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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: email@example.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.
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