It takes a lot of trust to snorkel in unknown waters after dark, especially for someone who wears spectacles and has a morbid fear of eels.
But here I was, clutching the edge of a paddleboard with one hand and a small torch in the other, following my guide Osea into the ocean surrounding Savasi Island Resort in Fiji's remote Savusavu to see the creatures of the not-really-that-deep by night.
We'd left the resort's boat ramp just after a glorious Fijian sunset on the paddleboard to save our legs on our way out to the reef. I was perched on the front in my wetsuit and flippers like a Fijian princess as Osea paddled us along, and when he thought we'd gone far enough we jumped into the black ocean to begin our nocturnal exploration.
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For the next 30 minutes as we pootled around the island, Osea's eagle eyes spotted a few ornate lionfish (venomous to touch but okay to eat) and a camouflaged flatfish, as well as a few scuttling crabs and sea snails sheltering in pretty shells. Then, right at the end, we disturbed a moray eel who, thankfully, scarpered fairly quickly so I didn't have to hyperventilate into my mask.
Night snorkelling is one of dozens of activities offered at Savasi Island Resort, set on a 21ha tropical rainforest-clad private island a few minutes east of Savusavu's tiny airport and just 10 minutes from its small but bustling township on the northern Fijian island of Vanua Levu.
This largely untouched slice of paradise offers a different experience of the South Pacific nation, far removed from the tourist-heavy destinations on the mainland and in the Mamanucas. Known for its hot springs, pearl farming, dive sites in its deep, blue bays and its towering, tropical rainforest-clad peaks, Vanua Levu is about an hour's flight from Nadi whether you land in Labasa in the north or at Savusavu on the southern coast.
Savasi Island Resort is accessed via a short private bridge that leads to a long driveway winding through its lush grounds to where staff with guitars and garlands await your arrival. It has a simple mantra on its discreet signage: Private. Beautiful. Peaceful.
Tick, tick and tick. The resort is currently home to just 10 well-appointed villas, almost all of which have their own pools. Ranging in size from one bedroom to three, each has its own unique feel - some have outdoor showers, one has an enormous outdoor bathtub - and all boast a stunning, slightly different view of the island's outlook.
There are quirky features throughout the villas - some have their bathroom taps nestled inside large shells - and while several offer connected or shared spaces, all have their bedrooms and bathrooms completely self-contained. There are no TVs to be seen anywhere, but the Wi-Fi connection is good if you really can't live without Netflix.
Savasi's owners have also carefully restored and repurposed the Tui Tai, a 140-foot schooner damaged during Cyclone Winston in 2016. Now called Serenity, she is permanently anchored next to the island as floating accommodation and has five staterooms with ensuites, as well as a hot tub, decktop daybeds and a communal bar, lounge and dining area.
You can be as active or as social at the resort as you fancy, and with most people staying at least five nights, there is plenty of time for a little of both. Most on-island activities are complimentary, with reasonable charges for the rest. A cheery chalkboard lists a few scheduled activities each day but if you want to do something at a different time, no problem. "This is your holiday so we run on your schedule," one of the managers, Arnold, tells me.
For the active relaxers, there is the night snorkelling expedition, of course, morning yoga sessions with Torika, hikes of varying difficulty, a visit to the spectacular Vuadomo Waterfall about 40 minutes west of the resort (take your togs, the swim in the pristine waters underneath it is dreamy on a hot day), and a serene kayak down the mangrove forest-lined Qaloqalo River to Salt Lake, a 40ha inland sea which fills with saltwater on the ocean tides. There's also an onsite dive centre, you can take a stand-up paddleboard or kayak for a spin around the island - perhaps to the nearby blowhole - or try spearfishing and mud crabbing under the watchful eye of the activities team.
For the relaxing relaxers, there are plenty of options too. You can hit up the very well-priced spa for a flowing massage or facial with Pure Fiji products or seek out one of the loungers or daybeds positioned on secluded beaches around the island and the private pool at your villa.
