OAMEA, FIJI - My Fijian wish list was simple: I wanted to skip the luxury resorts run by faceless international conglomerates and visit native villages where I could meet the chiefs, mingle with the kids, check out the schools and sit down with a family or two for a home-cooked dinner of chicken curry or fish stew.
We sketched out a game plan: To get my feet wet, I’d start with a visit to one of Fiji’s most authentic resorts on Viti Levu’’s “Adventure Coast” and from there wing across the sea in a small plane — I hate small planes — to distant isles floating in the vast reaches of the country’s northeastern and northwestern archipelago.
So what do you want to hear about first — my thatched-roof bure with its ridiculously romantic poster bed with mosquito netting (and my darling hubby so far away, sigh), the private plunge pool and hot tub out front, the sugar-white beach just steps away with sapphire seas rippling to shore, or my personal “buddy” Pela, a member of the local village assigned to me to do anything my little heart desired?
Before I could protest, she had run me a coconut bubble bath with two frangipani blossoms floating in billowing suds and was ironing my hiking shorts, something none of my clothes had experienced in years.
That night, we attended a traditional “Kava Ceremony” during which the men of the village crushed kava kava roots into a large bowl, added water and passed around the murky-looking, rumoured-to-be hypnotic beverage for us to taste. A native multi-course feast (tuna sushi, tempura eggplant, pork belly, snapper, cream brulee) followed after which I went back to my bure, crashed on my bed with all my clothing on and slept like the dead.
Left: The traditions of Fiji captivate visitors. Right: Meeting the local kids is one of the highlights of Fiji.
The next morning, Pela was waiting for me with a pot of Fijian coffee and homemade carrot and pineapple muffins still warm from the oven. After a few nibbles, I followed her over to the resort’s beachfront Kanavata Restaurant, where the village choir serenaded us with Sunday morning hymns as I tucked into a leaning-tower-of Pisa stack of pancakes layered with lady fingers, bananas, vanilla bean pod ice cream and drizzled with Fijian honey.
Just as I was finishing, a member of the choir approached me shyly to ask how I wanted to spend my day: Hiking through impenetrable jungle to the top of Beqa, a jungled off-shore isle steeped in lore; kayaking the Deuba River through a tunnel of hushed mangrove forests; or sliding on my butt down a muddy trail to a trio of lost waterfalls plunging from cliffs in the nearby rainforest? We did it all, a lesson in every landscape and still an hour left over for me to take a paddle boarding lesson. And while the emerald seas were as still as glass. I never got up, although I did manage to work up a killer appetite for dinner.
It took all day to reach Yasawa Island, Nanuku’s brooding rain forests a distant memory as we sailed high above a sun-bleached Fiji where scrubby mountain isles and grassy hillsides dotted with blooms looked more like Socal’s Catalina Island than Fiji.
When I admitted I was scared to death of small planes, the gentle Fijian pilot insisted I sit up front with him so we could hold hands the entire way. Yet despite his repeated reassurances, I still put my hands over my eyes and gasped as the plane made its final descent, loop-de-looping around a volcanic crag that looked close enough to touch before landing with a soft thud on a vertical runway strung between two hillsides.
Above: Nanuku is a beach paradise.
With its modern, airy villas, palm-shaded cabanas and flower-ringed spa, even the resort looked like it had been airlifted from L.A., as did the Sawa-I-Lau-Caves, where we swam across underground caves and caverns, but probably because I had seen them in the 1980s Hollywood flick Blue Lagoons starring Brooke Shields.
The indigenous Fijians make up more than half of Fiji’s total population and own 80 per cent of the land, none of which can ever be bought or sold. If a developer wants to build a resort on their land, he must first get permission from the village and then lease it.
Like Nanuku, Yasawa was also staffed by local natives, and one morning we got permission from the chief to visit their village. A complex of thatched roofed huts faced the sea, colourful laundry flapping and snapping in the brisk sea breeze and chickens and roosters pecking and squawking in the hard scrabble dirt.
It was all so achingly familiar: Years ago, I had taught in some of the Caribbean’s most impoverished regions and lived in many such villages myself. As one Yasawa family after another invited me into their humble abodes with their swept dirt floors, kerosene lamps and tidy stacks of canned goods, I had to fight back tears against the memories. Before leaving the village, we dropped by the home of the chief to pay our respects and were stunned to discover he was a thoroughly modern man who was well-travelled and well-educated, yet still had one foot in the past and the other in the 21st century.
The next morning, the resort boated me to a remote island and dropped me off for the day. From a scrumptious picnic lunch to a beach umbrella and blanket, sunscreen, snorkelling gear and explicit instructions about when and where they’d pick me up, this was hardly a Castaway experience. Still, it was the first chance I’d had during my entire visit to catch my breath and reflect on everything I’d seen and experienced in Fiji. As I gazed out over endless emerald sea, it suddenly occurred to me that I was farther from home than I’d ever been.
Left: Yasawa Island Resort & Spa and its Blue Lagoon Caves. Right: Nanuku Auberge Resort.
While the island of Qamea is only 400 kilometres from Yasawa, to get there meant backtracking to Viti Levu and catching another small plane to Taveuni, where a motorboat would whisk me across 22 kilometres of sea to the island resort.
I arrived at sunset, the skies streaked pink and purple before surrendering to a canopy of stars. A line of villagers had assembled on the beach to welcome me in song, and as I stepped out of the boat and onto shore, a small, shy girl stood on tiptoe to drape a beautiful homemade lei around my neck.
My beachfront bure came complete with a “Do Not Disturb” red coconut, but who are they kidding with offerings like wind surfing, catamaran sailing, snorkelling, shark diving and sea kayaking beyond my front door? Each night at sunset, the conch horn sounded, beckoning us to yet another Fijian-style dinner and a traditional performance by the villagers.
On the flight back to Viti Levu, another pint-sized plane with the mail, coconuts and sacks of rice slung across the back seats, I met a fellow traveller who proved to be a more fearful flyer than I. She was white before the plane left the ground and turned green the moment it lifted, spending the next two hours alternately crying, hiccupping succumbing to air sickness.
I felt her pain, and was so preoccupied trying to console her that I barely registered the flight as we winged over wide swaths of turquoise sea and swooped over upholstered green mountains. By the time the plane landed in the crowded shanty town of Nadi, I knew I was cured.
GETTING THERE: The best way to get to Fiji from Canada is with Fiji Airlines, which operate out of Vancouver and Los Angeles. Tour East Holidays can arrange your visit to Fiji. Call a Tour East Holidays representative for more details at 1.877.578.8888. / VISAS: Canadian citizens using Canadian passports do not require a visa to enter Fiji for tourism or business purposes for a period not exceeding ninety (90) days. Health Canada issued an advisory in January 2017 regarding Zika in Fiji, but so far this year no cases have been reported there. / Information: To find out more about travelling to Fiji, go to www.fiji.travel