The Uepi Island Resort
Flight to Seghe, over Marovo Lagoon
Uepi Island Resort: http://www.uepi.com/
To book a trip to Uepi Island Resort, contact Jenny at Reef & Rainforest.
Uepi Island is located on Marovo Lagoon, which is reputedly the longest lagoon in the world. The island itself is a barrier reef island covered by rainforest, and is about 2.5km long and 600m wide. Aside from the resort and a few sandy paths snaking around, the island is undeveloped and is as remote a place as you're likely to find.
Bungalow #1, at Uepi Island Resort
The resort features six standalone bungalows, two "dual unit" bungalows, and two guestrooms. All bungalows and units are spacious, featuring full bathrooms, kitchen areas, screened windows, 24-hour electricity, and shaded decks with hammocks and patio furniture. There is no hot water, but the given the temperature of a typical day in the Solomons, it is probably not necessary. Each of the bungalows has plenty of space around it, which can mean quite a walk if you happen to be placed in one far away from the central lodge. Being far away means you get plenty of privacy, but if you are visiting Uepi as a diver or underwater photographer, the walk can be a bit of a hassle.
Like all very remote locations, getting to Uepi can be an adventure in itself. Visitors must fly to Seghe from Honiara, and then take a small, powered canoe approximately 12km across the lagoon. The Seghe airstrip is small and grassy, with no where to sit when you arrive. However, Uepi Resort is building their own building there, so this may change in the near future. The "canoe" ride is wet, with no shade, so you should pack trashbags for your bags and bring a waterproof jacket, hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Uepi Resort does have a covered boat, and if you're lucky, you might be able to convince them to use it to bring you back to the airport when you leave.
View of Marovo lagoon from my bungalow
The resort is centered around an open-air lodge, where sit-down dinners every night make you feel like you're part of the family. Owners Grant and Jill (and often, their sons) are always around if you need anything, and it is a pleasure to be able to sit around chatting with them about their 20 years in the Solomon Islands while staring at shark fins cutting small Vs across the shallow reef. The place really does feel homey -- which can be a mixed blessing, depending on your temperament. I found that if you ask for anything, it is taken care of, but no one will figure out your needs for you. As an underwater photographer with lots of gear, this made diving the local waters harder than it could have been.
Uepi features many island activities including snorkeling, swimming, canoeing + kayaking expeditions, picnics, fishing, guided walks, scuba diving, and various cultural activities. Because I went to the resort as an underwater photographer, I'll focus the rest of this report on the scuba diving around the island.
Scuba Diving at Uepi Island Resort
Large brain coral at Deku Dekuru
The dive sites around Uepi Island Resort are excellent. The seaward edge of the island drops off to 2000m in depth, which makes the marine life in local waters unpredictable. In fact, Jill told us about a dive where she took a student down to Uepi Point and a juvenile orca swam up for a look! Speaking of Uepi Point, it was my favorite dive in the area. It juts out underwater on the close side of Charapoana Passage, one of the few deep-water passages into Marovo Lagoon. As soon as we dropped on top of the point for the first time, a squadron of reef sharks swam by to investigate us as we descended to about 90'. From their behavior it was immediately clear that these sharks are fed regularly, and in further conversations with Jill I noted that she speaks about the local reef shark gang with something like motherly love. Anway, back to Uepi Point: a typical dive involves descending down to between 90-100' and waiting in the current at the point to see if large pelagics swim by. After 15 minutes or so, divers work their way back up the point and either drift along the wall back to the dive shop's pier, or enter a protected, shallow sandy area to hang out with schools of fish and fields of garden eels.
A black-tip shark swims in shallow water
Another one of my favorite dive sites is a site called Deku Dekuru, which features dramatic cuts into the island with views of trees through the shallow surface and colorful hard coral gardens in two feet of water. Uepi Island offers trips to many sites I enjoyed a lot. I can't say that the sites are necessarily "better" than sites dived by the Bilikiki, but I have always liked good house reefs because you can go back to the same spot as many times as you'd like.
