Every visitor to these Fijian islands leaves with the memory of a warm welcome, writes Paul Rush.

A Fijian warrior rises to his feet and advances towards me, his glistening body weaving and ducking. His face fixed in solemn concentration. Clapping my hands loudly, I signify that I am ready.

I'm very conscious that this island archipelago once had a fearsome reputation as "the Cannibal Isles", but I stand my ground and drink deeply from the big bowl of friendship the warrior presents to me.

The brown liquid has an immediate anaesthetic effect on my lips, inducing numbness and a sense of wellbeing.

I drain the bowl of kava dutifully as the nominated chief of a visiting clan and feel affably mellow.


The ancient Yaqona kava ceremony is a serious business so I stagger to my feet and try to conduct myself with appropriate gravity and decorum.

I rejoin my Blue Lagoon Cruise around the Yasawa Islands of Fiji in time for lunch. Our cruise director expresses the easy-going "Old Fiji" spirit of bula vinaka.

"I must warn you that the Mystique Princess is not 'The Love Boat' - it's 'The Food Boat'. You come aboard as passengers but we'll consign you off as cargo."

She has an inimitable way of acknowledging the famous flexibility of "Fiji time", prefacing all her announcements with the words, "In a few Fiji minutes".

This keeps us in a general state of preparedness without knowing precisely when a call will come to assemble on the deck.

Our ship is a classic blue-blood billionaire's-style motor yacht sailing out of Port Lautoka through the Blue Lagoon, the milky blue expanse of landlocked water where actress Brooke Shields first found love on the big screen.

Our daily pattern of life continues over the next few days with a cornucopia of tropical fruit, pampering, sundrenched beaches, snorkelling and massages under coconut palms.

The beach bar is always open, guitar music fills the air and the night sky is studded with needle-sharp stars.

Fiji is known as the Soft Coral Capital so the coral is alive with colourful demoiselles, languid angelfish and darting clown fish.

I join a scuba dive ostensibly to feed the fish. Bucketloads of irresistible scraps are laid on the seabed.

Four metre-long lemon sharks appear, giving us malevolent stares as they scoop up the feed.

The children's coordinator has a full programme of diversions including swimming races, egg and spoon and apple-on-a-string competitions. We watch a delightful cameo as a four-year-old boy stands bewildered before an apple.

On the command he just stares at it with a blank expression. After all, it doesn't make sense to eat fruit without using your hands, which someone has inconsiderately tied behind his back.

A cruise highlight is a shore excursion to Nacula Village School. Smiling pupils sing a medley of hymns and national songs in perfect harmony.

"We are one big happy family" is sung with actions and broad grins, which affirm the truth of the lyrics.

Island Night, with its Magiti feast, is the culmination of our cruise. I sip a Yasawa Sunset cocktail and gaze at the sky glowing red and orange. For a brief moment a golden pathway links the ship to the setting sun and it feels good to be alive.

We disembark at Lautoka to the sad refrain of Isa Lei, sung by our crew who seem genuinely sorry to see us go. They are beautiful people. There are big bowls of love wherever you go in Fiji and I don't just mean the kava.

Top tip: Take 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.

Getting there: Air New Zealand and Fiji Airways have daily departures from Auckland to Nadi.

Accommodation: On Viti Levu, try The Westin Denarau Island and The Sheraton Fiji Resort.

On the water: Blue Lagoon Cruises offers trips around Fiji's Yasawa Islands.

Further information: See bulafiji.com.