A day in paradise: A guide to island-hopping in Fiji

A calm-but resilient approach to life and many other lessons that a trip here teaches you

By Kalpana Sunder

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Published: Thu 4 May 2023, 3:32 PM

The sea water is ice cold and luminous emerald with the sunshine filtering in from the overhead vent, casting mysterious shadows in this cathedral-like space. I was initially scared to let go of the rails and jump into this natural swimming pool, hidden in the bowels of the tall limestone mountain, but I am glad I did.

I am in the Yasawa islands, a string of around 20 volcanic islands to the northwest of the main island Viti Levu, in the archipelago nation of Fiji, in the South Pacific. The beauty of these islands with clear waters, sandy coves, virgin beaches, small villages and majestic volcanic outcrops have made them favourite spots for Hollywood movies, like the 80s hit The Blue Lagoon and the reality TV series Survivor. I am taking a small boat cruise around these islands with Captain Cook Cruises on Reef Endeavour, a small-sized vessel with comfortable rooms, friendly staff, a small swimming pool, lounges, a library, and delicious buffets.

Reached by walking from the beach, through knee-deep water and then climbing a steep flight of stairs, the Sawa-I-Lau limestone caves are the subject of many local legends. One tells the story of a giant hawk that lived in the Sawa-i-Lau cave, who carried off a princess called Naiobasali and how her prince, Rokoulu, avenged her death by killing the hawk. It is said that the winds Rokoulu summoned still blow in the Sawa-i-Lau caves. Swimming in the caves feels ethereal, almost a spiritual experience, with the silence and the play of darkness and light. If you are brave, you can swim through a secret, underwater entrance to the second, smaller cavern, but I decide to stick to the trodden path.

We started the cruise from Port Denarau marina, sailing to Tivau island, with deserted beaches, and loungers, where we first made our snorkelling forays and learned to plant coral tied on to pieces of rope, and attach it to metal frames in the ocean as our contribution to regeneration of the reef.

Our days on our floating home have a comfortable rhythm — breakfasts and met maps and weather forecasts in the lounge bar, followed by a trip on the smaller tender boats, with the wind in my hair, and salty sea spray on my skin, to snorkelling spots in the bay, or basking on a pristine palm fringed beach, where there is room for all kinds of people — aquatically challenged ones like me who are hesitant snorkelers and others who dive like pros to see the wonders of the Pacific Ocean, which feels like a gargantuan aquarium in these parts — from iridescent soft corals in a million hues (think baby pink to purple), teeming with schools of psychedelic tropical fish in rainbow colours — parrot fish, clown, angel to even black tipped reef sharks. Abraham, the marine biologist, is a patient teacher telling us about the ecology of the reefs, guiding hesitant swimmers, and making every day an unforgettable adventure.

On the white sand beaches, while some bask on mats and enjoy doing nothing, the active ones have kayaks, stand-up paddle boards and hiking trails to keep them busy. I wade through small tide pools, with other guests, finding hermit crabs and clams. Some prefer to see the coral reefs without getting wet, from glass-bottomed boats, others take the afternoon snorkelling trips too. Dinners are lively affairs with themes like white and floral nights. We interact with a diverse cross section of people from around the world, students on a class trip from Australia with their teachers, an Italian family celebrating their parents’ 50th anniversary, a German couple who drive rescue vehicles and are on a three-month holiday through Fiji and other Polynesian islands like Samoa and Tahiti.

The cruise is also educational and engages with local communities. For me, that is the highlight, rather than snorkelling or the beaches — the chance to get an up-close look at the lives of locals. At the first village of 350 people that we visit called Gunu, on Naviti island, we are welcomed by the local people after presenting a wrapped kava root to the village chief. Kava is the national drink of Fiji — a muddy earthy drink made from the roots of the yaqona plant that belongs to the pepper family and can numb your lips and tongue but relax you after a couple of cups. Every village has its protocol — from covering your arms and knees, to removing your hat, and women sitting behind the men in the kava ceremony.

Out in the village green, the women in bright floral dresses and hibiscus tucked behind their ears have laid out their handicrafts and local souvenirs on mats. Small boys have climbed trees to get us coconut water that tastes divine. We shop for souvenirs from the wares laid out — from coconut shell trinkets to sarongs, art on Tapa cloth, made from the bark of a tree, wooden masks, beads, and miniature straw houses. I strike up conversation with some women and get a picture of their lives in the village — how solar power was affected by a cyclone and has not been set right still, where food grows in your backyard. Many of them are busy all day looking after their families, besides taking care of the household chores. Many of them love singing in the choir in the Methodist church and dancing.

The highlight of the evening is a ‘lovo’ feast that the villagers have put together with the help of the cruise team. Lovo is food cooked in an underground oven with volcanic stones heated up, and then food is wrapped in banana leaves and damp hessian bags and left to cook for nearly three hours till its tender and flavourful. Mostly, chicken, fish, taro, cassava and potato are staples cooked in a lovo. Lovos are common in weddings and celebrations. After dinner in the dim light of solar lamps, the men and women put up a traditional ‘meke’ — where they tell stories from their history and their past through song and dance, lively movements and full-throated singing with grass skirts, spears and the sound of drums and the ukulele.

Another day, we visit the Ratu Namasi school in the Yasawas that caters to the children of two villages, meeting the children who put up a show for us, singing songs in English and Fijian. I am awestruck by the bright, enthusiastic faces and the confidence. The students from Australia have brought gifts for the kids — from rugby balls to story books, stationery pens and notebooks. They are excited to see a ball and soon, there’s an energetic game of rugby between the school kids on the cruise and the local kids. I cannot help thinking that this is the finest education — to interact with strangers who lead completely different lives from ours.

Manasa and Itosi, two of the kids studying in Grade 5, take me to see their classrooms with neat chairs and desks, notebooks filled with cursive writing and a blackboard. Their library is overflowing with gifts from around the world. They seem happy at school, looking forward to their simple lunches of fish and cassava and swimming and hiking during the weekends. I tell them that no other school on earth can have this beautiful backdrop — the aquamarine ocean and the palm-fringed beach.

On the last day, as we are picked up by a helicopter on a nearby stretch of beach to our next destination, I bid goodbye to our cruise friends and crew with a heavy heart, and watch the Reef Endeavour becoming a tiny speck beside the turquoise waters and the coral reefs. I feel blessed to have seen Fiji’s remote islands, its underwater treasures and get up-close to its people.


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