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Saturday, July 13, 2013

     Our arrival to Uepi Island couldn't be more dramatic. Earlier that morning, after setting out on a perfectly calm sea for a 2-hour boat journey from Tetepare Island to Uepi, the boat driver with many years of experience (for the reason we'll never understand) picked the wrong spot when entering the Marovo Lagoon and stopped the boat right on the edge of a coral reef.  While trying to put it on reverse, a huge breaking wave flooded our boat which slowly started to sink. The back half of the boat got almost completely submerged with all our luggage floating in salt water. Since we were incredibly lucky not to have more people in the boat with us, we managed to stabilize it by removing the water and moving most of the weight to the front half of the boat. Just twenty minutes after this accident we arrived to Uepi Island Resort completely wet and shaken with our bags and some of the equipment soaked in salt water, and we couldn't imagine warmer welcome from Jill and Grant, the owners of this unique and forgotten part of the world. After offering us a cup of warm tea (and insisting on putting all our electronics in a dry room), we sat in a dining room looking out at the lagoon, while Jill told  us everything we needed to know about our stay at the resort. The first thing that strikes you is the incredibly hard work they've done while trying to build this place in a complete harmony with the ocean eco-system as well as the local community of the Marovo Lagoon. The second thing you realize is that you're desperately in love with this place before you even check-in.

Resident reef sharks at the Welcome Jetty 

About Uepi Island Resort

     If the pristiness of an environment and underwater world could have a star rating, Uepi Island Resort would have to be a 5-star paradise above as well as below the water - the only 5 stars we've ever looked for:
  1. Unique location: Uepi Island is a small and intimate island hidden at the very edge of the largest salt-water lagoon in the world and falling into 2000 metres deep oceanic trench on the seaward side, covered with tropical rainforest and surrounded by breath-taking coral reef streaming with small fish as well as pelagic life.
  2. Food: wonderful selection of healthy fresh and organic food sourced from local villages 
  3. Underwater world: stunning underwater world that comes in the whole package: warm water, good visibility, healthy corals in pristine condition, incredible pelagic life (manta rays, dolphins, sharks, sharks and more sharks!), limitless snorkelling and freediving opportunities and dive sites covering any underwater experience you may wish for: wrecks, wall dives, drift dives, coral gardens, or macro.
  4. Hospitality and friendliness of the owners
  5. Strong environmental awareness and ever-present ecological emphasis     

     Uepi Island Resort is a small and intimate resort located on a barrier reef island on the edge of Marovo Lagoon, the longest salt-water lagoon in the world. Marovo Lagoon is surrounded by the island of New Georgia on the eastern side and the chain of barrier islands and coral reefs on the other. The unique location of the island offers you an ultimate tropical island experience: sandy beaches and protected waters of Marovo Lagoon on its southern side, breathtaking coral reef accessible just off the Welcome Jetty taking you along 50 metres deep wall within Charapoana Passage, and last but not least, there is the seaward edge of the island which drops into 2000 metres deep oceanic trench, and thus welcomes all sorts of pelagic life and offers endless scubadiving or freediving opportunities. Uepi Island is approximately 2.5 km long and up to 600 metres wide. The two-hour coconut crab walk can take you through the tropical rainforest around the island. There are no villages on the Uepi and the whole resort is self-sufficient growing its own tropical gardens and working closely with the local communities of the Marovo Lagoon.

Leaving the Uepi:
Marovo Lagoon on the left, Charapoana Passage on the right
     Staying at Uepi Island Resort is not cheap, and it shouldn't be. Due to its price tag, however, Uepi Island wasn't an obvious choice for us at first and we spent quite a long time comparing different resorts and village stays. After 2 weeks of travelling around Solomon Islands visiting villages and uninhabited islands, we decided to make an exception and reward ourselves with one of the best 3 nights in our lives. Due to their struggling economy and practically non-existing tourism, Solomon Islands are not a cheap destination and very rarely you actually get what you pay for. At the Uepi, however, where most of your money goes into the local community, you do get back every cent you pay. How many times have you stayed at a cheap hostel just to spend three times more money on a snorkelling trip that included more hours on a boat than in a water, disappointing reef, 10 metres visibility, a shocking lack of fish, and if you were lucky even a boat crew smoking on the boat or standing on the coral reef? And how many times have you imagined staying at a place where you would just swim out of a dining room and have a world-class coral reef right there included in your room price and available 24 hours a day? Where the proximity of an open ocean would also thrown into your package an incredibly rich marine life and the pelagic species such as resident reef sharks, whaler sharks, turtles, eagle rays, or even orkas occasionally (!), which move along Charapoana Passage, one of the few deep-water passages from the lagoon. And where (if that's still not enough for you) a pot of wild dolphins likes to come and say hi every afternoon...

