PASSAGE TO BLUE PARADISE
Plot a course through the picture-perfect South Pacific
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