Michael Neilson discovers the waves dreams are made of on a surfing holiday to Fiji
The waves of Fiji are the stuff of legend.
Ask any surfer on the planet their dream waves and sure to be in the top five will be Cloudbreak - world-renowned for its long walls and perfect tubes.
The first adventurous surfers arrived here in the 1970s, camping out on deserted islands - now home to many luxury resorts - for months on end, with locals dropping off fresh water and supplies from the mainland weeks at a time.
But now, surfers can reach these perfect waves via luxury resorts and a short boat ride just off the coast of Nadi.
For my stay, home was the little-known beach village named Wailoaloa, just a short drive from Nadi International Airport.
While many Kiwis will head straight to the bustling resort-rich Denarau Island, here at Wailoaloa you can enjoy a relaxed, almost Caribbean-style beach atmosphere as a base.
Think cocktails and live music at sandy bars watching the sunset at night, while exploring the majestic sandy islands and waves just offshore during the day.
Locals love it here, backpackers too, with a couple of small lodgings along the sandy bay.
Now a few tasteful resorts have made it home, too - for those after something a little more comfortable - including the five-star Pullman Nadi Bay Resort & Spa.
I arrive mid-afternoon at the Pullman, and tuck into some of the delicious seafood options at Barefoot Bar & Grill - one of four restaurants here offering something for all tastes.
After a quick cool off in the pool, I take a short stroll down the beach to stretch my legs - and tummy.
Tourists are out mingling with locals to a game of volleyball, paddleboarding the tranquil waters offshore, or sipping cocktails from the various beach bars.
Soon enough live reggae music starts flowing, just in time for the sunset.
I make my way back to the Pullman's exclusive "adults-only" restaurant and bar venue Kah, for a cheeky mojito while soaking in the colourful show over the Pacific Ocean.
From Wailoaloa, guests can choose a myriad of daytime activities, from quad-biking for the adventurous, to short boat trips out to dreamy islands such as Castaway or Robinson Crusoe for those after something a little more relaxing.
For me though, it was all about the surfing.
Fiji can be surfed year-round, but the best time to visit is the dry season (March to October) when the southern ocean comes alive and the swell is more consistent.
The most famous waves of Fiji break here at the southern reaches of the Mamanuca Islands.
Spots like Cloudbreak and Namotu can get crowded because of international recognition - they used to hold a World Surf League stop here - but with hundreds of islands across the archipelago there are bound to be many a break untouched.
Most Fijian waves break over outer coral reefs like these ones - the only beach breaks on sand are at Sigatoka on Viti Levu's south coast, but even these are powerful and not for novices.
I'm booked in for a day trip to explore these famous reef passages just offshore Nadi with Fiji Surf Co.
Founder and owner Ian Ravouvou Muller grew up in the area, has been surfing for decades, and started Fiji Surf Co to offer expert guidance to those looking for the waves of their lifetimes.
Ian is also very involved in Surfing Fiji and developing the sport in the country, runs regular beach clean ups and reef restoration projects - all making him probably the best person to meet on a surfing vacation.
It is a 6am start to make sure we reach the break while the winds are nice and light.
As we pull up to the break it is something out of my dreams with perfect, thundering waves rolling along the reef pass, opening up into wide tubes for those that dare enter.
I'm told the waves today, which are approaching double overhead in size, are half as big as the day before, which I am quietly pleased about. For this spot is not for the faint-hearted.
Swells here form in the Antarctic waters just below Australia, travel up past New Zealand through the Tasman Sea, before detonating unimpeded on various passages in the reef atoll.
Exactly how that wall of water forms depends on the shape of the reef, with Cloudbreak, and nearby Restaurants, among some of the finest examples on the planet.
Here it is all about the barrel - also known as the tube - which occurs when the wave opens up into a cylindrical shape, allowing a skilful surfer to enter for a few moments of bliss.
But in a kind of yin and yang, with the reward comes the risk, and here it is in the form of a razor sharp coral reef.
There is a bit of a crowd out today, but there are no complaints with plenty of waves to go around and a friendly international line-up.
Plus even sitting and waiting for waves is an experience in itself. The reef is one of the most colourful I have ever seen, and through the glass-clear water you can marvel at all kinds of marine life.
They say the snorkelling here is great on small days - but not today.
As I paddle into the line-up I realise those smaller waves I thought I'd ease myself into are not actually small after all. And the way they jack up after hitting the reef means even they require a lot of skill - and courage.
For those after something a little more mellow there are dozens of breaks a short boat ride away, and the expert guides at Fiji Surf Co will be able find something for surfers of all levels.
But Cloudbreak has long been on my bucket list, so Cloudbreak it is.
My first wave is one of the smaller offerings - something to get comfortable with. Pumping down the line I get a slight fright at how clearly I can see the reef below - the water is that clear.
I make it off unscathed - now for something a little juicier.
After waiting my turn among the pack, a decent sized set arrives.
These waves are thick and fast, and just to make the drop requires bucketloads of speed and commitment.
Head down I am paddling like my life depends on it before the wave greets me, rising up out of the ocean, and I push all my weight down the face, fully-committed before jumping to my feet.
Seconds afterwards, the wave seems to grow even larger, towering above me and speeding off down the line. I have no choice but to commit, set my line and pull into one of the biggest barrels of my life.
I am a little too deep though and after several seconds of glory the wave shuts down, with me inside.
After performing a few underwater cartwheels I come up, somehow with all my skin remaining, and paddle straight back out for another.
Three hours later my rumbling tummy and sizzling skin tells me it is time to call it a day. One last wave though.
This wave is more about the turns, with a seemingly never-ending wall reeling off in front of me as I pump up and down the face to keep up.
Just before the wave closes out onto dry reef on the inside I kick out, feeling absolutely on top of the world.
But that feeling lasts a mere few seconds, as I turn around and realise I had caught the first wave of a rather large set.
I try to paddle to make it over the top of the first wave, but I am too late and a thick, three-metre high wave detonates in waist deep water right in front of me.
This would go on for another 10 waves, as I get swept further down the point. Some last wave, huh. A good 20 minutes later I am back on the boat, this time with a little less skin in tact.
But that is what it is all about - the risk and the reward, and today had plenty of rewards.
I am back at the Pullman for a late lunch, before a perfectly-timed full-body deep-tissue massage at the spa.
For dinner I sample some of the cuisine at the Thai restaurant Kah. The pad Thai and curries are probably the most delicious I've tried, with a Thai chef behind the scenes ensuring the food is as good as anything you'd find in their country of origin.
A few cocktails later, prepared by the expert staff, I decide to explore some of the beachfront nightlife.
There are several busy bars where locals mingle with tourists, sipping cocktails and local beers, inan atmosphere reminiscent of any tropical beach town the world over.
For those after a bit of dancing, the nightclubs of Nadi are a short taxi ride away. But I decide to call it a - relatively - early night, given my early flight home to Auckland the next day.
It is a sad feeling at the airport, knowing it is a cold, and rainy New Zealand winter awaiting me. But it is comforting knowing this surfer's paradise is but a three-hour flight and a short boat ride away.