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TRAVEL NEWS, TIPS & STORIES
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On Sunday afternoon I went back to the L.A. Times travel show to listen to some panels and pick up our tickets from an Air Pacific representative (thatís a huge hint as to where we are). Air Pacific flies 747-400 series planes from LAX to and from Fiji. Yeah, baby: Weíre in Fiji! Iím doing the moonwalk as I write this.
I was really excited about going until the representative said she had good news and bad news. The good news was that Amber Airplane and I got upgraded to Business Class. The bad news was that the emergency door in Business Class was not working, so everyone from Business Class was being moved upstairs, and the airline was keeping an empty seat in between everyone. (The seating configuration upstairs is Economy Class, with three seats on each side of the aisle). At that point I didnít really care about getting upgraded. I just cared about getting to Fiji -- safely.
The problem was that Tony Wheeler of Lonely Planet told me earlier in the day that the movie "Cast Away" was filmed in Fiji. That struck a nerve, because the movie scared me like "Jaws" did (after seeing that film as a kid, I had a hard time swimming in a pool by myself. Shoot, I still hear that damn theme music in my head when I swim in the ocean). Back to my story: The movie "Cast Away" shows an awful and realistic plane crash in the South Pacific. Whenever I fly across the Pacific I see that image of Tom Hanks holding on for dear life, with the plane going down and the door wide open. So when I heard there was a problem with the emergency door, my knees and stomach got weak.
It was the first time I became really afraid of flying since I was 21. I quickly called a few friends who know a lot about planes, and asked what they thought. They all said it was no big deal; it was probably just something wrong with the emergency raft, so the FAA would not let anyone sit near that door. It turned out they were right, and I got my nerves and knees back. Thank you, God!.
We were supposed to be at LAX at 8:30 p.m. for a 10:30 flight. I made sure Amber Airplane knew that we needed to leave by 8:15, if we were getting a ride or taking a taxi. (As you can see, we live very close to the airport). Then I found a free coupon for the Parking Spot, so I said we needed to leave a few minutes earlier in order to park.
As usual, Amber Airplane was running late. I didnít pack until 8 p.m., but it takes me only five minutes (I start laying out my stuff the day before in my office, so I wonít forget). Amber Airplane should do the same thing, because it takes her at least an hour to pack all her stuff for a big trip. I said (she says I "yelled"), "Amber, we have to go now!" Things got a bit tense.
We didnít leave until 8:45, which meant we had to use the valet at the Parking Spot (can you say "more money"?). The good news was that the Parking Spot was quick, and we made it to the airport by 9:05. The bad news was that the airport was a zoo. Iím not kidding -- there was complete chaos in the International terminal, which Air Pacific shares with dozens of other carriers.
Air Pacificís line wound around the corner, and we did not check-in until 10:25. (Tip: When checking bags with Air Pacific, let the agent standing around the entrance know. The TSA will scan them, then leave them in a secure area. Then when itís your turn to go through security, you only have to point to which bags are yours).
The security lines were even longer than those to check in. Luckily an Air Pacific agent got us and other late passengers near the front of the security line. As we went through security we heard the final boarding call over the P.A., and put on the after-burners. We ran to the gate, and just made it.
I often heard that Fijians are the friendliest people in the world, and I must say that everyone at Air Pacific -- from gate agents to flight attendants Ė was very nice and professional.
Once I got on the plane all my fears vanished. Once again I started to get very excited about going to Fiji. Everyone on the plane got free drinks, two meals, and movie headsets (to go along with their own personal TV monitor). Before takeoff the flight attendant gave each of us a small bottle of Fiji water. Even though we were in coach seats, we were served business class meals. The first meal was supposed to be light, but it was plenty. We had cream of mushroom soup, green beans, fettuccine Alfredo and barbecue chicken. Our other meal was served three hours before landing, which I thought was weird. They should have let everyone sleep another 90 minutes before waking us up to eat. This meal was breakfast, and it was very large and good. It started with a big fruit plate, followed by a croissant or toast (when was the last time you had toast on a plane?!) and cereal. Then came a cart filled with cheese omelets, bacon, sausage, sauted mushrooms, tomatoes and onions. It was tasty!
The flight -- normally 10 hours -- took us just 9 hours and 15 minutes, and was relatively smooth. It was dark the whole flight, which made for perfect sleeping conditions. (I always bring my mask and earplugs, just in case). The seats in Business Class would have been unbelievable, with a 50-inch pitch. Coach, however, had only the standard 32-inch pitch. However, they were surprisingly comfortable. Unfortunately, a rude lady in front had the whole row to herself, but insisted on putting every seat all the way back. Every time she fell asleep I pushed her seats up. She didnít even notice.
I woke up frequently to check the in-flight map. If youíre like most people, and donít know time zones, some of the info was not helpful. I wanted to know how much time was left in the flight, but all the map showed was the time at our current location. That was way too much math for me to do, so I fell back asleep. In fact, I slept almost the entire flight. I didnít use my computer, play card games or read magazines. When we arrived, I was refreshed and ready to go. Iíll tell you all about the first island we visited in next weekís newsletter. Right now, I gotta go for a swim. Itís about 85 degrees -- and Iím talking about both the air and water temperatures!
Bula! In Fiji everyone greets each other with a big smile and the word "bula." It actually means health or life, but if I hadnít looked it up I would have just thought it meant "hello." But it has a deeper meaning Ė like "aloha" or "shalom" -- which makes the word even more special.
If you arenít too sure where Fiji is located, then check out this map. Itís in the South Pacific, just over the International Date Line. Itís pretty far from nearly everything: 5520 miles from Los Angeles, 4420 miles from Tokyo, 3170 miles from Honolulu, 2160 miles from Tahiti, 1970 miles from Sydney, even 1340 from Auckland.
332 islands make up the Fiji Islands, but only two-thirds are inhabited. Yet Fiji is rich in fascinating history, and it would take me way too long to cover it. However, if you are interested in it, this website covers it in detail. For those of you with ADD and/or a mountain of paperwork, hereís my abbreviated version: Settlers arrived in 1500 BC. The first known European to pass through was Abel Tasman (think "Tasmania") in 1643. He wrote about the dangerous waters and cannibals, so for many years sailors had a deep fear of Fiji. In the mid-1800ís English missionaries tried to convert the tribal chiefs (and convince them not to eat people), but that didnít work out too well. The most famous failure was Reverend Thomas Baker, who ended up as a meal in 1867. Fijians did not like people touching their heads (they still donít), and when a tribal chief borrowed Bakerís comb he snatched it out of his hair. That was obviously a BIG mistake. The villagers were so upset they even tried to eat his shoes. But rubber soles didnít cook well, and they are now on exhibit at the Fiji Museum in Suva.
In 1874 Fiji was proclaimed a possession and dependency of the British Crown. Five years later the first boatload of indentured servants arrived from India. They had to work the land for five years before going home if they wanted, but two-thirds chose to stay. Indentured labor ended in 1919, but by then there were more than 60,000 Indians in Fiji. In October 1970 Fiji became an independent country. In 1987, they had their first coup (it was bloodless). In 1999 Fiji elected its first prime minister of Indian descent, Mahendra Chaudhry. In May of 2000 Chaudhry's government was overturned in a bloody coup.
Today, Fijiís population is estimated to be 868,531. The country is made up of 51% indigenous Fijians, 44% Indo-Fijians (Indians), and 5% other Pacific islanders, Chinese and Europeans. Before I came to Fiji I found these numbers surprising. Who would have thought there would be so many Indians in Fiji?
It seems the Fijians and Indo-Fijians put their bloody coup and resentments behind them. They now live and work together peacefully. They are all very friendly to everyone -- especially tourists. However, you canít help but notice that they usually hang with people of their own nationality.
The capital of Fiji, Suva, is on the biggest island, called Viti Levu. However, the most international flights land in Nadi (pronounced Nandi). This is also located on Viti Levu, but on the western side.
