Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021

© Margo Pfeiff

Bookmark and Share

Falling for Fiji

Authentic traditions and world-class diving make this South Pacific island a welcoming paradise

"Bula!" a mountain of muscular Fijian manhood that would dwarf an NFL linebacker greets me with a grin that lights up Nadi Airport. Tucking my camera bag and suitcase under each arm like purses, he ambles off towards a taxi in that easy, what's-the-rush Fijian gait. Rugby-stoked calves bulge from beneath his skirt, but no one would dare call this dude a sissy. And I’m relieved to see locals still wearing those sulu skirts, part of the traditional male dress code on everyone from villagers to policemen who sport white ones with zig-zag hemlines.

I am a bit nervous returning to Fiji. I had last been a decade earlier, and it’s one of those places you never want to change — not just for its empty beaches and spectacular coral reefs, but mostly for the easy pace of life here and the good-natured friendliness of the Fijian people who, during my past visits, seemed unaffected by the rush and buzz of the rest of the world.

After driving through a sweetly scented tropical dusk, it is dark when I check into my hotel room and slip out the patio doors in my cotton robe, startling a flying fox from its palm tree roost. Wading knee deep in the warm ocean in the moonlight, I wonder what changes I’ll run into in these 330 islands splashed across the South Pacific just north of New Zealand.

The international airport is on the dryer, savanna-covered side of the main island of Viti Levu, near the town of Nadi (pronounced “Nan-di”). Reliably sunny weather, airport proximity and nice beaches are the reason for the cluster of big luxury hotels here. And there are more than on my last visit. But, as usual, I like to head to more low-key Suva, the gritty, colourful capital, 200 kilometres across the island.

A wave and a smile

At first light, farmers with bullocks are already tilling cane fields. They wave. Kids at roadside produce stands piled high with chilli peppers wave. Fijian church ladies belting out a rousing gospel chorus shout Bula! from the windows of a rickety bus. Women look up from their stream-side washing to nod and smile, and barefoot schoolchildren in uniforms run after my car; by the time I reach Suva, I’m glad I rented an automatic to keep one hand free to deal with the constant waving.

In the tiny villages of simple thatched bures (boo-rays), Fijian country life has changed little from a century ago, and their communities are still governed by traditional chiefs. Half buried in hibiscus and bougainvillaea on the wet rainforest side of the island, Suva is an eccentric blend of faded colonial grandeur, movie houses plastered with posters advertising the latest Hindi flicks and rows of cluttered shops that sell everything from Bombay hair tonic to laser printers.

Half of Fiji's population are descendents of Indians brought to this former British colony as indentured labourers to work the cane fields. Now they run most of the island's businesses. I love sitting in the shade sipping a cold Fiji Bitter watching the passing parade of saris, sulus and safari suits.

Suva's Municipal Market is a daily carnival of vendors shouting prices, a busy place of aromatic curries and the sweet, pungent smells of mangosteen and rambutan. Women water down woven pandanus baskets full of shellfish and alongside the pier where fishing boats dock at sunset, the red rays setting aglow catches of iridescent turquoise and orange reef fish.

Reef madness

While it has culture, but Suva — and most of Viti Levu — is lean on decent beaches. The sugary sands and crystal waters of travel posters are fringing hundreds of offshore specks. Some, like Treasure, Plantation and Castaway Islands, are so small you can walk around them in 20 minutes. These are best explored on cruises departing from the Nadi side of the island.

Fiji’s legendary coral reefs with their lush submarine gardens that Skin Diver Magazine rates as among the top in the world lie east of Suva, around Taveuni and Vanua Levu Islands. And that’s where I’m headed.

It’s a short flight across to Vanua Levu. It may be Fiji’s second biggest island, but there are still only three resorts on it, the most popular being the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, owned by the son of pioneering French underwater icon Jacques Cousteau. The island’s main town of Savu Savu has barely changed in decades. It remains a cluster of sun-bleached pastel clapboard shops along a single street that I prowl while the driver of my ramshackle taxi settles down with a Bob Marley biography.