Another option is a gentle herbal tour with Sairusi around the island's verdant grounds which reveals not only a peek at the resort's pantry but its medicine cabinet too. There are dozens of plants and trees that have healing properties to help ease all kinds of ills, from colds and headaches to indigestion and diabetes, and there are remedies too for the likes of gonorrhoea, diarrhoea and scabies. I quickly realise Sairusi must be a very popular man in a crisis. As we wander around, he gathers up a few fragrant leaves - cinnamon, mint, lemon and aniseed - and whips us up an effective air freshener for our villas which lasts my entire stay.
Where everyone knows your name
It's hard to think of a destination where the people embody its spirit more than Fiji and at Savasi Island, the staff envelop you and quickly claim you as one of their own. They all know your name by the time you've finished your first meal and they generously and proudly share their culture, whether it's via a lovo feast at the resort (a traditional meal of smoky meats and vegetables cooked in an earth oven, similar to a hangi) or a coconut and basket weaving demonstration.
Late afternoon on Day Two sees us lined up at the entrance to Waivunia Village behind two young warriors in traditional dress. Our guide from Savasi, Jope, sorts out which of the men in our group will take the lead in the welcoming and kava ceremony we're about to experience, which will be hosted by the village chief.
It's an honour to be here and the gravitas of the situation is treated with respect by the Savasi guests who observe the sombre ceremony largely in silence, with their iPhones and cameras tucked away. After the final kava bowl is down the hatch it's time for the party to begin - a joyful and jubilant meke (song and dance performance) by young and old, including some extremely excited youngsters, who raise the roof as they rattle through a dozen or more songs while performing their hearts out.
Another afternoon, we learn how to make kokoda so fresh and tart it makes your tastebuds tingle - fleshy chunks of walu (Spanish mackerel) marinated in freshly squeezed coconut cream and mixed with lemon, chilli, onions, tomatoes and coriander.
The dining options at all-inclusive resorts can sometimes be a bit hit and miss but chef Pita makes sure the food at Savasi is never boring. Menus change daily and guests are asked at breakfast what they'd fancy for lunch or dinner, which is quite a nice way to get the tough decision-making of the day over early. Beautifully presented, star dishes include the likes of pan-fried walu in parmesan butter, a divine dessert of tapioka vakalolo (cassava dumplings in caramelised coconut milk), prawn quesadillas and a masala curry platter.
The sprawling open-air dining room offers tables both under cover and outside and if you fancy staying in, you can eat in your villa for no extra cost (on Serenity there is a kitchen the chefs can use to prepare your meal onboard the ship).
If you want to mix it up one night for something extra special, there are plenty of private spots to dine around the resort too. Home to several natural limestone caves, the staff can set you up a table in a secluded grotto or barefoot on the beach and arrange live music while you eat, also for no extra charge (duets of Islands in the Stream by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton and Snow Patrol's Chasing Cars by front of house superstar Rico and activities maestro DJ are particular highlights).
If you're really lucky, the cave directly under the main dining room, which has a crystal clear pool, will have a visitor or two - recently a sea turtle decided he wanted to hang out there for a month, and there are often lobsters and tropical fish taking a load off underneath its trickling waterfall.
Barman Kele remembers your pre-dinner aperitif from Day One (gin and tonic thanks, elevated to another level with Fijian kaffir limes bursting with flavour) and Mila makes a mean coffee just the way you like it. Dietary requirements? No problem - as long as you give a little warning, Pita can work his magic in the kitchen to make sure you're taken care of.
Until we meet again
All too quickly, it's time to say goodbye to my new friends. Five jam-packed days have sped by but have created memories that will last forever. Savasi Island and Savusavu are beautiful destinations, yes, but as with much of Fiji, spending time with the people and learning about the culture is what will linger long after the tan has faded. As we gather for one last time and the staff sing Isa Lei, the deeply moving Fijian farewell song, I'm surprised to find myself in tears. "Sota tale", one of the staff says to me, "until we meet again".
You can count on it.
Fiji Airways flies direct from Auckland to Nadi. fijiairways.com
Rates start from US$450 per night for two adults. savasiisland.com