Sarong song in the Fijian Yasawa Islands

By Angela Gregory

In the charming Fijian Yasawa Islands, ANGELA GREGORY dresses for the tropics and gives up on her watch

Over a typical lunch of bread, meat, fish and tropical fruit, the strangers across the table under the palm trees look like your average backpackers or budget-minded tourists. By and large they are, but the low-key appeal of Fiji's pretty Yasawa Islands is also netting a new breed of traveller - the richpackers.

They shun the exclusive $2000 a night resorts they can easily afford, preferring to slum it with the ordinary folk at modest beachside resorts run by the local villagers who inhabit the chain of volcanic islands that make up the Yasawa group.

I wouldn't have known, but for a chance conversation back at Nadi at the end of a six-day whistle-stop introduction to the islands.

According to my well-placed source, I had dined with a hugely wealthy Scottish lord, the daughter of a not-to-be named, fabulously rich and high-profile English businessman, and a famous Japanese artist.

Oh, and a mysterious someone who worked for "The Government", but not the Fijian Government.

I wonder if any of them came back with a bout of Fiji tummy too.

Whoever they were they must have pretty much kept to themselves.

The sandy, sarong-slung creatures I found myself chatting with seemed bona-fide backpacker travellers.

They were twenty-something Europeans - mainly English, Irish and German - on the last legs of their travels through Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

Fiji was their last chance to consolidate their traveller tans and basically blob out before returning via America to their starting points.

For many it was a time of contemplation.

"I was really fed up with my job, my life, needed time out to rethink my future," was a common refrain from many, whose excitement at catching up with friends, family and even more desirably their own beds was tempered with angst at looming work and routine.

For them, the Yasawas are perfect. Quiet, unchallenging and vastly empty.

Even in their dormitory accommodation they had the pleasant surprise of getting their sheets turned down in the evening.

They all agreed it was exhausting doing nothing - that's if you ignore the walking tracks, volleyball, weaving lessons, fishing, diving and kayaking - and some even found themselves with time to read books (I read three).

The at-first mildly frustrating Fiji-time, or on some islands Bula-time (self-imposed daylight saving), quickly becomes part of the charm of island life.

Don't look at the watch. Listen to the drums for meal times.

If told to be ready by 11am, don't be surprised if the staff are waiting for you at 10.30am, or maybe midday.

Put on your snorkelling gear and just go with the flow.

And the cheerful Fijians - are they the friendliest people in the world? - are natural hosts.

Polite, happy and fun, they wooed the visitors at every stop.

Not like us "rude and unhelpful" New Zealanders, as a moaning Irishwoman (rather rudely and unhelpfully, I thought) lectured me.

The Yasawas have taken off as a destination in the past few years after the launch of a large high-speed catamaran which island-hops the 80km-long chain which begins about 40km northwest of Lautoka.

From Port Denerau at Nadi, Awesome Adventures Fiji runs the 24m Yasawa Flyer which has daily return trips, carrying thousands of passengers each month.

Its large, air-conditioned cabin and bar, with snack food and viewing decks, makes it a comfortable and scenic trip, better than the days when travellers who could not afford to fly to the islands sought spaces on smelly, plywood fishing boats.

In May 1999, a local boat sank with 22 passengers on board on the way back to Nadi.

There was no radio, too few lifejackets and passengers had to cling to sharp rocks or float for eight hours until rescued.

Amazingly, no one died.

The local tourism operators approached South Sea Cruises to provide a safe service, and New Zealand parent company Fullers Bay of Islands launched a boat and Awesome Adventures Fiji.

The tourists are lured by promises of an authentic Fijian experience, as well as the classic Pacific Island images as romanticised in the movie The Blue Lagoon, shot in the Yasawas in 1949 with Jean Simmons, then again in 1980 with Brooke Shields.

You can buy a range of accommodation packages to the Yasawas, or buy a Bula Pass which allows you to island-hop more casually, particularly suitable if you want to stay more than a week.

That allows visitors to try several of the 20 places to stay, all offering both dormitory and individual bure accommodation, with meals included.

Another option is to spend a night or more on the Wanna Taki, a 27m vessel which cruises to locations at the southern end of Naviti Island.

At the risk of sounding ageist, I'd only recommend it to the younger set, as with its well-stocked bar and stereo it can turn into a bit of a party boat.

On the islands, be prepared for small unexpected extra charges at times for snorkelling gear, water taxis and sevusevu (cash gifts) for village visits.

A credit card is also critical in the virtually cashless society.

The quality of food is hit and miss, with horror stories of being fed fish-tails contrasting with comparatively rave reviews of other meals.

