UN­COV­ER­ING THE REAL TREA­SURE OF FIJI

WITH A WEL­COM­ING COM­MU­NITY SPIRIT THAT EM­BRACES VIS­I­TORS AS FAM­ILY, FIJI’S SHAR­ING CUL­TURE IS DEEPLY ROOTED, DIS­COV­ERS FIONA HARPER.

World Travel Magazine - - Feature -

With eyes closed, a young boy in a turtlepat­terned Bula shirt tilts side­ways into his fa­ther’s lap. He’s fast asleep. Next to him, his elder brother is fid­gety and looks bored.

Their fa­ther wears his best Sun­day dress, a col­lared shirt neatly snugged at the neck with a tie, tucked into a som­bre-toned sulu, the kilt-like gar­ment that Fi­jian men wear on for­mal oc­ca­sions. The fam­ily ma­tri­arch on the other hand, like her colour­ful peers, is far more vi­brantly dressed. Im­mac­u­late in a for­est-green tai­lored tu­nic worn over match­ing an­kle-length skirt trimmed with hi­bis­cus pat­terns, she has a frangipani tucked be­hind her left ear. Our eyes meet above her son’s head and her face erupts into an ear-split­ting smile, the kind that would light up a dark night.

A card-car­ry­ing athe­ist with lit­tle in­ter­est in a lengthy ser­mon, the sole rea­son I’ve joined the con­gre­ga­tion on Oneata Is­land is to en­joy har­mo­nious hymns sung by a rap­tur­ous Fi­jian choir. Sung a cap­pella in their na­tive tongue, pas­sion is ev­i­dent in their ethe­real, melo­di­ous voices. The en­tire com­mu­nity is present, all in their Sun­day best, and at times the en­tire vil­lage’s voice rise to­gether in song. Un­ex­pect­edly, their hymns move me to tears, de­spite not un­der­stand­ing a sin­gle word.

Me­lane­sian cul­ture, strongly in­flu­enced by the Chris­tian faith, dic­tates that Sun­days are sacro­sanct. On Satur­days, men pri­ori­tise fish­ing ex­cur­sions to en­sure an ad­e­quate con­tri­bu­tion for Sun­day lunch, when all gather af­ter church for a shared meal. Fi­jian vil­lages op­er­ate as a com­mu­nal so­ci­ety where prop­erty and re­sources are shared. By the cus­tom of kerekere any neigh­bour or rel­a­tive may ask for some­thing that they need, which is pro­vided with­out ques­tion. In the Lau Is­lands, the word maikana is used as an in­vi­ta­tion to any­one walk­ing past on a Sun­day to ‘come in­side and share our meal.’ It’s this un­der­ly­ing com­mu­nity spirit which un­der­pins Fi­jians gen­tle de­meanour and their con­scious­ness of good neigh­bourly re­la­tion­ships.

Brought up in a ma­te­ri­al­is­tic so­ci­ety, this char­ac­ter of in­clu­siv­ity and gen­eros­ity is one of the main rea­sons I keep re­turn­ing to a coun­try who throws its am­ple arms open wide to vis­i­tors. Oh sure, this South Pa­cific ar­chi­pel­ago has count­less phys­i­cal at­trac­tions that be­long in any self-re­spect­ing hol­i­day ar­moury. Trop­i­cal cli­mate, tick. Dreamy beaches shaded by palm trees, tick. Lux­ury re­sorts with five-star fa­cil­i­ties on tap, tick. But the real trea­sure of Fiji is the Fi­jian them­selves. Be­spoke hide­aways like the dual villa bou­tique Tave­uni Palms Re­sort on the gar­den is­land of Tave­uni have tapped into this cul­tural char­ac­ter­is­tic, pick­ing up a cab­i­net full of tro­phies along the way, mostly thanks to ex­cep­tional staff. Ex­quis­ite ac­com­mo­da­tion in the form of two pri­vate vil­las each set on an acre of land over­look­ing So­mo­somo Strait draws vis­i­tors, but it’s at­ten­tion to de­tail that keeps trav­ellers re­turn­ing.

Tave­uni Is­land is home to Fiji’s flo­ral em­blem, the rare and revered tag­i­mou­cia, whose crim­son and white blooms hang in chan­de­lier-like clus­ters of ruby rain­drops on a moun­tain ridge in the is­land’s gar­den­strewn high­lands. So, it comes as lit­tle sur­prise that the Beach Villa is gen­er­ously dec­o­rated with fresh flo­ral blooms. With five in­ti­mate and pri­vate din­ing lo­ca­tions across the villa, each ex­quis­ite meal of­fers a rea­son

for Ex­ec­u­tive House­keeper Sia to show­case her skills, dress­ing the ta­ble with fresh blos­soms and seashells. Sens­ing the prom­ise of ro­mance one night as we en­joy din­ner on the deck, Sia mis­chie­vously ducks in­side to scatter a car­pet of petals across the tim­ber floor of the mas­ter suite. She spells out a bless­ing for love in scar­let frangipani petals on the bed.

Ro­mance be­tween Brooke Shields and Christo­pher Atkins siz­zled in the film Blue La­goon, set in the ridicu­lously beau­ti­ful Ya­sawa Is­lands. The film piqued the in­ter­est of is­land he­do­nists who pegged the Ya­sawas for their own ro­man­tic is­land par­adise. Just 18 years old when he landed the role that would make him a su­per­star, Atkins said in an in­ter­view, “the con­di­tions dur­ing the film­ing were very rus­tic. When we got there, there was no wa­ter on the is­land and there was re­ally no place to live.”

