The sound of an­gels

Cruis­ing a trop­i­cal is­land par­adise will leave a song in the heart

Life & Style Weekend - - TRAVEL - with Peter Owen The writer was guest of Cap­tain Cook Cruises.

FOR me, the high­light of the Rio Olympics was Fiji’s gold medal in the rugby 7s, and the joy­ous, yet dig­ni­fied, cel­e­bra­tion by the Fi­jians after that amaz­ing vic­tory.

Who will for­get the emo­tion within that ring of Fiji play­ers im­me­di­ately after the fi­nal siren, arm in arm, spon­ta­neously singing their hymn, those as­ton­ish­ing voices ring­ing out in praise of their Lord?

In the week lead­ing up to that ex­tra­or­di­nary evening I’d been in Fiji, most of the time on and around the out­ly­ing is­lands, and I am con­vinced that ev­ery Fi­jian – man, woman and child – is blessed from birth with the abil­ity to sing beau­ti­fully.

I was a pas­sen­ger aboard Cap­tain Cook Cruises’ Reef En­deav­our, which trawled through the sparkling waters for a week, stop­ping at least once a day at one of the coun­try’s 355 is­lands, where Fi­jians live in much the same way as their an­ces­tors did cen­turies ago.

Three things were con­sis­tent wher­ever we went – kava would be drunk, lo­cals would talk in­ces­santly about rugby, and there would be singing.

Nowhere was it more sub­lime than in a com­mu­nity hall at Yalobi Vil­lage, a small com­mu­nity on Waya is­land in the Ya­sawa group, where we had stopped for the day.

The hall dou­bles as the vil­lage church, and we were greeted on this Sun­day morn­ing by the sound of an­gels. In truth, they were the chil­dren of the vil­lage, boys and girls dressed in their Sun­day finest, belt­ing out hymn after hymn, in voices as pure as the streams that flow down from the hills.

Later they were joined by their par­ents, aunts and un­cles for a church ser­vice that none of us will ever for­get, a ser­vice in­ter­spersed with songs where the only ac­com­pa­ni­ment was those glo­ri­ous voices them­selves, and where you can sense the joy that singing brings to these noble peo­ple.

Yalobi is one of four vil­lages on Waya and is home to 250 peo­ple. One of the youngest is Solo, a four-year-old who quite nat­u­rally clasped my wife’s and my hand as his aunt es­corted us through her vil­lage.

The guide, Mary, pointed out a small herd of dairy cows graz­ing on the edge of the trees be­hind the vil­lage. “My fam­ily owns those five cows,” she said, with ob­vi­ous pride.

“Do you sell the milk?” my wife asked. “Oh, no,” said Mary. “We share it with ev­ery­body.”

And ev­ery­body else shares what they have. That’s how life is on these re­mote Fi­jian is­lands, where many of the in­hab­i­tants are born, live and will die with­out ever leav­ing their shores.

They live on what they grow and farm from the sea. And if there’s any­thing left over they will take their pro­duce to Nadi on the main­land is­land of Viti Levu, or sell it to a tourist re­sort re­cently built on the op­po­site side of Waya.

Many vis­i­tors to Fiji make a bee­line to one of the lux­ury re­sorts around Viti Levu or on the is­lands. And no won­der. You can sit by the pool, snorkel in the warm wa­ter, eat de­li­cious food, sip a cock­tail and bask in the warmth of Fi­jian hos­pi­tal­ity.

You can do all that on a Cap­tain Cook cruise, too. But the unique thing about the Reef En­deav­our is that you get to visit is­lands that no­body else sees; to meet Fi­jians in their nat­u­ral homes, liv­ing sim­ple, happy life­styles; to ex­plore beaches and div­ing spots that re­main pris­tine.

The Reef En­deav­our can ac­com­mo­date more than 100 pas­sen­gers, but only about 60 shared the cruise with us.

The crew – a de­light­ful group of friendly, funny, happy-go-lucky men and women, who un­fail­ingly re­mem­ber your name – were all Fi­jians, while the of­fi­cers were Aus­tralian, the cap­tain hail­ing from Ma­roochy­dore and the chief en­gi­neer from Bund­aberg.

The seas are pro­tected by the is­lands and nu­mer­ous reefs, so there is noth­ing but a gen­tle sway as the Reef En­deav­our makes its way from an­chor­age to an­chor­age. On av­er­age we cruised for only a few hours a day, as the point of it all is to visit the is­lands, ex­pe­ri­ence is­land life, swim in the de­serted beaches, and snorkel among the reefs.

So­cial life aboard ship cen­tres around the Ya­sawa Lounge, where you find the bar and pi­ano, and where canapes are served each evening be­fore din­ner.

As so of­ten hap­pens on cruises, meal time can tend to dom­i­nate one’s ex­is­tence, so it’s a good idea to make the shore ex­cur­sions, where you can walk and swim and keep moderately ac­tive. There’s also a gym­na­sium, spa and sauna on the sun deck, and you can book for mas­sages and fa­cials.

The Fiji econ­omy is do­ing it tough, and the av­er­age Fiji worker earns only about $2 an hour – but you’d never know it. There’s a calm­ness about the place; it in­vites you to take it easy, smile and re­lax; to let the wor­ries of the world pass you by.

We left Fiji the day be­fore the gold medal game of rugby. That’s some­thing I’ll al­ways re­gret be­cause I reckon Fiji that day would have been just about the hap­pi­est place on earth.

PHO­TOS: SIMON TAY­LOR

The kava wel­com­ing cer­e­mony is a spe­cial treat when you visit the re­mote smaller is­lands of Fiji.

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