Fiji: Blue Lagoon escape

By Victoria Bartle

We've escaped, my husband and I. Mainly from our children.

Fifteen years of never, ever holidaying without them has qualified us to abandon all parenting obligations, but even the walk from Auckland's domestic terminal to the international terminal, just the two of us, feels odd.

Finally we know what those jet-setting couples feel like when they take their must-have annual holiday, sans enfants. We love our little darlings, honestly we do - but damn, this feels good!

Aboard our flight, tuning out the wails of a baby several rows back is surprisingly easy. We pop on the in-flight movie headphones and, for once, we don't let the drinks trolley glide by.

In Fiji, our home for three nights is the Fiji Princess - a 60-metre long catamaran with 34 cabins tucked into three decks. We're two of the 58 passengers who discovered the Blue Lagoon Cruises website from our homes in New York, Canada, Mexico, France, Italy, New Zealand and Australia.

Barefoot dining is the norm when you're aboard a small cruise ship, floating in the cliche crystal waters of Fiji's Yasawa Islands.

Quite unlike the dining rooms of the world's mightiest cruise liners, this one is very casual. Dinner is the only meal of the day when anyone dresses up in their finest barbeque attire, giving the swimwear a rest.

No one's gaze drops disapprovingly to your feet. Toes are on show in abundance under every table.

More than half the passengers on our cruise are one group of Australians who've been planning this trip for two years.

We might be out-numbered by our friendly trans-Tasman rivals, but we can claim Blue Lagoon Cruises is more ours than theirs; a dream brought to life in 1950 by a New Zealander.

The History of Blue Lagoon booklet tells how Captain Trevor Withers - a New Zealand stockbroker with a passion for the sea - launched one of Fiji's first ventures into tourism, naming it after the original version of the movie Blue Lagoon, which was filmed there in 1948.

After close on 60 years of gliding languorously around and between dozens of the 330 Yasawa Islands, visits by the company's five cruise vessels seem to have had little effect on the remarkably primitive lifestyles of the island villagers. You might find a generator in some villages, but cooking is still over a fire; food is grown on the land and captured from the sea.

Snorkelling is a daily activity for Blue Lagooners, as is the 6am swim when keen early-risers are ferried ashore to slip into another warm lagoon from the beach.

Over three days, we have memorable experiences that prove holidaying without children is, frankly, so much easier, but also good for the soul. Like hearing the hauntingly beautiful singing that drifted across the water on one of our snorkelling excursions.

Needing to de-fog my mask, I surface and hear the voices of a young woman and man taking turns to sing the lines of the hymn, Our Father. It is Sheryne and Misi, Blue Lagoon staff who are waiting in the dinghy, having taken a group of us to snorkel in deep water. Unaware they have an audience of one, they're drifting with the outboard motor switched off; the only other sounds are the sea softly slapping the metal dinghy, and the breathing and occasional water-spout blowing of the snorkellers, like a small pod of cruising whales.

Dipping into a snorkelling position again, I keep my ears just above the water, unable to resist eavesdropping on their sweet performance.

At least one evening of the three-night cruise is spent dining on the beach and strolling along the water's edge with only moonlight and stars to see by - and again, there's that carefree sense of not needing to be constantly aware of the whereabouts of adventure-seeking children. Late nights no longer matter.

Stepping on to the sand of another island, a small group of Fijian women are waiting in the shadows of coconut palms with their souvenirs. On the beach, one woman is tilting and turning a small piece of mirror, sending bright flashes of reflected sunlight across the sea. It's not a special code, she tells me, just a final farewell signal to her daughter who is in a boat many miles away, returning to the mainland after a rare visit home. I strain to see the black dot that is her ride to Lautoka, while her mother talks of missing her already, knowing they might not see each other for another year.

We spend an afternoon on Nacula Island in the 900-year-old village of Malakati. Traditional thatched-roof bures sit, slightly lop-sided with age, alongside timber-built huts, the village church and a meeting hall where we gather in the gloom for a kava ceremony. My husband Paul is reluctantly elected as our Ratu - our chief. The ancient ceremony is a serious business requiring certain protocol, right down to the number of times our Kiwi chief must clap his hands and give thanks with an appreciative "Bula!". The rest of us sit cross-legged behind him; mirroring the Fijians surrounding their village chief. They're all in traditional costumes or modern-day versions of them: raffia skirts and bright sarongs; arms and heads decorated in leafy and floral wreaths.

There's a rapid-fire speech from the chief, a rhythmic tap-tap-tapping of sticks on the floor and the Fijians begin to sing. It's a rousing song and though we have no idea what the lyrics mean, it's surely celebratory, feel-good traditional music. The natural urge is to jump up and dance, and soon enough we get our chance.

The women adorn us with sweetly scented frangipani leis, and pull us to our feet. The dancing is side-by-side, arms linked - a little four-step jog forward and a three-step shuffle back. Faces are shiny and flushed; clothes stick to bodies, more than a little damp.

Our island visit ends with local shopping, the women displaying their wares on the grass. There are hand-dyed tapa, shell jewellery, seeds and bone and wood carved into tiny turtles, dolphins and sharks. Numerous children from the village run down to the beach beside us, giggling and waving us off as our dinghy takes us back to the big boat.

Each night is a mooring in a different bay; every morning is waking with a different beach to swim off and different huddles of bures to spot, camouflaged behind rows of coconut palms and sun-umbrella-like stands of massive mango trees.

The final morning is a flurry of taking photos, exchanging email addresses, invites and promises to visit. Thick dark blue souvenir cruise shirts are reluctantly pulled on amid disgruntled gasps about the heat and urges of "Lets get this done quickly," as we all clamber to the very top deck, lining up more than 50 cameras on a table.

Cruise staff good-naturedly click, click, click while we grin and shout "Bula!" on cue, over and over until our crowd of happy faces - some tanned, some a little too red with noses already blistering - are finally recorded on each and every one.

Victoria and Paul Bartle travelled to Fiji and took the Blue Lagoon Cruise courtesy of Flight Centre and Blue Lagoon Cruises.

GETTING THERE:
Flights are from Auckland to Nadi and depart daily.

Flight Centre can book a variety of Blue Lagoon Cruise packages that include return flights from New Zealand. One current deal is a Blue Lagoon Gold Club Cruise package.

You'll get return airfares from Auckland, four nights accommodation near Nadi and a four-day, three-night Blue Lagoon Gold Club Cruise from $2799 for each adult, twin share. There are cheaper packages available.

This package is available for bookings made by September 15 (or until sold out). Travel between October 13 and December 16.

Contact: Flight Centre, 0800 35 44 48, www.flightcentre.co.nz.

WHEN TO VISIT:
Possibly the best time to visit Fiji is during its dry season or the "Fiji winter", from May to October, when the tropical heat is less extreme, there's less rainfall and humidity and less risk of tropical cyclones.

WHAT TO TAKE:
Take more than one set of swimming togs. For comfortable snorkelling, it's advisable to take your own well-fitted mask, snorkel and flippers. The only shoes you might need on the cruise are sandals, and a pair of sturdy sneakers, as there is the option to hike the grassy hills on some of the islands.

FURTHER INFORMATION:
www.bluelagooncruises.com

- NZ Herald

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