Quiet little backwaters in the South Pacific can often be a pearl of a holiday destination that takes your breath away, writes Paul Rush.

Stepping ashore on Fiji's Vana Levu Island gives me an instant feeling of the immutable, timeless quality of Savusavu township. Within a very short time the bright smiling faces and enthusiastic "Bula" greetings make you feel like a local.

Main Street straggles along the tidal fringe of a magnificent deepwater harbour backed by coconut palms. Pristine white-hulled, tall-masted schooners rock gently on the serene waters. If I picture them as square-rigged cutters, the scene becomes a vividly realistic movie set for the Mutiny on the Bounty.

Life moves at a slow pace in the municipal market, just like the Fiji of old. Fresh fruits, veges, fish and coconuts are neatly arrayed on the wooden stalls and the locals shuffle around inspecting the offerings. The moment the fresh catch of tuna, wahi, lobster and freshwater prawns are carried in, buyers and sellers become animated, gathering in a dense cluster around the fish coolers.

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Prices are very reasonable here and at the adjacent handicraft market. Though there's an option to negotiate, I can't bring myself to barter as all the vendors are obviously hard-working and dedicated to making a living for their families.

Within the venerable old Copra Shed I linger over ethereal South Seas oil paintings in the Art Gallery then stumble over the highlight of my visit — the J Hunter Pearls shop where I'm in time to join a short boat tour of the black pearl farm.

As we manoeuvre out between a fleet of luxury vessels, it becomes obvious the international yachting set has made Savusavu one of the Pacific's top destinations. The US Navy chose this harbour as a "hurricane hole" during WWII, a refuge during the cyclone season, as it is for seafarers today.

Looking back at the verdant hills of this volcanic island, northeast of Fiji's main island, I realise the seemingly sleepy port has a cluster of classy resorts and hotels where world travellers can find their own piece of paradise.

Marila, a local girl suitably adorned with a black pearl necklace, is our guide. At a floating pontoon in the middle of the bay, two men are hauling up long strings of astonishingly large oysters.

They are cleaning the algae and barnacles from the outer shells to protect them from harmful organisms. It takes six months to clean the 900 lines, then it's time to start the process all over again.

The species of oyster called pictada margaritifera is unique to Polynesia and cultivated using techniques pioneered by Kokichi Mikimoto. There are a million maturing oysters suspended on the habitat lines that each year yield 40,000 black pearls.

Marila demonstrates how the oysters are carefully cleaned and prised open to reveal their delicate organs. Pearl cultivation scientists make a scalpel incision just large enough to insert a 6mm spherical bead made of Mississippi River mussel shell.

The little white bead will be the nucleus of a new black pearl, provided the oyster detects the irritant and co-operates by coating it with nacre, or mother of pearl.

This species is the only oyster able to create pearls of specific colours and Justin Hunter's farm specialists have another trick up their sleeve. They look for a mature donor oyster with a gold mantle and cut 50 sections off it to place inside recipient oysters to trick them into making a golden-hued pearl. But the creatures have a wilful streak, producing only three perfect pearls per 100 implants.

The colour range of the black pearls on display in the Hunter Pearl Showroom in Savusavu is spellbinding — shimmering green, aubergine, chocolate, champagne, pink-tinged and the very rare and subtle shades of bronze and gold. One in particular has a truly mesmerising golden lustre.

This is a paragon; a gem-quality pearl that is extremely rare and has no blemishes. It is the only one of its kind in the shop.

A strange feeling comes over me — a feeling of desire and childlike wonderment. Seeing this pearl reminds me why people travel; to chance upon the sublime and experience something quite new and unique.

A holidaying couple from our cruise ship are also admiring this pearl of great price. The shop assistant holds it high and it puts on a scintillating light show.

The assistant then carries it into the natural light and places it carefully around the lady's neck. In the natural light it has the brilliant lustre of burnished gold that charms the eye and captivates the heart. The couple decide to buy it at the listed price of $1600.

Kiwis are still learning about the tropical delights of Savusavu. It's an ideal place for a holiday for people in love with nature and each other.

There's the added bonus of acquiring one of nature's little miracles, a set of pearls. The secret of the mother of all pearls has now been revealed.

FACT BOX

Savusavu is a one-hour flight from Nadi on the island of Vana Levu. It has accommodation to suit all budgets and a peaceful get-away-from-it-all ambience that is ideal for honeymooners and eco-tourists.

Pearl Quality

Real black pearls of fine quality should always feel weighty and cool to the touch. Run them across the back of your hand. To test for the genuine product, rub the pearl along the soft flesh of the cheek and it should feel slightly gritty, not smooth.

Using the teeth is not recommended as molars are two on the Moes Scale of Hardness and pearls are three (diamonds are 10). The best way to determine the nacre thickness of a black pearl is with an x-ray, which some specialist pearl shops have.

P&O Cruises operates a number of cruises from Auckland to Australia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

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