Not so any more. The Ya­sawa’s, along­side their equally pretty is­land cousins the Ma­manuca’s, are some of the most pop­u­lar is­lands thanks to el­e­gant bu­res on the beach aplenty. Given Atkins youth and naivety he could be for­given for think­ing there was no place to stay. In ac­tual fact, there are vil­lages and re­sorts dot­ted across the six main is­lands that make up the Ya­sawas.

Much of Blue La­goon was shot at Nanuya Levu Is­land, which is now known as Tur­tle Is­land. Af­ter host­ing the film crew, the is­land’s Amer­i­can owner con­structed 14 beach­front bu­res that be­came Tur­tle Is­land Re­sort, cre­at­ing a lush trop­i­cal re­treat on the once rav­aged is­land.

Sep­a­rated from Nanuya Levu by an isth­mus which dis­ap­pears at high tide, Nanuya Lailai Is­land is home to one of the area’s real char­ac­ters.

‘Bula bula, wel­come to Lo’s Tea House,’ laughs Lo­raina Ma­si­buli as we walk into Enedala vil­lage on the south coast of the is­land. ‘Call me Lo,’ she says with a daz­zling smile.

We’ve taken a well-trod­den path that winds through a co­conut plan­ta­tion, teeters across a cou­ple of tree trunks strung to­gether as bridges and over the ridge to ar­rive at Lo’s Tea House. Even by Fi­jian stan­dards Enedala vil­lage is tiny, hous­ing just 30 peo­ple from 11 fam­i­lies.

‘This is my Grand­fa­ther’s vil­lage, it’s my fam­ily’s land,’ Lo ex­plains.

Lo’s ram­shackle tea house’s in­te­rior walls are lined with cot­ton cloth in colour­ful de­signs. Ex­ter­nal walls are clad in lime green clap­boards trimmed with bur­gundy shut­ters. Beach sand that clings to our feet is as wel­come in­side as the her­mit crabs that si­dle in con­fi­dently. As we sip tea and tuck into a gen­er­ous wedge of choco­late cake drip­ping with choco­late frost­ing, Lo re­veals the se­cret to the rich smok­i­ness of her cake.

‘My se­cret in­gre­di­ent is fresh co­conut milk straight from the nut,’ she says. ‘We have plenty of co­conuts here!’ she laughs, spread­ing her arms wide to in­di­cate the co­conut palms that dom­i­nate the land­scape as far as the eye can see. Shun­ning mod­ern con­ve­niences, Lo’s cakes are baked as her grand­mother did, in a cast iron pot over an open fire.

‘I bake my cakes us­ing fire­wood, rather than us­ing

gas, which gives it a spe­cial taste,’ she says.

Lo’s hus­band is a chief at Nabukero vil­lage near the Sawa-i-lau Caves to the north of Nanuya Lailai. His chiefly du­ties keep hus­band and wife apart, with him re­turn­ing to En­dala vil­lage by long­boat just once each month. With her hus­band ab­sent, the first ten years were tough for en­trepreneurial Lo as she es­tab­lished the busi­ness. Vis­i­tors were sparse in the early days, some­times just two or three ar­riv­ing each week.

As Lo’s fame grows, more trav­ellers stum­ble across her unas­sum­ing tea house on the beach.

‘All the guests now come be­cause I serve the fa­mous Fiji Le­mon Leaf tea.’ she says. ‘The tea is the best. It makes you healthy and strong!’

The north­ern­most is­land in the group is called sim­ply Ya­sawa Is­land, home to a hand­ful of vil­lages and ex­clu­sive Ya­sawa Is­land Re­sort. A rock-star ar­rival by light air­craft of­fers a tan­ta­lis­ing view over a cobalt blue sea dot­ted with turquoise la­goons sur­rounded by coral reef. Far re­moved from civil­i­sa­tion, Ya­sawa Is­land is known for daz­zling, pris­tine beaches rarely dis­turbed by hu­man foot­prints.

Bukama Vil­lage el­ders had much in­put into the con­struc­tion of the ad­ja­cent re­sort and were con­sulted dur­ing all phases to en­sure min­i­mal im­pact on the lo­cal en­vi­ron­ment. To­day, gen­er­a­tions of vil­lagers have grown up along­side the re­sort which pro­vides a val­ued source of em­ploy­ment. So in­ter­linked are vil­lage and re­sort that staff treat the ho­tel like an ex­ten­sion of the vil­lage, wel­com­ing vis­i­tors in typ­i­cal com­mu­nal fash­ion to their ‘home’.

In turn, ho­tel guests are wel­come to visit the vil­lage and make new friends. If you’re for­tu­nate enough to be stay­ing on a Sun­day, I rec­om­mend fine-tun­ing your vo­cal chords, dress­ing in your Sun­day best and at­tend­ing the church ser­vice. It’s likely to be an un­for­get­table high­light of your trav­els to Fiji. More In­for­ma­tion fiji.travel, Tave­uni Palms Re­sort tave­u­ni­palms.com, Ya­sawa Is­land Re­sort ya­sawa.com,

Tur­tle Is­land Re­sort turtle­fiji.com

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