Amber Airplane and I landed at 5:15 a.m. We were greeted by a Fijian band before we cleared passport control. Then we waited with all the other passengers for our bags in Nadiís brand new-looking airport. As Amber Airplane watched for the bags I went straight to ATM, like any savvy traveler should do. I took out some Fijian dollars. Using your ATM and/or credit card offer the best exchange rates, which today is 1 Fijian Dollar (FJD) = 58 cents of U.S. Dollars (USD). For Americans, that means everything is about 40% off. Storekeepers, look out! Amber Airplane has landed, and she loves shopping for bargains.
We waited for our bags for a looong time. It was perhaps the longest Iíve ever waited, but we really didnít mind. After all, we were in Fiji! Not only that, we had nowhere else to go. We had one more flight to catch, and it would not depart until 8 a.m.
After getting our bags we cleared customs. Then we stopped by the Vodafone store in the airport to get a SIM card for my GSM phone (GSM stands for "Global System for Mobile Communications," and is the service the majority of countries in the world use). Most U.S. cell phones are not compatible with GSM, and with the ones that are (such as T-Mobile and CingularÖ), phone calls are very expensive. If you plan to travel abroad and want a cell phone, think about buying or renting a GSM phone. (You can get a good one at the JohnnyJetCellPhones.com.)
The Vodafone agent said it was cheaper to rent a SIM card than buy one. The price she quoted was $1.99 a day (all prices are in Fijian dollars, unless noted differently), but I sweet-talked her down to $1 a day. You can get this deal as well -- just ask for the VIP price.
However, the price does not include phone calls. Calling back to the U.S. from Fiji is very expensive: $5.64 a minute. Though steep, thatís still much cheaper than using a hotel phone. (Note: This is the highest price I have ever paid for a phone call. All countries are different. The cheapest call to the U.S. I have found is from Australia. Itís cost about 20 U.S. cents a minute. Obviously, distance has little to do with rates!)
Your best bet is to communicate via email. The cheapest rates are at internet cafes. We found an inexpensive one in Nadi called Internet Connect (itís across the street from a store called Nadís, which everyone knows). Internet Connect has high speed access, and charges just $5 an hour. This was the only place I found where I could use my laptop (I just plugged in the high speed cable).
Most resorts have a computer with internet access, but they are a bit pricey. Rates varied from $5 for 15 minutes to 35 cents a minute. The worst part was they were all on dial-up modems, and deathly slow.
Fiji uses the same electrical outlets as Australia, so make sure to bring a three-pronged slanted plug adapter and a transformer for any electrical equipement. Fiji uses 240 volts (the U.S. operates on 120 volts).
After getting our luggage, Amber Airplane and I walked over to the domestic terminal. We checked in for our flight to Savusavu, which is on Fijiís second largest island called Vanua Levu. We flew Air Fiji, and everyone airline employee we met was really friendly. How rare is that? What was most unusual though, was they made each person step on the scale with our carry-on bags, and weighed us individually. When that happens, you know youíll be flying on a tiny plane. I hate small planes, and so does Amber Airplane. In fact, while I was on the scale she said, "Do you remember me saying before we left: No small planes?" I said, "Donít worry, itíll be fine." Then I gulped quietly, and put on a fake smile. She looked at me, shook her head and said "Youíre fired!" -- just like Donald Trump.
We were flying on a Twin Otter DHC-6 (DH stands for de Havilland Canada). It holds about 20 passengers. This was similar to the plane we flew last year from Papeete to Moorea in French Polynesia, except this flight was 50 minutes longer. (Okay, I know, the Moorea flight was a mere five minutes). Though Amber Airplane and I are not fans of small planes, I have to say this was one of my favorite flights ever. First of all, the entire flight was smooth (thank you God). Second, the plane had huge picture windows. It was amazing to see the fabulous scenic views of Fiji. Look at these coral reefs that we flew over -- are they awesome or what?
When we got off the plane we stood around the small outdoor airport waiting for our luggage. Suddenly someone said "Johnny Jet!" like he knew me. I turned around to see not a familiar face, but a friendly one. It belonged to a Fijian man named Dick. He works at the Koro Sun, the resort we would be staying at. When I asked how he knew it was me he replied, "It says Johnny Jet right there on your t-shirt!" I thought to myself "duh!"
Dick grabbed our bags and showed us to the van. Before I could remark on how hot it was, Dick brought us a tray with two ice-cold white linen towels. They smelled great, but felt even better on my sweaty neck.
Dick drove us 15 minutes to our resort, while telling us all about his beautiful country. He said that Fiji has three official languages. Basically the Fijians speak Fijian, the Indians speak Hindi, and both groups speak English to each other. Almost everyone we met speaks and understands all three languages.
Along the right Dick pointed out some interesting sites, like this palm tree on a rock in the middle of the Sea He also showed us the resort called Namale, owned by self- help guru (and my brotherís hero) Anthony Robbins. Everyone on the island speaks very highly of him. Dick said he helps out on some of Tonyís events, and when he is in town Dick loves to hear him speak.
There were few vehicles on the road, but everyone we drove by Dick waved to. I asked if he knew everyone. He smiled and said, "Itís a small island." It didnít seem that small to me Ė supposedly it takes a day and a half to drive around. Most of the people we passed were men walking with long machetes. I said, "Thatís something you donít see everyday in the U.S.: Dick laughed and said that every Fijian man has a machete. They use it for farming.
We pulled up to the Koro Sun resort, and were greeted by a beautiful woman with a gigantic smile. She carried two tall glasses of the best fresh fruit punch I have ever had. If that werenít enough, a crowd of the resort staff behind her sang a Fijian welcome song. I kept looking behind us to see who else was there, but it was for us indeed. What a welcome!
We were brought into Koro Sunís new lobby and sat down with Gary, the gentleman behind the desk. He told us all about the resort. Almost everything was included: three meals a day, most activities (with a guide) -- we even had free golf on their 9-hole course, and lessons from their pro. We just had to pay $2 for each ball we lost (that adds up when Amber Airplane and I start swinging).
Gary told us that the resort has only 17 bures. A bure (pronounced boo-ray) is a thatched-roof resort villa, reflecting traditional Fijian village accommodations. He said we were in luck; we would have practically the entire 150 acres to ourselves. There was just one other couple, from Colorado, named Scot and Megan. They were really cool.
Before we went to our room, Gary asked if we would like breakfast. We were not really hungry, but who can turn down free food? Our breakfast was delicious: fruit, muffins, toast, eggs, ham, bacon and pancakes.
After breakfast we met Scot and Megan by the pool, then walked to our room (I mean, bure). It was 10 a.m., but it felt like 2 p.m. Maybe thatís because the time back in California WAS 2 p.m. -- the day before. (When you cross the International Date Line you lose a day).
The Koro resort staff was truly amazing. Everyone knew our names. Even the staff members we had not formally met would say "Bula, Johnny and Amber!" with a big Fijian smile when we passed by. On the way to our room one worker appeared out of nowhere (he was must have been weeding behind some bushes) and said "Bula!" But it sounded more like "BOO LA" and he scared the hell out of us. Well, I guess you had to be there.
Our bure was incredible. We were in number 16, the furthest from the main building. It was up on a little hill, with an incredible view of the Koro Sea. We had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, two balconies, a living room and air conditioning. The place was awesome. The only thing we had which we didnít need were a few bugs, but they come with the territory. Amber Airplane would add that they had big olí frogs. At night they hung out on the sidewalk, because it was warm. The worst part was that it was really dark walking back from dinner, and the frogs didnít get out of the way. That made walking very slow and exciting. Amber Airplane stepped on a frog the first night, and screamed so loudly the workers thought she had been stabbed. Every night from that point on we were escorted to our room by a staff worker with a flashlight.
After unpacking and relaxing in the bure, it was time for lunch. We ate three big meals a day, and all were really good. For lunch we had chilled soup (I think it was coconut), teriyaki chicken kabobs, and chocolate mousse for dessert. Every meal offered a choice of two dishes. Surprisingly for two picky eaters, we liked every one.
After lunch we played half a hole of golf with Scot and Megan, because after we teed off we remembered we had booked massages. Iím sure most of you heard all about this, because Amber wrote about them the other day in her newsletter. For those of you who didnít sign up for her free newsletterÖ. The massages were given at the Koro Sun spa, in a rainforest . On the way up Dick pointed out all the fruit trees and plants we passed: banana, coconut, papaya, pineappleÖyou name it.
