Vern: Air New Zealand is a swanky airline: The cabin is kitted out in jet-black, you can watch movies on the entertainment system immediately as you sit down, the ice-cream served with dinner is incredible and you can order drinks using the little touch screen on the back of the chair in front of you. Which we did for the novelty aspect and to test the patience of the air-hostesses. They passed. The Health Questionnaire on Fiji's arrival form asked a strangely open question "Do you have: (a) headaches (b) a cough (c) fever (d) Or do you have any other features?" Umm.. (d) I guess. Then it queried whether our baggage contained Holy Water or Human Ashes. "How many times must something have had to have happened before it goes on the form?", Andrea wondered out loud.
We landed at Nadi Airport in Fiji and as usual on this trip, when our accommodation or tour operator includes free airport pick-up, there was nobody waiting for us. There were lots of drivers in floral shirts baring signs and lots of porters relieving tourists of their luggage, but neither Haumant nor Hughes was scrawled anywhere. We asked around and were greeted with blank faces and unhelpful recommendations that we should abandon our reservation and switch to the hotel employing the person giving us advice. After five months speaking Spanish, we were instinctively greeting everyone with, "Hola" so it was convenient that 'hello' in Fijian is 'bula' and as such our mistaken greetings went unnoticed. Finally someone helped us and called the hostel and they sent someone. Apparently the first driver had simply left, reporting that we weren't there. Now that's service! After all that, the hostel on Nadi was actually alright - small, cheap and clean but all we really did there was check in, sleep, eat and check out to catch the bus to the Denarau Port. There we boarded a large catamaran which sailed for five hours through the magnificent turquoise sea bouncing from island to island in the Yasawa chain before slowing down near to Nacula, our island.
A speedboat took us ashore where a contingent of the staff, all dressed in floral shirts greeted us with singing, bongo drums, ukuleles and fruit cocktails. Blue Lagoon Beach Resort caters for all types of travelers: from those lodging in the F$679-a-night beachfront Palm Villas to those trying to agree with seven strangers as to whether the fan should be left on over night in the F$40-a-night dorm. Luckily, all guests get a pretty hibiscus on their pillows. In fact fresh flowers were laid out everywhere in the resort and were replaced daily. The resort is lovely; new and clean with wooden cabins scattered between palm trees and tropical vegetation and stretched out along a long white beach. A large coral reef starts only a few steps into the clear sea.
After lunch we got straight into resort-mode and opted in for the first activity, a village visit. A boat followed the coast around the island, docked and then we were led up a path and into one of four villages on the island and home to 60 families. Basic lodgings mostly made of wood were randomly distributed amongst the palms in a large flat clearing. One of the three hand-built churches (missionaries have obviously been through here) is on a grass bank above the beach and looks out onto the gorgeous ocean. We've seen some rather inaccessible churches on our travels, many seemingly built to challenge worshippers with a mountain climb or at least a long walk before the service, but this village church was the opposite. One could hit the beach, pop in for some hymns and then in seconds return to paradise forgiven and guilt-free. We gathered in the village hall and some villagers dressed in bright silk shirts and tiki skirts entertained us with oft performed singing and strangely simplistic dancing which involved walking back and forward with one arm raised in the air. Kind of like how white guys dance to Eminem. They adorned a lucky few of us with leis made from sweet smelling frangipani flowers and the token amount of audience participation had us arm in arm with tribesman walking back and forth to the music followed by a complicated and confusing 'snake' dance whereby the audience and performers joined hands on hips and wormed around the hall repeating the actions performed by the man up front. Afterward the village ladies set up stalls and sold sea-shells, palm leaf hats and other handy-crafts to the tourists.
On the first night guests are invited to meet at the beach bar at 6:30pm for a welcome ceremony. Obviously we were expecting a complimentary Tequila Sunrise. Instead, the very serious band leader, Noble, ordered us to take a seat around a large wooden bowl of uh... dish-water? Nope, kava. Powdered tree-bark mixed with water. And this was a kava circle. In a clock-wise direction, half a coconut shell full of grey liquid was passed to each person and swigged with some ceremonial clapping. Andrea spluttered, coughed and swore as she tried to swallow the foul chalky liquid. "Excuse you" said Noble abruptly pausing the ceremony. "Um, excuse me" said Andrea. And awkwardly the ceremony started up again. To our surprise, and to Andrea's horror, the shell full of kava went round again. And again and again and... and then with numb lips, we snuck away when Noble was distracted and stayed in the shadows until dinner time when the circle disbanded. The band guys, joined by staff-members stayed in the kava-circle all night, as they do most nights, (apparently eventually it causes one to hallucinate) chilling and telling stories.
Snorkeling in the house reef was incredible, a kaleidoscope of coral is home to hundreds of species of tropical fish and we couldn't spend enough time in the clear warm water. Amongst the shimmering scaly splendour we spotted the single-stiped clownfish, unique to Fiji and Andrea even came across a small reef shark. But a shark nonetheless and she paddled away quickly. The time we did spend out of the water was spent baking on sun loungers, reading in hammocks, racing hermit crabs (island style gambling for charity) and learning to make yummy kokoda (fish cured with lemon-juice and salt, and served in coconut cream with diced pineapple, cucumber and other veg). During a thoroughly enjoyable coconut demonstration we were enlightened as to how every single part of a palm tree has a use: the coconut for food and drink, the leaves for baskets, mats and anything that can be woven, the trunk for building, the husky bark for a coconut cream strainer (and at one point in history, loo paper), and the root as a remedy for stomach problems. Incredible! They even call it the 'Tree of Life' because it is used for so many different things.
And of course, resort games. "Survivor: Fiji" was an action packed evening of games and local trivia. Andrea secured the 'immunity idol' - a shell hidden with a member of staff - and we won a bottle champagne for our table, wine just for us and twenty all important game points. As such we were very popular with our team which comprised four young Brits and honeymooners from Seattle. After coconut splitting, pebble throwing, puzzle cracking, Fijian translations and the third degree on Fijian geography we made it into the final round. The tie-breaker involved naming as many of the resort staff as possible and unfortunately we lost with a narrow margin. We missed out on the grand-prize, champagne breakfast on the beach, but the bottle of fizz and the eight fun people made it a splendid evening.
After four nights it was time to leave this little patch of paradise and sail away. Well 45 minutes away to Matacawalevu Island. Our Fijian adventure was not over yet.