Beneath the Welcome Jetty


Two 1-bedroom units at the Uepi Island Resort
     The resort offers six beach bungalows, two units and two guest rooms. Because the beach bungalows were slightly more expensive, we decided to stay in one of the two one-bedroom units which was perfectly sufficient and had everything we needed. In fact, after a few weeks of travelling around the Solomons, our room even felt a little bit too luxurious: the main room had a fridge, a kitchen sink, a kettle, complimentary tea, coffee and milk, free toiletries, a king size bed, a huge clothing/luggage storage space, a fan, drinking tap water, cold shower (because cold actually means pleasantly warm and you really do not need a hot one), and very generous 24-hour electricity. If you decide to stay in one of these dual units, try to book a slightly bigger and sunnier 8A unit. These units felt private, clean and comfortable, the beach was 20 metres away and the outdoor shaded decking area with the hammock and excellent views of the Marovo Lagoon made it absolutely perfect.
     The main dining area had a bar with wonderful views of the whole lagoon, library, and even a wifi spot. The resort meals were wonderful and as fresh as it gets. They were mostly based around local seafood and organically grown fruits and vegetables. Depending on your morning activities the breakfast was served between 7 - 9 am and always included fresh fruits, coconuts, cereals and a variety of hot breakfast options. The lunch was brought to our room around 12.30 pm and the dinner was served at a communal table offering a wonderful opportunity to talk to other guests. It always consisted of a vegetarian soup, a tasty selection of main meals and a dessert.
The view from our 1-bedroom unit (8A)

Snorkelling, Diving and Free-diving

     Underwater world is the reason to come to Uepi Island and the reason you'll probably be back very soon. Although we decided not to scuba-dive (being there only for 4 days), we believe you could easily spend ten days of just scuba diving - the variety of dive sites is simply remarkable. Due to its location on a small tropical island perched on the edge of the longest lagoon in the world and with its seaward side dropping into 2,000 metres, Uepi Island Resort offers unique opportunity to dive first-class sites that are only minutes away from the dive shop, or just a short boat trip away. Local dive sites include Uepi Point, Inside Point, Welcome Jetty, Dive Jetty, The Elbow, Elbow Caves, Divers Bay and other. Diving excursions offer custom sites at Charapoana Point, Deku Dekuru, Lumalihe Passage, General Store, Mongo Passage, etc., as well as numerous wreck dives at WWII ship wrecks. The rate is $73/dive, although optional dive trips may be subjected to other custom fees.

Freediving at the Welcome Jetty
Coral Gardens at the Elbow


     Having only 4 days, we decided to check-out the limitless opportunities for snorkelling, freediving and kayaking. The pristine house reef along the Charapoana Passage, dropping into 50 metres at the Welcome Jetty and 2000 metres at the Uepi Point, was one of the best snorkelling spots we've ever seen. It's right there and its for free. At the Welcome Jetty or Dive Jetty we simply fell off the edge of the island 3 or 4 times a day, where all sorts of marine life including countless black tip, white tip and grey reef sharks patrol the wall and kept us peering into the deep. During the incoming tide, when the water moves into the Marovo Lagoon and the visibility is at its best, you can take the boat to the Uepi Point and experience a wonderful drift snorkel back to the dive shop, or even all the way around the island, into the lagoon and towards the beach right in front of your bungalow. Whether you want to dive or snorkel, the Elbow (an outside corner of the Uepi Island) and the Divers Bay area are a short boat trip from the dive jetty and also offer stunning world-class coral gardens. Last but not least, an absolute must-do trip is an early morning snorkelling trip to look for the Manta Rays around the cleaning station area 10 minutes boat ride away. Check out our video and photos, and read more about our swim with manta rays here...


Other Activities

Coconut Crab Walk
     Other activities around the Uepi Island include sea kayaking, fishing, jungle trails and various cultural activities including the opportunity to visit local villages where Marovo people will introduce you into their traditional everyday life. The Solomon Islanders follow Melanesian clan system with strong bonds to their clan and a village leader. The communal support of people belonging into the same language and family group is very strong and you'll witness many dimensions of this complex cultural pattern in their everyday life. Although most of the population was successfully converted by Christian missionaries who settled in the Solomons under the British protectorate, traditional villages are still under heavy influence of their local kastoms (traditional beliefs). The heritage of animistic religion, history of headhunting and cannibalism, the cult of sharks, lizards and salt-water crocodiles, they all have survived vividly in the collective memory of the Solomon people. Their strong connection to the ocean is deeply embedded in their culture whether it’s their belief in a salt water crocodile or a shark as their ancestors, or simply in the ocean as the ultimate source of life, food and protection.

How To Get There

The main point of entry into the country is Honiara International Airport located 10 km out of the town. 
  1. Solomon Airlines provides international connections to Brisbane (Australia), Nadi (Fiji) and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea)
  2. Virgin Australia provides international connection to Brisbane (Australia)
  3. Fiji Airways provides international connections to Nadi (Fiji) and Port Vila (Vanuatu)
  4. Air Niugini provides international connections to Nadi (Fiji) and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea)
  5. Air Vanuatu provides international connection to Port Vila (Vanuatu)

      Solomon Airlines provide domestic flights to over 20 airports throughout the Solomon Islands. Domestic flights are operated by small unpressurized De Havilland Twin Otters and Brit Norman Islander aircrafts which fly at low altitude and offer great views of the islands. Although according to their website restrictive baggage limits should apply (check-in baggage allowance is 15kg and cabin 5kg) we never encountered any problems or additional fees and with our diving and camera gear we were way over these limits. Although not very cheap, the whole flying experience was much quicker and felt safer and more pleasant than the boat or ferry transfer. The main gateway to the Marovo lagoon area and the closest airport on your way to the Uepi Island is Seghe airstrip. Flying from Honiara to Seghe takes about 40 minutes and the return flight will cost you about AUD $350. From there, Uepi Island Resort will pick you up for a 20 minutes (12 km) journey in a traditional motor boat, usually a very calm and pleasant boat ride across the Marovo Lagoon.

     Whatever your reason to visit the Solomon Islands is, adding a few nights at the Uepi Island into your itinerary will almost certainly be one of the highlights of your holiday. If you also visit the Tetepare Island for an ultimate wilderness escape and add a village stay in Malaita Province, your experience of the Solomon Islands will be perfectly complete. 


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