Each masseuse had her own individual bure. -- and no boom box. This was the first time I ever had a massage without music. The reason: We didnít need one. We were in a rain forest, and the natural sounds were incredible. This made the massage magical. It was raining, and the sound of drops hitting the tin roof was awesome (I love that sound). As if that wasnít enough, a waterfall out back was gushing. How sweet is that? The masseuse kept calling me her friend. She would whisper in my ear, "Is that too hard, my friend?" She was strong, and got all my kinks out. My full-body Swedish massage was simply amazing, and I hoped it would never end. She even massaged the inside of my ears with her pinkies (it felt better than a Q-tip). Ooh, just writing that gave me goose bumps. One hour cost only $60 FJD -- about $35 U.S.
After the massage I was so relaxed I just wanted to go to sleep, but I couldnít. I had to stay awake until 10 p.m., to adjust to the 20-hour time change. It felt like the longest day of my life Ė but that was fine, because we were in Fiji. After a while I, though, I got delirious, and couldnít wait until 10. After dinner I zonked out at around 9.
The next morning Amber Airplane and I got up at the crack of dawn. We took a walk along the beach, which is across the road in front of the resort. The beach there is not very good. But you donít come to the Koro Sun to relax on the beach (there are plenty of other islands for that). You come to see how Fiji used to be in the old days. There are all kinds of sports and activities to do all while getting the true Fijian experience. The scenery, including towering green mountains, is impressive. There is also some of the best diving out of all the islands. But hands down, what makes this island so special are the people.
Fijians are simple people. Most live in villages where everyone is related. On this island many still lack electricity and other amenities we take for granted. FYI: Indo-Fijians donít live in villages; they live in settlements, in homes with vibrant colors. Many are purple, yellow, even orange.
On the beach we picked up sea shells. I found a nice one, and told Amber Airplane to check out. When she asked what was in it I looked closer, and realized it was a hermit crab. If it had come out of its shell, that really would have freaked her out. Well, mean fiancť Johnny decided to play a trick on his bride-to-be. I held her hand and put back what she thought was the same shell. I then said, "That thing is a hermit crab." As you can tell from this picture, she freaked. Then I showed her it was a different empty shell. She stopped screaming, but for some reason she didnít think it was too funny.
After breakfast Dick and John (who also works at the resort, and is another super-nice guy) took the four of us (including Scot and Megan) for a Kayak ride on a salt lake 20 minutes away. The trip was a lot of fun, and the guys timed the tide perfectly so we didnít have to paddle too hard. We went down the river with the tide going out, paddled around the lake for an hour, and when the tide changed we went back up the river with the incoming water.
After the trip we drove back through Dickís village. We stopped at a roadside stand his father ran. I bought some five pies (coconut and bananas) and three fruit juices that his mom had made -- all for $4. What a deal!
When visiting a village, itís important to follow traditional customs. You should be invited first, or go with a host. Bring a gift of kava (more on kava later). Donít wear shorts or hats. Women must not bare their shoulders bare. Donít wear shoes inside someoneís house. Speak softly, show respect, and never touch someoneís head. (You knew that already, didnít you? Donít worry; thereís no more cannibalism anywhere in Fiji). Our visit was unplanned, and I think we broke almost every rule. Fortunately, we were with Dick and John.
When we returned to the resort we ate another big lunch. Then we played ping pong and pool, and hung out in our bure listening to the rain. We went to dinner. but before eating we had our first introduction to kava. Locals have all sorts of names for Kava. They call is a bowl of grog, yaqona, and something else. Itís kind of confusing. The active ingredient is kavalactone, which U.S. health food stores used to market to combat stress and insomnia. The FDA took Kava off the shelves recently, because of alleged dangers to the liver. If it is bad for your liver, then all Fijians need some serious help -- they drink kava like itís water.
"Yaqona has always played an important ceremonial role in Fijian life. No significant occasion takes place without it, and a sevusevu (welcoming) ceremony is usually held for tour groups visiting Fijian villages. Mats are placed on the floor, the participants gather around in a circle, and the yaqona roots are mixed with water and strained through coconut husks into a large carved wooden bowl, called a tanoa.
The ranking chief sits next to the tanoa during the welcoming ceremony. He extends in the direction of the guest of honor a cowrie shell attached to one leg of the bowl by a cord of woven coconut fiber. It's extremely impolite to cross the plane of the cord once it has been extended.
The guest of honor (in this case your tour guide) then offers a gift to the village (a kilogram or two of dried grog roots will do these days) and makes a speech explaining the purpose of his visit. The chief then passes the first cup of yaqona to the guest of honor, who claps once, takes the cup in both hands, and gulps down the entire cup of sawdust-tasting liquid in one swallow. Everyone else then claps three times.
Next, each chief drinks a cup, clapping once before bolting it down. Again, everyone else claps three times after each cup is drained. Except for the clapping and formal speeches, everyone remains silent throughout the ceremony, a tradition easily understood considering kava's numbing effect on the lips and tongue." Source Frommers.com
I just took a little sip, but Amber wouldnít even try it. She doesnít like communal cups. I canít really blame her.
The next day the six of us again piled back in the truck and drove towards the mountains. Our first stop was in town, to stop by the daily market. Here you can buy all kinds of fruits and vegetables quite inexpensively. For example, pineapples cost $1. I bought some kava to give to the musical trio at the resort. I also bought a weird-looking fruit for 50 cents. Iíd never seen it before, but Dick and John told me it was a breadfruit, and that it tastes like a potato. In the car I gave it to John as a present, and he was very appreciative. He must have been laughing on the inside, because on our drive we passed a ton of breadfruit trees.
Our next stop was at one of Savusavuís 20 hot springs, which the town is famous for. The one we went to was across from the Hot Springs Hotel. The bubbling holes are lined with rocks, upon which locals often leave pots to cook while they attend to shopping nearby. This is where I made a total fool of myself. I wanted to get a picture, but I didnít want to keep everyone waiting in the hot car. So I ran to get closer. But I didnít see a rock under some tall grass, and of course I tripped. A better picture would have been of me flying through the air. Seriously, I was running fast and felt like I was sliding into second base. When I got up I was full of embarrassment, and expected someone to yell "Safe!" I guess everyone was too polite.
Our next stop was the largest copra mill in Fiji. Copra is the dried meat of the coconut, from which oil is extracted. Dick explained the whole process. Coconut oil is used for all kinds of stuff, from perfume to soaps.
Our final stop of the day was at the tall lush green mountains. We were supposed to take a 45-minute hike to see a magnificent waterfall. Well, our hike got a lot longer when our vehicle could not make it any further up this muddy red dirt road. It had poured for the past few nights, and our pushing did not help. Finally we just parked in the middle of the road (Dick said nobody would drive by) and started walking.
Dick takes guests for a hike up here once a week, so I figured it would be pretty easy. As usual, I was wrong. That hike was definitely the hardest one I have ever done (not that I am an avid hiker). But this was insane. Now I know why Dick had not showed us where we were hiking to. If he had, we never would have agreed to go.
The hike started out on an open dirt road, but then we came to a small village the guys knew. They dropped off some coolers and made their way into the bush. I was like, "This is the path?!" It certainly was not a real path, which made it even more adventurous. We hiked up some serious steep hills. I was worried about our surroundings, but Dick and John assured us that Fiji does not have any poisonous snakes, spiders or ivy. At least not where we were.
Whatís funny is, I stayed away from one shiny plant the entire hike, because it looked like poison ivy. Later. when we passed a stream, Dick grabbed a whole bunch of those plant leaves, dipped them in the water and started rubbing them together hard and fast. I asked what he was doing. He said, "This is what we use in the village for soap. Itís what your soap at the hotel is made from." I just shook my head and thought what an idiot I was.
