We started our exciting South Pacific journey from Seattle on Sunday afternoon, with a flight to Los Angeles and then on to Nadi after a short layover. We arrived in Nadi early Tuesday morning, having lost two days due to the international dateline. We found Fiji quite strict with their custom control. Barbara's healthy brown rice and mung bean mix was confiscated. Apparently, only New Zealand rice is allowed to enter Fiji, not US rice. Since all flights to Fiji from the US arrive in the early morning, and ones to the US depart late at night, we booked two additional days at our timeshare condo (photo, Trendwest Fiji) in order to be able to check in upon arrival rather than wait til 4pm, as well as late check out at 8pm instead of 12noon on our last day.
The condo is on the up-market island of Denarau (photo, Denarau), off the western-most point of Viti Levu Island. Our condo unit is self-contained with full kitchen and washer/dryer. The facility has a somewhat pricey restaurant and a nice swimming pool with a swim-up bar. We rested a bit, and then took the 30 minute busride to downtown Nadi (photo, Nadi Town). In the morning, the bus route from Denarau follows a dirt road passing through the local villages, and on the return it follows a paved road. We saw sugarcane fields (photo, Cane Fields), livestock and lots of village kids along the way. Nadi, population around 30,000, has just one main street. There's a bustling municipal market next to the bus depot, where we got some groceries to replace our lost rice.
At the south end of Main street stands the Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple (photo, temple), the largest and finest Hindu Temple in South Pacific. After paying a nominal fee, we were allowed to take pictures and walk around barefoot. A soft-spoken and very accommodating host spent some time with us explaining some of the Hindu gods' names, their functions and histories.
We got back from town early enough to catch the condo's Tuesday afternoon activity, a kava ceremony demonstration. Kava is Fiji's national drink, a mild narcotic said to have a variety of beneficial properties. Kava is prepared by squeezing water through a silk sack full of the pounded root of the kava, which is a kind of of pepper tree. There's a simple clapping ritual to do when receiving a coconut half-shell of Kava. Everyone claps three times watching you drink it down. It has a distinctive flavor, not very strong. According to one of the participants, it tastes like dishwater with bark in it. Not everyone enjoys the numb, tingling feeling it leaves on the tongue and lips.
Tuesday night is lovo night at the condo's seafront restaurant. Lovo is a traditional way of cooking. Meat, fish, and root vegetables are marinated, wrapped in banana leaves and put into a pit oven dug in the ground. Wood is burned inside for a long time under the stones. The wrapped packages are mixed with the hot stones til the food gets cooked. At sunset, we enjoyed a serenade. Then day's end was announced by a hollow log drum called the lali. Finally, a runner carries a torch lighter all around the grounds, lighting the outdoor torches. This was followed by the dinner party. We enjoyed the feast with over 100 guests under the beautiful sunset (photo, sunset). After dinner, a song and dance troupe performed the traditional Fijian meke music and dance.
We contemplated learning scuba diving in the open water, but cowardly gave up after watching some PADI instruction videos. We decided to stick with the snorkeling we know and love. Wednesday morning, after the PADI videos and a late breakfast, we checked into the resort's activity center to take out a little one-sail catamaran. It was very enjoyable for Barbara to sit around the Hobie pretty and admiring the beauty of the Fijian water, also testing her new underwater camera, while Richard practiced sailing skills as captain of the Hobie. Afterwards, a staffer crafted a nice hat for Barbara out of coconut palm leaves, featuring a fish and a bird on the top as decoration (photo, coconut hat). We returned to Nadi town via bus to develop film, get a few more groceries and had a treat of an array of tropical fruit ice cream, yummy. At night, we enjoyed our own kava drinking and after a few rounds, Richard went out to take pictures of the Fijian full moon (arty photo).
Thursday morning we took our first big catamaran ride out to Castaway Island on the South Sea Cruise ship, Tiger IV. The Mamanuca islands group (photo, Mamanuca) is closest to Viti Levu with gorgeous coral, beaches and lots of resorts. Castaway Island (photo, Castaway) is one of the best appointed and most popular. We snorkeled for a while and experienced some of the most crystal clear water we have seen, compared to the Atlantic, Mexico Gulf and even Hawaii. We saw a lot of fantastic pretty corals and fishes in all colors, shapes and sizes. We enjoyed lunch at the relaxed restaurant (photo, deck at Castaway) with some really tasty fish, accompanied by music played by six staffers. We learned that almost every Fijian man plays guitar, ukelele, or mandolin. Musicians are also porters, bus boys, and guides at the resorts. After lunch, we snorkeled some more and then relaxed on the quick boat trip back home. Burned pretty hard during the first day's outing and exhausted, we turned in early.
