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December 8, 2004
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Bula! Our island-hopping adventure continues here in Fiji. Last week we left off at the beautiful island of Tokoriki, in the Mamanuca Island group. We stayed in the Mamanucas for a few days, but left Tokoriki after just one night. Our next stop was Castaway Island. They picked us up in one of their high-speed jet boats that they use for a tour (more on that later). The boat held 10 passengers plus two crew members. It was the perfect size for our group.

It was so beautiful cruising along midday at 50 knots on calm blue waters. We passed one island after another, and each one looked like a postcard. I was excited to go back to Castaway, because the last time I was there (in February) a rare mini-cyclone prevented me from getting a good feel for the island. This visit gave me an entirely different view of, and appreciation for, Castaway.

When we got off the boat Damien, the general manager of the resort, and a few of his staff members greeted us with fresh-cut giant coconuts, with colorful straws sticking out of them. They also made us some righteous wood-fired pizzas to nibble on before dinner. I met Damien and his partner Rachel last time. They were very accommodating then, as they were this time -- including hosting us for dinner under the stars.

Castaway Island is one of the biggest (174 acres) private-island resorts in Fiji. It has 66 bures (that’s Fijian for "bungalow"), both island and family bures, that range in price from US $365 to $960 a night. Each bure has a traditional Fijian thatched roof (made from pounded mulberry tree bark), cement walls and mounted ceiling fans. The island bures sleep up to four people, with a queen-size bed and two single beds neatly disguised as an extra seating area. The family bures sleep 10. Although the island is kind of commercial, it has a great Fijian feel. People love it -- many guests are return visitors. What’s not to like about those authentic bures, with all the comforts of home: electricity, and hot showers with firm water pressure. BTW: None of the resorts I’ve been to in Fiji (except on the main island of Viti Levu) have TVs or phones in the rooms. You really do get away from the rat race!

As at most Fijian resorts, guests get complimentary use of non-motorized recreational activities such as catamarans, windsurfers, paddle boards, snorkeling and tennis. Others -- like scuba diving, fishing, island safaris, parasailing and jetskiing -- not surprisingly come with a charge. Children are welcome here (some Fijian resorts do not allow kids), so during the day the pool is filled with shouts of "Marco – Polo!" But who wants to go to the pool anyway, when the island is surrounded by some of the world’s nicest water. If you have children, though, you’ll love that private babysitters are available for $5 FJD (US $3) an hour (and all the money goes to the babysitter, not the resort). There is also a supervised kids’ club for children under 12. It’s open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and is free.

The staff are all very friendly. Everyone greeted us with those cheek-to-cheek Fijian smiles, and loud "Bula!"s. Meals are not included in the price, so you will probably want the meal plan at $69.00 FJD per day ($42 USD). Children under 12 eat for $33 ($20). The food is good, and I’m already missing the incredible breakfast buffet filled with exotic fresh fruit, made-to-order eggs, and tasty baked goods. Yum! Castaway Island: tel.: 1-800-888-0120; email: castaway@itr-aps.com.

If the font on Castaway’s website looks familiar, it’s because it’s the same one used in Tom Hanks’ movie "Cast Away." The only difference is the spelling (one word for the resort, two for the film). Actually, the movie was not filmed on Castaway Island; they used the nearby deserted and sacred island of Mondriki. Everyday Castaway offers the chance for 10 guests to take a high-speed boat on a tour of Mondriki and two other islands. The three-hour excursion with outer reef snorkeling comes with a champagne lunch. It leaves at 10 a.m., and costs $105 FJD ($63 USD) per person.

Because Mondriki is a sacred island, visitors are not allowed to actually step on it. (At least not on this tour -- I heard of one that does. Visitors must get permission from the chief, which they did to film the movie.) That was just as well, because we were able to get up close, take some good pictures, then spend more time on the water flying around the other islands. When we passed this small remote island I knew it too had to be sacred, because it was deserted -- and absolutely to die for. As I looked at the two attractive women next to me, I was thinking hmmm…how cool would it be if the boat broke down right about now? It was that nice.

We did our outer-reef snorkel near the island of Tokoriki. The reef and fish were fantastic, and the lunch on the beach hit the spot. On the way back to Castaway we stopped at a sand bar that popped up at low tide. It was an amazing oasis*, and I would’ve been happy to pitch an umbrella and lounge in a beach chair until the tide came back in.

