Blue lagoons, rain forests, coral reefs, friendly locals — Fiji is pretty close to paradise
CASTAWAY ISLAND, FIJI — The foot-long flying fish came straight at us, backflipping through the jade lagoon. Surely, we thought, it would turn. But no — at the last moment the fish launched itself, hurtling past my shoulder, arcing over our small motorboat and landing on the other side in a perfect electric-green splash.
My friend Joyce and I looked at each other, wide-eyed.
It was another Fiji moment.
This South Pacific island chain just might be the closest to paradise I’ll ever get, unless I catch St. Peter napping at the pearly gates. Normally I’m not one to take exotic vacations, but last fall a friend and I decided to splurge a little by heading to the South Seas for two blissed-out weeks.
This is what we found: blue lagoons and balmy breezes, coconut trees and sugarcane fields, lush rain forests and white sandy beaches, nautilus shells and perfect white orchids, unspoiled coral reefs teeming with impossibly vivid tropical fish, good food, great weather and, everywhere, hearty greetings of “bula!” from passersby on the street. The people, especially, were amazing.
Fiji is a chain of more than 300 islands about 1,600 miles east of Australia. From the U.S. gateway of Los Angeles, it’s a 10-hour direct flight to Nadi Airport on Fiji’s main island.
We chose Fiji for several reasons. The place is drop-dead gorgeous. Despite that, it hasn’t been overrun with tourists (Hawaii, by contrast, gets 20 times more visitors). They speak English everywhere here (a former British colony, Fiji became a parliamentary democracy in 1970). And it’s a different experience from the usual getaway to Mexico or the Caribbean.
But most importantly, the price was a bargain for this part of the world. Fiji’s national airline, Air Pacific, is offering a fare of $878 for an eight-day stay, including round-trip air from Los Angeles on a 747 and lodging in a beachfront hotel.
We decided to divide our trip into three parts: exploring the main island of Viti Levu; kicking back at the water sports mecca of Castaway Island; and taking a four-day Blue Lagoon cruise to the northern Yasawa Islands. Each was worthy of a full vacation by itself.
The big island
By day four of our stay at the Regent of Fiji on the main island’s west side, we had mastered the art of beach-flopping. It was another sun-splashed, wind-kissed 80-degree day, but we decided it was time to do some exploring beyond the palm tree fronds of our oceanside resort.
So it was on to Namuamua.
We took a tour bus down Queens Road (they drive on the left side of the road here), stopping to pick up guests at the other hotels along the Coral Coast. We headed east, past stubby rows of sugarcane, tufts of smoke rising from burning stubble; past rolling green hills and stands of emerald pine trees, past villagers walking cows and schoolgirls in plaid skirts on their way to school.
Nearly three hours later we arrived at the small rice town of Navua. A dozen of us transfered to three skiffs that took us up the Navua River. We passed women washing clothes on the riverbank and a diver hunting trout with a huge pronged spear worthy of King Neptune. Ninety minutes later we were deep inside the Namosi rain forest, the rapids growing whiter, strings of waterfalls flashing down hillsides, the banks thick with ancient-looking ferns and mangroves and steamy hardwood trees.
We docked at Namuamua, a village of 220 people. We took off our hats and sandals as we entered the ceremonial bure, a traditional thatched-roof dwelling with an A-shaped roof. Many people in Fiji’s smaller villages still live in the hutlike bures, though most of the country’s 750,000 inhabitants now live in concrete or wood-frame buildings.
The village chief — a big man with gray hair and a gap-toothed smile named Iowane Naqamu — greeted each of us with a bear hug.
“Where are you from?” the chief asked me. “Ah, California! Bula, America!”
(Here, as everywhere on this trip, we were a decided minority. Fiji is an international crossroads, with many visitors from Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Germany and Denmark.)
Inside the bure, we were treated to a kava ceremony, with a half-dozen Fijian men wearing grasslike costumes made from tapa and croton leaves, their faces smudged with black.
Fijians wolf down kava like we drink coffee, so Joyce and I drank the muddy gray liquid from the half-shell of a coconut. Kava, made from the crushed root of the pepper plant, is nonalcoholic, but it numbed our lips and tasted like bitter dishwater. I had seconds anyway.
