As we cross the vast Morovo lagoon, small islands surround us, all overflowing with dense greenery, each with no apparent sign of life or a point of entry.
Then suddenly, in a gap between two islands, a small jetty comes into view, jutting out of the thick mangroves, with a tiny figure standing on it, waving to us.
This is Jill Kelly, here to welcome us to her island: Uepi Island, a little gem in the Western Provinces of the Solomon Islands.
Jill and her husband Grant first acquired Uepi back in the 1980s. They built this resort themselves, with help from local villagers using timber and other materials found locally (most from the island itself).
Since opening the resort they continue to employ local villagers and give back generously to the local community, assisting with materials for schools, funding for education and medical care. While it’s not a Not-for-Profit operation, most of the proceeds from the resort go back to the local community.
This generosity has enabled them to negotiate successfully with nearby village chiefs to create a marine reserve around the island, a no-take zone that acts as a nursery for the lagoon, ensuring the nearby waters are well stocked with fish.
Son Jason Kelly has continued his parents’ altruistic business methods, opening a sustainable timber company at the far end of the island, educating and encouraging locals to manage their resources carefully and not stripping the forests bare.
Having been here now for over 30 years, negotiating with the local community honestly and fairly, has earned the Kellys a great deal of (well deserved) respect, both from the locals and everyone who visits this place.
Getting here was a little adventure in itself, a short flight from the Solomon Islands international gateway, Honiara. There are about 18 of us squeezed into this small aircraft as the pilot clambers over the carry on bags blocking the aisle, tells us to put our seatbelts on, points to the exits and climbs into the cockpit.
The plane takes us to Seghi Airport, a little strip of grass on one of the western islands, and wander through arrivals (same patch of grass) past the bright blue freshly panted hut that serves as departure lounge, to the taxi bay, a jetty, where our little speedboat taxi awaits to whizz us across the lagoon.
As we arrive at Uepi Island we’re met by a group of snorkelers who make their way to the jetty as we step up, all brandishing enormous grins. This is where the fun begins.
Uepi is of course a dive resort, surrounded by beautiful coral reefs, but you don’t need to be a scuba diver to appreciate it. Grab a snorkel, jump in the water by the jetty and you’re greeted by a wall of coral populated by schools of colourful fish and gorgeous reef sharks, cruising by so closely you could reach out and touch them (but don’t).
A snorkel on the lagoon side of the island will introduce you to the resident turtles, a few tiny clown fish and if you’re lucky, a banded sea snake.
We’re here to dive of course, but because there are also plenty of other activities on the island, Uepi is great choice for teenage families. We can explore the coral reefs that surround the island safe in the knowledge that the non-divers won’t have the opportunity to be bored.
The diving is spectacular, long walls of coral that plummet to unimaginable depths, busy with schools of brightly coloured fusiliers, snapper, trigger and damsels, flashing all colours of the rainbow.
For non-divers and non diving days, the is a volleyball court and a games room in the Main House, stocked with board games, fish ID directories and plenty of videos for rainy days.
On the lagoon-side: catamarans, stand up paddleboards and kayaks, and there’s virtually no current so it’s an effortless paddle whichever vessel you choose, but I recommend trying a stand up paddle – you get a better view standing on the board which makes it easier to spot turtles.
There is also an hour-long walking trail to explore on the island and the resort also offers a few day trips to nearby islands and villages so it’s worth exploring those options as well for a bit of cultural immersion.
At least once a week the resort staff put on a wonderful performance with ingenious instruments made from discarded plastic pipes, and during your stay you are treated to three square meals a day, with lunch and dinner served buffet style and lunch delivered to your room.
The resort has ten guest bungalows of various sizes and configurations, and the Main House which houses the restaurant, bar and relaxation areas. The Main House and half the bungalows are on the water’s edge facing the lagoon, which supplies a cooling breeze for most of the day and evening.