'Vinaka' is 'thank you' and much more for the Yasawas, writes Lisa Scott.

Hope would fall through the holes in their pockets if the people of the Yasawas didn't have a dream to cling to. Enter a different kind of tourist experience.

Fiji has 333 islands. Some are large, some small - sticking up like green molars in a Listerine sea, each with its own smile of beach. The water around them is so blue, other blues must be embarrassed, so blue it looks photoshopped.

Tourists flock to Fiji's resorts; where the cares of the world are shed as easily as winter clothes (revealing all the ills flesh is heir to) and the worst that could happen is a stab in the mouth from a cocktail umbrella. Golf courses, swimming pools, champagne for breakfast ... with life no longer lived at taxi-meter pace, reality drops away and it becomes an effort to turn the page of your thriller. Cast on a sun lounger, here is where most remain. Vast in entitlement, lean on meaningful encounters.

However, there is another Fiji. Dotted in a palmy archipelago northwest of Viti Levu are the remote and unspoilt Yasawas: crystalline waters, pearl bright sands, lush forests and soaring peaks - far, far removed from the cracking pace of Nadi's development. No four-lane highways being built here.


Following the mutiny on the HMS Bounty, William Bligh was the first westerner to sight this group of 20 islands in 1789, but the Yasawas remained largely ignored by the wider world until the United States used them for communication outposts during World War II. Volcanic in origin (their riven and spiky sides reminiscent of Orc armour ) the region was made famous by Brooke Shields and Christopher whatshisname in the 1980 movie The Blue Lagoon; a tropical tale of cousinly love.

The pristine beaches of the Yasawas are a playground for children whose smiles entrance visitors.
The pristine beaches of the Yasawas are a playground for children whose smiles entrance visitors.

The splendour of these unplugged isles is their pristine nature. No plastic bags jellyfish the ocean, empty snack packets do not tumble in the breeze. The clearest water in the world teems with myriad fish and every now and then a showy sailfin jumps out of it. Most serene at dawn as the sun rises in glorious pink, it's paradise.

But paradise is very poor. The 27 villages in the region, despite their extreme beauty, exist well below world standards of health and poverty. With land-based tourism banned until 1987, locals missed out on the benefits of tourist largesse in this isolated location until Awesome Adventures (who also own the boutique cruise ship Fiji Princess, not the only way to get there but probably the nicest) started the Vinaka Fiji Trust in 2010. With the aim of helping communities become fully sustainable and self-supporting, "Vinaka" meaning thank you - is a way for visitors to give without taking - with the focus on three core programmes: children, schools and education; creating sustainable communities; marine research and conservation.

Naviti Island High and Primary School is a low cluster of weathered prefabs, some half-demolished by the hurricane three years ago. It has a roll of about 200, is the only secondary school in the Yasawas and village children travel far from home to board here at tender ages. Overgrown with barbed grass, it looks like a school recently burgled, though the things so demonstrably absent were never there to begin with. Science classrooms devoid of Bunsen burners, the library Dickensian.

"Yasawa is a paradise and everyone wants to go there" run the words of the school anthem, the children singing, not for their suppers, which they'll be cooking themselves, but teaching resources and internet. Amid all this beauty, a terribly hard-knock life. "God's blessing upon you," they said. I was already blessed, by accident of birth and felt it keenly, while girls walked two hours over the mountain every day to school.

In a triumph of optimism, Naviti High last year managed to send 15 students to university in Nadi, something of which the school is justly proud. Education is everything here and the students are as fine and unspoilt as these islands. According to Master Hereimi, the main challenge is water. The school doesn't have a proper supply although, with an absence of irony only underscoring the canyon of privilege between us, "We have been able to handle the other challenges."

The Yasawas, Fiji.
The Yasawas, Fiji.

Volunteers handy with their hands help plant vegetable gardens and install rainwater tanks with the goal of securing the World Health Organisation's millennium development goal of "all people having access to 5 litres of drinking water per person per day". Programmes are structured in blocks of seven nights: five days of volunteering and two of relaxation, for up to 26 weeks. A fee covers accommodation, transfers, meals and project costs and all volunteers must provide a police clearance or working with children check from their country of residence. Base camp is the Barefoot Island Lodge on Drawaqa Island.

Kindness to others, balm to a selfish life - the Vinaka Fiji volunteer programme is growing in popularity with tourists, who want to make the Yasawas paradise for those who live there, too.


Getting there
Fiji Airways flies from Auckland to Nadi with return Economy Class fares starting from $630. fijiairways.co.nz

Further information
Fiji Princess runs on a variety of schedules with a four-night "Wanderer" cruise and a three-night "Explorer" tour taking in the Mamanuca Islands or the full seven-night "Escape to Paradise".

To find out more about volunteering, go to vinakafiji.org.fj.