A world away on Fiji's Taveuni Island

By Juliet Rowan

All the talk on Taveuni at the moment is of a $350 million Red Bull resort being built off the coast.

Taveuni is Fiji's third main island and is less than 10 minutes by boat from Laucala, where the seven-star resort owned by the energy drink's billionaire Austrian boss, Dietrich Mateschitz, is taking shape.

But unless you're a celebrity and can score an invitation, or you're uber-wealthy and can afford $5000-a-night accommodation, there is slim chance of getting to see the resort when it opens in August.

Luckily, Taveuni makes a wonderful alternative for those less well-heeled and is, in fact, a slice of paradise.

Known as the Garden Island, it is about an hour and a half's flight across spectacular coral atolls from Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, and is a world away from the generic resorts found near the international airport at Nadi.

We spent our first day on Taveuni visiting the Bouma national park, where the island lives up to its lush image with flourishing breadfruit, cassava and kava plants.

We took refuge from the 30C heat in a pool at the bottom of the park's spectactular Tavoro waterfall and, after lunch, retraced our route along the island's main (dirt) road to Waitavala, a natural waterslide carved out of rock.

The slide was a rush and only a short hop from the international dateline, which slices through Taveuni and is marked by a low-key map on the edge of a village rugby field.

Nearby is 180 Degrees Meridian church, First Light Bar and "the first shop to open in the world".

Taveuni is home to 15,000 of Fiji's 825,000 people and, as the closest Fijian island to Tonga, the site of past invasions.

The grand Wairiki Mission, the country's first stone church, overlooks one of the battlegrounds on Taveuni's west coast.

The island also has 28 extinct volcanoes which provide fertile ground for plants and coral, and seen from the sea, Taveuni is awash with the greens of coconut palms, rainforest trees and jungle vines.

Underwater, the sea floor teems with colourful reefs.

We stayed at Paradise Taveuni resort, which has no beach and instead drops straight into shallow coral and not far offshore, a 600m trench.

The coral is plentiful and healthy as a result of cold-water springs flowing through vents in the lava ground, and although the springs gave an icy blast, the snorkelling was among the best I've done.

Sadly, we did not have time to try any of the reefs further offshore, but diving is the reason many people come to Taveuni.

The island has several world-renowned reefs within close reach, and Paradise Taveuni offered a variety of dives, including night dives, which David, a British tourist, said were not to be missed.

He said the experience of going deep underwater at night was magical because the fish were drowsy and allowed you to touch them.

A highlight for him was coming face-to-face with a giant puffer fish which swam into his mask and stayed there, lips smacked against the glass.

Besides our group of three, there were only four other guests at the resort.

We met them at "Fijian night" which involved the staff cooking lovo, the local version of hangi, and treating us to kava and traditional dancing after dinner under the stars.

The night sky was so bright it brought to mind early Pacific voyagers, and we also saw a brilliant shoal of flashlight fish, which flash as they feed.

Paradise Taveuni is owned by Australians Allan and Terri Gortan who bought the 2ha property in 2006 and, with the help of local villagers, built 10 thatched bure.

The bure are set among tropical gardens and made of coconut palm and other wood felled by the village priest and his brothers.

Only 20 people can stay at the resort at a time, but there are 50 staff, and they did their utmost to make us feel special during our stay, including remembering everyone's names.

Another great feature was the outdoor shower in every bure. Some bure also had jacuzzi in the rock gardens, wonderful in which to watch the starry skies.

As a bird-phobic, my only drama was Amy and Priscilla, two native musk parrots who liked to fly around and land on guests.

I got the fright of my life when one swooped on me soon after we arrived, but for bird-lovers feeding them at breakfast, I could see they added to the feeling of exotica.

Apart from providing an escape from reality, Taveuni also offered the chance to see rural Fijian life first-hand.

We took a tour of a village and saw women weaving flax mats for a funeral, and watched a boy husk coconuts in one of the many copra plantations.

Hiking and horse-riding were among the other activities on offer.

Taveuni is definitely secluded, with only 180 of Fiji's 5000 guest rooms, and any threat from the country's military rulers feels a long way away.

Locals we spoke to had mixed feelings about the deluxe Red Bull resort going up nearby, many believing the economic benefits would bypass them altogether.

Already most of the staff employed are from overseas and a private airport will be built to ferry guests directly to Laucala.

But in my mind, that is a blessing for Taveuni and will help it retain its untouched charm.

Really, the Garden Island is seven stars without even trying.

Juliet Rowan and photographer Alan Gibson travelled to Taveuni courtesy of Air Pacific, Fiji Islands Visitors Bureau and Paradise Taveuni Resort.

GETTING THERE: Air Pacific has 14 flights a week from New Zealand to Fiji. See www.airpacific.com or ring 0800 800 178.

Tavenui is a 1.5 hour flight from Nadi International Airport, or, for the more adventurous, an 18-hour ferry ride.

For information about internal flights see Air Fiji's website at www.airfiji.com.fj.

WHERE TO STAY: Paradise Taveuni, an intimate resort of only 10 bure, is highly recommended. Rooms start at FJD$250 ($221) a night. See www.paradiseinfiji.com.

There are also plenty of other resorts, some of which can be found at: www.taveuni-fiji-islands.com, www.taveuniislandfiji.com, www.taveunidive.com, www.taveuni.blogspot.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION: For information about visiting Fiji see the Fiji Visitors Bureau website at wwww.bulafiji.com or ring (09) 376 2533.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a1 at 19 Apr 2014 17:53:46 Processing Time: 1279ms