GERALDINE McMANUS joins a cruise that teaches passengers to think beyond the pursuit of pleasure, giving back as much they take
Alongside the beach on Blue Lagoon's paradise island, Nanuya Lailai, the fisherboy smiled shyly. With his bare feet, bare chest and clothed in just a pair of well-washed shorts he stretched into the centre of the family's wooden fishing craft and lifted the octopus for me to admire. He stood tall with the tentacles of the octopus almost extending to his height.
Nearby, his mother circled around the reef fishing and his father in charge of the outboard, now still and quiet, waited for the next catches to be thrown on board.
I, too, had snorkelled on the reef admiring a host of fish that swam around, above and below me like a cloud of butterflies across the sky. I was on time-out, snorkelling for pleasure. The young fisherman was on serious business - food for the family and for trade.
As I left the side of the fishing boat the father carefully poled the craft further from the reef and into deeper water and started the motor. Minutes later I saw the son and father guide their boat close alongside the elegant mini-cruise liner, the Blue Lagoon's Mystique Princess. There at the hatch, where the tenders are kept, trading began. Maybe, octopus would be on the menu.
"Don't give your son a fish, teach him to fish." This wise Fijian homily was part of a dinner discussion aboard and I thought back to the fisherboy. The statement stretched across the boundaries of cultures profoundly as a twist on an old saying "giving someone a fish is to feed them for a day, teach them to fish and they'll have food for a lifetime".
The saying became a reality as I enjoyed the four-day cruise in the beautiful, sparsely populated Yasawa islands.
Crisp white linen, glasses of wine and a full buffet of fresh seafood and exotic and delectable tropical fruits provided the backdrop to a cruise of a lifetime. Alongside this luxury and superb hospitality aboard, another world was being played out. Trade not aid is a philosophy integrated into Blue Lagoon's cruise business, spreading the benefits of tourism into the local community.
Early morning as many of the guests were sleeping, an engine started to whine, gradually opening the side hatch of the cruise liner. This is the opening for the aluminium tender run-abouts which are lifted by crane out into the water. I was up on deck watching the pink sky with dawn rays touching the clouds when I heard action below.
A host of local boats were coming alongside, each laden with fresh produce. Fish and fruit harvested and caught locally were being negotiated in this open-air boat market miles from a population of ready buyers. Aboard came the freshest of seafood, sacks of coconuts and hand-made baskets of fruit and vegetables. The chef and captain negotiating, the traders first stern then delighted, completed the transactions, fired up their outboards and zoomed away.
Aboard the Mystique Princess the day then began in earnest. Breakfast, lunch and dinner served with the freshest of seafood and local fruit.
"Starboard 10, mid ships, steady 142, port 5." In the wheelhouse Captain Simone Naivalu, carefully guided the 56m ship into shallower water for the village visit to Malakati. On the forecastle deck the brass bell was struck, and with anchor down, the tenders were lifted out and readied to ferry passengers ashore.
The Mystique Princess' wheelhouse is sophisticated and high-tech with modern instruments including ship-sized GPS, depth sounders and radar. Without high-tech knowledge I enjoyed plotting and following our course on a traditional chart.
These waters are not for the faint-hearted - the calm waters surrounding the islands and beyond the sea stretching to the horizon looks idyllic. Yet beneath the surface are numerous reefs.
Captain Simi is not only a high-tech expert, he also has an intimate knowledge of the area and his eyes keenly read the waves and colours of the water.
He grew up in the remote island village, Nacula, the next village to Malakati on the island of Navorua.
He smiled broadly as he told how he started aboard Blue Lagoon cruise boats as a dish washer, "a galley rat" he explains, his twinkling eyes creasing at the corners. Now, 35 years later he has worked his way up to commanding this beautiful ship and carefully steering around the islands, his home territory. He pointed out his village as we cruised serenely past.
"I walked 10 miles every morning and every afternoon to attend school," he recalls. Attending school had been a first step up on the ladder which took him to master of this vessel.
About 3pm we were welcomed to Malakati. Barefoot children were bounding into the village with school bags bouncing on their backs. I smiled at a girl in her well-washed purple school dress with white collar. We sat and talked as many other younger children gathered around. The girl's English was superb. She was 10 and possibly never had ridden in a car or seen TV. With an easy command of two languages and her local dialect, the world can open up for her.
Blue Lagoon Cruises, started by New Zealand tourism entrepreneurs around 50 years ago and still managed by New Zealanders, has always been based on sharing-providing opportunities for the people of the remote island villages to trade and earn much-needed revenue. This support backs the children's education adding books, school uniforms and medical clinics.
There is a dignity from the interchange that retains pride in traditions and lifestyle.
As the last tender left the shore after our village visit, buckets of seafood, fruit and vegetables were shipped out as well.
The travel experience aboard Blue Lagoon's Mystique Princess has all the attributes of the most wonderful, romantic tropical cruise with aquamarine waters, golden beaches, coconut trees and fantastic attention by the smiling and often singing crew.
Alongside this is the chance for a deeper understanding of the local people - a chance to experience rich cultural customs, to gain an insight into their Christian life and to see how the seasons roll around dictating the day's work - experiences that add immeasurably to the holiday cruise in enriching and enduring memories.
And in some small way, it's satisfying to know that our visit was not just pursuit of pleasure but also gave a little back in trade and encouragement of local life and traditions. Teaching their sons to fish.
* Geraldine McManus was hosted on a four day cruise by Blue Lagoon Cruises, Air Pacific and Fiji Air.