Paul Rush sails to dreamy tropical islands under the spirit of the Bula.
The assembled multitude is remarkably still and silent in the Gunu village meeting house. One swarthy warrior rises to his feet and advances towards me. His glistening body moves in a series of weaving and ducking motions, his face a study of solemnity and concentration. Clapping my hands once loudly, I signify that I'm ready.
In earlier times my ancestors would have leapt to their feet and run for their lives for this archipelago was dubbed "The Cannibal Isles" and had a fearsome reputation. But I have an important duty to perform as the elected chief of the visiting clan and stand my ground, drinking deeply from the bowl of friendship presented to me by the mighty warrior.
The ancient Yaqona kava drinking ceremony is a serious business. I clap three times to signify thanks and savour the taste. The kava is only slightly bitter but the anaesthetic effect on my lips is immediate.
It is non-alcoholic but induces numbness around the mouth and a sense of general well-being. I drink another bowl of love, succumbing to the Fijian version of "one for the road" and feel affably mellow.
The ceremony over, I return to my egalitarian status as a passenger on Blue Lagoon Cruises vessel Mystique Princess on a voyage around the Yasawa Islands, north-west of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu.
The islands are regarded as "Old Fiji", largely unchanged and renowned for setting their own languid pace.
The Mystique Princess is a classic blue-blood, billionaire's-style motor yacht sailing out of Port Lautoka for the Blue Lagoon, the milky blue expanse of landlocked water where actress Brooke Shields first found love on the big screen.
But it's the indigenous people and their irrepressible spirit of "Bula Vinaka" that stands out for me - you arrive at a village as a visitor and leave as a friend.
Whenever you meet a local person, the warm smiles and welcoming "Bula" seems to pop out so naturally. One can easily imagine that saying "Bula" takes up most of the average Fijian's day. They are simply the friendliest people on earth.
This genuine friendliness was evident the moment I stepped on board the boat. The Cruise Director introduced the crew who all shouted the "B" word with unbridled enthusiasm.
She then spoke straight from the heart to the gourmands on board by saying, "I must warn you the Mystique Princess is not 'The Love Boat'- it's 'The Food Boat'. You came on board as passengers but we'll consign you off as cargo."
Her remarks are concluded with the rather too subtle request, "So let's get naughty and be nice," which is variously interpreted by her high-spirited passengers over the following days.
A visit to a village school is a cruise highlight. The class of wide-eyed pupils sing action songs in perfect harmony with an endearing naturalness. The general theme is "We are one big happy family" and their broad grins affirm the truth of that.
The finale comprises songs about KFC, McDonald's, a monk on an elephant's trunk and a hilarious pantomime of arm-flapping bird dances, which has everyone doubled up with laughter.
On Nanuya Lailai Island I'm tempted by an early morning scuba diving option. After signing up the agent casually tells me, "Oh, by the way, today we're doing a shark dive".
I ask if they will lower a cage off the stern of the boat. The reply is a little unnerving: "Oh no, it's an open water dive and we're feeding big sharks on the seabed."
My dive briefing is less than wholeheartedly encouraging. "Say your prayers now as you will be diving to 21 metres to The Chapel" where our two guides will lay out bait fish for some 4m-long lemon sharks. We're sending a Kiwi down today so they'll be waiting for him."
Down in "The Chapel" I kneel on the bottom and watch the bait attract a thousand silver fish. After a while the long fat-bellied predators glide over the reef and pick up a fish, before plunging into the depths. I feel a few heart palpitations at the sight of rows of razor-sharp teeth, but the giant predators are not interested in a Kiwi meal today.
Our evenings aboard the ship are punctuated with cocktails, guitar music, fine tropical- themed meals and a star-studded sky. The blissful atmosphere of the islands is the stuff of dreams. I soon settle into the rhythm of the ocean and sleep to the lullaby of lapping waves.
When I wake at dawn each morning, I'm convinced that I'm still dreaming. My large cabin window reveals a deserted beach, washed by turquoise waters that throw back reflections of a big blue sky.
Island Night, with its tropical feast on the beach, is the culmination of all our cruise adventures. The magiti feast is wrapped in banana leaf baskets and steamed in an earth oven.
When opened it reveals a potpourri of pork, beef, goat, chicken, fish with taro, cassava, sweet potato and breadfruit. A concert follows and I find myself doing strange things with my eyes and tongue in a Kiwi haka.
The Cruise Director always has a cheery word for us on the PA system, prefacing her announcements with the words, "in a few Fiji minutes", which keeps us in a general state of preparedness without knowing precisely when a call will come.
When she advises us of our imminent arrival at Port Lautoka on the final day, it comes as quite a shock. In my imagination I fancied I was on this cruise for life.
As we disembark to the heart-rending strains of 'Isa Lei', our crew seem genuinely sorry to see us go. The spirit of "Bula" is still flourishing in the Blue Lagoon and I leave on a high. I have experienced a wonderful cruise enjoying the simple pleasures of a serene, uncomplicated world and drinking big bowls of love.
Air New Zealand and Air Pacific have regular departures from Auckland to Nadi. The Westin Denarau and Sheraton Fiji are well placed as overnight accommodation before and after the cruise and Blue Lagoon shuttles operate to Port Lautoka from Denarau Island.
THINGS TO TAKE
It helps to have more than one set of swimming togs and your own comfortable mask and snorkel. Sandals are suitable for the cruise and sneakers if you plan to hike over the islands.
Paul Rush was hosted by Blue Lagoon Cruises, the Sheraton Fiji Resort and Westin Denarau Island Resort.
- nzherald.co.nzBy Paul Rush