife and I took Fiji Airways' 10-hour nonstop flight from LAX to Fiji; then, following a brief layover, we continued with a three-hour flight to the Solomon Islands' main island, Guadalcanal, famed for its World War II land, air and sea battles and now the home of the country's largest city and capital, Honiara.
The islands ooze with war stories and mementoes, beginning with Honiara International Airport, still called by its wartime name, Henderson Field, whose possession precipitated the bitterly fought Guadalcanal campaign and the deaths of more than 30,000 soldiers. Our guide explained that the waters by Honiara are so filled with warships and planes that it's called Iron Bottom Sound. Adm. Bull Halsey, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet during World War II, claimed, "The Solomon Island coast-watchers and scouts saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the war in the Pacific."
When we arrived in Honiara, we weren't quite prepared for the wave of heat and humidity that enveloped us or for Honiara's rough, litter-laden main road. Fortunately, once we left town on our 45-minute drive to the Vilu War Museum, the specialness of the Solomons became clear. At the museum we strolled through an extraordinary collection of war artifacts that included remnants of fighter planes, tanks, howitzers and anti-aircraft guns nestled incongruously among the flowering shrubs.
I was determined to explore some of the island's war wrecks, so on our way back to town we drove to a private beach with our first wreck — the 440-foot Kinugawa Maru (or "Bonegi 2"), which sank on Nov. 15, 1942, after being bombed by the Allies. The massive wreck proved to be a snorkeling wonderland, sheltering a profusion of colorful corals, sea fans and fish throughout the rusting skeleton.
Before returning to our hotel, we stopped at Lumatapopoho Village, where the betel-nut-chewing owner, his bare-breasted wife and daughter, and a gaggle of children in homemade loincloths demonstrated "the old ways" of making a fire by twirling a stick, making clothes from special tree bark, cooking over hot rocks and constructing a roof from palm fronds.
The next afternoon we boarded a small plane for the 50-minute flight to Munda, where we landed on another World War II runway. A five-minute walk to the only lodging in town led us through the placid but littered little town. That afternoon a cheerful local man showed up in his restored American Jeep and drove us to the Peter Joseph World War II Museum, with its extensive collection of war relics displayed in an open-air shed at the end of a dirt road built, not surprisingly, during the war. Rows of wood tables displayed piles of American and Japanese soldiers' combs, helmets, dog tags and assorted weapons.
The next day, we set out in a small motorboat to explore a distant location known for its huge plate corals, a Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter lying in 40 feet of water and another beached Japanese cargo ship. These proved to be fascinating sights, but the best part of the outing was yet to come.
A somber sky provided an appropriate setting for our visit to Skull Island, aptly named for its assorted skulls of chiefs and vanquished warriors. We waded to the small but sacred island, where we encountered a long, chest-high mound of jagged coral rocks interspersed with wood and rock niches sheltering dozens of weathered, sinister-looking skulls, some of which had telltale holes in the cranium the size and shape of an ax blade.
An easy 15-minute flight brought us to our final and favorite destination, a resort with the improbable name, Fatboys Resort. We were greeted with flower leis and a coconut drink as we disembarked at the resort's restaurant, majestically suspended above the water at the end of a 100-yard walkway.
The resort arranged for a remote island picnic and a JFK history tour that proved to be the highlight of our trip. We began with a 10-minute boat ride to Kennedy Island, where a monument detailed the story of Kennedy's island odyssey and eventual rescue. History came alive as our boat followed the route of JFK and his crew who swam from island to island for survival.
The warm, azure waters by Fatboys' beach offered such a bonanza of live coral and colorful fish that we made a point of snorkeling there at least twice a day. From our room's balcony we gazed at a vast expanse of tropical water so filled with a myriad of blue hues that my wife gasped, "This is my favorite hotel view ever."
I'm grateful that we had such a unique and memorable trip to the Solomons. Today the country primarily attracts scuba divers and World War II history buffs, but over time, as it develops better tourist infrastructure and a cleaner environment, the Solomon Islands will rival any other tropical paradise.
WHEN YOU GO
Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau: www.visitsolomons.com.sb
Fiji Airways: www.fijiairways.com
Domestic air services: Solomon Airlines, www.flysolomons.com
Valor Tours to Guadalcanal: www.valortours.com
Doug Hansen is a travel writer and photographer. See more photos and articles at www.hansentravel.org or Instagram @doug6636. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
A visitor at the Vilu War Museum in the Solomon Islands explores artifacts from World War II. Photo courtesy of Doug Hansen.