Fiji: Slice of heaven (+photos)

By Cliff Taylor

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When Captain William Bligh sailed his small, open boat past the northern coast of Fiji in 1789, the welcome from the locals was about as friendly as the mood of his crew, who had infamously cast him adrift. Bligh knew the Fijians' reputation for cannibalism and decided against stopping for help.

Today, Bligh Water is renowned as a divers' playground and the welcome from the locals is as warm as the climate - very warm indeed, even in torrential rain.

Given that three days prior to my arrival on Fiji's Sun Coast, a foreign publisher had been deported from the country by the government of Prime Minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama, I was curious to see how a foreign journalist would be greeted here. Filling out the landing card, which warned visitors not to engage in any "religious vacotion" (sic) or research, piqued that curiosity even further.

I needn't have worried. In three days, I did not see a single soldier - not even in the second largest city Lautoka. Two and a quarter hours north on the Sun Coast, the coup and politics in general were simply things which happened "down in Suva".

The northern coast is a world away, not just from Suva, but from the well-established resorts of the Coral Coast and Denarau, which New Zealanders will be more familiar with.

My destination, Wananavu Beach Resort, is the largest in the area with 34 bures, yet still remains low key. The locals like to say it's the "real Fiji", but it's also a hangout for the rich and sort of famous.

The islands visible from Wananavu are all privately owned. One was bought by a Bermudan millionaire as a wedding present for his daughter, while the smaller Dolphin Island resort is the property of Huka Lodge owner Alex van Heeren, who has been known to fly in from Nadi for lunch.

The beautiful Nananu-i-Ra, with its nine palm-fringed, white sand beaches is also mostly owned by a New Zealand investor who has big plans for development. Right now the most glamorous resident is Iva Davies, frontman for Aussie rockers of days gone by, Icehouse.

The Kiwi connection continues at Wananavu, which is managed by Adrian and Alana Walters, who ran Queenstown Lodge for seven years. They say the Sun Coast is 20 years behind the rest of Fiji in terms of development - which is pretty much how they and their regular customers like it.

Add to that the fact that business is about 40 per cent down due to the coup, and the lucky ones who make it up to Wananavu are treated like family. Within hours everybody knows my name and I'm being serenaded by a four-piece guitar and ukelele band before being whisked off for a guided boat tour of the islands and a spot of snorkelling on a psychotropically coloured coral reef, with the squeals of fruit bats in my ears.

If the coast is 20 years behind, then the interior of this part of Fiji is at least a century, give or take the odd satellite dish and solar panel. The lush tropical landscape and living conditions are strikingly reminiscent of parts of equatorial Africa.

After a muffler-crunching taxi ride over a dirt road recently "repaired" with rocks the size of beach balls, we arrive at a picturesque village nestled beneath the looming, mist-shrouded cliffs of the Nakauvadra mountain range.

The whole village, really an extended family, is assembled and singing as we pull up; the precursor to a kava-drinking ceremony and more welcome songs and dances.

Later, mouths tingling, we head on foot into the hills, where vertiginous cassava fields are tilled with bullocks and the kind of ploughs left to rust on New Zealand farms 100 years ago. Our destination is a rocky river bed where a 4m natural stone slide enters a heart-shaped pool beneath pawpaw trees. Comparisons with the Garden of Eden don't seem outrageous here.

Just outside the main town of Rakiraki we pause to view the grave of a famous local chief, reputed to have eaten 40 of his enemies before his own demise at the end of the 1800s. Deportations seem mild in comparison.

My own dinner back at the resort is New Zealand beef and Otago pinot noir, courtesy of the Walters. They explain how they considered leaving Fiji when the coup happened "for about 30 seconds", but they are more than happy they decided to stay.

At dawn next morning I head into Bligh Water to trawl for mahimahi, Spanish mackerel, tuna and trevally. What we manage to catch is a couple of toothy barracuda, but the flying fish and the school of dolphins which surround the boat make the early start worthwhile.

A tropical downpour lasting several hours puts paid to a planned bamboo rafting trip on the Rewa river, so it's just me and the barracuda for lunch - and the four-piece band.

The rain also washes out the lovo (Fijian hangi) but the Wananavu kitchen staff produce a smorgasbord of delights, including marinated tuna in coconut, grilled mahimahi and a fantastically fresh salad of baby ferns (ota).

More swimming and snorkelling fills my final morning, followed by a visit to a pearl farm, where I watch a Japanese technician extract cultured black pearls from the fleshy innards of oysters. The best pearls are worth up to $1200 each.

There's just time for one more swim off nearby Volivoli Beach before preparing for the road trip back to Nadi.

But Wananavu has a final treat in store. As I sit waiting for the minivan, the four-piece band appears and breaks into a version of the lovely Isa Lei - the Fijian farewell song. One by one, staff members wander in and join the chorus. I don't quite know where to look, but it's one of the most moving experiences I've ever had.

- Detours, HoS

- Herald on Sunday

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