It's a long way to go, but Fiji's tranquil beaches and friendly people make the journey worthwhile, says Suktara Ghosh
The Royal Davui Island with its plush villas (below) makes for a romantic getaway; Photograph courtesy Royal Davui Island Resort
The waves closed over me, shutting out all sound but my own breathing. The sapphire world was alive. Gold and electric blue, red and emerald, striped and speckled — the fishes glided by just out of reach. Large purple starfishes rested on rocks; a baby shark scooted amongst the kaleidoscopic corals metres below me.
I came up for air thrilled beyond belief by my first dip into snorkelling. It had been nothing short of pure magic.
I was on a whirlwind tour of the South Pacific islands of Fiji hosted by Tourism Fiji. And despite a killing 10-hour transit and a nine-and-half-hour flight, the first airborne glimpse of those impossible greens and blues had me hooked.
Our first stop was the plush Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa on Denarau Island, a popular de-stress haunt for the world's wealthy — think designer villas, private yachts and the whole works. However, I concentrated more on a desperately needed shower and the delightful kokoda salad (raw fish cured in coconut cream and lime) and Vonu beer at the resort's al fresco restaurant Salt. A relaxing foot massage at the Mandara Spa after and I was as good as new.
Villagers perform the traditional Fijian meke dance in Nukubalavu village
I trotted down to the resort's private beach in the afternoon and let the Pacific work its magic. Magellan sure got it right when he named these waters — the world's largest ocean also seems to be the gentlest.
As an Indian, one doesn't feels like a foreigner in Fiji. Thumping Bollywood music, polite namastes, Indian cuisine — the country's Fijian Indian presence is huge. Like Mauritius, Fiji shares the history of girmitiyas or indentured labour transported by the British from India to work on sugarcane plantations. Interestingly, most of the present generation doesn't know where in India their forefathers hailed from.
A caretaker exhibits a pair of banded iguanas at the Kula Eco Park near Sigatoka town
Next day we hit the road to Pacific Harbour, about 146km away. The spectacular road wound in and out of villages, towns and hills with the ocean popping up in between. We boarded a speed-launch to go to the Royal Davui Island Resort, 35 minutes away from the mainland. Grahame, who owns the resort along with a thriving tuna business, pointed out circling flocks of gulls. That's where you'd find schools of tuna, he said.
The Royal Davui — an adults-only private island resort — is right out of a picture postcard. There are 16 exquisite villas, some with a plunge pool (as happily, mine did) or a private beach. There are a lot of watersports to try and we hit the water right after lunch. Snorkelling, kayaking, hobie cat sailing — it's something else all together to feel the Pacific roll away beneath you.
On Vanua Levu island, travellers love to rejuvenate at the award-winning Namale Spa & Sanctuary (above); Photograph courtesy Namale Resort & Spa and explore the busy Savusavu market (below)
It was fire-walking time that afternoon. Men of the Sawau tribe from the nearby Beqa island are believed to be endowed with special powers that enable them to walk on heated stones. An impressive do (the abs as much as the ceremony) till the grass skirt of one of the walkers caught fire! Thankfully, he wasn't hurt.
The night got more adventurous post-dinner. I'd almost reached my villa when the light went on and I jumped back with a yelp. Slithering away into the bushes was a snake. A pretty exotic looking one too — it was a quaint blue with black stripes. However, since it was heading away, I calmed down and entered my room.
Next morning I discovered that my fears had been unfounded. Land snakes are extinct in Fiji, I was told. So, mine had been a sea snake and hence, non-poisonous.
We drove to Nausori airport to catch a 21-seater Twin Otter plane to Savusavu, a town on Vanua Levu island. The grinning pilot recommended that we read the security flyer carefully and then use it as a fan. This bird had no aircon.
The historic Albert Park in Suva, the capital of Fiji
We checked into the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort at Savusavu. Set midst a tranquil 17 acres, it has 25 plush bures (traditional Fijian bungalows) and is a great place for a family holiday — their Bula Club is quite a hit with kids.
On was a tour of Nukubalavu village. Here we were initiated into the traditional kava drinking ceremony (originally a safeguard against cannibals. Fiji was once known as Cannibal Isles). The popular social drink, known for its sedative qualities, is prepared from the root of the piper methysticum.
Songs and traditional meke and seasea dances followed. Music, like their spirit of warm cordiality, runs deep in Fijian blood. Everybody sings and many strum the guitar. There are welcome and farewell songs; songs sung during folk dances or over rounds of kava.
Serenaders kept us company at dinner too as we sampled the traditional lovo — marinated fish, chicken and veggies wrapped in coconut leaves and smoked in a hot stone pit dug in the ground.
We breezed through the Savusavu market next day before heading for the adults-only Namale Resort & Spa, which has hosted the likes of Donna Karan, Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan. Spread over a lush 525 acres, it has 19 bures and villas against a majestic backdrop of volcanic cliffs and the sea. We had a gala time at the Kava Bowl Entertainment Center and a plunge in the lovely waterfall on the grounds. An exhilarating fusion massage at the resort's lavish spa followed.
The evening turned out to be quite groovy with beautiful local girls putting up a dance performance. It was rounded off with an unforgettable candlelit dinner under a cliff on the beach.
We flew back to Nadi on Viti Levu island the day after and drove straight to Kula Eco Park, a centre for the captive breeding of endangered species. I displayed a mettle I never knew existed and let a banded iguana crawl up my arm and a baby boa coil around my neck!
The glitzy capital city of Suva was on next on the itinerary. Spruce men and women, busy streets, hip eateries and nightclubs, swarming malls — worlds away from those fairytalesque islands.
Our first stop was the Fiji Museum opposite Albert Park, used as a landing site by Australian aviator Sir Charles Kingsford Smith during the first trans-Pacific flight from the US to Australia in 1928. The museum preserves the story of the country's discovery by the West — it was a British colony till 1970 — the girmit culture as well as its maritime history.
Kava sellers have a section all for themselves at the impressive two-storey Suva market. On sale were edible seaweed and a variety of chillies. I gingerly sampled a bongo chilli — it left my mouth numb for an hour.
Our last evening was in Port Denarau. The hip hangout zone has a shopping complex and a clutch of restaurants along the promenade. The moon played peek-a-boo on the sea as I lingered over a delicious seafood platter. It was a moment I shan't easily forget.
Getting there: Dragonair has direct flights from Calcutta to Hong Kong (Rs 26,000 approx. roundtrip) from where you can fly Air Pacific directly to Nadi (Rs 45,000 approx. roundtrip).
Staying there: In Denarau, stay at the Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa (www.sofitel.com) or The Terraces luxury service apartments (www.theterraces.com.fj). Royal Davui Island Resort is ideal for a luxe private island vacation (www.royaldavui.com) and Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort for a family holiday (www.fijiresort.com). Namale Resort & Spa is a heaven for honeymooners (www.namalefiji.com). On Viti Levu island, check out Outrigger on the Lagoon (www.outrigger.com). Go to www.fijime.com for details.