Sun, sand and secrets of Fiji

By Carroll du Chateau

By CARROLL DU CHATEAU

Tradition says when visitors leave a Fijian island by boat, they pluck a flower from their farewell lei and drop it in the sea. If the flower floats back to shore, you will return.

As we departed Qamea resort, off the island of Taveuni, we wished like fury that our red hibiscus would head straight back for that sandy beach. Sadly, it didn't.

Taveuni lies an hour by 20-seater Sun Air to the northeast of the main Fijian island of Viti Levu. And for reasons that probably have to do with the fact that this is the Garden Island of Fiji (read high rainfall) it is a favourite of New Zealanders.

Many have private houses which, like the Palms near the airport, with its pool and private beach, are available for rent.

Here, the foliage is lush, and until Cyclone Amy hit last year, the reef round Qamea was listed as one of the 10 best dive sites in the world. The fishing is among the best in this part of the Pacific, too.

And there are adventures. The first is getting to Qamea, which means a plane trip over dozens of islands surrounded by bracelets of coral, where the waves break creamy and the sea changes from inky blue to turquoise.

Forty minutes in, our two pilots discard the Sun Times and line up for the impossibly narrow uphill airstrip of Savu Savu. Five minutes later, we're off again (no wonder the wheels stay down through the flight); another 10 and Taveuni comes into sight, thick with palms, jungle and resorts.

A van-ride past village houses with plywood shutters for windows, a short paddle to the boat and 15 minutes across a choppy strait, and we are at the resort, nestling among palms and spectacular scented trees.

There are 12 thatched bures, all like 5-star hotels inside, and all within 30 seconds of the lagoon. The towering dining bure, with its twisted mahogany framework, milled on the site four decades ago, is a work of art.

Fijian staffers (there are 72 on the payroll) are ever-smiling, the food good and fresh, the wine some of the best New Zealand produces.

The next adventure is a hike to an ancient Fijian village across the water. "It'll be great," says resort co-owner Ron Eckstrom, who's not coming. "Just a dawdle really. I'll shout you."

So off we go, two American couples, one already pink from sunburn, the other obviously on honeymoon, in the homemade wooden boat with the 60hp outboard behind, that hits the big swells so fast it bangs and shudders.

Waiting is Lillian Ekbom, from Copenhagen, who looks and sounds like Meryl Streep in Out of Africa.

She and her adventurer husband bought these 1215 freehold hectares 16 years ago and set about making a living out of taro, copra, pineapples, cassava and kava.

Then came the coup of 1997, the drought of 1998, the second coup in 2000 followed by Hurricane Amy, which hit with such ferocity the crops and boatshed were flattened, the couple's farmhand accommodation bashed to bits and their house torn apart. Meanwhile, the bottom fell out of the copra market.

So they are diversifying. "We try and spread out a little bit more," she says in that clipped Danish accent that takes me back to "I had a farm in Africa ... "

Like much of Fiji, their best hope - next to starting a cold-pressed coconut oil business - is to slice themselves a share of Fiji's burgeoning tourist market.

With their Fijian farmhands they hacked a trail to a dimly remembered ancient village. Lillian persuaded an expert at the South Pacific University in Suva to get interested and they put together a walking trail description of how this ancient village operated.

Today, she stands there, T-shirt drenched with sweat, fair hair streaking her face, and tells how slaves were prepared for the lovo (Fijian-style oven).

"The thighs and forearms were considered the choicest eating," she says, "so they tied their feet back behind their knees, then their hands behind their backs so they couldn't move. And then they put them in."

"Alive?"

"Yes, of course."

Her helper, a young Fijian who is being trained for the job, nods. "Yes, they did eat each other. Yes, they did fatten enemies and slaves. And did you know that the first four men they met after the foundations for the chief's house were dug were put, alive, into the holes to support the poles which were rammed in on top of them?"

The Americans, especially, are looking wide-eyed as Lillian opens the tuna sandwiches.

Now it's time to inspect the 35m waterfall, try to boulder-hop across the swollen river, then head back uphill to the truck, where we are advised to travel standing up. "That way you can take the bumps better."

Later, as we traverse those bumps on the way back, conversation turns to the coconuts left to rot under the palms. A thump on the roof, the truck wheezes to a stop, and Lillian's helper leaps off to find a coconut that's started sprouting so we can taste its baby, known as an apple. Expertly, he slashes it open and we all munch. Delicious.

Back at Qamea is a different sort of adventure in the shape of Julie from Muriwai, frangipani in her hair, offering the best French facials and massage.

My Guinot hydrothermie treatment, designed to force nutrients down to the dermal layer of the skin, really did make me look, well, more radiant. And the bliss of lying there, listening to the water lapping ...

Soon it's time to move to Tavenui island resort, which is more groomed and ostensibly less adventurous but they do their best.

On our wettest morning, Rupeni arranges two plastic chairs on the open boat, revs the mighty outboard and we head into driving rain. Forty-five minutes later, drenched and chilly, we arrive at the reef-circled coral mound of Koro Levu and flop thankfully into the warm water.

The idea is to snorkel ourselves over the dateline (the island cuts through the 180 meridian, opposite the town of Waiyevo) and into tomorrow. But we forget all that among the brilliant coral and hundreds of electric blue and yellow fish.

When we finally surface, the sun is shining, our chairs are on the beach and our tasty chicken sandwiches, cake and papaya are waiting.

The food here is an adventure, too. Each night's dinner is a surprise (no questions, no choices) but it's always a superb one. I can remember those meals, served outside overlooking the ocean, still: lobster bisque with shaved truffle, roast lamb and lemon tart; watercress soup followed by fresh waloo; fragrant kokoda followed by stuffed pork roll and banana crumble.

One couple came back disappointed after a dinner rendezvous in the village - "wish we'd stayed here".

As in Qamea, the plans are for more bures to even higher standards as Fiji's tourist trade grows.

Back at the airport, another farewell lei round our necks, we wait the usual half-hour for the plane to arrive. Fijian porters snooze on baggage trollies, a notice suggests we join Rotary (meetings every Monday at 6pm), the toilet, while clean, is definitely not four-and-a-half star.

Then it's off for another hour on the plane, still with its wheels down, this time back to Nadi and the Sheraton Denarau.

Now this is classic Fiji. The Garden Island weather gives way to full-out sun, the pool is full of girls in bikinis doing aquarobics. We stake out a hammock and some loungers by the small piece of roped-off sea the resort has probably sieved for sea lice and sharks, and snooze.

Is it cold and wet back in Auckland? Who cares.

What it costs: Qamea waterfront bures, F$960 ($815) single, F$1180 ($1000) double; NZ/Australian special deal - pay for five nights, stay seven.

Taveuni Island Resort, bures from US$578-760 ($861-$1132) double


* Carroll du Chateau flew to Fiji at her own cost and was a guest at Qamea, Taveuni Island Resort and the Sheraton Villas, Denarau.

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