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