Fiji: Return to the blue lagoon

By Paul Rush

The end of another perfect Yasawa day. Photo / Paul Rush
The end of another perfect Yasawa day. Photo / Paul Rush

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 three four-metre lemon sharks. We're sending a Kiwi down today so they'll be waiting for him.'

Down in 'The Chapel' dive spot, so named because it was discovered on a Sunday, I watch the bait attract a thousand silver fish but like the residents on land, the sharks are in tune with the famously flexible 'Fiji Time' and take a while to show up.

Giving the divers a cautious look, 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.

My close encounter on the seabed is just one highlight on a Blue Lagoon Cruises leisurely sail around Fiji's Yasawa Islands on the sleek, white-hulled motor yacht Mystique Princess.

The seven-day cruise offers many opportunities to relate to other aquatic wonders as, day after day, new islands loom out of the bluest of oceans.

Snorkelling amongst the pretty coral gardens I see a fiesta of brightly coloured fish; demoiselles gliding gracefully, angelfish suspended as if in prayer, clownfish darting into anemone hideaways and Maori wrasse mooching around for a feed.

Land-based wonders are equally impressive in the Yasawas, like the pure white sand that squeaks under your toes and majestic palm trees that frame every view of the turquoise bays and azure ocean.

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 come so naturally. They are simply the friendliest people on earth.

This was evident the moment I stepped on board the boat. Cruise Director, Kim Prasad, 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".

Later I experience the marvellous spirit of the people in a visit to a local village, where we gather in the large meeting house.

The assembled multitude is remarkably still and silent. 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. As elected chief of the visiting clan, I clap my hands once to signify that I'm ready to begin the ancient Yaqona kava ceremony.

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 wellbeing.

I succumb to the Fijian version of 'One for the road' and feel affably mellow; dancing in the conga line with my feet hardly touching the floor and being twirled around like a rag doll by island ladies in raffia skirts and bright floral sarongs.

A cruise highlight is our visit to a village school, where a class of wide-eyed pupils with an endearing unspoilt naturalness, sing action songs in perfect harmony. 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 an hilarious pantomime of arm-flapping bird dances, which has everyone doubled up with laughter.

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 a 'lovo' earth oven. When opened it reveals a potpourri of pork, beef, goat, chicken, fish with taro, cassava, sweet potato and breadfruit.

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.

Kim always has a cheery word for us on the public address 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.

FACT FILE

Getting there: Air New Zealand and Air Pacific have daily 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.

Further information: For more on visiting Fiji, see bulafiji.com.

Paul Rush was hosted by Blue Lagoon Cruises, the Sheraton Fiji Resort and Westin Denarau Island Resort.

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