A rustic escape from the mundane is an eye-opener, writes Stephanie Holmes.
The bright yellow Yasawa Flyer catamaran takes close to three hours to make it from the bustling marina at Port Denarau to our island, Barefoot Manta. Swell and patches of heavy rain along the way leave those of us sitting on the outside decks soaking, and a few passengers suffering from bad bouts of seasickness. Not the start I'd hoped for during my few days in paradise, but luckily things only get better.
We stop along the way to drop off and pick up passengers, at various islands in the Mamanuca and Yasawa groups. Some are tiny circles of sand barely bigger than a rugby field; others larger, with lush green hills and imposing rock formations giving way to white sand beaches better than any picture you've seen.
Barefoot Manta, a resort with five types of accommodation ranging from four-bed dorms to large family safari-tent bures, has a real communal feel. We're welcomed at the main bure by Saki and the Barefoot crew, who give guests a rundown of the island and its potential activities. Snorkelling, diving, kayaking, village tours, sunrise hikes, sunset boat trips, coconut demonstrations, jewellery making . . . you can be as busy or as sedate as you like.
You won't want to book too much into your schedule however as everywhere you turn there are perfect vantage points to sit, gaze at the ocean and the powdery sand, and relax.
The view from my bure is enough for me to never want to leave it. From bed, or the sofa, or the wooden chairs on my deck, the view is what dreams are made of and the tranquility washes over me like the rolling waves just 20 steps away (I counted). The sounds are almost entirely of nature; the ocean, birds, palm trees waving their fronds like the wriggle of over-excited fingers. The only "man-made" sound is the flap of canvas as my safari tent windows catch the breeze.
It's not the manicured perfection of the resorts at Denarau. It's rustic and real and it's an escape from everyday life. No doubt most of Barefoot's visitors wish this could actually become their everyday life. I'd wondered who the other guests at this budget-friendly option would be, picturing being surrounded by young backpackers. Turns out it's a bit of everything, from the late-teen Brits on their "gap year", to the Indian honeymooners, to the 30-something Australians who wear lipgloss on the sunrise hike and drink cocktails from their own "yes way, rose"-inscribed glasses. The dive school group is made up of women from America and Germany and there's a young Danish mum, whose adorable 5-year-old son is looked after by the resort team while she's out in the water. In short, it seems like anything — and everyone — goes.
If you don't spend all your days lying on the beach, the Marine Biology Tour is recommended. Five years ago the resort established a protected reserve for the coral reefs around the island and brought in two marine biologists to oversee conservation projects. Like many coral reefs around the world, the ones in the Yasawas are under threat from rising sea temperatures, and without drastic action, consequences will be devastating. Barefoot Manta's team are doing all they can by educating visitors and locals on how to protect this delicate ecosystem.
Rob, a charming young Brit who has been working in marine conservation around the world for the past five years, leads the afternoon tour. So passionate is he about coral, algae and biodiversity that he barely draws breath as he talks to us for the 90-minute land-based part of the tour.
Although that may sound too heavy for a tropical island holiday, it's actually fascinating and I learn so much. For example, did you know the colour in coral is mostly derived from the algae that lives on it? Or that giant clams can live indefinitely and some have been found to be more than 250 years old? Or that barnacles have the highest penis-to-body ratio of any living creature? Or, my favourite, that in the real marine world, if Nemo's mum had died, Marlon, his dad, would have turned into a female fish and had babies with Nemo? "Not a great story for a Disney movie," Rob deadpans. "Sounds more like something for Game of Thrones."
After his presentation and tour of the fledgling on-site aquarium, Rob takes us out into the water for a guided snorkel. He thinks the coral here is better than anywhere in the Yasawas, and beats many other top-rated locations around the world. I'm no expert but I fully believe him from the moment we put our snorkels on and submerge our faces in the water. Just metres from the Barefoot beach, we encounter an abundance of colourful coral and fish co-existing in this beautiful underwater world. Rob is particularly excited about the variety of butterfly fish species in the area — this afternoon we see 14 types; the day before he'd seen 18. There are 44 in the world. The visibility is exceptional and the water pleasantly warm.
Rob's enthusiasm is infectious and the next day I find myself agreeing to an introductory scuba-dive lesson, something I've never been brave enough to try before. It's a real baby-steps dive — he takes care of all the buoyancy controls and we don't go more than 2m underwater, staying close to the shoreline. But the wonder of Barefoot is that you don't need to go far to see such beauty.
I don't believe Rob when he tells me I'll be so transfixed with the peace underwater that I won't even think about my breathing, but he's right. The fish don't seem bothered by my ungraceful buoyancy or my Darth Vader breathing, and I know I'm anthropomorphising but I'm convinced one is posing for my GoPro video. As promised, I become fully immersed, in all senses of the word; a part of the environment, not an observer.
At sunset, fruit bats soar in the air as the sky turns shades of purple and orange. But the day's activities aren't over yet. The flippers are going back on, this time for a night snorkel armed with torches. My childish fear of the dark still lingers. But in actual fact, drifting along — the water illuminated only by torchlight, the sky lit only by stars — is one of the most meditative encounters I've had the good fortune to experience . . . even when I spot a reef shark swimming below us. Before I have a chance to panic, its muscular silver body curves away and disappears into the blackness.
Back in my safari tent, I sleep soundly; my dreams filled with colour and life.
flies from Auckland to Nadi.
, which departs from Port Denarau daily at 8.30am, reaching Barefoot Manta by 11.30am.
Barefoot Manta has a range of accommodation, with three meals per day included in your package, and activities available to book. Visit between May to October for a chance to snorkel with manta rays — they are regularly found in the channel next to the resort, cleaning, feeding and mating. As the mantas are a protected species, guests must book a guided trip with a trained and certified guide.