Fantasy fulfilled

Tam­sin Cocks finds her own piece of par­adise in the South Pa­cific

Business Traveller (Asia-Pacific) - - TIME OUT IN... -

Sway­ing lazily in a rope ham­mock strung be­tween two palms, I gaze through half-closed eyes at the glit­ter­ing South Pa­cific, mes­merised by the dra­matic om­bré ef­fect of inky blues blend­ing into an emer­ald la­goon. Add to this the per­fect cerulean sky, a cres­cent of un­blem­ished white sand and the fact that the only way to get here is a five-hour boat ride from Viti Levu (Fiji’s main is­land), and I’m ba­si­cally liv­ing out my desert-is­land fan­tasies.

In fact, for film­mak­ers, this is the ar­che­typal is­land par­adise, with block­busters from Blue La­goon to Cast­away be­ing filmed on neigh­bour­ing islets in the Ya­sawa and Ma­manuca is­land ar­chi­pel­a­gos. Sev­eral sea­sons of the hit TV show Sur­vivor have also been filmed nearby.

The Ya­sawas and Ma­manu­cas are hugely pop­u­lar with tourists seek­ing a piece of heaven. A chain of about 40 vol­canic is­lands, they range from lit­eral strips of sand in the ocean to hulk­ing isles with jun­gle-clad moun­tains, indigenous vil­lage pop­u­la­tions – and idyl­lic resorts to suit a range of bud­gets.

At the ul­tra-lux­ury end are op­tions such as Tur­tle Is­land Re­sort – the ac­tual film set­ting for the 1980

Blue La­goon re­make – which boasts a US$2,600-a-night ex­clu­sive is­land re­treat ac­ces­si­ble via pri­vate char­ter, and has been the hon­ey­moon des­ti­na­tion of choice for A-lis­ters such as Brit­ney Spears. At the other end of the spec­trum are op­tions like Beach­comber Is­land – a he­do­nis­tic party patch of sand for those on a bud­get.

My trop­i­cal home for the next few days falls some­where in be­tween: the aptly named Blue La­goon Beach Re­sort on Nac­ula Is­land, one of the north­ern­most Ya­sawa is­lands. My beach­front bure (pro­nounced booray) of­fers a clean, spa­cious bed­room and a gor­geous out­door bath­room. It might not come with a turn­down ser­vice but I’m more than con­tent with the five-star views from my pri­vate porch. And if any­thing the patchy wifi re­cep­tion is help­ing to sub­stan­ti­ate my ship­wrecked day­dreams…

A burst of song from the beach in­ter­rupts my glo­ri­ous stu­por; the re­sort staff are wel­com­ing a fresh boat­load of ar­rivals with cheer­ful folk tunes kept in time with en­thu­si­as­tic hand-clap­ping and ukulele ac­com­pa­ni­ment. Mu­sic, it seems, is as much a part of life for Fi­jians as breath­ing, or say­ing“Bula” – a cus­tom­ary greet­ing de­liv­ered with gusto sev­eral times a day (ap­par­ently it can also be used to ex­press any­thing from love and friend­ship to bore­dom and farewells).

I watch as the new guests alight on the crys­tal-clear shore, de­lighted by the shoals of fish that have also turned up in wel­come. They’ve ar­rived in time for lunch and we all con­gre­gate in the beach­front restau­rant. Many of the is­land resorts in­sist on all-in­clu­sive meal op­tions, but there is plenty of choice on of­fer, from Western dishes to tra­di­tional del­i­ca­cies such as kokoda, a re­fresh­ing Fi­jian take on ce­viche with white fish mar­i­nated in cit­rus juices and served in a creamy co­conut sauce.

Af­ter lunch, an itin­er­ary of op­tional is­land ac­tiv­i­ties is ar­ranged – should laz­ing on the beach con­sum­ing fresh co­conuts get bor­ing. One af­ter­noon, I find my­self yelling en­thu­si­as­ti­cally at my her­mit crab (its shell painted with a num­ber four) to beat the oth­ers to the fin­ish line in a crab-rac­ing com­pe­ti­tion. An­other ac­tiv­ity sees us hack­ing at palm leaves with ma­chetes and weav­ing them to­gether into tra­di­tional bas­kets – though ad­mit­tedly, I cre­ate some­thing more re­sem­bling a place­mat.

The sim­ple ac­tiv­i­ties and re­laxed sched­ules are part of Fiji’s laid­back charm, and as a city-dwelling phone ad­dict, I’m amazed how eas­ily I’ve adapted to “Fiji time” and the total dis­con­nect from mod­ern life… with just a hint of re­gret I’m not able to flood my In­sta­gram-feed with jeal­ousy-in­duc­ing posts.