After a quick tour of the village, we were treated to a hand-eaten communal meal. The food was wonderful: chicken curry, sweet potatoes, tuna sandwiches, bananas, rourou (a spinach-like dish made of taro leaves and drenched in coconut milk) and breadfruit, a starchy white fruit that tasted like baked dough.
While we munched, four village men strummed guitars and ukeleles, children danced and a dozen women sang folkloric songs with rich, strong voices worthy of a worldbeat CD.
Then it was market time — and here is why they put up with strangers poking around their village three times a week. The locals set out displays of their wares: coral necklaces and shark-tooth bracelets, tapa cloth wall hangings and tribal masks carved from vesi wood. I felt guilty from snapping so many photos, so after some token bartering I bought a war club for $7 and a linen tablecloth for $15.
Finally, we were whisked back into the bure for a closing meke, a performance of rhythmic dances and songs of tribal lore. Joyce managed to turn invisible, but three times I was pulled onto the pandanu-woven floor mat by village women in elaborately woven sarong-like sulus who led me through a barefoot dance (four steps forward, three steps back) that I can liken only to a Cajun stomp.
We said our goodbyes and parted reluctantly for our trip downriver.
Next day, we slowed things down by visiting the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, a botanical garden of 25,000 species of flowers just north of Nadi that originally belonged to actor Raymond Burr. The grounds were ablaze with pink ginger and red parrots beak, sweet-scented cattleya orchids and buttery dancing ballerinas.
The rest of our stay on the main island whirred by: an afternoon in Lautoka, a bustling city on the island’s northwest shoulder that’s largely Indian in heritage; a fire-walking ceremony performed by 12 tough-soled villagers from Yanuca Island; and an afternoon in Nadi’s town square, where we met a gregarious 16-year-old named Waisake who split a coconut, shared it with us and told us of his dream to move to the States someday.
We never made it to Suva, the capital on the island’s rainy east side, or to Beqa Lagoon, famous the world over for its diving. Recently they sank some galleons on the deep reefs of Beqa to give scuba divers the feel of swimming in a pirate-ship graveyard. They’ll do just about anything for visitors here.
At Lautoka, on the northwest coast of the main island, we boarded a ferry for the two-hour ride across Nadi Bay to the Mamanucas, a group of small coral keys with names like Beachcomber, Honeymoon and Treasure Island.
Back in 1789, a bit east of here, Capt. William Bligh and 18 of his men were put into a longboat after that little incident on the Bounty. In a nearby stretch of sea now called Bligh Water, cannibals in two Fijian war canoes took off after Bligh. But a storm came up and interrupted the dinner party, allowing Bligh and his men to escape.
These days, the water sports are of a different variety. Windsurfing, waterskiing, paddleboats, kayaks, parasailing, jet skiing, seaplane rides — you name it, the Mamanucas got it.
Castaway is a small island, with a cluster of one-story buildings set on a dramatic rocky point, plus 66 guest bures done up in native wood accents, rattan furnishings and ceilings lined with tapa cloth. The front doors of some cottages are literally a dozen steps to the rolling surf.
The main attraction at Castaway is the beach: two long, empty stretches of silky sand that fan out from the island’s midpoint. No rows of bodies baking in coconut suntan lotion. Here, it’s 10 people to a beach, not 10,000.
We quickly settled into a pattern: Up at 7, stroll over to the buffet breakfast, read a trashy novel on the beach, snorkel in the lagoon, have lunch, hunt for lavender- and rose-colored seashells along the shore (it’s a 90-minute hike around the island’s perimeter), play volleyball, hit the bar for an icy Fiji Bitter beer at sunset, shower, have dinner, play some silly games with the other guests — limbo dancing, crab races — and, finally, sack out.
We could get used to this.
A lot of guests here go island-hopping, and Joyce and I idled away a day exploring four of the nearby islands in a chartered speedboat, skimming over the cobalt blue waters, taking in the pure South Pacific air, watching a half-dozen dolphins come up and play tag alongside our boat.