Visitors to Castaway don’t have to travel the 30 minutes by boat to see something from the movie "Cast Away," because one of the main props -- the raft Tom Hanks used -- is now docked on Castaway. Although the raft looks like bamboo, it’s made out of foam. Ya gotta love Hollywood! The raft can be found at the bottom of the hiking trail, which I highly recommend. The island hike only takes 40 minutes and is not that steep, so a beginner* can do it. The views from the top are jaw-dropping rewarding.

Before leaving Castaway we took a bottom-glass boat to the other side of the island, and saw a sustainable development project. On the remote side of Castaway is the Fiji headquarters of Coral Cay Conservation (CCC), a non-profit organization at the cutting edge of eco-tourism. CCC sends teams of volunteers to survey some of the world's most endangered coral reefs in Fiji, Honduras, Malaysia and the Philippines. Their mission is to protect these crucial environments by working closely with the local communities that depend on them for food and livelihood. Anyone can be a CCC volunteer. They offer a month-long course, which is a great and inexpensive way to see Fiji -- and learn how to dive. Their motto is "Leave only bubbles, and take only photographs." They preach four important tips for anyone visiting a coral reef: Resist the temptation to take or buy reef trinkets; while snorkeling, diving or even wading, never touch coral or stand on it (coral is not rock -- it’s a living creature); use biodegradable soap and shampoo, and bring home garbage (including batteries) that cannot be disposed of safely using local facilities; support local livelihoods by purchasing sustainably-produced handicrafts.

After 2 nights at Castaway we hopped on another private speedboat for 30 minutes. We returned to Port Denarau, which is 20 nautical miles away and near Nadi International Airport (NAN). Most guests take either the 150-seat split deck, air-conditioned catamaran that takes 90 minutes and costs $32 USD one way for adults ($16 for kids under 16), or an amphibious float plane that takes off and departs right in front of Castaway and lands 10 minutes away at NAN. I did this last trip, and it was awesome. The float plane costs $87 US for adults, $53 for kids under 12. The other mode of transport is taking a six-passenger helicopter. Be aware: There are only three helicopters in the entire country, so make sure too make a reservation well in advance. That costs US $125 one way – and there’s no discount for kids.

We needed to fly to our next destination from NAN. I wasn’t too excited about the hour flight, because I really don’t care for small planes. However, the last time I did this trip (Nadi to SavuSavu) I really enjoyed myself. That trip was on Air Fiji; this time we flew the other inter-island airline, Sun Air. As with Air Fiji, every Sun Air passenger had to weigh his bags – and himself -- when checking in. The planes are so small, they need to make sure they're not overloaded. If you go to Fiji, be sure to find out baggage weight limits ahead of time! The flight was delayed (as is true with many modes of transport in Fiji) because it was "Fiji time." Everything goes at a real s-l-o-w pace, and no one rushes. We didn’t mind much. The delay was only an hour, and the Nadi airport has a few shops and a very inexpensive food hall that serves tasty indigenous food.

Before taking my seat I noticed our Sun Air plane looked kind of old. I wished I was still back at one of the Mamanuca Islands. But I was there on business, so I got on like everyone else and pretended everything was cool. The thing about flying around Fiji is that when the planes go over water it’s usually smooth, but when they go over the mountains it gets bumpy (due to the unequal air flow). Everything was smooth on takeoff, but 10 minutes into the flight we started going over the mountain range. Thunderhead clouds approached, then an alarm went off. The plane dropped, it got real quiet (I think the engine stalled), but the pilot and co-pilot both grabbed something instantly, and everything was normal again. Phew! I had to pound my heart a couple of times to start that sucker back up.

Meanwhile, I turned white as a ghost, and everyone around me stopped talking. I seriously thought that was it. In fact, I have never been more scared while flying in my life. The folks in back thought it was no big deal, and kind of fun. They couldn’t hear the alarm go off, because the engines were so loud -- nor did they see the veins pop out on the pilots’ hands as they grabbed whatever it was to save us.