Except for the Yasawa Flyer, where icecreams were a top-seller, there are no shops, so your own snack food is recommended.

As some promotional material reads: "Meals are simple and filling, it's the price you pay for the beauty of isolation."

The water is said to be fine to drink, but my stomach was evidence something, somewhere was not.

This is not to impugn hygiene standards with cloths, mops and brooms wielded at least twice a day.

But for these Fijians, tourism and expected standards, such as strict food-handling procedures, are still a learning curve.

With the collapse of the Fijian sugar-cane industry, the Government is pushing hard for Fijians to get in behind tourism.

Tourist police have been installed on the mainland to watch out for bad treatment of tourists - with little success in Nadi, according to some backpackers - and villagers are encouraged to welcome guests.

In return, they get cash injections into their largely subsistence economy based around growing crops like breadfruit, kasava and yams, and fishing.

The money from tourism helps to buy not just basics like flour, sugar and rice, but goes towards education, new housing and improved sanitation.

A jewel in the indigenous tourism crown is Oarsman's Bay Lodge on Nacula Island.

When the Nacula Village chief Ratu Epeli was installed in 2000, he had returned from New Zealand where he had been living for 20 years.

He envisaged a tourist lodge at nearby Oarsman's Bay and, with the agreement of village elders and the experience and financial backing of Turtle Island owner Richard Evanson, the $700,000 lodge opened in 2002.

His brother Ratu Tavutavuvanua told me they were making good progress towards repayments and happy with the venture, which brought employment, income and improved living conditions to the village.

"We strive for excellence. We want to be sustainable - not too greedy, not too slack."

Such places offer opportunities to enjoy not just the beautiful beaches and colourful coral, but also to sample the local way of life.

At one extreme there was the 20-year-old American backpacker who got to gorge himself on octopus, fish, pork and goat, washed down with freshly squeezed lemonade, before sleeping the feast off with the village men on a Sunday afternoon.

At another, there was an elderly couple who spent the afternoon at the local school with their granddaughter, seeing how the education system works in another country. Indeed the Yasawas are aimed not just at young backpackers, but at the alternative travellers who are looking for authentic indigenous experiences, a market which sees a much greater age-spread and background of tourists.

Village visits are encouraged, but there is strict protocol - no hats, covered knees and shoulders, and long skirts or dresses for women.

The modest Fijians have taken some adjusting to skimpy bikinis and beach attire, which are not welcome in the villages.

But visitors who behave respectfully are given the warmest welcome.

At one village, the chief encouraged the tourists to have their photos taken with him, while children cheerfully materialised with shells and jewellery for sale.

The arrival of groups of tourists is often the occasion for an impromptu concert, and villagers seem delighted to have photos taken as they go about their daily lives.

Many visitors are so touched by the children and the simple village life, they often send books and other classroom resources back to the schools.

But there are drawbacks to this new island industry, particularly the growing concern of its impact on the much-heralded coral reefs.

Sewage run-off is said to be damaging the coral, which was already dying in some areas.

There are claims the reefs will be dead in a decade unless sewerage schemes using septic tanks are installed.

Some villagers are said to be wary of foreign conservationists telling them how to look after their seas.

But I can report the reefs are still healthy enough to attract colourful fish life and turtles whose heads suddenly pop up out of the deep blue.

And the locals have nothing bad to say - well to me, anyway - about the impact of tourism in their beautiful backyards.

At Oarsman's Lodge, activities officer Onnie Ratulele peers at me through her Gucci sunglasses and recalls how as a child she had to help catch octopus and crabs to take to the mainland to sell for groceries. "It was too much pressure then, when I was a girl."

The bay where the lodge now stands was once a deserted spot where her grandparents planted crops and fished by night. "Now people are coming from around the world. I would never have believed it."

* Angela Gregory travelled to the Yasawa Islands courtesy of Awesome Adventures Fiji and Air Pacific.

ACCOMMODATION

Coconuts & Coral Properties offer three-night, four-day packages, in a double or twin bure, including return vessel transfers on the Yasawa Flyer:

Botaira Beach Resort $555 (extra nights $125), Oarsman's Bay Lodge $400 (extra nights $60), Safe Landing Resort $400 (extra nights $60).

MEALS

The resorts offer meal plans, for three meals a day, ranging from $36 a day at Safe Landing to $60 at Botaira. These have to be paid by credit card.

GETTING THERE

Air Pacific offers flights one-way Auckland to Nadi from $239 (saver fares) to $649 (business fares).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Coconuts and Coral, Go Holidays freephone (0800) 464 646, 151 Victoria St, Auckland.

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