The most memorable part of the hike came when Dick would randomly picked things from plants and trees, and started slicing them up with his machete. We chomped on raw sugar cane, ate pineapple like it was a lollipop (this was the best pineapple Iíve ever had), and I learned where to get ginger root to soothe a sore throat. If you are ever stuck in the woods, I highly recommend having Dick with you.
When we finally got to the waterfall, my shirt was soaked in sweat. (A beautiful image, I know). We were all boiling hot, and couldnít wait to dive in the cool and refreshing water. Amber Airplane and I swam toward the rock where people climb to feel the pressure of the waterfall, and said, "This is crazy! Who knows whatís in this water?"
When we got to the rock John pointed out which rocks to step on. Amber Airplane was taking way too long to climb up, and I didnít want stand up in the water in fear of what was at the bottom. I was able to squeeze between her and a rock, and climb up. A few seconds later Amber Airplane was standing on a lower rock, in the heart of the waterfall. I thought she was enjoying the water pressure on her shoulders, but she didnít look right. Her face was as white as a ghost. She said she couldnít move or breathe. I quickly jumped back in the water, pulled her down and swam between the rocks, carrying her in a lifeguard rescue position. Where I learned that move, I donít know.
When we got to shallower water I stood her up. She said she panicked because she couldnít move or breathe, and added, "Oh my gosh, you saved my life!" I said, "I didnít save your Ö", and then she screamed "OUCH! Something just bit me!" We both ran out of the water. Dick was laughing, and said it was just a little lobster.
Dick -- who should change his name to McGyver -- was catching these 6-inch lobsters with (get this) a reed from a coconut leaf. The guy is amazing.
We made it back down to the hill and had lunch with villagers before getting back in the truck. We returned to the resort and cleaned up. The resort then threw us an incredible farewell dinner. The whole staff was out there singing and cooking. To top it off John had the chef make us special chips out of the breadfruit I gave him. They were right -- it tasted just like a potato.
The next morning it was time for us to say goodbye to the KoroSun Resort and the island of Vanua Levu. Amber and I did not want to leave, but it was time for us to go to the second island on our four- island trip. Most of the staff from the resort came to the main building to say goodbye. After we hugged everyone, they sang a farewell song. It was so sweet that we both started to cry. They sang how much they enjoyed our stay, and that they will miss us and canít wait until we "come home" again.
Next week we visit CastAway and Vatule islands. These places are amazing too. You donít want to miss it. Vinaka! (Thatís "thank you" in Fijian).
Ni sa bula! Thatís the formal way to say hello in Fijian. However, I prefer simply "bula," because itís one word -- and you can put some oomph into it, as the friendly locals do. If you are new or missed our last newsletter, then you might want to check out last weekís before reading this one. It will give you lots of background info on Fiji, which is where Amber Airplane and I are currently touring. Tough life, I knowÖ but someone has to do it.
Last week we left off in Savusavu, which is a town on the second largest of all 332 Fijian Islands, called Vanua Levu. The locals call this island "the north," because itís the northernmost island. Itís also the best place to get a genuine feel for what it was like in the South Pacific back in the old days.
Last week we stayed at the Koro Sun resort. Many readers have inquired about prices, and where to find the best details on a Fijian vacation. My recommendation is to start with Air Pacificís package deals (There are some listed above in the Specials section). Their website is airpacificadventures.com. As you know, it's cheaper to purchase air and land arrangements together, rather than separately. You should also try your local travel agent (if you donít have one, ask friends for recommendations, or use our partner travel agency, JohnnyJetTravel at 1-800-JohnnyJet). If you want to contact the U.S. representatives for the Koro Sun resort directly, their website is www.korosunresort.com; their email is : email@example.com, and their toll-free phone number is 877-567-6786.
There are many kinds of places to stay on Vanua Levu, ranging from very upscale resorts like Anthony Robbinsí Namale ($300-$2100 USD a night) to sleeping in a village ($4 USD night). At Koro Sun we enjoyed a huge two-bedroom bure, which costs a family of four about $400 USD a day. This is a great deal, because it includes all transfers and non-motorized activities, plus three meals a day.
Before I move on to this weekís adventure, hereís some info on Fijiís climate (I forgot to cover it last week). As you imagined, itís warm and humid. Their summer high temperatures on the coast are 89ļ Fahrenheit (32ļ Celsius), while in the winter itís 83ļ F (28ļ C). (Donít forget, Fiji is below the equator, so their seasons are the opposite of North America and Europeís.) Lows throughout the year range in the 70ís (18-26ļ C). However, in the central parts of the main islands, average nighttime temperatures can dip to 59ļ F (15 ļC).
Now that you know Fijiís temperatures are almost perfect for a tropical getaway, you probably wonder about rain. As in most austral (relating to the Southern hemisphere) regions, Fiji receives most of its rain in the summer. However, the amount varies, depending on location. The north and west coasts usually are drier than the east and south. Thatís why most resorts are on the western side of Fiji. The wettest month is usually March, while the driest month is almost always July.
Fiji gets its share of cyclones; the season is November through April. The good news is that the weathermen down here are good at tracking big storms, and the islanders prepare well for them.
We heard that even in the wet season, the sun usually comes out after a few showers. Unfortunately, that did not happen much for us. It rained almost every day, and we saw very little sun. Many locals told us that is extremely unusual. I believe them, because Amber Airplane and I almost always manage to bring above-normal amounts of rain whenever we take a tropical vacation. Remember last yearís French Polynesia trip? Ugh!
Now on to this weekís story. It starts when Amber Airplane and I were dropped off at the Savusavu airport on time by our new good friend Dick. "On time" here means 30 minutes before the flight. That allows you to check in and weigh all your baggage -- including yourself. Theoretically, you could show up five minutes before, because there are no lines, but I donít think the airline would like that.
There is no airport security when you leave from the small airports. (Note: There is when you fly from major airports like Nadi and Suva). Donít you love not having to deal with metal detectors and grouchy security workers when you know youíre in a safe environment? Do you think any terrorist wants to sabotage a tiny aircraft in Fiji? I donít think so either.
When our plane came in, we were surprised to see that it wasnít the same type of aircraft we had flown in on. This one was a bit smaller and longer. In fact, I had never seen this type of plane before. It looked like someone plopped a pair of wings on a banana. When Amber Airplane saw this flying tube of toothpaste she gave me another of her patented "I said NO small planes" looks. Before she could open her mouth I said, "Save your breath. I know: Iím fired."
Air Fijiís lone airport agent told us we had to wait 20 minutes, because the plane first needed to go to a nearby island to pick up more passengers. We didnít mind, for two reasons: We were a little nervous about getting onboard, and this prolonged our stay on Savusavu. The only problem was that the island pickup took an hour, which made us late for our boat to Castaway Island.
Whatís cool is that when the plane returned all the passengers disembarked except two -- and they were the same people we originally flew to Savusavu with. It was like the four of us had our own private plane (minus flight attendants).
Our nerves settled a lot when the nice couple from California said their flight from the island had been surprisingly very smooth. Itís a good thing they said that, because the weather was bad and Amber Airplane and I were skeptical about getting on. The plane -- a Britten Norman BN2 Islander that had been converted (and lenghtened) into a trimotor Trislander -- had no aisles. There were just five rows, each of which snuggly fit two people in row. We had to get in and out using the door in our row.
After speeding down the runway and a quick takeoff, Amber Airplane and I loosened our grips on each other. We realized the flight would be quite smooth. Unfortunately we did not have great views, because the sky was full of clouds. But Iíll take a smooth flight over nice views any day. If youíre flying on a Trislander, hereís a tip: Bring earplugs. The plane can get a bit noisy.
At the Nadi (pronounced Nandi) airport we met our driver, who said our noon boat to Castaway Island had indeed departed without us. The next boat did not leave for a few hours, but he offered to take us to downtown Nadi to pass the time. Amber Airplane and I were a little bummed at first, because we had seen so many incredible pictures of Castaway Island, but the delay turned out for the best. It allowed us to see downtown Nadi, and more importantly check our email at an inexpensive internet cafť. Downtown Nadi is 10 minutes away from the airport, but because of the traffic it took us 20. Can you believe Fiji has traffic? Of course, itís only in the major cities like Nadi and Suva, and even then itís not really too bad. The outer islands donít have many cars (some donít even have any).
