Fiji: Be sure to pack a smile

By Sue Baxalle

You can choose relaxation or adventure — or maybe a mixture of both — on board a boutique cruise ship journeying through Fiji's Yasawa Islands, writes Sue Baxalle.

The Fiji Princess was tied to a coconut tree for an overnight stop. Photo / Supplied
The Fiji Princess was tied to a coconut tree for an overnight stop. Photo / Supplied

The first few times I heard Isa Lei - being sung to hotel guests about to depart as they enjoyed their final breakfast or dinner, the depth of feeling brought tears to my eyes. While by the end of our week in Fiji we'd heard the farewell song many more times - from traditional meke performers, school children, our lovely cruise crew and the restaurant staff at our group's last dinner together, not once did we get the feeling it was a duty.

Indeed, music is a part of daily life for Fijians. Every evening on the cruise ship Fiji Princess begins with happy hour and, as we relaxed with drinks in the bar, crew members would gather to serenade us with traditional songs.

A firm favourite of our cruise was soon Buli Madrai, the Fijian equivalent of Old Macdonald, and the crew had great fun with the animal sounds - who knew there were monkeys, elephants and the like in Fiji?

The singing was accompanied by guitar, ukulele and percussion instruments, including a water flagon standing in for a drum ably played by chief drummer Captain Jitoko.

Drumming, guitar-playing and singing proved to be only three of his many talents. As well as overseeing the progress of the Fiji Princess on her tour of the Yasawas, Jitoko also proved to be a skilled basket-weaver and coconut husker.

Cruise director Miri told me it is "natural for Fijians to sing" and it comes as second nature for the crew to entertain the passengers - all the crew are multiskilled, doubling as entertainers, tender operators for trips off the ship, even swimming guides as the need arises.

Head steward Dawn said the whole crew is like a family - they call Jitoko Ta Ji (Ta being the Fijian word for "Dad").

We had joined the Fiji Princess for the four-night section of her weekly tour, which would take us from the Sacred Islands north to the Yasawas, with the central focus of this stage an overnight sojourn tied up to a coconut palm off the company's private beach on Nanuya Lailai.

Blue Lagoon Cruises is named after this beautiful area - and the movies that brought it to international fame.

When I was growing up, close friends of my family had ties to the Yasawas, so I had developed an image of the archipelago to the north-west of mainland Viti Levu as an alluring Pacific paradise of tropical traditions and had long since dreamed of visiting the paradise I imagined them to be - fuelled in 1980 by the movie Blue Lagoon, starring Brooke Shields.

The name Blue Lagoon, shared by the cruise company, is given to the waters between Nanuya Lailai and its neighbour, Nanuya Levu (also known as Turtle Island).

However, it was not the 1980 version that was shown on movie night, rather the 1949 original Blue Lagoon, starring Jean Simmons and Donald Houston but it was still special to see the Yasawan setting while anchored alongside the real thing.

Food was plentiful on the cruise - the oft-repeated motto of captain and crew was "the more you eat, the better you float" - and it was fresh and top-notch all the way. The kitchen team even produced three birthday cakes over the four days (unusually presenting them either before or during dinner). Three meals a day were served, with morning and afternoon tea in between - all the better to achieve the flotation levels required - and, if not served on board, they were brought to the beach.

One evening we were treated to a lovo - a Fijian style of hangi - and on another a meal cooked by the local village of Tamusua. The plan was to visit the village and eat there, but Captain Jitoko ruled that the winds had risen too much for a safe disembarkation, so instead, the feast was delivered to the Fiji Princess. This was followed by a kava ceremony - for the brave.

A cruise in the Yasawas can be as relaxed or as action-packed as you want.

There's the relaxing option where the most difficult choice is whether to stay on one of the sun decks and soak up the rays with a book, cocktail in hand, or the action holiday in which you venture on to the islands - each day a new pristine, white sand beach to discover and clear waters in which to swim or kayak.

But for me, the highlight was under the water. All that was needed was flippers, snorkel and mask, and the door to an enchanted world opened.

Fiji's balmy waters are reportedly home to more than 1200 varieties of reef fish and more than 300 types of coral. It was like swimming in an aquarium.

The water was crystal clear, allowing a perfect view of the stunning forms and colours of the coral and its inhabitants - themselves just as colourful, from the zebra fish to the blue and yellow angelfish, another tiny, bright blue fish and the pretty parrotfish, to name but a few.

The ultimate challenge for the avid snorkellers in our group was to come on our final day.

With the ship anchored off Barefoot Island (Drawaqa), we waited impatiently for the call to action. High tide was around 4pm and with it was expected the arrival of the manta rays. The channel between Drawaqa and Naviti islands is a feeding channel for the graceful fish between May and October, with the warm waters suited for filter feeding and where their favourite food, plankton, is plentiful.

