I was trying to coax my husband into delaying his retirement until we had taken a few more bucket list vacations. In his rebuttal he asked, “So, just where would you want to go that is going to require me to keep working to pay for this vacation?” Without thinking I chose the most exotic location that I could think of, “I don’t know, maybe Fiji.” Honestly, if I had been asked, I would not have been able to pinpoint Fiji on the map other than knowing it was somewhere in the South Pacific. A few weeks later my husband brought his laptop into the living room and said, “Ok, do you want to see the itinerary?”. “For what?” I asked. “Our Fiji trip!”. Did I really want to go to Fiji? Not really, but I had thrown Fiji out there and Jeff ran with it!
The flight from LA arrived at the largest island, Viti Levu, at 5:30 a.m. and the larger resorts are prepared for the early arrivals. After getting through customs and the 20-minute taxi ride from the airport to the Radisson Blu on Denarau Island ($292 per night plus $20 per person for breakfast), we arrived around 7:00 a.m. We were greeted, even at that early hour, with traditional drums and a welcome Bula song. We were given access to the breakfast buffet and were given coupons to the pool area. Exhilarated and exhausted, we started off with breakfast where we were seated overlooking the ocean. I will declare that this was the best breakfast buffet that I have ever had in my life. The menu included International cuisine focusing on English, Indian, French and a bit of Fijian fare. After breakfast, we changed into our swimming suits and enjoyed the adults only lagoon pool amongst the 10-acres of tropical gardens. By 11:00 AM, Jeff and I decided to take a respite from the intensity of the sun and head to Port Denarau. As the main marina for passage to the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands and being the shopping hub for the resorts on Denarau Island, I was expecting more than this dull, outdoor mall. Jacks of Fiji was the only interesting shop, and it easily supplied us with all our souvenir needs.
It was the next day as we headed to the Yasawa Islands that we really saw what one imagines Fiji to look like and saw what Bula “have fun: be free” truly felt like!
Jeff had booked the Captains Lounge on the Yasawa Flyer, the high-speed catamaran that leaves Port Denarau at 8:30 a.m. and returns at 5:45 p.m. daily stopping at 12 different Yasawa islands. The captain’s lounge is $240 one way to the furthest most island and $190 general fare. This lounge off of the wheel house with panoramic views in an air conditioned cabin was pure luxury. I have never seen my husband look more at peace than at that moment with cocktail in hand surveying the aqua waters ahead. *Tip: I had thought ahead and got a prescription for anti-nausea patches that most certainly came into play on hour 2 of our 4-hour cruise even on the glassy, turquoise waters that we sailed on.
We started our trip at The Blue Lagoon Beach Resort. We booked a beachfront villa, and we were not disappointed ($370 per night). The room had a high ceiling, wooden shuttered windows, an open-air-tropical bathroom, and a daybed on the porch to relax and read as the ocean lapsed on the white-sand just steps away. The open-air bathroom is gorgeous, but in the middle of the night I was surprised to see a large crab sitting in the middle of the floor, so beware that tropical bathrooms come with tropical creatures. Upon arrival we headed over to the dive shop where there was a chalkboard with all the available excursions listed. We chose the sunset tubing for later that afternoon, guided snorkeling trip off island, village tour, and cave tour. After being traumatized by the movie Jaws when I was 12, I can’t believe I agreed to sunset tubing. Everyone knows that dusk is shark feeding time. No, we did not see a shark and there are no deadly sharks in these waters, but after our boat anchored in a picturesque cove and we were tossed out in the water with our tubes I did think that from the ocean floor looking up we might be of interest to a great white shark if there had happen to be one. The evening was a little overcast, so there was no brilliant sunset, but instead the clouds that formed on the horizon literally looked like the skyline of Manhattan. This rare type of mirage is called a Fata Morgana and it was a once in a lifetime sighting.
Off we went the next morning for our snorkeling trip. I am a strong swimmer, but putting anchor down half a mile away from the nearest shore made me want a little more support than just a pair of fins, so I asked for a life vest, so I could snorkel without the fear of being swept out to sea to tread water. I could hear the headlines on the news “60-year-old woman from Colorado was lost in the South Pacific while snorkeling. She was not wearing a life jacket.” We stopped at a coral reef called Cabbage Patch, which may be the most spectacular natural phenomenon that I have ever seen. It’s a massive coral bloom teeming with an amazing variety of sea life, including a white tipped shark, a stingray, and blue starfish. No wonder Fiji is the soft coral capital of the world.
Jeff was adamant that we take the village tour, and he was right. We walked a short distance on a path through a coconut grove to reveal a simple village with mostly cinderblock houses, a church, a school, and sports field in a large clearing. We were taken to a community center where we were greeted with wild hibiscus necklaces and seated for a performance. The meke dance and drum circle was amazing. Far from the polished, scantily clad grass skirt performances one thinks of when envisioning the presentation this comprised of women and men of all sizes and ages. The smiles, melodic voices, and energy in the room was palpable.
Each resort has a meal plan that is not included in the cost of the resort via a third-party booking (Booking.com, Expedia, etc.) The cost averages about $125.00 per day per person. Considering that tipping is not customary the cost is reasonable. The package included three full meals, but all alcohol is an additional cost. Fiji culture frowns on alcohol and in one resort there was even a sign in our room saying, “Please do not offer our staff alcohol under any circumstances.” Most resorts offer an evening kava ceremony if you are interested in looking for a way to chill-out.