After downtown Nadi, we drove 10 minutes to the port to catch our boat. It was pouring, so we sat inside the 88-foot catamaran. We prefer sitting outside, because we usually get sick inside boats on rough seas. Thankfully we felt fine, because the boat cut through the waves nicely. The trip took only 45 minutes, and we passed lots of islands so it did not feel like we were out in the middle of the lonely sea. South Sea Cruises; tel.: 679-750-500.
Castaway Island is part of the Mamanuca Islands. The guidebook said these are the driest parts of Fiji, but while we were there, there was nothing dry about them. In fact, we had a mini-cyclone.
There is only one resort on the island, with 66 Fijian-style bures. The bures comfortably sleep four people. All have one queen-size bed and two single beds (neatly disguised as an extra seating area). Each bure has a traditional Fijian high roof (made from pounded mulberry tree bark), and mounted ceiling fans.
My favorite part of the bure was that Castaway uses ceramic jars for shampoo and body lotion. (Most other Fijian resorts do the same.) That way they donít pollute the environment with those pesky little plastic bottles I always feel obligated to take home. I intend to give them to the poor, but they just sit in my trunk for months and months, until the hot California sun melts them and the liquid oozes all over my sports equipment. On another note, I also really liked the shower. It was huge, with awesome water pressure!
Itís hard for me to tell you about our two-night stay there. The weather was so bad we didnít do much besides hang out in our plush bure, listening to the howling wind and pounding rain. It was very relaxing, but it doesnít make for a very good story.
I can tell you that the food at the resort was good -- especially the huge breakfast buffet. Meals were not included in our stay, but they do offer a meal plan. Thatís a good deal, especially for you big eaters. Three meals a day cost just $37 USD per person.
The highlight of our stay came when we had an incredible dinner with Damien, the general manager of the resort. We were joined by his partner Rachel, and their friends Simon and Jane. All four are originally from New Zealand, but now live and work in Fiji. The latter two run the Jet Fiji boat in Nadi. Jet boats are really popular in this region because they have special technology that allows for unbelievable maneuvers. Amber Airplane and I were invited to take try them out when we returned to Nadi, but there was not enough time. Hopefully next year.
If the weather was nice, the highlight of Castaway would definitely have been swimming in the amazingly clear blue warm water surrounding the island. We could also have taken part in some of the resortís many daily activities, such as hiking, snorkeling and banana boat rides.
Itís too bad about the weather, because the pictures we saw of this place are incredible. So much so, in fact, that the Air Pacific 747 we flew from Los Angeles featured an enormous picture of Castaway Island on the outside.
If the font on Castawayís website looks familiar, itís because thatís the font used for the Tom Hanks movie "Cast Away." The only difference is the spelling (one word for the resort, two for the film). Actually, it was not filmed on Castaway Island -- but it was nearby. The movie used the deserted island of Monuriki. We could have toured it, but we didnít because of -- you guessed it Ė the weather. However, we did see the oar that Tom Hanks used in the movie. It hangs above a bar on Castaway Island. Someone at the resort found it floating in the water.
The only thing disappointing about Castaway Island was that the workers were not as friendly as in other parts of Fiji. I donít think it was because of the bad weather, because there was bad weather at the Koro Sun Resort, and the people there could not have been nicer. My guess is that because Castaway is much more touristy, the locals are accustomed to seeing outsiders so itís not a big deal. Donít misunderstand me: They were still friendly when compared to other parts of the world (ahem, France), but nothing like the locals we met on Vanua Levu or Vatulele. And of course I would return to Castaway in a heartbeat. Castaway Island: tel.: 1-800-888-0120; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
We were booked to return to Nadi via a seaplane, but because of the wind and rain we were again very skeptical about boarding a small plane. This one had room for only six people (including the pilot). When we got in I was surprised to see how young our pilot was. I think he was taken aback when I said, "Youíre our pilot?" Luckily, the baby-faced (and former Canadian bush) pilot assured us it was safe, and the flight would not be too bumpy. He was right. Itís wasnít bad at all: A few minor bumps, but nothing like our Alaskan seaplane adventure last year. Our pilot explained that the only reason it is bumpy when flying over land is because the mountains change the air flow.
Flight time is normally 12 minutes, but the storm put us in a holding pattern, so it took twice as long. It was cool, though, because we got to circle an island that is so small you can walk around it in five minutes.
We were in the Nadi airport for only an hour, waiting for our next flight to the island of Vatulele. The airport staff and the Vatulele locals waiting for the flight were so nice. They asked us where we were from, and how our trip was going. One woman said that there is normally just one flight a day to Vatulele, but on that day there were so many passengers (mostly locals) that there were two. Luckily for me, we were on the first flight and that nice lady was on the second. Thatís because stupid me put my wallet in my really small shorts pocket, and it fell out while I sat down. Just before we took off an airport worker ran up to the plane, all out of breath, and said, "A lady in the airport just found this wallet and thinks itís yours, because it was on your seat." I just nodded my head in disbelief. Talk about a vacation disaster: My wallet was filled with all my money and credit cards.
At that instant I knew Vatulele would be a special place. It was all that, and much more. I canít wait to tell you all about it next week, when we finish up our trip to friendly, beautiful Fiji.
Bula! Last week we left off from rainy Castaway Island, disappointed because we really didnít get to explore (or at least veg out on) the beautiful tourist paradise. It was just bad luck for us, because Fiji usually has beautiful weather. However, the sun finally came out for a few hours, and we got a dose of what most travelers to Fiji experience: pure tropical bliss.
Before Amber Airplane and I left on our trip, when I told a few friends that we were going to the islands of Fiji, their eyes lit up. Several of the fortunate ones had been to Fiji themselves, and they always asked which islands we were going to. When I mentioned Vatulele (pronounced ĎVah-too-lay-layí), I could see them almost turn green with envy. It was amazing.
It seems everyone who has been to Fiji has heard of the island of Vatulele, one of the countryís (and worldís) top resorts. As it turned out, one of my green friends had been to Valulele and asked, "You wouldnít be staying at The Point, would you?" When I nodded yes, he practically fainted. I had no idea what The Point was other than another spot on my itinerary, but after that reaction I went home and did some research on the internet. After reading and seeing pictures about the resort, I almost passed out myself. It was that incredible.
Vatulele is situated 30 miles off the Coral Coast of Viti Levu, the main island in the Fiji group. The flight south to the island is only 30 minutes from Nadi airport. There is one daily departure at 11:30 a.m. (the return flight is at 12:50 p.m.), operated by Pacific Air Charter. Due to the rough seas the 10-seater seaplane had to land at the islandís airport, rather than the usual "Hollywood-Style" beach landing in the lagoon in front of the resort. The plane then pulls right up on the beach. How cool is that?
Actually, calling it an "airport" in Vatulele is wrong; itís really just a grass field. I wasnít that upset on missing out on the beach landing, though. Not many people can say they landed in a grass field, can they?
When we touched down we were greeted by wide-eyed schoolchildren. Itís not every day they see a plane on the ground. (They usually they land on the other side of the island, in the water.) There was also a handful of friendly resort staff members. Everyone gathered at the side of the field, waiting for us to get off the plane.
After deplaning we waited a few minutes under umbrellas that the staff handed out, while they said farewell to the departing passengers. That gave us a good feel for the resort. Those guests all smiled, and told us how much we would love the resort.
Their remarks made us even more excited to get to our new home for the next couple of days. (Although the resort has a four-night minimum stay, we got permission to stay less in order to jump around and see multiple islands.) After the plane left we boarded an unusual 4x4, which looked like a bus from another planet. The resort was a 10-minute drive down a bumpy dirt road.
When we arrived we enjoyed a welcome similar to the one at the Koro Sun resort in Savusavu. A beautiful smiling Fijian woman carried a tray of colorful, tropical and delicious non-alcoholic drinks, followed by chilled French champagne. A welcoming band followed behind.