Besides going over the mountains, the rest of the flight was relatively smooth, and the scenery was gorgeous. You can bet I kissed* the ground (actually, I almost made out with it) when we landed. The good news was we were back on the ground, but the bad news was we were there for only 30 minutes to refuel. We had to get back on the plane and fly another 20 minutes to the island of Taveuni. Before boarding I made sure the pilot wasn’t going over any more mountain ranges. I also asked why we didn’t go a few miles wider and take the ocean route to SavaSavu instead going over the mountains. The pilot had a very thick accent (I have no idea from where), so it sounded like he was saying "blah blah blah." But I’m pretty sure he was trying to explain they were saving on the cost of fuel by taking the direct route.

Most of us felt miserable on the layover. It was hot and sticky, and the airport bathrooms were filthy (every airport bathroom in Fiji was gnarly). A bunch of people felt nauseous from the bumpy flight, and/or the smell of gas. An Air Fiji plane was at the airport too, and I bet their passengers didn’t feel as bad as we did. Fortunately, our next flight was smooth. We made it to Taveuni without incident. We all clapped when we landed—there’s nothing like showing appreciation for being alive.

Taveuni is Fiji’s third largest island. It is often referred as the "Garden Isle," because it is lush, green and has spectacular landscapes. The guide book says Taveuni has every characteristic of Fijian scenery, and has all the tropical trees, fruits and vegetables are produced there in abundance. The 26-mile-long, 7-mile-wide island is shaped like a cigar. Taveuni has a large Fijian population still living in villages; there is only a small Indian population. The most important chief of all the villages in Fiji is from Taveuni.

We were fortunate to stay at one of the island’s nicest resorts, only a five-minute drive from the airport. Maravu means calm and tranquil in Fijian, and the Maravu Plantation resort is on a quiet, 54-acre former coconut plantation. It’s the perfect hideaway for people interested in adventure and relaxation. The staff is very friendly, the food is really good, and the Fijian decorations give it a homey feel.

There are tons of palm trees scattered throughout the 16 bures. I stayed in a standard bures, but it was very nice. All bures include a lounge area, queen bed, twin bed, ceiling fan, minibar, and private deck with a hammock. Another journalist picked the long straw and got to stay in one of the honeymoon bures. These are really sweet, and I highly recommend them. They come with private outdoor shower, plunge pool, sun deck and veranda. In each room is a boom box with a CD of the house string band: the Maravu Boys. The owner of the resort is a music lover, who brought the band to his native Germany to make the album.

Speaking of the owner: His name is Jochen Kiess, and he’s a real character. For one thing, he loves to dance on the furniture. In 1995 Jochen and his wife went looking for a South Pacific resort to buy. They traveled to a bunch of countries and islands, looking for their dream place. Taveuni was their second to last island, and they fell in love with it immediately. The only reason they were there was because it was recommended in a guidebook. Jochen did not learn until checkout time that the resort was for sale. The rest is history.

What’s even crazier is that Jochen has been a Johnny Jet reader for the past four years -- how cool is that? He knew everything about me, which I found hilarious. At one point when he saw me talking with a girl at dinner, he walked by and whispered in my ear, "I see Johnny Jet is trying to find another Amber Airplane." I practically spit out my food.

Free activities at Maravu include horseback riding, mountain biking, kayaking, snorkeling, guided plantation walks, croquet, bocci, and dodging frogs. (I have never seen more frogs than on that island). Maravu also offers a free kava ceremony several times a week, and entertainment with the house band (you get to party with the Maravu boys). In addition, once a week they have a meke (Fijian songs and dances) and a lovo (Fijian underground oven feast). Maravu Plantation Resort : tel.: 679-888-0555; US toll free: 888-FIJI-NOW.

If you don’t want to hang out in your bure, relax by the pool work out in the gym, or get one of the best hot stone massages of your life then there are plenty of places to visit on Taveuni. The island is best known for its diving. They have some of the finest in the South Pacific, including the 20-mile-long Rainbow Reef and Great White Wall. I’m not a diver, though, so I can’t tell you about it. Sorry!

One place every visitor should see is Bouma Falls, which is located in Bouma Village. Visitors can spend half a day hiking up to see all three tiers of this magnificent waterfall, or you can do what we did: Walk 10 minutes on a flat, colorful path to the first waterfall. Whichever way you go, make sure to bring your bathing suit. You can cool off with a refreshing swim in the cool water. We even climbed up the rocks and jumped off* — that was so much fun.

