Castaway in paradise

By RUTH BERRY

Tom Hanks never had it so good. He had to crash a plane to get to beautiful Modriki in the heart of Fiji's Mamanuca Islands. And eating little more than coconuts must have become a bit tedious for the Castaway star after a few days.

We arrived for an afternoon's snorkelling on the tiny, white-sand rimmed island made famous by the movie in more leisurely fashion and undoubtedly better-fed after a huge barbecue on the Seaspray schooner.

We had just four days in Fiji, but the new Freedom Air direct flights from Wellington to Nadi made this quick island getaway all the more possible, reducing travelling time to a half day. Air New Zealand is now also offering a weekly direct flight.

Fiji comprises 320 islands scattered across 518,000 kilometres of Pacific Ocean and it is obvious why Hollywood choose one of them for the film.

Micronesians and Melanesians first settled there 3500 years ago before moving south to the two big islands and most look as pristine and as beautiful as they must have been to those initial voyagers.

Two primary groups make up the islands: the Mamanucas and, further north, the Yasawas. The Mamanucas are closer to Nadi and perfect for those with time for just a short trip.

The departure point is just outside Nadi, although airline timetables - apparently regulated by the Government - mean you must stay overnight in the city first.

By midway through the next morning however you're out in the Pacific, heading to your resort of choice - most within an hour or two of Nadi, but a world away from the dusty city.

The New Zealand-owned Seaspray offers entertaining day cruises for those wanting a little more of a look-around. It took us past many islands and a number of dolphins before stopping at one of the larger islands.

Unfortunately, it was a Sunday so the stop was cut short and the usual kava ceremony wasn't on offer. But the people-free Modriki, where the tropical fish were abundant, more than compensated.

The enthusiastic Seaspray crew, with their endless flow of information, jokes and guitar singalongs, made the trip worthwhile. Similarly good-humoured entertainment was provided for those keen to meet their fellow island visitors or keep the kids busy on Mana Island.

Travellers seeking a little evening partying headed further afield than Mana, with plenty of islands catering for the backpacker crowd. But, like Tom Hanks, we preferred to bask in solitude and pretend we were castaways, and Mana - low-key but well-equipped and organised - provided the atmosphere in which that was possible.

* Ruth Berry travelled to Fiji courtesy of Freedom Air and the Fiji Tourist Bureau. Freedom Air now flies once a week between Wellington and Fiji with one-way fares starting from $219 (plus taxes and surcharges).

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