Six of us -- three couples Ė had just arrived. We sat down together on a couch in the main building (had it not been raining, all this would have taken place on the porch), and filled out a simple registration card. We were quickly briefed about the island and the resort by the manager, and then we were photographed.
The resort takes everyoneís picture with a Polaroid, then writes the guestsí names and posts them on the bulletin board so people can learn each otherís names. Workers at Vatulele are required to know everyoneís first name; the guests are encouraged to as well (most people Ė including us -- did learn one anotherís names). I was impressed how quickly the staff learned our names. Within just a few minutes we were greeted by new faces, all bearing genuine smiles and the phrase "Bula, Johnny and Amber!"
Vatulele Resort is set amid 60 acres of jungle and coconut plantations. The resort sits on a magnificent, three-quarter-mile-long white sand beach and lagoon. The islandís total population is 1000, in four primitive villages. The villagers are all Methodist, and quite conservative. It is important for visitors to the villages to dress appropriately.
The resort, on the other hand, is very casual. Guests donít even need to wear shoes to dinner. In fact, the June 2002 issue of Fortune Magazine named Vatulele one of the "Top Ten Barefoot Resorts" in the world. In March 2001 Travel + Leisure Magazine gave Vatulele its "Top Value in South Pacific, Australia, New Zealand Award". The resort has won many other honors in the past few years as well.
The only resort on the island was founded in 1990 by Australian television producer Henry Crawford, and remodeled 11 years later. Most guests stay in one of 18 identical bures. One really rich (or, in our case, lucky) couple gets to stay in The Point (more on that later).
All bures have 12 doors that open on to an expansive terrace. From the living room you walk up three steps to the bedroom, with a king-size bed and a dressing area. Off to the right is the bathroom. There area also outdoor showers. The bures are set on the edge of the beach in the natural jungle 50 or so yards apart, allowing for plenty of privacy. (Tip: Bures 3 and 4 are the farthest distance apart. If you want the most privacy, request those two).
The resort is very safe. Guests do not have to lock doors, but the resort recommends placing valuables in the in-room safe (theyíre just covering their behinds). Because the resort is in a jungle, there are some bugs (especially mosquitoes in the rainy season). The good news is that none of the bugs (or predators, for that matter) are poisonous. Phew!
Vatulele is a not a place for kids. In fact, children under 12 are not allowed. This resort is for grownups who want to relax and get away from the outside world. To prove the point there are no TVs, newspapers, telephones or money transactions. (There is a computer in the massage office that guests can use for free). Because I am an internet junkie, the only way I snuck off and got online was by buying Amber Airplane a massage. Oops -- I think I just busted myself by disclosing that info. But I suffered for that: The connection is dial-up, and v-e-r-y, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w.
Everything (except scuba diving, fishing and massages) at Vatulele is included in the price. That made it feel like all the food and drinks -- including the best wines and champagne (Mumm was the brand while we were there) -- was on the house. The resort staff even does your laundry and mails your post cards for free. Incredible, huh?
There are 120 workers for the maximum 38 guests. Almost all the employees come from nearby villages. The only ones who donít are a few members of the upper management, imported from the other islands of Fiji or Australia.
As in the rest of Fiji, there is no tipping on Vatulele. Instead, visitors are encouraged to contribute to a Christmas fund that is distributed to workers at the end of each year. The resort recommends $20 USD per couple a day, payable at the end of your stay. Thatís a pretty cool concept, huh?
Guests have several options of where to take their meals. You can have a romantic dinner in your bure, or eat on the beach with moon and lantern light, in the library, the wine cellar, the folly (a cross between a medieval- and modern- looking tower with lots of deep colors and great views), or at a large communal table with other guests in the main dining room. The latter is where most people dine. But you should make a reservation for any of the special places, because each location (except the beach) has room for only one couple, and the unique places fill up fast.
Surprisingly, the communal dinners work. There's an interesting mix of guests -- some American, some Australian, some older, some younger Ė but, there's very little of the "What do you do?"-type questions. Most of the talk is about "What did you do today?" Thatís refreshing Ė and everyone learns a lot.
Another way the resort encourages guests to get to know one other is by throwing nightly cocktail parties half an hour before dinner. They are nothing elaborate; just a small gathering around the bar. Most of our meals were served indoors because of the rain. However, when the weather was nice we dined on a terrace outside the large central pavilion overlooking the lagoon.
Our first meal took place just after arriving. Instead of going right to our bure and unpacking, we had lunch with the rest of the guests. Wood-fired pizzas were the special of the day, and the toppings spread out on a long table for us to choose from were quite impressive: all kinds of fresh vegetables, meats, seafood, even fruit. After ordering we sat down at the table. We were introduced to everyone, and it felt like we had been there for 10 months -- not 10 minutes.
Our pizzas were amazing Ė in fact, all the food was too. Fresh ingredients are flown in daily from Australia and New Zealand. Of course there is an emphasis on seafood, but landlubbers like me can be very happy too. The cuisine ranges from Californian to Thai, Japanese, Austral/Asian and Indian. This place was like a dream come true -- and we hadnít even seen our super bure yet.
Now to the good stuff: After lunch it was finally time to go to our dream bure we had heard so much about. Along with the 18 bures, there is one very special and unique residence on Vatulele. It is sometimes called "the super bure," but usually referred to as The Point.
We were introduced to Tukini. He is assigned on a fulltime basis to take care of visitors (usually high-profile guests seeking privacy) staying at The Point. Tukini is truly an amazing worker. He was always there when we needed him -- as you will read about shortly.
Tukini drove us 200 yards in his electric cart down a narrow path from the main building to The Point. I knew this place was going to be incredible, by everyoneís reaction and the pictures I had seen, but I had no idea it would be this un-frickiní believable in person. Words cannot describe it. However, Iíll try.
Tukini stopped the cart next to a gigantic wooden door that was the entrance of the property and he said, "Welcome home, Johnny and Amber." My heart sputtered, and I whispered to Amber Airplane, "Too bad this really isnít our home." Beyond the doors was a long walkway made from soft small stones. Walking on it with bare feet felt incredible.
The walkway was directly above one of our pools. (How sick is that? I had never heard of a place with two pools). Both were fresh water infinity-edge pools (water dropping off, so we couldnít see a wall). The lower pool was larger, and had a coral waterfall flowing into it.
After becoming dizzy from shaking my head in awe and looking up, down, right and left, we finally approached the front door. These doors were also huge and wooden, but darker than the first ones. When we opened them we saw our living room decorated in a Santa Fe/Fijian motif. There was a kava bowl, amazing sculptures, and paintings that probably cost more than my car. Beyond the oversized glass doors (which also came with thick wood shutters) was a 180- degree view of the lagoon, coral sea and white sandy beach. On the deck was our second pool (this was a lap pool), which faded over to the ocean. At that point my face started hurting, because I couldnít take off my cheesy smile.
We looked around and saw a fully stocked fridge, a jar filled with fresh- baked chocolate chip cookies (yum!), a desk with a wall featuring every electrical outlet on the planet, a CD player, air conditioning, and a beautiful bathroom. Unbelievable! I should mention that this was just the downstairs part of The Point.
Tukini then showed us the upstairs. (Speaking of stairs, there were two freshly picked plumerias on each step. Every night someone picked them up, and every day someone lay new ones down.) Even more incredibly, the flowers werenít just on the stairs; they were everywhere throughout the house.
Upstairs was even more spectacular than downstairs, even though that sounds impossible. We had a very comfortable king-size bed. We also had a way-plush bathroom, including a bathtub with views to die for. Our shower had three heads: one on the ceiling, another where most shower heads are mounted, and a third by our feet. How good did they feel? We even had a mirror that made you look skinny. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
Upstairs also offered even better 180-degree views than downstairs (hard to believe), and another wraparound balcony. To top it all off, on our bed was a handwritten welcome note and a pair of sulus (sarongs). In Fiji, both men and women wear these skirts. I tried putting it on one night. I had no idea how to tie it, because like a dummy I didnít want to spend time reading the short directions, so of course it ended up falling off in front of all the other guests into a puddle of water. I stood their naked, like a deer in headlights with my mouth wide open. The lady guests had the same expressions (just kidding about the expressions).
