PAS­SAGE TO BLUE PAR­ADISE

Plot a course through the pic­ture-per­fect South Pa­cific

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - CRUISING FIJI - JOHN COR­BETT

On the morn­ing of the sec­ond day of my cruise through the Ma­manuca and Ya­sawa is­lands in western Fiji, I gave my­self a men­tal slap. My sparse jot­tings from the af­ter­noon be­fore sim­ply read: “lulling”, “hyp­notic”, and “dream­like”. And that, I scolded my­self, was only from the first hour of the cruise as MV Fiji Princess steamed west from Port De­na­rau into the path of the de­clin­ing sun.

I also recorded my de­light at find­ing the best seat on the ship: it’s on the star­board rear of the open­sided lounge bar where the breeze from the ves­sel’s pas­sage keeps things at Goldilocks tem­per­a­ture, just right.

Happy hour that evening was fol­lowed, I noted, by a three-course Cap­tain’s Table Din­ner that would grace any top-tier restau­rant. And the back­drop for my leisurely hot and cold buf­fet break­fast two hours ago had been a pass­ing panorama of is­lands with swathes of deep green jun­gle and cliffs of ob­sid­ian black.

Thirty min­utes ear­lier, the ship had cast an­chor for a swim­ming and snorkelling ex­cur­sion and now, as I looked up from my grum­bling, I saw a scene straight out of Som­er­set Maugham. A low-key re­sort clus­tered un­der palm trees at the tip of a lush green is­land. A shack, surely pur­pose­built for a writer, set half­way up a jungly hill­side. A sand­bar, across which peo­ple were walk­ing at low tide to the next is­land – on whose gold­en­sand beach were Fiji Princess’s red and blue beach chairs and um­brel­las and a large com­ple­ment of her pas­sen­gers en­joy­ing the wa­ter.

As I watched, a small white float plane took off from the chan­nel be­tween the is­lands and flew away to the dis­tant main­land. Right then and there I ex­cused my­self for slack note-tak­ing be­cause I was well and truly in par­adise.

A LADY OF A CER­TAIN AGE

As I gath­ered from a no­tice in French in the bath­room of my cabin, the 55m mo­tor cata­ma­ran Fiji Princess is a lady with a past, the French Caribbean to be pre­cise. Her first reg­is­tra­tion, ac­cord­ing to Google, was in Mar­tinique in 1998, fol­lowed by the Sey­chelles and more re­cently, Fiji. As the French say, she is a lady of a cer­tain age: com­fort­able, well main­tained and ship­shape, with an im­pres­sive array of side decks, hatches and com­part­ments from which emerge a swarm of out­board­pow­ered ten­ders that whisk you ashore – un­less, on one of the longer cruises, the cap­tain sim­ply de­cides to tie up the ship to a co­conut tree.

Fiji Princess’s three decks of air­con­di­tioned, sin­gle- and dou­ble-size cab­ins (all with en­suites) and a shaded rooftop Sky Deck with a bar and so­fas can ac­com­mo­date up to 68; our cruise num­bered only 26 so things quickly be­came con­vivial. A ra­tio of one crew mem­ber to ev­ery two guests meant we were well looked af­ter.

You can cruise on Fiji Princess for three, four or seven days (pas­sen­gers on shorter cruises leave or join the ship via cata­ma­ran trans­fers in the Ma­manuca Is­lands), and longer trips fea­ture vis­its to set­tings from Ran­dal Kleiser’s risqué 1980 ro­man­tic sur­vivor film, The Blue La­goon, star­ring then 14-year-old Brooke Shields. Don’t de­spair if your three­day cruise doesn’t go to the Sawa-iLau sea caves or other scenes of filmic se­duc­tion: the crew will oblig­ingly screen the movie for you.

Speak­ing of sur­vival, you will def­i­nitely see Mo­driki Is­land in the outer Ma­manu­cas where the Tom Hanks’ movie, Cast Away, was shot in 2000, and depend­ing on the sea and weather con­di­tions you can go ashore and swim and snorkel.

Sur­vival is a bit of a theme in the beau­ti­ful Ma­manu­cas: re­al­ity TV pro­ducer Jeff Probst re­cently wished aloud that his Sur­vivor se­ries could be filmed there for­ever.

Not that a small-ship voy­age on Fiji

Princess is with­out a touch of the el­e­men­tal. A long, thin arc of an­cient vol­canic is­lands that ex­tends from 35km to 120km north­west of Fiji’s main is­land of Viti Levu, the Ma­manu­cas and Ya­sawas are the last stop be­fore 950km of open ocean that sep­a­rates them from Van­u­atu. A jour­ney among the is­lands is a proper oceanic ex­pe­ri­ence, right down to spo­radic Wi-Fi, a me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal map and marine fore­cast posted each mor­ing in the lounge bar, and chart ses­sions with a crew mem­ber who traces the ship’s course with a pen­cil and ruler – and free­hand squig­gles when it di­verts due to sea or weather.

Dur­ing my cruise, a low-pres­sure sys­tem pass­ing to the south of Fiji brought an over­cast day with swells, but there was al­ways an­other snorkelling reef or pris­tine pri­vate beach to head to with silky warm wa­ter and schools of Nemo-type fish that in­ves­ti­gate your fingers and toes. I learnt to go with the flow.

A GLIMPSE OF THE REAL FIJI

If the Ma­manuca Is­lands are one of the poster girls of Fi­jian tourism, the Ya­sawa Group fur­ther north are her shy sis­ter. Sailing through the Ma­manu­cas is like be­ing in a trav­el­ogue: the ship steams past pic­ture-per­fect coral atolls, reefs just break­ing the sur­face and chic re­sorts tucked into se­cluded coves.

Close enough to the main­land for day trips, the Ma­manu­cas have been a Fiji favourite since the 1950s and are sprin­kled with ac­com­mo­da­tion rang­ing from back­packer to six-star.

I SAW A SCENE STRAIGHT OUT OF SOM­ER­SET MAUGHAM. A LOW-KEY RE­SORT UN­DER PALM TREES

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