Travel: Island hopping in Fiji

The resort and beach on Matamanoa Island. Picture: Lisa Young
The resort and beach on Matamanoa Island. Picture: Lisa Young
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ON AN island-hopping cruise you’ll almost wish to become a castaway in Fiji’s dreamy archipelago, writes Lisa Young

THE early morning light filtered through my cabin window, waking me from a deep sleep and I made my way to the deck of the Fiji Princess to find the sunrise dousing the spectacular Yasawa islands in a deep orange glow. From the Orchid deck, I watched as we weighed anchor and left the uninhabited Sacred Islands at the very southern end of the island chain.

As we slowly cruised past rolling hills covered in lush vegetation in every shade of green, towering jagged rock formations jutted out like sentries protecting the land. Beautiful white sand beaches and pristine turquoise waters teeming with fish trimmed the shoreline.

Fiji is a paradisiacal archipelago in the Pacific Ocean which comprises 333 islands, with 14 districts, where more than 300 unique dialects are spoken. Recognised internationally for their natural beauty, the Fijian islands have been used as a backdrop for numerous films and television commercials.

I was in Fiji to explore the Yasawa islands, a sparsely populated group of around 20, situated 25 miles northwest of Viti Levi, Fiji’s mainland. These islands and their 27 tiny villages have only been exposed to tourism since early 2000.

I had spent the previous day transferring by boat from the mainland to the Sacred Islands, where I boarded the Fiji Princess for a four-night, fully inclusive, island-hopping cruise.

With her three decks and weighing 1,228 tons, the unpretentious Fiji Princess has 34 air-conditioned cabins and carries up to 68 passengers. Purpose-built for cruising, she is an intimate, 200-foot boat, where you are known by your name, not your cabin number.

Flanked by endless ocean, we sailed at an average of 10 knots on calm seas through the Nalula and Kumbu passages, Bligh Water and past the tiny islands of Waya, Nanara and Manta Ray on our way to the Blue Lagoon, our next port of call.

The Yasawa islands have not escaped the grasp of global warming. I joined our jovial Captain Joi on the bridge and he told me he had seen much environmental change over the past few years. “Some of the tiny islands have disappeared into the sea as a result of global warming, and more will disappear over the next ten years,” he said.

At the Blue Lagoon, we anchored off Nanuya Lailai, where a private and exclusive peninsula is partly owned by Blue Lagoon Cruises, which also owns our vessel. My day was spent swimming off a pristine white sand beach in warm azure water so clear that the large clusters of coloured coral and exotic fish below were visible from the surface.

In a country with a relaxed approach to time-keeping, I quickly became used to “Fiji time”. My day consisted of lying in a hammock, sea kayaking, snorkelling and a beachside barbecue. It’s impossible not to de-stress in such conditions.

Our on-shore evening feast was baked underground in a traditional earth oven, or lovo pit, where meat and vegetables were wrapped inside intricately woven banana leaves and palm fronds, with hot stones on top, and cooked for around six hours. Entertainment came in the form of traditional dances performed by the neighbouring island’s Tamusua people.

A Fijian feast would not be complete without a traditional kava ceremony featuring the traditional drink made from a pulverised pepper root. It leaves your lips tingling and is said to have sedative properties, but without interfering with your mental capacity. The Fijians are mad for it.

On our second day, we trekked over the hilly island to visit a small village. On the way we reached the summit of the island by a narrow, overgrown path, walking past farmers working their sloping fields of sugar cane – an important export crop here. We also dropped down through a handful of beautifully manicured rustic homes with pretty gardens and lines of laundry flapping about in a warm sea breeze.

Tvite Masavula, a 77-year-old elder, has lived on Nanuya Lailai all his life and told me: “I am used to tourists walking through my back yard. I enjoy talking to them. They are welcome here, and I like answering their curious questions. They just want to see and learn about something different.”

The following morning we weighed anchor and sailed an hour north to Sawa-i-Lau Island and its limestone caves. A craggy path led to a hole in the rock, where steep steps descended into a natural cavernous space filled with turquoise seawater, then a short swim through an underwater limestone passage revealed a dark cave that our guide lit up with a torch.

After our exertions, the evening was spent on Sawa-i-Lau, dining in the company of the courteous villagers, who spoilt us with a traditional feast of the finest flavoured fish and vegetable dishes. In their village hall we sat crossed-legged on the floor and tucked into exotic delights.

There was more hospitality the next day when we were taken ashore to visit the local Yasawa High School, where the children welcomed us with song and fragrant flower garlands. It is obvious that this tourist paradise presents problems for the people who live there. They are subject to a lack of basic necessities, including education, fresh water, a varied diet, medical treatment and emergency transport.

Vinaka Fiji (meaning “thank you” in Fijian) is a trust and volunteer programme set up by two inspiring New Zealanders, who first started Awesome Adventures Fiji in 2002. It offers package holidays through the Yasawa islands as well as a daily catamaran ferry connecting the islands to the mainland.

As a thank you to the people of the Yasawa islands, the Vinaka Fiji trust and volunteer programme was created, which enables international visitors to volunteer at local schools, such as Yasawa High School. It’s also possible to help with sustainable community projects or marine conservation. The volunteering programme offers posts from as little as one week to six months or more.

Later in the day, I joined Dan Bowling, an American marine biologist and dive master from North Carolina, to go on a 40-minute scuba dive. “The Yasawa islands are special,” Dan told me. “There are very few people here. You can hop in the water anywhere and find unexplored reef and a fantastic diversity of fish.”

Our cruise drew to an end, and yet my Fijian adventure was not over. Back at Port Denarau on the mainland, I boarded another boat which carried me one hour away to Matamanoa Island, a small and intimate boutique resort with room to accommodate just 42 couples. There I joined a day excursion on the Seaspray, a classic 83-foot schooner, and we sailed to Modriki Island, famous for its role in Castaway, starring Tom Hanks.

Dropping anchor in deep water, we jumped ship to swim 100 yards to the shore over brilliant blue coral. A few coconut palms and shrubs offered some shade and we spotted dolphins off-shore as we wandered around trying to identify spots used in the film. Someone had marked out “Help Me” in the sand, using coconut shells. Floundering around in the crystal clear water, we didn’t need saving.

FACT FILE

• Blue Lagoon Cruises – Wanderer Cruise 4 nights on the Orchid Deck £1,090 pp twin share.

• Vinaka Fiji Volunteering – One week’s volunteering on the Education or Sustainable Communities programme – from £570 pp twin share. One week’s volunteering on the Marine Conservation programme (must be a certified diver) from £775 pp twin share.

All prices include accommodation in a double bure – straw hut – at Barefoot Island Resort, all meals, transfers and programme costs. Participants must be 16 years or over.

• South Sea Cruises – Seaspray day sailing adventure £67 per adult, £39 children aged 10-15 years (discounts apply from Mana and Matamanoa resorts).

• Matamanoa Resort – beach front villa £320 per villa per night; beach front bure £264 per bure per night; resort room £164 per room per night. All prices include breakfast daily for two adults (rates valid until 31 March, 2015).

• Barefoot Island Resort – en suite bure £142 per bure per night; standard double bure £110 per bure per night; dorm beds £42 per night; prices include three meals per day.

• Reef Safari: swim with manta rays £13 pp; introductory scuba dive £60 pp.

• First Landing Resort (mainland accommodation); garden bure £128 per bure per night; beach front spa bure £160 per bure per night; one, two and three bedroom apartments and villas also available. All prices include continental breakfast daily for two adults and a welcome drink.

• Hilton Nadi (mainland accommodation). Prices from £116 pp per night including breakfast in a studio beach front room.