Friday morning we ventured into the Mamanuca group again, on the "early bird" to Mala Mala Island (photo, Mala Mala). The Mala Mala tour is run by a smaller independent company that operates an older, nevertheless still nice, boat. Mala mala island is uninhabited, so the crew has to get there early to set up. For a discount, We tagged along on the crew boat. The crew are mostly nice Fijian men in their late teens and early twenties. They seem pretty carefree and happy working in the tourism trade. Over half the population of Fiji is under 20 years old, so employment is competitive. Tipping is not much accepted in the culture. Fijians take great pride in what they do, and it seems they sometimes think people giving a tip means they expect service beyond what they have received. The island has an open-air dinning hall, washrooms without shower and some banana-leaf thatched huts with chairs. We went out snorkeling with a couple of the staff, who led us to the right area to see special fish, particular coral and to dive and play in the water.
Back in the shack, some of the staff were cooking away, and the rest were playing their music. Richard, always with flute in hand when traveling, happily joined the merry group. Lunch was very good. In deference to Muslim and Hindu proscriptions, there was no pork or beef. We were happy to feast on barbequed lamb, chicken, fish, and lamb sausage along with salads and tropical fruits. In the afternoon, after a nap under the hut, we went back to Nadi, arriving early enough to catch the resort's "International Frog Race." All vacationers were welcomed to the activity center next to the pool where a big circle had been chalked on the ground. Fifteen frogs, each bearing a national flag on its back (photo, racers), were auctioned off on the spot. The Australian, New Zealand, Fijian and US frogs all got good bids, with US the top one for $30. (photo, US frog). The rule is to pile the frogs in the center of the circle, and watch them jump. The winner is the frog who jumps out of the circle first.
Saturday morning, we started out at sunrise to drive to Suva along the south coral coast. Suva is the capital and the biggest city in the country (photo, Suva). You see strong British influence in the park design and architecture (photo, Thornton Gardens). We strolled around Suva's downtown area in the rain, eating Indian snacks, mutton pies and fresh fruits, and shopped at the giant outdoor market for more vegetables. In the afternoon, we visited Fiji Museum, which has a lot of interesting history. The displays include a giant Drua (a traditional catamaran), special cannibal forks (with recipes!) and different war clubs. On the way back, we were planning to visit a couple of coral coast resorts including Outrigger and Hideaway, but driving was slower than we anticipated so we just drove straight through all the way back to Nadi to meet the rental car company deadline.
Sunday we were back on the South Sea Cruise, destination South Sea Island. Serenades were waiting for us upon the arrival. (photo, greeting) This tiny uninhabited island is at the very south end of the Mamanuca Group. It is a slightly more upscale facility, including a fresh water shower so we could rinse off after our morning snorkel. Lunch was freshly made on the island with barbequed meats, fruits, and salads and washed down with Fiji Beer and soft drinks. We relaxed on hammocks on the beach, and both of us fell sleep. Snorkeling was quite nice and the water so clear that we could see the bottom of the ocean from about 30-40 feet above. It is a funny feeling as if you are hanging in midair. Barbara saw a big spotted ray swimming as fast as if he was flying through the sky.
Monday was to be our last outer island expedition, and we wanted to get a little further out. South Sea Island Cruises' other ship, the Yasawa Flyer (photo, Flyer) sails daily to the Yasawa Island Group through the Bligh Water, the area where Captain William Bligh paddled through on his way to Timor after he was kicked out of the Bounty. We disembarked at Wayasewa (Little Waya Island), along with a British couple Dennis and Jackie, to visit the village chief in his bure. Our guide presented the ritual gift of kava and we were then accepted into the village as guests. We sat on mats and talked about village life. The chief was born and grew up on the island. He completed his education on the Viti Levu "mainland" and worked there in the government's forest department while his young brother took care of the village matters. After 28 years of service with the government, he retired back to his village and returned to his Chief's duties. He seemed to be happy to see we all enjoyed the kava and kept drinking them "high tide," a full cup each time. We walked out to the village school at lunch hour. Kids from surrounding islands come here for boarding school from age 6 to 13, going home each weekend. Dennis is a retired teacher, considering going into service as a volunteer teacher. He immediately merged with the student group and was at ease with them asking questions and praising their schoolwork.
From Wayasewa, we were lucky to be able to walk across the sandbar to Waya island, since the tide was out (photo, Waya sandbar). On Waya, we had our lunch at the Sunset Beach Resort. Richard played bit of music as a lunch-time serenade. We hiked up the hill to have a better look at the islands group. Of course, we did more snorkeling right before getting back to the boat.
Tuesday, our last day on "Fijian time," we took a bus to Sigatoka, a small farming town along the south coast. Nearby is the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. It is a surprise to feel the strong wind on the path to the dunes and strange looking trees with roots exposed. (photo, tree). The sand dunes are quite high, and the wind up there is strong. It was a nice hike. On the way back, we caught a privately run mini bus. Richard got into conversation with another young Fijian, studying at a seminary school and recently visited US, while Barbara with her heart in her throat, watching from the driver's side how he broke all the traffic rules of passing and speeding. Nobody else in the van seemed to notice or care. Magically, we got back to Nadi within half the time of the bus taking us there, Barbara slid out in one piece, if a little light headed. A perfect ending of the Fiji trip.