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Cruising the Yasawas

I am basking in glorious sunshine waiting to board the impressive schooner that will take me and a group of sea-faring loons around the Yasawas in Fiji. Nattering to me is a jovial man called Trevor Clarke, who turns out to be the rep for Captain Cook Cruises. He tells me about a couple who’d visited Fiji every year for 15 years. Each time they stayed at the same resort and never explored the islands. “After our trip they said they’d learned more about Fiji in one week than in all the previous years together,” he laughs.

Trevor asks me if I know that the Fiji Archipelago has more than 330 islands scattered across 230,000 square kilometers. I confess that I didn’t. He therefore continues to enlighten me, explaining that the exotic Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands lie to the northwest of Nadi, the international gateway to Fiji. The trip there is apparently a breathtakingly beautiful passage through hundreds of tropical volcanic islands and spectacular coral gardens, and we are about to cruise it.

My visions of glorious sun-baked days and romantic nights bobbing on the waves aboard an old vessel steeped in history, surrounded by congenial company, is not too far from the truth. As soon as we board the ship, the group of happy trippers — now moshing away and forming new friendships as if they’re on a holistic healing holiday — find themselves immediately delighted by the warm, personalized service of the friendly Fijian crew, who rush around offering drinks and snacks while serenading us with beautiful island music. Everybody is beaming from ear to ear.

Three hours later, two tourists are hanging over the side of the ship with grim expressions on their faces. “How far is it to the next island?,” they ask for the fifth time that hour before their head disappears into a paper bag. It seems that a few travelers failed to consider sea sickness when opting for a sailing trip. I find a half-full packet of Blackmore’s ginger anti-sickness tablets and temporarily become the most popular person on board.

Packed to the hilt with ginger pills, we’re left to enjoy the incredible view and vast space of sea around us. Every few hours, we’re taken to a spot to snorkel and discover the world of underwater life (there are sharks, but fortunately we don’t see any) or to trek overland to traditional island villages. The few lazy hours left easily trickle away sunbathing on deck or watching dolphins dart through the depths beneath the boat.

In the evening we return to a rustic safari village in the islands, owned by the company, for meals and accommodation in traditional thatch bures. The village doubles up as base camp for early morning and evening activities including sunset swims, night fishing tours, garden nursery planting training, campfire barbeques and the traditional “lovo” feast. The idea behind the timeless village, untouched by 20th Century technology, is to introduce visitors to Fiji’s real lifestyle, beautiful in its simplicity and culture, and rich in myth and legend. Here, we will hear stories about guiding spirits and lost ships and see the production of traditional crafts, like basket-making from palm leaves.

Each day brings a new island, framed by rugged volcanic mountains, lush groves of palm trees, thatched villages, the occasional resort hideaway and endless swathes of coral reef and pristine white-sand beaches. The peace and beauty of this paradisal place are undeniable. So simple, so easy, so trouble-free.

Poasa Levu, captain of the ship, believes the cruise is an ideal way to holiday and have a sailing experience while gaining an insight into the reality of Fijian culture: “Here you can see life as it is in a small village, with no electricity and kerosene lamps. If you go to hotels, you see very few examples of Fijian living. One thing we do here is show people how to plant tapioca. For some people, it is the first time they have seen tapioca. Others don’t even know the pineapple is a root plant.”

I say that it must be very funny for the sailing crew to see all these tourists with so few survival skills. “Yes”, he replies, “It is. A lot of people have never seen or heard of a breadfruit in their lives, but to us it is very common. A lot of people come to Fiji and realize that if they were left on an island to survive on their own, they couldn’t. They don’t know how to do the most basic things — like fish or plant crops.”

This is completely true, of course. On a night-fishing trip the previous evening the crew caught six fish, while the tourists caught nothing. I hung my line with the tasty bait hopefully over the water for several hours, but nothing bit. What were we doing wrong? “It’s just practice,” he says.

I ask Poasa what the opinion is locally of the five star resorts, as there seems to be a fine line between the desire for tourism and the boost it goves to the local economy and the wish to preserve Fijian culture. Poasa pauses to reflect. “In the hotels, there’s nothing to see,” he says finally. “It’s bad for us because most of us lose our culture… but they want to teach our culture again now in schools, which is a good thing. Here, you can be part of a village and explore the culture. Tourists can have a good time and also learn about Fiji.”

While I’m definitely having a good time, I now feel decidedly under-skilled, so decide to get some sailing tips from the crew, who are more than happy to impart their knowledge and expertise to anybody willing to learn. After yanking on ropes and learning some basic navigation techniques, I get a minute steering the schooner — a real thrill — and discover that it’s very similar to driving a large car.

That evening, we have a lovo — a delicious feast with several courses cooked in an earth oven, sometimes called a hangi. Reserved for special occasions and visits from VIPs, it starts with the popular kava ceremony and a traditional welcoming dance. The crew sing and teach us some Fijian dances and then ask us to sing songs and perform dance steps from our own countries. It’s interesting that everybody takes as long as they do to work out what they can offer in return.

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