News: Tour remote Pacific Islands

Posted: 16 May 2017

When I asked in the office for a volunteer to visit the South Pacific, I expected a sudden raise of hands. Perhaps put off by the 30 hour plus flight, I became the only 'volunteer'.

Given the interest we've received in our truly unique Pacific Explorer tour I knew a trip was essential. Although I have previously visited the region, and met with experienced suppliers at various trade events, there's nothing like gaining a bit more first-hand knowledge. So I designed an itinerary that would take me through Brisbane, Australia to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Samoa.

I had read in the guidebook that exploring the Solomons is like the Pacific used to be. It's not a destination where you'll find swanky 5 star resorts. These islands are laid back, welcoming and surprisingly untouched. In short almost the perfect ‘undiscovered destination’. From World War II relics scattered in the jungle to leaf-hut villages where traditional culture is still alive, there's a lot on offer. So much so I'm already thinking of setting up a tour focused on the Solomons, plus one or two other island nations, which will be in addition to our wider Pacific Explorer option already available.

It has to be said the thing that initially struck me the most was how undeveloped the country is. Probably on par with some of the poorer African nations I've visited over the years. But experience has taught me that what truly matters to travellers is not a country's level of wealth. In fact I'm just typing this blog whilst passing through Dubai on my way home. And there's probably no greater contrast than the bling and over-the-top excesses of Dubai and the down to earth rawness of the Solomons.

My first stop and very much the country's gateway is Honiara. The guidebook rather cautiously tried to manage expectations by describing the capital as 'it's rarely love at first sight'. But in fact I liked the place. Not to be missed sights include the US War Memorial, where you can learn about the famous WWII Battle for Gaualcanal between the Americans and Japanese. I later visited the country's new parliament building paid for by the US and I guess as a token of more peaceful relations, designed by the Japanese. Throughout my time in the Solomons it became apparent what an important role the country played during the war. And today the various battle sights, including some superb diving opportunities, contribute to the country's fledgling tourism sector.

“If you're going to come all this way, then we've got to get you to the outer islands” UD's local partner explained to me. So the next day I boarded a flight to Munda in the Western Province. Although not an area featured on our forthcoming group tour, it's always good to do some research. From Munda it was a 30 minute ride by speedboat over to Lola Island, where my home for the night was the Zipolo Habu Resort, run by Joe, a former American peace corp and his wife. Again, good to do the research, but I must admit I came away thinking the place could be a little too rustic for some of our travellers, certainly for a stay of more than a couple of nights. Anyway Joe does a good job in promoting the province and runs various tours which can be arranged locally. I opted for the Skull Island excursion, the final resting place for the skulls of countless vanquished warriors. From Munda I took what was probably my most laid back flight ever, and returned to Honiara. When I say laid back, the airport's terminal building was one room. I was assured that no boarding card was necessary. “'Just get on the plane” said the Solomon Airlines rep. Without any security screening whatsoever, I simply got on the aging Dash-8 and found myself a window seat. Presumably there's no security, because there's no threat that suggests it's necessary. How refreshing in these days of hostilities that there are countries like the Solomons simply minding their own business and without any apparent enemies.

Peace and happiness is simply contagious when travelling in the Pacific. I have never experienced a region quite like it. Smiles everywhere. “How are you?” I'm being asked constantly. It's just lovely the way women like to wear a flower in the hair. And on the number plates of cars it says 'Solomon Islands - the happi isles'. And 'happi' being spelt in Pijin English. Oh, and about the language. Isn't it great that in Pijin they describe planes as 'flying canoes' because there's no word for plane or any of those other modern contraptions. There's really nothing to dislike about the Pacific, where the welcome is so warm, and so utterly genuine.

Next stop Vanuatu, perhaps a notch up in terms of development, but still blissfully undiscovered in the main. Heeding the advice of our local partner, after a short stay in the capital Port Vila I took a domestic flight over to the island of Tanna. If you only visit one island outside of Efate (the main island), then make it Tanna. It's an extraordinary place with the world's most accessible active volcano, Mt Yasur. I joined an evening tour and after a tough two hour journey across the island we reached the base of the volcano. And with some skilful driving, the 4WD vehicle proceeded to almost the summit. After a 10 minute, albeit strenuous walk, I was at the top looking down into the crater. At first all was relatively calm until the ground literally trembled and the inevitable fountain of fiery magna shot up with a deafening roar and spread against the sky. It's a captivating show; nature's most spectacular fireworks display. At times it felt terrifying, with only a yellow raincoat and safety specs to protect admirers from the clouds of ash. And quite noticeable is the lack of any barriers or railings, so visitors need to follow the strict rules issued by the guides. But an experience like no other and one not to be missed.

My last stop on my travels through the Pacific was the tiny nation of Samoa, not to be confused with neighbouring American Samoa. Other than the fact I know they like rugby, I wasn't sure what to expect of the country and one which is about as far away from the UK as you can get (you're talking a 6 hour flight from Australia). Another warm greeting and I was soon on a city tour of the capital Apia. The standout sight is undoubtedly the former residence of Robert Louis Stevenson, and his enchanting estate. Now an excellent museum I was guided through several rooms and in one I was shown the original copy of two of his most famous works, Treasure Island, and Jekyll and Hyde. The tour finished off with the young guide reciting a beautiful poem written by Stevenson. The words I can't quite remember, but it seemed such a fitting end to my trip.

I return home with some of the fondest memories I've taken away from any trip in my last 30 plus years of exploring the world. When you ask a tour company about a country, often you will be told that the people are friendly. And I believe that is true the world over. But in the Pacific it's on a different level. The countries are small and little known to travellers from further afield. But without fail they are proud people, where a traditional way of life continues, untouched by the modern world. Families are at the heart of everything that happens, and village chiefs and their customary powers are respected, alongside modern legislation.

When I arrived in Samoa my driver took great delight in pointing out a newly installed set of traffic lights. I assume a new addition to traffic management in the country. He was keen for me to know about the local buses, brightly coloured and with wooden seats. He said that when the bus is busy it is perfectly acceptable to sit on the lap of a passenger already seated, even if they are a complete stranger. I came away with this lasting memory of how the people of the Pacific are at one with each other. A short trip, but what a privilege to have been. My colleagues back in the office really don't know what they've missed.

Read more about our Pacific Islands Holiday

Jim Louth.

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