The first thing we did when Tukini left our super bure was laugh uncontrollably out loud. My cheeks finally changed their position, and my facial muscles loosened up. We saying things like "Can you believe this place? How lucky are we? This must be where the rich and famous stay." Later, as we flipped through The Pointís guest book, how right we were. The first page was filled out by Tommy Lee Jones. Jim Carrey also stayed there. The list went on and onÖ.
Tukini had has his own little plush pad next door, and said if we needed anything just to call. But we never had to. Every time we even thought of Tukini he mysteriously appeared, out of nowhere. He was like the butler in the movie Mr. Deeds. One time I picked up the phone to call him, but before I could even dial his three-digit number the dude knocked on the door. Another time at dinner we toured the wine cellar. I thought, "Gosh, since itís raining so hard it would be nice to have an umbrella." Sure enough, the moment I opened the door Tukini was standing there -- not only with an umbrella, but with the electric cart almost on top of the bushes. I asked, "How the hell do you do it, boy?" He just laughed Ė with what Amber Airplane swears is one of the warmest laughs you will ever hear.
Each day Tukini came in to show us that nightís menu. He asked if we liked any of the dishes, or would prefer to have something else made. He also asked where we wanted to dine: in the house, or with the other guests in the main dining hall. (Because of the rain we couldnít eat on the beach or in the folly.) One night we ate at the communal table; another time we romantically dined alone by candlelight in our bure -- I mean, super bure. It was amazing to have a butler serve a three-course meal. He always knew exactly when to leave, and when to reappear. Unbelievable!
Every day Amber Airplane and I had breakfast and lunch with the group. That was great, but because of the weather we missed having a picnic on a private island the resort calls Nooki Nooki. HmmmÖI wonder what goes on there?!
On our last day the sun finally came out. Wahoo! We got up early (6:30 a.m.) to take advantage of the day. We strolled down the deserted beach, kayaked a couple of hundred yards out to a reef, and snorkeled by our lonesomes. Then we paddled back to the beach, where the sand was as soft as talcum powder. We jumped in the water for a swim. We didn't want to come out, because it was as warm as a bathtub and as clear as a pool. Whatís crazy is that the workers said the water was not really clear Ė they thought it was still cloudy from the storms.
If we had more time we would have taken part in many of the activities the resort offers with a guide. At least two are planned every day, but if you stay at The Point you can do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it. The choices ranged from seeing the legendary red prawns, swimming in caves and climbing a seven-story lighthouse to touring a village, attending Sunday Mass, even learning the different uses of a coconut.
Vatulele is famous for its tapa cloth, made from the bark of mulberry trees. Every departing guest gets a handmade tapa cloth lei, a very nice touch. Thereí still a little more to tell, but because this weekís newsletter is already pretty long, weíll end here. We will continue next week with our flight to Nadi, our stay at our last hotel in Fiji, and a story about our flight on Air Pacific to another country.
Vatulele is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels which represent only 300 properties worldwide.
If you are interested in going to Vatulele or a having a holiday in Fiji, my recommendation is to start with Air Pacificís package deals (some are listed above in the Specials section). Their website is airpacificadventures.com. As you know, it's cheaper to purchase air and land arrangements together than separately. You should also try your local travel agent (if you donít have one, ask friends for recommendations, or use our partner travel agency, JohnnyJetTravel at 1-800-JohnnyJet). To contact the U.S. representatives for the Vatulele resort directly, click on their website: vatulele.com. Their email is email@example.com; the toll-free phone number is 1-800-828-9146.
Bula (again)! This week we say goodbye to the beautiful Fijian islands, and say hello to a new destination. HmmmÖ I wonder where that could be? Weíll get to that destination later on, but for now let me tell you about our last few days in tropical paradise.
We left off at the unbelievably gorgeous island of Vatulele. After reading last weekís story I am sure you can understand why itís one of Fijiís (and the worldís) most amazing resorts. Obviously, we did not want to leave this fantasy island -- who in his right mind would? (The only person I can think of is the one paying the bill).
It was tough enough to leave, but doing so as the sun came out for the first time our entire trip it made it practically impossible. So instead of packing we jumped into the Coral Sea, and tested the beautiful blue water we had been staring at all week. Of course, the water was magnificent. In fact, it was perfect! Not too hot or too cold -- I would guess somewhere in the low- to mid-80s.
We waited to the very last moment to go back to our super bure (The Point) to pack and get ready for our next island adventure. After we closed out our bill (ouch!) we were given a beautiful tapa cloth lei as a parting gift. Our incredible memories were enough, but this handmade lei was an extra-nice touch. Finally we heard the plane circling above, and headed to the beach. Because of the good weather we watched the seaplane make its usual Hollywood-style beach landing, and witnessed a typical welcome reception (and departure) at Vatulele.
A welcome reception is special. Many of the resortís staff are out on the beach with musical instruments and cold drinks. They all greet the happy new arrivals by singing a Fijian welcome song. After the passengers deplaned and were escorted by the resort manager to the main building for check-in, the rest of the staff turned around and sang a goodbye song to Amber and me. It was extra special, because they were singing just to us (well, okay, we were the only guests leaving the island that day).
However, we did not have the plane all to ourselves. Several staff members took advantage of the spare seats, and flew to the main island. We were happy to share the plane, because two of them were our favorite resort employees: Mark, the general manager, and Tukini, who had taken such fantastic care of us.
Instead of taxiing down a black tarmac, we took off from the beautiful calm blue waters of the Coral Sea. How cool are seaplanes? The pilot took his time, trying to find a perfect spot for takeoff because there was not much wind. Unfortunately, that was difficult, and we aborted takeoff a few times. This was the first time I was NOT scared about an aborted takeoff. I saw how calm our barefoot pilot was, and if there was going to be an "incident," I couldnít think of a better place for it to happen. First of all, two chase boats followed the plane. Second, we werenít far from the shore; third, the water was crystal clear and warm. Now donít get me wrong, I would never want anything to go awry -- but if there ever was a time and place, that was it.
It turned out that the planeís tail was too heavy, so we went back to the beach and tried shuffling some people around. The pilot wanted the heaviest passengers toward the front (of course that meant me). When the back of the plane was still too heavy, he went to Plan B. Guess whose bag had to be moved to the front of the plane? You guessed it: Amber Airplaneís! I wondered what she had bought. I joked with Mark that she had the resortís expensive (and heavy) sculpture in her bag. He laughed (Amber Airplane didnít). In any case, shifting her bag did the trick, and we were soon safely airborne for Nadi.
After that little ordeal I know why all the small plane charters around Fiji have tight baggage restrictions. Each passenger is supposed to be allowed only 35 pounds. If you have more than that, you must pack separately for the outer islands and leave the rest at the Nadi airport. (The airlines safely store your bags). Amber Airplane had been able to take a few more pounds, because both of our flights were scheduled to go out light.
Thirty minutes later we landed at Nadi International Airport on Fijiís largest island, Viti Levu. At baggage claim we were greeted by a very cool Indo-Fijian man. Kasi was the driver arranged by our tour operator to take us from the airport to our hotel. We asked Kasi if instead of taking us directly to our hotel he could first take us to downtown Nadi, so we could do a couple of errands. I wanted to check my email using high-speed access at an inexpensive internet cafť, while Amber Airplane wanted to check out the shops. He kindly obliged.
Kasi waited patiently for us for an hour. He then drove us 48 miles south to the Outrigger Reef Hotel, near the city of Sigatoka on the Coral Coast. The drive took 50 minutes, yet Kasi charged us the normal flat rate of $80 FJD. We gave him a nice tip for being so cool, and he was much appreciative. If you ever need to go to or from the Coral Coast, hire Kasi Ė heís awesome! His cell phone is 679-921-8465.
I am sure many of you have heard of, or even stayed at, an Outrigger hotel (theyíre very popular in Hawaii). They opened their first hotel in Fiji in October 2000. Itís really hard for me to write about this Outrigger, because I arrived there directly from one of the most incredible resorts in the world. If I stayed at the Outrigger when I first arrived in Fiji, my impression would have been a bit different.
