Disembarking in Nadi, the third-biggest town in Fiji, having flown over the Pacific Ocean, I was continually looking over my shoulder, not out of fear but because I was certain someone famous was behind me. Nothing else could explain why every person – whether gate agent, baggage handler, customs officer or immigration officer – smiled broadly and bellowed the Fijian greeting “Bula Bula.”
I would soon learn that Fijians possess joie de vivre and gentle geniality in greater abundance than the people of any other place I had ever visited. I was constantly made to feel like a cross between a heroine returning from war and a loved and revered aunt. I received more hugs than the most cherished teddy bear.
Nadi is best seen through the eyes of a local. I went round with Ryan Kafoa, a giant of a man with a heart to match and an infectious laugh. His love of Fiji is evident and his knowledge of Fijian history impressive. Together we strolled along Main Street, where one can buy examples of the famous South Sea black pearls; through Nadi Market, with its myriad kinds of fresh produce and mountains of kava root; and into the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, once owned by actor Raymond Burr, who lived nearby in Saweni. The garden contains more than 30 varieties of Asian orchids growing beside the paths that wind through the tropical rainforest.
Ryan took me to the village of Viseisei, where the 800 villagers live in the traditional manner, in dwellings that surround the central features of their settlement: their church, the village chief’s home and the massive drum used to call them to meetings.
When your appetite gives you the signal, you must go to Tu’s Place at 37 Queens Road, Martintar, which serves food prepared with local ingredients according to local recipes. Try the kokoda, a sort of ceviche.
A great base for explorers of Nadi is the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa on Denarau Island, just adjacent to the town. It is only a short trip from the resort to the most important attractions in Nadi. And when you return, there are plenty of things to do at the resort, such as studying Fijian history, making kites or playing beach soccer.
You get to Yasawa Island Resort and Spa in a tiny de Havilland Canada Twin Otter seaplane or in an even tinier Otter seaplane. Sitting in the jump seat, I could not help smiling at the flying gear of Alex, the pilot. He wore board shorts, a bula shirt and no shoes. The views from on high were among the most picturesque offered by any flight I have taken: views of verdant islands, atolls aplenty, coral reefs in abundance and all the shades of blue you can imagine.
At the Yasawa Island Resort every employee intones “Bula” and then, “Welcome home.” It is a unique way to make you feel at home and it works.
The resort is utterly secluded. It has 18 large, well-appointed, bungalows which face the sea. Each has a Nespresso machine, a supply of chocolate-chip cookies made on the premises, a fully stocked mini-bar, a king-size bed and an enormous bathroom with showers indoors and out. Each has a beach hut of its own with two loungers and, near at hand, a hammock slung between sturdy palms. The sound of the waves lapping against the deserted white sands as your gaze drifts up to the horizon, where the blue of the ocean deeps meets the blue of the heavens, is quite blissful.
At Yasawa Island Resort, the price you pay covers almost everything, including the gourmet meals – the only exception being scuba diving.
The six villages on Yasawa Island are home to about 1,200 islanders, and the way of life there has changed little over the years. The bartender at the Yasawa Island Resort is Manasa, who is also the spokesman for the nearby village of Bukama. There, each of the 200 villagers belongs to one of three clans. I was among a party of guests of the resort that visited the 86-year-old village chief, Ratu Semirokobecalevu.
We stood before the chief’s dwelling and asked permission to enter by uttering in unison, “Dua, dua, dua.” From within, the chief replied, “Lamai,” so granting permission. We sat in a semi-circle on the floor in the small, cloth-walled house. The chief – speaking from his wheelchair in the Yasawa dialect, interpreted by Manasa – welcomed us and told us of his profound pride in the village school, our next stop. The chief was engaging, his face lit by smiles and the twinkle in his eye.
At the school, the children sang songs for us. The head teacher told us about the challenges facing five staff that have to teach 71 children from the villages of Bukama and Yasawa. The Yasawa children walk 10 kilometers to school and back each day.
There are plenty of entertaining ways to pass the time on Yasawa Island: walking in the bush, having a picnic, playing tennis, paddle-boarding, kayaking, windsurfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and the most important pastime of all: doing absolutely nothing. A 15-minute trip in a powerboat steered by Captain Sam took me to a secluded cove.
There, Sam put up an umbrella, spread out a tablecloth and placed on it a cooler packed with my lunch of succulent grilled prawn salad, fresh fruit, brownies and several bottles of water. Then, promising he would return for me in three hours, he jumped back in his boat and sped off toward the horizon. I had a great book with me, but the warm, turquoise water beckoned. I put on my mask and fins, and entered the dreamy underwater world of Jacques Cousteau, where throngs of neon-colored fish vied for my rapt attention.
The next morning Sam took a party of guests on a 30-minute trip to see the caves on Turtle Island, which were made famous by the 1980 film Blue Lagoon, starring Brooke Shields. The clear, cobalt-blue waters contained in the first cave are breathtaking. A guide with a waterproof flashlight lit the way as each of our party took a deep breath and ducked through the underwater entrance to the second, narrower cave. The second cave is gorgeously otherworldly. But a sea snake meandering past brought me back to this planet.
I boarded the seaplane back to Nadi with a fitting thought: there are 15 words in the Fijian language for heaven and Yasawa is the first of them.