An­other huge part of Fiji’s ap­peal is the in­ter­ac­tion with friendly lo­cals – some­thing ap­par­ent from the mo­ment you land, as you’re greeted at the air­port by a band of brightly coloured Hawai­ian shirt-wear­ing ukulele play­ers. Vis­it­ing lo­cal vil­lages is a pop­u­lar ac­tiv­ity, and all new ar­rivals are in­vited to par­take in a tra­di­tional kava cer­e­mony: while re­gal­ing us with grue­some sto­ries of the coun­try’s can­ni­bal­is­tic past, the leader mashes a murky brown liq­uid in a large bowl, be­fore cups are of­fered round the cir­cle. We clap once, say“Bula”and down the liq­uid, fin­ish­ing off with three more claps. Made from pow­dered roots of the kava (pep­per) plant, the slightly silty mix­ture has a mildly nar­cotic ef­fect that causes a pleas­ant tin­gling sen­sa­tion on the lips and feel­ings of eu­pho­ria (de­pend­ing on the quan­tity con­sumed!) – though it is cer­tainly some­thing of an ac­quired taste.

At din­ner, we see some of our new vil­lage friends again as we are treated to a cap­pella ren­di­tions of church hymns from the lo­cal choir. This is fol­lowed by a heart­stop­ping fire dance and ma­chete rou­tine that has us spell­bound. It’s made all the more sus­pense­ful by the im­per­fec­tions; a ma­chete slips through one per­former’s fin­gers, while an­other sports a large ban­dage from where a fire trick went wrong dur­ing a pre­vi­ous per­for­mance…

But as much as Fiji’s ap­peal ex­tends to its pris­tine beaches, trop­i­cal jun­gle and friendly peo­ple, it’s just as famed for its ex­cit­ing aquatic de­lights. The wa­ter is some of the clear­est I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced and even snorkelling on the beach’s fring­ing co­ral reef re­veals schools of neon-hued fishes in vivid blues, pinks and greens. I shriek with de­light when a sea tur­tle passes nearby, in­vol­un­tar­ily swal­low­ing a large gulp of sea­wa­ter in the process.

Scuba div­ing is nat­u­rally a ma­jor draw; the Blue La­goon Beach Re­sort – like al­most all the ar­chi­pel­ago resorts – has its own scuba div­ing cen­tre with shark and ship­wreck dives avail­able. My favourite un­der­wa­ter ex­pe­ri­ence was the chance to swim along­side manta rays, gen­tle giants of the sea that are huge but harm­less, swim­ming against strong cur­rents and fil­ter­ing plank­ton into their smil­ing mouths. Far larger than a hu­man – some can measure up to 7 me­tres (23 feet) across – to snorkel or dive along­side these ma­jes­tic fish is an in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence.

Fiji is also home to more hard­core dive ad­ven­tures. Beqa La­goon, lo­cated to the south­west of the cap­i­tal Suva, is fa­mous for its shark­feed­ing dives fea­tur­ing one of the most feared un­der­wa­ter preda­tors: the bull shark. Mean­while, on Vanua Levu, the na­tion’s sec­ond largest is­land, the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Is­land Re­sort on Savusavu Bay (reg­u­larly awarded top eco-re­sort in Fiji) pro­vides ac­cess to top dive sites like the Chim­neys and Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion, reef sys­tems fes­tooned with some of the rich­est soft co­ral growth on the planet.

That’s not to say the “main­land” should be avoided. While the beaches can’t com­pete, there are other forms of beauty, in the form of ver­dant jun­gles boast­ing trop­i­cal flora and fauna and mag­nif­i­cent

water­fall hikes, with a range of adren­a­line-fu­elled ac­tiv­i­ties from tree­top zip lines and white­wa­ter raft­ing to more re­laxed hot-air bal­loon rides. And of course, the fa­mous Fi­jian hos­pi­tal­ity and trop­i­cal cli­mate is with you wher­ever you travel.

But for me, the real beauty of Fiji is in its more than 300 is­lands. The Ya­sawas and Ma­manu­cas ben­e­fit from rel­a­tive prox­im­ity to Nadi In­ter­na­tional Air­port and easy ac­cess: the Ya­sawa Flyer cata­ma­ran de­parts from Port De­na­rau – just 20 min­utes from the air­port – ev­ery day at 8.30am, stop­ping off at 30odd is­land resorts be­fore re­turn­ing at 5.30pm.

This also hap­pens to be one of the most scenic trans­fers I’ve ever ex­pe­ri­enced, with sun­bathing decks to view the pic­turesque is­lands as we sail past. We’re even treated to a glimpse of wild dol­phins playing along­side the ferry. Right now, though, the sight of the ferry fills me with gloom: it sig­nals my re­turn to the real world and the end of a hol­i­day in par­adise.

Clock­wise from above: Six Senses Fiji Malolo Is­land; a tra­di­tional kava cer­e­mony; and div­ing Fiji’s soft co­ral reefs

Fiji Mar­riott Re­sort Momi Bay

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