The Outrigger Reef Hotel is unlike all the others we visited on our trip. It was by far the biggest and most commercial. There are 207 air-conditioned hotel rooms, and 47 breeze-cooled bures. Our room was on the upper floor of the hotel section, which was nice. But apart from the view, it seemed like any standard hotel room you can find all across America.
Our room did come with three amenities that are unusual for a Fijian room. We had a TV (it was the first time we saw one the entire trip), a telephone, and a free morning newspaper--The Fiji Times, which they advertise as the first newspaper published in the world each day (thatís because Fiji is in the first time zone past the International Date Line). To be honest, at first I was disappointed because in Fiji you donít need these extras. If you are bored you should go outside, read a book or take a nap. I strongly feel that one of the main reasons for going to Fiji is to get away from the real world. Reading or watching depressing news is the last thing a traveler to Fiji needs.
Looking back at our stay, the Outrigger was actually a good place to end our trip for a few reasons. Number one was that having all those extra amenities got us slowly re-acclimated to the real world. Number two was that the hotel is on the main island, so we didnít need to take a plane or boat ride before our flight home. (I donít know about you, but worrying about delays on the way back always stresses me out.) We had an 8 a.m. departure, and if we had been on one of the outer islands we never would have made the flight on time. Domestic flights in Fiji donít leave early in the morning or at night, because the smaller airports have no lights, and as for seaplanes -- well, have you ever seen runway lights on the water?!
Our hotel had a wide range of guests, from places like Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the U.S. The hotel caters to family travelers, honeymooners (especially those on budgets) and business travelers.
This place has all the amenities business travelers need (except high speed). They have a full business center, and several large conference areas. If I was here for a meeting I would extend my stay, fly in my loved one, and head to one of the outer islands.
Vatlulele would be a good choice for my romantic getaway (you can even see it in the distance from the hotel). A more convenient place, and good for the whole family, is Castaway Island. The owner of the Outrigger also owns Castaway, and has put together some excellent package deals. Helicopter service between the two resorts makes the travel quick and painless.
If you donít like to swim in the sea youíll love the Outrigger. It has one of the best pools in the South Pacific. Thatís not redundant. Resorts along the Coral Coast must have a good pool, because most people donít want to lie on the beach. Hey, they donít call it the coral coast for nothing! Check out what the sand looks like.
The Outrigger pool is huge, and is the place most people hang out during the day. We spent most of our time there too. Getting hungry while lounging is no problem; the pool is surrounded by plenty of restaurants. There is a gourmet wood-fired pizza place (my Fijian pizza came with all sorts of ingredients, including bananas); a Mongolian BBQ (the Thai sauce was excellent, but very spicy); a pasta bar; a main dining hall, and a fine dining restaurant. Room service is also available.
Speaking of food, breakfast was included in our plan (as it is for most guests). Amber Airplane and I dined at the huge breakfast buffet, featuring a wide variety of hot and cold foods, and it was good. Another food highlight was the night when, over dinner, we watched local villagers perform a meke (traditional Fijian narrative dance). It was very enjoyable.
Among the guest services available at the Outrigger Reef are complimentary use of snorkeling equipment, kayaks, spy boards, tennis and a fitness center. There are also activity programs for younger and older children, and a spa which we took advantage of. I had a massage, while Amber Airplane enjoyed a facial. Iím sure she will write about that experience in her weekly newsletter.
The hotelís main building consists of several floors. Directly below the lobby are plenty of shops. Amber Airplane did not like them (lucky for me Ė theyíre fairly expensive). She preferred buying from local villagers, who sell handcrafts throughout the resort at inexpensive prices. Amber Airplane got this bag for $12 USD. If you want more shopping, you can take a five-minute drive to the town of Sigatoka (we didnít have enough time). For a small fee, the hotel offers trips to the nearby village, where you can buy more handcrafted goods.
Unfortunately, I found the staff at the Outrigger Reef similar to their sister property, Castaway Island. They lacked the true Fijian friendliness we witnessed in Savusavu and Vatulele. I think this was because this resort is so touristy and impersonal, and the locals are so used to visitors, that they donít appreciate them. Please donít miss understand me: Visitors will still find all Fijians to be much friendlier than in many places in the world. However, when you go out to the outer islands where they donít see a lot of tourists, or to the high-end resorts, you see a huge difference in service and friendliness.
One diamond in the rough was Una, the Outriggerís public relations manager. She was awesome, and took superb care of Amber Airplane and me. Una even had me do a bunch of radio and newspaper interviews about my trip to Fiji. I didnít think anyone in the world would see or hear them, so I was surprised to get a lot of emails regarding them. One was from my good buddy Rudy Maxa, who happened to be in Fiji shortly after us and saw one of our interviews. How crazy is that?
Our trip to Fiji was coming to an end, but we werenít ready to go home. I found out it was feasible for Amber Airplane and me to buy a ticket to Sydney, and spent about a few seconds talking her into going. It wasnít very hard -- all I had to say was "I will get you a pair of Uggh boots." Australia is one of my favorite countries, and it would have been a shame not to visit because we were so (relatively) close.
When I made last-minute arrangements I learned that Australia now charges Americans for visas (they didnít last year). We could have had Air Pacific put our visa request in at the airport, but they would have charged us $100 apiece (If I planned this trip ahead I could have used one of the many smart travel agents, who do not charge for this kind of service). Or I could have flown from the U.S., because most airlines offer free visas. (It's best to call your airline ahead to find out, as some do charge at the airport). Instead of those methods, I did it the Johnny Jet way: I used one of the resortís two computers. The connection was slow dial- up, and they charged $5 FJD ($2.80 US) for 15 minutes. I logged on to the Australian Government's Electronic Travel Authority System, where I applied for our visas myself. It took only two minutes, and cost us $20 AUD ($14.50 USD).
We called Kasi on his cell, and arranged for him to pick us up at the hotel 5:45 a.m. He got there early. The sun was just coming up, and the sunrise was beautiful.
We were sad to leave, but thrilled we had been able to visit this beautiful and friendly place. Even though it rained almost every day, and we endured a mini- cyclone, we still had an amazing time. That, by the way, was not typical Fijian weather; we just had bad luck. I said to Amber Airplane, "If we saw Fiji at its worst, I canít imagine what itís like at its best Ė something comparable to heaven?" She agreed. A Vatulele staff member put it best: "Even the rain canít wash away Fijiís beauty."
At the airport we started getting excited about Australia. Checking in for our flight to Sydney on Air Pacific was fast and easy. The agents were very friendly and gave us a free upgrade to business.
We passed airport control without incident, leaving plenty of time for Amber Airplane to do some damage in duty-free shops. In the airport I noticed there were no Fijians traveling (except the flight attendants). I asked why that was, and a flight attendant gave me two reasons: Itís very expensive, and the government doesnít allow many Fijians to travel for fear they will flee the country. I donít know if thatís true, but come to think of it I donít think I ever met a Fijian in the U.S. Have you?
We then boarded a 747-400 series plane. Sydney is only 1,970 miles from Nadi, a four-hour flight. The time passed quickly, especially because Air Pacificís very comfortable business class was more like first class. We ate a huge breakfast, watched movies and catnapped. The next thing I remember was the flight attendant waking me up to prepare for landing. I lowered my leg stand, raised my seat back to its upright position and with squinty eyes looked out the bright window. We were flying over the world-famous Sydney Opera House, which made me smile. I whispered into Amber Airplaneís sleeping face, "Gíday, mate. Weíre in Australia! "
If you are interested in going to the Outrigger Reef or a having a holiday in Fiji, my recommendation is to start with Air Pacificís package deals (some are listed above in the Specials section). Their website is airpacificadventures.com. As you know, it's cheaper to purchase air and land arrangements together than separately. You should also try your local travel agent (if you donít have one, ask friends for recommendations, or use our partner travel agency, JohnnyJetTravel at 1-800-JohnnyJet). To contact the U.S. representatives for the Outrigger Reef resort directly, click on their website: outrigger.com/fiji. Their email is firstname.lastname@example.org; the toll-free phone number is 1-800-888-0120.
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