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January 18, 2006

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WHERE'S JOHNNY JET?                                          Fiji (part 1)

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Bula! From that greeting, you know I’m in Fiji. How cool is that?! What’s even cooler is that I got to take someone who has always wanted to travel to the South Pacific, but never had the chance: my dad!.

When I was invited to the 2nd annual Savu Savu South Pacific Music Festival (more on that later), I knew it was a great chance to take my dad on an amazing trip. Although one of my goals is to travel to places I’ve never seen -- and I’ve been to Fiji a bunch of times (including last year’s first annual music festival) -- I still couldn’t pass up a trip there. What makes Fiji so special is not the perfect 80-degree weather, the warm blue water, the lush green mountains or even the incredible exchange rate (1 USD = 1.71 FJD). What makes this place amazing – and you can ask anyone who has ever been fortunate to visit here -- is the people. In my opinion, they are the friendliest people on earth.

Surprisingly, when I first asked my dad to go he was a little leery. He had all kinds of excuses: He didn’t want to leave his partner Nancy (thank God she encouraged him to go); he’d never traveled that far from home; he’d never been on a plane for so long. He was worried about DVT (deep vein thrombosis), so to break up the long trip from the East Coast my dad came out to L.A. the day before our transpacific flight. Who wants to travel halfway around the world in one day anyway? It’s best to enjoy the stops along the way.

Not until we arrived at LAX’s international terminal did I get a little freaked out. The "are you sure?" calls from my brother and sisters began to kick in. My little friend inside my head whispered, "Do you really want to travel alone with your dad so far away? Remember the disaster the last (and only) time just the two of you traveled together for a long period of time?" That was back in 2000, when we made the National Hospital Tour. In 28 days we visited four hospitals in four spread-out states: California, Hawaii, Florida and Pennsylvania. I laughed and thought, I can’t use my dad’s sudden case of the klutziness back then against him now. He had a good excuse for not being in sync: My mom (his wife of 49 years) had passed away two months earlier, and I thought getting him out of the house would take his mind off things. It did. But the pangs turned to physical pain, especially after he broke a vertebrae playing football. He was in so much pain that every morning I had to slip on his skivvies. That was one Hawaiian trip that could not be labeled paradise.

As long as my dad wanted to go -- and wasn’t going just because I pushed him -- I felt comfortable. Fiji is a safe destination. There’s good health care, the official language is English (they also speak Fijian and Hindi), it’s only a nonstop flight away from the U.S., and just a few hours from Australia or New Zealand. So before breezing through Air Pacific (Fiji’s national airline) check-in line, I asked my dad one last time: "Are sure you want to make this trip?" Of course he did, and deep down I wanted nothing more than to take my dad to his dream destination. Well, okay, it would’ve been nice to have Paris Hilton tag along as well.

The friendly Air Pacific agent gave us great news. The 5,520-mile, 10 hour-42-minute flight across the Pacific was very empty, and nearly every passenger would be able to spread out on the 747 with their very own row to sleep. What a relief! Who wants to be crammed in a coach seat for that long? Although I love Air Pacific’s service, they don’t give a lot of leg room. In addition, their individual TV monitors need an upgrade (many of them were broken, and the screens are too small). Shortly after takeoff we were served drinks and dinner (Air Pacific probably has the best coach food around). My dad gave me a little scare when he dropped his fork, reached down and came up with the emergency life jacket pack. He held it up and asked, "What’s this?" I felt like his father as I quickly grabbed it and whispered sternly, "Are you crazy? You trying to get us in trouble?" Then he started acting up like a 2-year-old. I know, I know: It’s payback. The old saying "What comes around goes around" is spot on.

After dinner the flight attendants handed out little amenity kits filled with an eye mask, ear plugs, socks and a toothbrush. When it was time to sleep I walked toward the back of the plane, found an empty row and made a bed with extra blankets and pillows. Before closing my eyes I lay there with my head near the window, marveling at the tons of shimmering stars in the dark sky. It was surreal. Being able to do this trip with my dad was truly a blessing. I thanked God, and fell asleep like a baby.

We arrived on time at 5:30 a.m… two days later. We left on Saturday night, and arrived Monday morning. My dad was so funny. I had no idea he had no clue about the International Date Line (the imaginary zigzag line that marks the beginning of one day and the end of another). It follows the 180° line of longitude, halfway around the world from the 0° longitude (Greenwich, England). My dad couldn’t comprehend what happened to Sunday, but I kept reminding him we would make it up on the way home. Even though we would depart at 11 p.m. on Saturday, we would arrive home 10 hours later -- at 2 p.m. on that same Saturday.