Another amazing thing we did was go to the waterslide. When our group leader packed us up in the van and said we were going to the waterslide, I envisioned an amusement park. I thought that was very odd, because Fiji is not touristy like that. Of course, we went to a natural waterslide in the middle of a jungle. I wondered who was the first person was to slide down those slippery rocks* covered in moss. Walking over them, I felt like I was on ice -- in 85-degree weather. As I shot down the human luge at 15 mph, I prayed I wouldn’t get cut or bit by anything before being dumped in the pond. I jumped out of the water as fast as I could, realized I was fine, then ran back up the hill like a 12-year-old (yeah, I cut people) to do it again.

Alhtough Taveuni isn’t known for abundant beaches, they do have the nicest beach I’ve ever laid eyes on. Getting there is an adventure in itself, and was definitely the highlight of my trip to Taveuni. Waytabu Marine Park was established by a remarkable woman, Sala, in 1998, after talking the government and the men of her village into setting up a "no-take" reserve. That means locals cannot take anything from the area -- including fish, shells or coral. Instead of making money from fishing, the locals now lead snorkel tours. This allows marine life to re-stock in the coral reefs that surround the area. This wonderful program recently received the International British Airways Eco-Tourism Award of the Year.

For $35 FJD ($21US per person), guests get round-trip transportation, snorkel equipment, and a treat of a lifetime (no, I don’t mean the tea, snacks*, kava ceremony and music they served us, although they were mighty good). I’m talking about a ride on a "bili-bili." This is a little bamboo raft* that holds up to two adults, plus an incredibly balanced kid who steers the boat with a long bamboo reed in the warm, shallow water. We traveled about 300 yards to the world’s most incredible beach. It is called Nuku Balavu (translation: "Johnny Jet’s favorite beach in the world)". When I set foot on that beach, I felt like I was Columbus discovering a new land. I have never been to a beach that had so many palm trees on the edge of white soft sand, surrounded by unbelievably gorgeous blue water. The best part was that there were no people on it but us. It's so isolated from the rest of the world that is was like having the most unbelievable private beach to yourself -- and no one even knows about it. Then I learned the beach was in the film "Return to the Blue Lagoon." Damn! Hollywood always beats me to the punch. Well, at least when I’m back home I can rent the movie and daydream.

Another fun place that doesn’t require any adventure is a stop at the International Dateline. The 180-degree meridian runs right through Taveuni. This imaginary line is exactly 12 hours east and west of Greenwich, England. It was one of the world’s biggest party spots on January 1, 2000, because it was one of the first spots of land to experience Y2K. Of course, to make it easy on the locals, Fiji does not divide the country into two time zones (or days). That would make going to work a bit confusing, right? Instead the date line bends around the Fiji islands. Still, it’s fun to take pictures and crack stupid jokes like, "See you yesterday!"

Near the Dateline is the Wairiki Mission Catholic Church. I took a peek while mass was in session, and it was neat to see everyone inside had their shoes off. I know that's a traditonal Fijian custom, but I've never seen barefoot worshipers in a Catholic Church.

Before we left* Taveuni, the chief granted us permission to go to the Qeleni village near Maravu. The villagers could not have been more welcoming. It was really nice to walk around, meet everyone and play with the school kids. It was just after lunch, and I noticed that every kid was carrying a toothbrush. A teacher said that everyone is required to brush after every meal. No wonder toothpaste is one of the most popular items in every store.

Next week we finish Fiji with a trip to Vanau Levu (Fiji’s second largest island), a stay at one of the South Pacific’s nicest resorts, and a backstage pass to the first annual South Pacific World Music Festival.