We were excited to experience the Sawa-i-Lau caves. Unfortunately, this was the morning that it did rain. What was supposed to be a scenic boat ride to the island ended up being a chilly ride being pelted with rain. Before we left the guide asked our group of 30 if anyone wanted a life jacket. I readily raised my hand, and a young Swedish woman sheepishly raised hers. The joke was on everyone else, because once we were in the caves, treading water for an hour, a couple of other women asked how I knew to ask for a life jacket, as the treading water in a cave with no rock shelves to sit on had not been forewarned. In the main cave the sun. if there had been any, streams in to illuminate the azure blue water and the steep limestone cathedral walls. There is a second cave that you must swim through a submerged tunnel to reach and once on the other side the cave is pitch black. If you are a strong swimmer and can hold your breath for at least 10 seconds this might be for you, but it certainly was not for me. Jeff had purchased an inexpensive underwater flashlight on Amazon for the trip, so it had not been tested and had certainly not been meant to be used as a safety device, but since the flashlight our guide brought was not working Jeff’s flashlight was all that our group had to venture into the second grotto. A second tourist put his cell phone in a dry bag and used it as a lantern just in case Jeff’s flashlight went out. Again, this seemed dangerous and not well thought out, but “hey, when in Fiji”.
There are so many good things to say about the beachy basic Mantaray Island Resort ($220.00 per night). First, I must start with hospitality. Upon checking in I asked the receptionist, Mere, if we could have a late check out as check-out was 10:00 a.m. and the Yasawa flyer would not arrive until 1:30 p.m. She looked at her books, she made a call, and ultimately looked up at me with the most sorrowful face that I have ever seen. She apologized profusely and said that our beachfront burr was the most sought-after bure due to its location and that it was specifically booked and unless the guest cancelled or were delayed, she would not be able to honor our request. When Jeff and I left reception I said, “I think she was literally about to cry.” Jeff agreed. If Mere was sincere, then this poor girl needs to change jobs, as she will be an emotional wreck before she turns 30.
Our beach front bure was steps away from the most magnificent marine reserve. It was like snorkeling in an aquarium. I couldn’t get enough time in the water, although Jeff opted for reading his book watching me come and go. I told him that I was having to swim behind honeymoon couples, so that if some large sea creature carried me away there would be witnesses, but he was undeterred from his hammock.
One criticism that I had was that some of the excursions are not appropriately geared to the varying ability levels of the participants. Jeff and I slathered on sunscreen, slapped on sun hats, and put our cell phones in dry bags ready for a leisurely hour of guided kayaking. I envisioned staying close to the shore where we could look down into the crystalline waters and watch schools of fish and take photos of each other with the tropical island as our backdrop. We were a group of seven: our guide (who had introduced himself as “Jack the Ripper”) a honeymoon couple, a 25-year old German girl, and a very fit Australian girl wearing a red life guard bucket hat. Our guide told us that we should paddle out to where a small cruise ship had anchored and head about two miles to a point at the end of the island. GO! Our Australian lifeguard was gone! The honeymoon couple and the German girl made strong efforts to keep up, but Jeff and I just looked at each other and plugged along the best that we could in the open water. Jack the Ripper kept asking us if we were ok, and at one point when I had stopped to take pictures and had given up on ever reaching the furthest most point, I just called out to him that I was taking pictures and not to wait. He looked annoyed. After about 45-minutes he used his whistle and motioned everyone to head back since we were now paddling against the tide. Slowly, and I mean slowly, we fought the tide and made it back to the beach. Not fun.
The tree-top restaurant ($119-daily meal plan) was perched on a hill overlooking two beaches and the coconut grove canopy. The resort is owed by an Australian and the food reflected that more than local Fijian cuisine, but it was fresh and plentiful. Jeff and I don’t have any physical limitations, but if you had difficulty with stairs this would be a major problem. By the time you wind your way along the garden path incline and climb the steep steps to the restaurant you feel like your meal is well deserved.
On our last morning, we stopped by the office as Mere had instructed us, to see if we could get a late check-out. Upon entering the office Mere met me with downcast eyes. I sheepishly asked if late check-out was possible. She lowered her gaze, then slowly raised her face up into a brilliant smile, “Miss Melinda, yes, you can have a late check-out. 1:00 o’clock. No problem.” I wanted to ask her if she was serious. Could she possibly be so happy for me? I will never know, but I will never forget that brilliant smile. “Bula!”
Back on the Yasawa Flyer headed back to Denarau Island for our final day in Nadi.
I had mentioned on my reservation at the Sofitel Hotel ($280 per night including breakfast) that it was both my husband’s 70th birthday and our 35th wedding anniversary. In our room we found rose pedals, towel swans, and palm fronds spelling out CONGRATULATIONS and on the table was a small birthday cake with a card. Wow! It was early to bed, but we woke up the next morning to a huge breakfast spread in the food bazaar. Luckily, we filled up because our day trip to Nadi was interesting, but somewhat of a food desert.
We started with Sri Siva Subramaniva Buddhist Temple, which is dedicated to the god of seasonal rain, Lord Murugan. Luckily, Lord Murugan was kind to us, because we only saw one morning of rain in a week during the rainy season. It is the largest Hindu temple in the Southern hemisphere. Men and woman are required to cover their shoulders and knees. I was prepared, but Jeff was given a sarong to wear since he was wearing shorts. The brilliant colors and architectural detailing were breathtaking and almost whimsical in nature with wooden deities and intricate ceiling frescos.
We walked the half mile from the temple to the town center looking for the Nadi Produce Market in the heart of Nadi Town. The huge covered market was filled with vendors selling everything from bananas, mangos, and colorful spices to every type of kava available. Unlike other markets this one was unique in that the vendors allowed you to look without urging you to buy their wares. It was strangely quiet and relaxing.
So is Bula real? There is something in Fiji that I can’t’ quite name. The warmth and ease of the people, the pristine waters, and well, Bula, were things that I had never experienced before. I like to think that “Bula” is real and not put on for visitors. Hop on a flight and find out for yourselves.