Neither of us had been on a cruise before, we had always been put off by the thousands of people disgorged onto a small town or island. So the concept of small ship cruising that would provide a more authentic, personal and less commercial experience was very appealing, particularly as it would allow us to visit places around the 800 Fiji islands where the big ships simply couldn’t go. We were to either visit or cruise past many of them.
Our love affair with Fiji was to begin with a seven day cruise around the Yasawa Islands on the Reef Endeavour a small ship run by Captain Cook Discovery cruises of around 50 Double Stateroom cabins.
Our cabin was located in the centre of the middle deck so very stable, with two large windows and a comfortable bed, perfect for us on our first real maiden voyage. We unpacked and explored the ship to find five levels including a great sun deck with Jacuzzi and bar, and a delightful lounge and an al la carte restaurant. So, large enough to cruise comfortably and find our own space when we wanted it yet small enough to get to know most of the guests.
But this was about getting up close and personal with the islands, their wildlife and the Fijian villages and their people. We wanted our cruise to be destination and experience focused so with snorkelling gear allocated for the week we were off on our first excursion, to Tivua Island. All palm trees and golden sand around its 800 metre circumference with of course the manicured essentials to ensure a tropical paradise island. It was stunningly beautiful; we seemed to have arrived in a TV commercial for Bounty confectionery.
The following morning offered our first snorkelling. The colours on the reefs are spectacular, with 333 species of hard and soft coral including huge balloons of greenish brown Brain Corals and the striking Blue Coral, only discovered here in 2004 but now in abundance. And the 1,500 species of fish found around these reefs are equally colourful; it’s thrilling to swim through shoals of them that make Finding Nemo look like a garden pond.
Astonishingly, we were told the Fijians only stopped eating each other about 100 years ago so when we were invited to visit to an island village called Gunu for a Lovo Feast we were unsure what to expect!
Lovo is the traditional form of Fijian cooking where the whole feast is cooked buried in the sand. They heat rocks for a couple of hours then throw them into a pit dug in the beach. The fish, chicken and pork are tightly wrapped in banana leaves and placed on the rocks, on top go various root crops including dalo a sort of potato, cassava and uvi a wild yam, then the whole lot is concealed in palm leaves, covered with sand and left to “cook” for three hours.
We met the locals, joined the Chief in a Kava Ceremony – apparently a legal mild narcotic made from a vegetable root – and enjoyed their customs and traditions of the Fijian culture, which make them officially the happiest people in the world.
There was plenty to do on board and everything is well organised, so you can do as much or as little as you like but we were unsure what to expect during the morning visit to an island school for the three villages on Ratu Namasi. Perhaps humble, poorly dressed children in ramshackle huts for classrooms and desperately in need of resources. How wrong we were.
The thirty or so kids were immaculately turned out in school uniform, with the usual collection of bandaged arms and bruised knees, but with cheeky grins on their faces and a twinkle in their eyes. They couldn’t wait to take us by the hand and show off what were indeed ramshackle huts for classrooms they were so proud of. First, was the matter of a few songs for their visitors that they giggled their way through nudging each other if they began a verse too early or forgot the chorus.
They then descended on us like our own children did when they were at junior school, the girls took rather moist eyed Mums to praise their pinned-up artwork on the walls and the boys took the Dads onto the rugby pitch. Rugby, or at least the 7’s version of it is almost a religion in Fiji, it seems like every island we cruised past had a rugby pitch. In fact the $7 note (odd to have a note for 7 of any currency!) features Fiji winning the Rugby 7’s gold at the Olympics.
I have watched and played rugby in some wonderful stadiums but nothing compares to this stage. The pitch was lined with palm trees and ended at the beach overlooking the shimmering Pacific, my goodness what a wonderful place for kids to learn, play and grow up. They were happy, proud, confident and full of brazen fun, it was sad when the bell went but we had to go in, we had a paddle boarding lesson to attend.
Apparently, sharks eat early. So, it was up at 7:00 AM for a quick bowl of universal flakes and local fruits before we prepared breakfast for the sharks, big sharks, Black Tipped Reef Sharks to give them their correct name.
As we leaned over the starboard side of the ship peering into the clear deep blue waters of the lagoon a single grey shark, with black tips of course, gracefully cruised by, clearly with one eye on the ships open galley below us, what elegant creatures they are.
Shark feeding was obviously a regular occurrence because this reconnaissance shark seemed to know exactly where and when their reef feast was to start. It was joined by others circling off the side of the boat clearly in expectation of an early morning feed. The galley crew threw out last night’s leftover fish with the mornings untouched bacon and the water began to boil as the breakfast battle began. A dozen or so sharks, each probably six to seven feet in length broke the surface and fought furiously for their fare share.
Bing Bong, announced the tannoy.
‘Will those people snorkelling today please make their way to the lower deck for boarding.’ We gave it a miss that day.
Our small ship cruise over seven days ended far too soon, we had visited some stunningly beautiful islands and enjoyed the scenery of the sea far more then we had expected. They are exquisite islands, but it is the music and song, the colour and culture of the Fijian traditions and people that really make this trip a must. No wonder they are the happiest people on earth, we were sad to leave.
David Moore is Author of ‘Turning Left Around the World’. Published by Mirador and available from Amazon, it is an entertaining account of David and his wife’s travel adventures – often intriguing, frequently funny and occasionally tragic.
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