We side-trip past a field where rugby is played well into the night, the absence of lighting detracting nothing from the islanders’ passion for the game. A cloud of steam marks a small hot spring and we arrive just as a Fijian woman emerges from a nearby bure to set a pot over the boiling water. Then she heads off to do her shopping while her rice cooks for supper. The last fifteen-minutes' drive to the resort is along a bumpy, unpaved seaside track. The driver repeatedly leans on the horn to disperse straggling chickens and we pass half a dozen grinning imps crowded on a single horse.

Join the family

At the resort entranceway the employees have gathered to sing a Fijian welcoming song as tradition demands. An irrational thought flits through my brain: "I’m home!" And therein lies the real attraction of this country — you’re literally joining a family here. All the staff live in Savu Savu and they are cousins, sisters and brothers who have worked together for a decade or more. The atmosphere is that of one big happy, relaxed community.

Jean-Michel Cousteau’s is a seven-hectare resort known for its first-class scuba diving and strong environmentally-friendly commitment and it has won countless awards for both. My thatched-roof bure is one of 25 set amid a coconut plantation and edible garden of banana and guava trees and passion fruit vines.

The bures have all the mod cons but use low-tech air conditioning — the lofty ceiling keeps rooms naturally cool as trade winds breeze through louvered windows. There is no chemical spraying against mosquitoes, instead fish and frogs are employed to do the job in ponds where the water is kept moving. Wetlands have been constructed for sewerage treatment and irrigation and there is a mangrove replanting program guests can join in. There’s plenty of culture, too, like a Fijian Medicine walk with one of the locals and learning how to make baskets.

The Cousteau clan really knows how to pick a dive spot. This is one of the few places in Fiji where you don’t have to be an adult or a scuba diver to enjoy a world class coral reef. Off the end of the pier, in about three metres of water, is an underwater snorkelling trail where I saw a flock of squid, octopus, a sting ray as well as several clownfish peeking from anemones. The shallow waters are also a reserve for giant clams and the resident marine biologist is there to lead tours and answer questions.

After my welcoming open-air foot massage (coconut milk wash, sugar cane exfoliant and cocoa butter massage) I head out on a scuba trip. The world that unfolds before my diving mask is a mirror image of the island above, of brilliant reef fish darting like colourful underwater birds amid swaying fronds and masses of soft purple, red, orange and yellow corals running riot over the reef like the bougainvillaea around my bure. It’s nice that many dive sites are shallow enough for snorkellers to enjoy too.

Coral heritage

Some of the most pristine diving in the region is an hour away by boat on the reefs surrounding Namena Island. There are phenomenal towering coral “chimneys” and aptly named “Grand Central Station” where a surreal number of critters including sharks and manta rays hang out. The local clans that own the traditional fishing rights to the area declared the reef closed to fishing, but open to divers who pay a small fee and receive a souvenir disk to hang on their dive vest. The funds are used by the villages to send their children to university in Suva. The model for the Namena Marine Reserve was Bonaire where the waters surrounding the Caribbean island are protected.

The Cousteau resort specializes in two seemingly incongruous types of travellers — families with kids and honeymooners. “You can imagine what travel agents think,” says manager Greg Taylor, “but it works.” Fijians are naturals with kids and they love their role as nannies, taking kids to the exciting little Bula Club theme park out of squealing distance of the honeymoon bungalows. They even have their own dining room where parents can join them for meals before scooting off for a dive, a nature walk to a waterfall, or just to lounge blissfully child-less by the pool.

It doesn’t take long to fall into a relaxed Fijian routine: diving in the morning, walking on the beach, doing battle with the hammock on my deck while juggling a mojito, being called to dine pool-side by the traditional beating of the lali drum. Then watching the nightly torch-lighting ritual performed by ripped, grass-skirted boys and then finishing the evening sitting cross-legged with a few of the local guys playing guitar and singing on a tapa cloth around a giant kava bowl. Sipping kava, the cloudy white, slightly intoxicating national drink made from the pounded root of a pepper bush, has the peculiar side effect of gently numbing your tongue and lips, and — if you imbibe enough — your brain.

I refuse to confess to how many decades I have been visiting Fiji, but it definitely seems to defy the passage of time more than most places. Sure, there’s wireless Internet and cell phone reception, but the old soul and genuine heart of this place remain intact. And when the entire staff lines up to sing the Fijian farewell song, there’s not a dry eye in the taxi.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


Post a comment