Late one afternoon we signed up to go fishing with Capt. Jone Salagi and four other passengers on a small outboard. Now, usually on a fishing trip, the only thing I catch is sunburn. Not this time. I took in a 12-inch mackerel, two snappers and a rock cod. Joyce caught a fifteen-pound perch called a sweet lips.
Soon, the tangerine sunset melted into dusk, and as the moonless night deepened, the sky flamed up with unfamiliar constellations. The fish stopped biting, but by then we were too busy watching falling stars and the four bright stars of the Southern Cross.
The Blue Lagoon
We topped off our trip with a Blue Lagoon cruise to the Yasawa Islands, a chain of palm-fringed volcanic islands north of the Mamanucas. Yes, this is where Brooke Shields swam in the buff for the 1980 film “The Blue Lagoon.”
Blue Lagoon Cruises runs eight ships a week out of Lautoka, and we settled on the four-day Original Cruise aboard the 118-foot M.V. Lycianda ($550 per person double occupancy, which includes all meals).
Now, first off, get that cruise commercial out of your head. No swimming pool here, no 12 buffets a day, no Willard Scott. Just two main decks and 22 modest-sized cabins.
But there’s plenty of action off ship.
Snorkeling, for one thing. Fiji is famed for its coral reefs — and with good reason. You’ve heard of schools of fish? We’re talking universities here. At every spot I snorkeled, while the currents ran hot and cold like a crazy spa, tropical fish flashed by in breathtaking numbers and colors: plum-spotted leatherjackets, snub-nosed parrot fish, yellow-striped butterfly fish, needle-nosed garfish that came up as if to kiss my snorkeling mask.
At Liku Lagoon, a sweep of white sand stroked by mint waters, I followed a school of Day Glo fish along a 10-foot-deep trench to a spot where a half-dozen bright blue starfish rested. Jutting up on both sides of the trench were sandy rock outcroppings covered with coralheads in shades of cinnamon and olive, some corals shaped like antlers, others like blue-tipped brainstems, still others like cabbages and broccoli and spindly porcupines.
While some of us snorkeled, others strolled the deserted beaches, paddled a kayak or joined in a bushwalk to take in the local flora. We spent one afternoon at the shell market at Malakati, a village of 180 where townswomen sell perfect pink conch shells for a dollar apiece and footlong nautilus shells for $20.
The last night was memorable. Not just for the amateur talent contest, or for the lovo feast, a meal of meats and vegetables cooked by heated rocks in an underground oven. It was our last night together, and we’d become fond of several of the other passengers, particularly Coral and Geoff, a honeymooning couple from Auckland, New Zealand.
So we capped off the night with some good Fiji Bitter and a rousing poker game with Coral, Geoff and couples from Australia, Germany and Denver, while the crew hands serenaded us with island songs.
I dropped about four grand at the card game, but as the Fijian crew members liked to say, “Don’t worry, be happy.” It was Monopoly money.
When to go: Temperatures in Fiji don’t vary much all year long: upper 70s during the day, 60s at night. The high season for travel is December to February, which is Fiji’s summer. Those months also tend to be a bit wetter, with balmy, sunny days sometimes interrupted by sporadic showers. (During our trip in November, we had 14 days of sunshine.)
Getting there: Air Pacific, Fiji’s national airline, often offers seasonal packages, often starting as low as $898 (per person double occupancy); that price includes round-trip air fare from Los Angeles and six nights’ accommodations at a budget hotel on the main island. Call (800) 421-8446. Qantas and Air New Zealand also fly into Nadi.
Health: Fiji has no tropical diseases; island water is drinkable.
Diving and surfing: Hard-core surfers head to Tavarua island, which has two of the top 10 surf breaks in the world, according to a readership poll by Surfer Magazine. Scuba divers can head to the Great Astrolabe Reef on Kadavu island, known for its manta rays, billfish marlin and whales; Aqua-Trek runs expeditions there at (800) 541-4334.
For more information: Contact the Fiji Visitors Bureau, 5777 West Century Blvd., Suite 220, Los Angeles, CA 90045; (310) 568-1616.
Fiji Photo Gallery
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