Happy Travels,

Johnny Jet
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  • *If you heard about us somewhere else or have the link to the story please email Johnny Jet media and let us know where!
  • Hey Johnny, we just received our first measurable snowfall for the season in Milwaukee; and the green-eyed monster has surfaced as I read your newsletter about Fiji. Your trip sounds marvelous and just what I needed to send me to the nearest travel agent to flee Wisconsin for a while! I look forward to your weekly newsletter and travel in spirit with you while reading of your adventures. All this from a senior citizen who is a young-in-heart traveler. Gloria Tzioumis - Milwaukee, WI
  • Sh*t (pardon my French), I wish I was there. Great, thanks a lot, Victor K - City Unknown
  • Great article on Fiji and hope to hear more like this in your travels to other interesting places. My wife and I travel to the South Pacific so we are very interested in that area. Jim and Helen Romick
  • Been there & I am jealous! I want to go again....you're right....it IS SO beautiful......peaceful.....and the water.....blue & clear........great newsletter......SS - City Unknown
  • Your detail is astounding, truly astounding. It goes beyond journalism. I thought, how did this guy remember all this stuff? I then understood why people like your site -- there is no stone left unturned. Roy - Orange County, CA
  • I just love to read your Johnny Jet info on the Web and I travel myself as much as possible. What a fantastic life you live getting to see the WORLD !!! WOW I'm soooo envious !! OK..in your travels you need to visit us in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina... Talk about lots of things to see and do, and awesome Southern Hospitality. Our airport MYR is small ( only 7 gates ) but we are building a new terminal to be completed in 2006, but you can fly from the Hubs of Atlanta or Charlotte or LGA on Spirit very easily !! Come check us out soon !! Lyn. PS ... I also volunteer at the info booth on the upper level at MYR.
  • Johnny you are so lucky...Fiji!! Michelle P - St. Louis
  • I just saw you on TV - in Jamie & AJ's wedding!!! VH1 All Access: Celebrity Weddings 2004 You should try and catch it if you haven't seen it yet! :) Angie 0 Kansas City
  • As an avid reader of your newsletter and the "Where's Johnny" section might I say that: a) the Fiji newsletter is jam-packed w/historical information and visuals which should intrigue your audience. Ergo: Sales increase. b) the domestic stuff and your family photos - while nice - obviously pale in comparison. Any way to "pump up" your domestic coverage? c) the human eye strains when reading across a large span. This is why newspapers & periodicals are set up in column "grids". You might want to see if you could halve the width of the story. Yours in travel & the grass is always greener etc.... Rhea Albert
  • Can't wait to hear about your latest sojourn in Fiji. The more often one visits that wonderful group of Islands the greater the fascination and the more frequently one wants to return to find out more about the culture and traditions. As you will have discovered, each area and group of islands is "sem ting but diffent" Marcus - Florida
  • My wife Karen and I traveled to FIJI just after the locals had a "dustup" at Queen Elizabeth barracks a few years ago. Air Pacific offered us a no questions asked refund -- we're so glad we as military folk (stupid, stubborn or brave?) decided to go anyway! The Australians and New Zealanders were having a human rights boycott to prevent the Indo-Fijians from being dispossessed from their rented agricultural lands. Essentially - we had the Islands all to ourselves - and the locals. In many places we were the only occupants of large tour busses. Our local chief of security at the hotel invited us to the village as guests on Christmas eve - when he found out I was a retired Army Officer - and we won the friendship of many of our local hosts. What a wonderful culture! What beautiful people! My wife is a special education teacher - and had a cultural paradise learning most natives have no need for weeks, months or even days - except people in lines of work or trades that demand seasonality or routines that must be timed! We were invited to lunch and dinners by everyone we came into contact with. BTW, my record for KAVA is 11 cups - still standing - but not sure which planet! For safety sake we stayed at a timeshare property on a peninsula near Nadi Airport at night - explored the Island during daylight - felt, but never experienced any tension between the natives and Indo- Fijians. (Believe me -- I would know.) We plan to explore again - renew our vows perhaps - and spend more than a week when we decide to return to this precious jewel of paradise! Michael and Karen Horn - LTC, Military Intelligence, U.S. Army retired
  • I have been following your stories for some time now. My story is somewhat similar to yours. I am 27, am also in the travel industry and have been taking various groups of people around the world (mostly US, Canada and Caribbean) as a tour director or tour manager for various companies. It is a rough job taking groups of people on vacations!! I am sure you hear all the sob stories of all the hard work you do!! I have created a large email list of people I have met along the way...almost 500 people!! I write emails to them just as you do...and they love it...just as your readers do!! I actually get a lot of ideas from you!! Jason Beukema - Cosmo Travel Club