Back on the ship, fears of snorkellers risking the fate of Steve Irwin had been put to rest by crew members (and passengers armed with smartphones or laptops hooked up to the ship's wi-fi, so able to consult Google), who assured us it was actually a stingray, not a manta that killed the Australian conservationist. Mantas, although much bigger in size, lack the poisonous barb in their tail and are therefore harmless to humans.

Finally we were called to the tender to go in pursuit, joining several other boats and tenders circling the ray hot spot.

At last there was a sighting and crewman Miti took us to join the pack of hopeful manta followers. The group on our tender was not so lucky, with only one snorkeller sighting one of these amazing creatures briefly, seconds after plunging into the sea.

If the word "cruise" brings to mind a huge passenger vessel that sails for days before stopping off for brief visits at ports, Blue Lagoon Cruises is far from this.

For a start, the recently renovated catamaran is more of a "boutique" ship, with 34 cabins accommodating a maximum of 68 passengers and there are 26 crew members. Staying on the Fiji Princess is like being in a five-star hotel on a floating desert island.

The crew were genuinely happy to help and quickly knew everybody by name. Everything we could need was provided, from the snorkels, masks and fins to beach mats and towels.

As relaxing as the week was, there was no time for boredom. This is the ideal cruise for those who like to get off the beaten tourist track and is suited to all ages, with swimming, kayaking, an island walk and cultural encounters.

All the passenger really needs beyond swimwear, shorts and T-shirts, sunscreen and insect repellent (they were keen to feast on us during our evening lovo on Nanuya Lailai) is a smile.

And as Miri and the crew reminded us frequently during the cruise, the better you smile, the better the weather.

Isa lei, Blue Lagoon - and vinaka vakalevu.

INTO THE COOL, EERIE BLACK DEPTHS WE GO ...

BULA!

The call resounds as our guide intones the greeting, deep in a watery grotto of Sawa-i-lau Island.

We had descended the steps into the first cavern, itself breaktaking, with light beaming down through a hole in the ceiling, softly illuminating the limestone walls. The time to get our bearings and get used to the mystical feel of the cave was appreciated, as we garnered courage for the anticipated plunge into darkness.

We had been told we would have to dive through a narrow tunnel to reach the much smaller second cavern, a thought that proved too much for some.

The level of the water obviously varies with the tide, though on our visit we found the transition between caves easier than we expected.

Ably helped through by Fiji Princess crew members, we each took a deep breath and plunged under a rocky overhang to re-emerge within seconds in the darkness of the inner cave.

However, while we were all decked out with goggles and snorkels, these were not needed; for those like me with poor eyesight, it came as a relief to be able to forgo the goggles for my glasses and truly take in the majesty of that gloomy grotto.

It was eerily quiet and while the water was slightly cooler than in the open sea, far from cold. Once used to the darkness, we moved further to the back, careful to avoid sharp rocks jutting from the walls, and discovered yet another funnel of light from above.

Tradition holds that a young chief hid his betrothed in the cave after her family threatened to marry her off to a rival chief. Every day he would swim into this hidden grotto with food for her until eventually they both escaped to the safety of another island and to be together forever. The sacred Sawa-i-lau Caves are also known as the resting place of the 10-headed ancient Fijian god, Ulutini.

There are about 100 or so limestone caves on Sawa-i-Lau, and this, we are told, is the Bula cave. The acoustics are amazing. Our guide intones "bula" and it chimes around in the chamber. We are urged to join in with a massive "Bula bula!" The call is returned. We make our way slowly back to the exit tunnel, all singing You Are My Sunshine as the sound resonates in the darkness.

Back on the beach to refuel with afternoon tea, I ask Merewalesi about the legend associated with one of the other caves. Known as the pregnancy cave, it is apparently the place to go if you don't have access to a testing kit.

She explains that custom has it that while women of any size and shape can enter this particular chamber, if they are pregnant and are hiding the truth, they will get stuck until they admit it.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has daily flights to Fiji.

The journey: Our Fiji Princess sojourn was the four-night "Wanderer" cruise, but options are available for a three-night "Explorer" tour taking in the Mamanuca Islands (including Modriki, the setting of Tom Hanks' Castaway film) or the full seven-night "Escape to Paradise". For most of the year Blue Lagoon Cruises is exclusive to adults in the style of smaller boutique resorts. However, they offer a selection of departure dates for family cruises within the Australian and New Zealand school holidays.

Further information: See bluelagooncruises.com

The writer visited the Yasawa Islands as a guest of Blue Lagoon Cruises.

- NZ Herald

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