Taveuni sits below the tourist radar and long may that last, writes Andrew Stone
The outboard drifted slowly over Rainbow Reef, a kaleidoscopic coral mass in the tropical Fijian waters of Somosomo Strait.
The ocean was clear enough to make out blooms deep below the surface. It was warm too, so we didn't need wetsuits, just a T-shirt to protect our backs as we floated like turtles under the midday sun. We left Barry O'Neill's runabout and slid into the sea. Seen through a mask, the edge of the reef slipped into the deep blue depths. Fish moved lazily among coral outcrops, stopping to nip at soft floral stalks waving gently in the current.
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Then a thrill: way below us an actual turtle glided along the reef. We watched as the solitary creature slowly waved its flippers and was carried away. The current took us through paths in the reef, and over what the locals call the cabbage patch. The coral is brown rather than green, but uncannily resembles cabbage leaves. It starts at a depth of 3m and runs down to 18m, so it suits both snorkelling and scuba diving.
We weren't matchfit for a dive, so didn't get to see Rainbow's famed white wall, a sheet of pale soft corals that draws divers from around the world. But with a mask and snorkel we saw plenty in just half an hour, including a 1.5m reef shark that came by for a look but thankfully had other things on its mind.
Rainbow Reef is one of the must-dos on Taveuni, a large but sparsely populated island east of Vanua Levu. Taveuni sits below the radar of Fiji's big drawcards which, as we discovered in a jam-packed few days, is not a bad place to be. It means you can enjoy its gems with barely a tourist in sight, take in the knowledge of proud local guides and shrug off all the 9-to-5 baggage.
Barry O'Neill, who took us out to the reef in his smart white launch, is a Kiwi expat who, with wife Colleen, runs the upscale Taveuni Palms Resort. He didn't hesitate when l asked if he missed New Zealand.
"How could l," he grinned, waving at our surroundings. "Sometimes l have to wait for a part to arrive from Suva to repair something at the resort. But who's in hurry?"
Who indeed. Our hurry was ticking off the places we wanted to see but in truth, we didn't need to stress. Taveuni's attractions are within easy reach of Matei, a small pretty town and home to the airport. The coral gardens we visited with O'Neill were a comfortable 20-minute boat ride at just a few knots.
Our other trips took us into Taveuni's sticky tropical interior. Both tested our comfort zones. Bouma National Park is a half-hour drive by ute along the east coast. The park covers 20,000ha and runs up to Des Voeux Peak, at 1195m the second highest point on Taveuni. We had a morning up our sleeve so didn't take on the three-hour slog through the lush bush to the summit, which was hidden under thick cloud. But we did push 45 minutes into the park and were rewarded with waterfall swims along Tavoro trail.
There are three waterfalls and the third, reached after a bit of a puff along a steep and tricky track, is the most rewarding. A pool beneath the falls is cooling after the trek, and deep enough to safely leap 6m off a rock ledge into the water.
It would have been fun to stay longer and strike out to the mythical Lake Tagimaucia, where Fiji's rare red and white national flower blooms from October to December.
Legend has it the flowers owe their origins to a princess stuck in an arranged marriage but whose heart lay with another man. Leaving her village, the unhappy woman fell asleep by the lake, where her tears became the tagimaucia flowers - a Fijian word which means to cry your sleep. Besides the princess' tears, the lake, which lies in a volcanic crater, draws bird watchers seeing rare silk tails and orange doves.
We didn't spot any doves - only a friendly young dog, which must have left a nearby village to see what food it could haggle from park visitors.
On the opposite coast, we spent half a morning at the scary Waitavala waterslide, a natural rock halfpipe which, at first sight, is somewhat daunting. The only advice offered before tackling the smooth rock slide is to keep your elbows tight. The ride was over in a flash, but l still managed to bang my bones before I splashed into a pool. Local kids zip upright down the slide as if they're riding a skateboard. It was fun - if a little nerve-wracking.
The road leading from the falls takes you past Taveuni's prison. Inside a barbed wire fence, a group of inmates were sitting in the shade of a tree. One prisoner was cutting hair, while a guard sat nearby. They cheerfully waved. I could have sworn the
barber was offering a trim.
During our stay, the only show in town was a rugby sevens tournament hosted by local legend Semi Radradra. The flying AFL league star - who plays sevens for the
Fijian national side - sponsored a competition on Taveuni. He was on a billboard outside a school.
The event drew teams from all over the country, most arriving by ferry and being put up by schools and churches. For four days, all eyes were on a sports ground at Welagi beside Somosomo Strait.
A makeshift market grew around the field, with temporary stalls selling food, cool drinks and team jerseys. Lots of kava was consumed. Semi's show was fun.
Against the odds - some of Fiji's top names were playing - the local side, Taveuni First Light, won the tournament.
Semi was at the island's tiny airport when we left, hanging with friends and farewelling players. There was laughter and kava and a sense they would do it again.
It would be fun to be with them.
Fiji Airways flies direct from Auckland to Nadi and Suva. fijiairways.co.nz