  • A good report on your first day in Fiji and showing the human side of that great place and people. My wife and I were there 20 years ago and it seems that not too much has changed. I too got to experience the kava drinking ceremony and at the first drink I had to ask myself "Why am I doing this?" After the 3rd or 4th go around all drinking from the same shell we were having a great time. On another note regarding car rentals. I had to make an emergency trip to Tampa and needed a car for only several hours. I checked through many web sites and the prices kept coming up $70 to $80 range - wow! However, I eventually hit upon a site and that got me to . The price was about half of what I had seen and so I jumped on it. Unfortunately for me I didn't read all the fine print (actually the very last paragraph) that states "Cars are rented with a full tank for which renters will be charged ----". Bingo, there goes my savings as it cost almost the same for a tank of fuel ($33.15) as it did for the car. This might be a good deal for those who will use at least a full tank of fuel but for me it was an expensive lesson. Keep flying high. Burt from NJ
  • You were fortunate that you were allowed upstairs. We took the identical flight on September 9th, 2004 and although the plane was probably 90% full, they closed off the upstairs and when asked, refused to open it as they didn't want to service it. The seats are a 3-4-3 configuration, fairly close together. On our flight I'd say more than 50% of the TV screens didn't work and the crew didn't appear interested nor did they notify the engineer, when I and several of those around me notified them that the screens were nonfunctioning. While you say that most of you group had a row each, I consider myself fortunate that someone in my 3 row arrangement moved to be with his buddy and my husband and I could then have an empty middle seat - that's a long trip. We had a similar experience on our return flight. I've spoken with about 25 people who've flown Air Pacific and an across the board complaint is that there are too many seats tightly configured for a long haul flight. Had you not been allowed upstairs and been able to spread out I think your flight wouldn't have been so enjoyable. If I return to Fiji I'll definitely look into flying another airline. Joli Wilson. REPLY: I agree when the plane is full the seats are too close together.
  • Fiji twice in a year - you lucky thing! I just had an interesting travel experience and learned something that I felt I should share with you & your readers. I booked a trip from JFK to Tortola, British Virgin Islands (via San Juan) thru Cheapcaribbean.com (found thru JohnnyJet.com, of course!). I receive my tickets and called Delta (JFK/SJU/JFK) and USAir (SJU/EIS/SJU) to confirm my reservations. I did note that the SJU/EIS/SJU leg would be operated by Caribbean Sun Airlines, but I did not contact them directly as I got assurances from USAir that I had confirmed reservations. Once in San Juan, we turn up at Caribbean Sun Airlines counter as all legs were on paper tickets with counter check in (per Cheapcaribbean.com's requirement) . Imagine our surprise when the agent said they had no reservation for us! And me with paper tickets in my hand! This also happened to the couple in front of us and several more in line behind us. All had one thing in common - all had booked trips on-line, although it appeared we were the only ones with paper tickets. The agent placed us on the stand-by list for the flight we thought we were booked on. We also learned there were no reservations in the system for our return flight; the agent kindly reserved us on the return flight we thought we were already booked on. We were not able to take the original flight and were placed on stand-by for the next flight. In the meantime, the agent told us to go talk to the USAir ticket counter about resolving the issue. He also said that he'd monitor our status in his computer & if we were officially put on his flight by USAir, he would remove us from stand-by status. Also in the meantime, I made several phone calls to Cheapcaribbean.com, USAir and Caribbean Sun Airlines. Their story was that no one told Caribbean Sun Airlines that we had a reservation through USAir. Cheapcaribbean.com claimed it was USAir's responsibility. USAir claimed it was Cheapcaribbean.com's responsibility. In the end, they all said they could not help us. We went to the USAir ticket counter. The agent told us to go see if we could get on the next flight on Caribbean Sun, and, if not, to return and she would find a charter for us to take. They did not seem surprised to see us. The good news is that we got on the next flight on Caribbean Sun. Here's what I learned from this exercise. When you book on-line, call the airline(s), hotel(s) and car rental(s) to confirm directly through them that you have reservations and confirmation numbers. It is especially important that you call the airline that is OPERATING the route you will be taking. My mistake was not to call Caribbean Sun Airlines. We heard from several sympathetic bystanders that the same thing had happened to them in the past, and since learning this tip, they had no future problems with non-existent reservations. I highly recommend Tortola, BTW. Good, super easy diving, nice people, pretty island, plenty to do or not to do, good restaurants and a decent night life. Happy, easy travels and happy holidays! Nicole S - New York, NY

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