Grant and Jill also offer a shark feed, and have been feeding the local sharks for many, many years. The feed takes place off of the "Welcome Jetty," which is so named because it's where you are welcomed when you arrive at the resort. It's an informal feed: divers and snorkelers hang out on the rocks below the pier, and Grant, Jill, and sons chuck fish bits off of the jetty. Small reef sharks arrive at the scene immediately and make quite a scene, hitting the bait so hard that they sometimes throw their bodies right out of the water. There were probably thirty small black-tip and white-tip reef sharks participating in the feed. Directly behind the wall is a shallow hard coral garden, and if you manage to time the feed with late-afternoon sunlight, the light rays will dance around spectacularly while sharks swim in literally inches of water. If you find yourself bored with feeding sharks, you will find that the boulders are full of various nudibranch species. Those moments are still extremely sharp in my memory.
Garden eel in the shallows by Uepi Point
The hours between diving can be spent soaking up the remoteness of the island by relaxing alone, or by participating in various land excursions that are simply a request away.
Grant and Jill are also actively involved in conservation in their local reefs. For example, while I was there they had on hand a bunch of seahorses that were purchased from local villages to prevent their sale to Chinese fishing vessels (in traditional Chinese medicine, dried seahorses are believe to be an aphrodisiac and a cure for impotence). They constructed a pen in the seagrass just in front of the resort, where they were to be kept until they could decide what to do with them. Grant told me that has been an increase in commercial fishing activity in local waters, and one of the local village chiefs reported that whereas they used to just go out and fish for tuna, they now buy it in a can. So visit now -- the waters around the Solomon Islands still have a pristine feel to them, but sooner or later I'm sure commercial fishing will take its toll.
To enjoy Uepi Island Resort, you have to have the right expectations. I have to be honest here: the island resort is run like it is a place for backpackers to hang out, and the pricing model for excursions and diving is even organized in the same sort of a la carte manner. The dive shop is staffed, but dive guides aren't very enthusiastic and don't go out of their way to offer help in the same way a full-service resort might give you. And dive facilities are meager: the boats aren't kept in very good condition (I was afraid to put my camera down because there was an oily film on the bottom of one of the boats), rinse buckets for gear aren't available unless you ask for them, and there is nowhere to store and maintain camera gear except your own bungalow, which can be a long hike away from the dive shop. Be careful when you board boats and use ladders on the various jetties. During my few days there, one of the ladders broke (causing bruising on the guy who climbed up it), and I slipped on the surface of the metal boat and narrowly avoided serious injury. It's also difficult to do more than a few dives a day. You might be able to get three in, if you worked them out with Grant and Jill before-hand, and it was unclear to me whether grabbing a tank and doing a shore dive would count as a full-price boat dive. If you plan on doing a lot of diving while you are at Uepi Island, be sure to clarify these things before you go.
The employees put on quite a show!
Having said all of that, nearly everyone I spoke to at the resort was having a great time. People go to Uepi to get away from everything, and I can't imagine a place where I'd feel more isolated from the daily grind of normal life. Grant and Jill welcome visitors as honorary family members, and the local diving is very good. I often wonder why the dive facilities at Uepi aren't renovated to support divers who need more comfort, unfortunately including underwater photographers and their need for camera facilities. I can only speculate that the existing support draws the kind of people Grant and Jill enjoy hosting. After all, living out in the middle of the Solomon Islands is a lifestyle decision, and there is no reason to ruin that lifestyle by attracting the wrong sorts of people. If you're looking for an escape unlike any other you're likely to find, Uepi Island Resort is well worth a visit.
To book a trip to Uepi Island Resort, contact Jenny at Reef & Rainforest.
Images from Uepi Island ResortImages from Eric's Uepi Island Resort trip can be found linked from his personal website (scroll down to the bottom of the page).