Nadi International Airport has had a bunch of changes in a year. One is that all arriving passengers must hand in a new health form before reaching immigration (they take SARS seriously). I’m not sure if the "Senior Citizens/Parents With Infants" line is new, but this was the first time I noticed it. It sure is thoughtful. But the biggest change I found was in the domestic terminal, a short walk from the international terminal. They’ve renovated the bathrooms and the waiting area into a comfortable place to wait. Domestic flights tend to operate on "Fiji Time" – they’re always late. At least, they are for me and everyone I know who has taken them. Tip: The food and drinks in the domestic terminal are half the price as the international terminal.

In the past I’ve written about a bunch of places in Fiji (Including facts and history), so be sure to check out those stories under "Web Resources." If you don’t remember (or have no time to search the archives), here are the basics: Fiji ( see map) is made up of 330 islands (supposedly, 333 at low tide), but only one-third are habited. Nadi is on the main and largest island, called Viti Levu. Suva, the capital of Fiji, is also on Viti Levu, but on the other side (four hours by car). The population of Fiji is 868,531, of whom 51 percent are indigenous Fijians, 44 percent Indo-Fijians. The Indians first arrived in 1879, as indentured servants. That was five years after Fiji was proclaimed a possession and dependency of the British Crown (in 1970 Fiji became an independent country). Indentured labor ended in 1919, but most workers loved the land so much they stayed. I can’t say I blame them. They all get along now. Everyone greets each other with a huge smile and a loud "bula!" (pronounced "booola"). More Fijian info will be in the next couple of newsletters.

Fiji has so much to offer. It can accommodate every traveler’s needs (from honeymooners to families to singles) and budgets (from hostels to exclusive 5-star resorts). Visitors should do some research to find what’s best for them, in terms of not only the best resort but the best island for them. Some islands are good only for lazy beach holidays, while others might not even have sand (those cater to adventure travelers). No matter what you want, for the real feel of Fiji it’s best to leave the main island (Viti Levu) and visit the offshore resorts. One of my favorite places is where we are headed: Savu Savu.

Savu Savu is located on Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu (pronounced vah-NEW-ah LAY-vu). Vanua Levu is 100 miles long and largely undeveloped (though that is slowly changing, as Westerners have discovered this remote retreat and are building homes and time share developments). Savu Savu doesn’t have the best beaches, but it does offer great activities and has the closest feel (so I hear) to the old South Pacific. Over the next couple of weeks, you’ll see why.

Because we couldn’t get on an early flight to Savu Savu (we booked our trip at the last minute), we got a day room at the Tanoa Airport Hotel (a 5-minute free shuttle away). This was the perfect place to hang out and relax for six hours before our flight. Rooms have air conditioning and a TV (most resorts off the main island don’t have these -- or even phones). The hotel has a nice pool, workout room, tennis courts, dial-up internet, and best of all a fantastic American/English breakfast buffet with all kinds of eggs, meats, baked beans, fresh fruit, juice and pastries. Tanoa International Hotel, PO Box 9203, Nadi Airport, Fiji; tel.: 679-672-2313. Rates: $92-$410.

Two airlines -- Air Fiji and Sun Air -- offer regular service to Savu Savu. The roundtrip cost is approximately $250 USD. Charters are also available, including large and small seaplanes (prices vary, but it’s not cheap). Both airlines claim they allow only up to 15 kg (33 lbs) of checked luggage, but I’ve never seen them charge passengers for extra baggage. Even if they do, it’s not expensive: just FJ$3 (1.75US) per kilo (2.2 lbs). I was worried about the hour-long flight, because the last time I thought I was going to die (it’s a long story, but basically the 20-passenger Twin Otter DHC-6 dropped and an alarm went off, scaring the bejesus out of me). However, this time there was no problem. We took an EMB 110 Bandeirante plane. The flight took only 45 minutes, and was very smooth. Phew! Tip: These aircrafts are typical loud small planes, so bring noise-canceling headsets to hear yourself think.

Next week we check into a resort that is so nice that Conde Nast readers scored it the highest out of any resort in Fiji, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia.

Happy Travels,
Johnny Jet

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

Pictures From

The Trip


Air Pacific





Air Pacific Agent


Flight Attendant





My Dad



Acting Up








Handing In Health Forms


Renovated Domestic Terminal


Domestic Terminal Food


Shuttle To Tanoa


Tanoa Rooms


Tanoa Pool


Breakfast Buffet


Getting Weighed In


Air Fiji


Savu Savu
Here We Come!



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