BULA! This is the greeting which always ends in a smile. Just saying the word, which is pronounced ‘boo-lah’, makes your lips curve into a smile but nine times out of 10, the person hailing you with this hearty greeting will already be smiling and the bellowed, ‘Bula’ will just add resonance to their beam. People smile. This is paradise. This is Fiji.
'Dining was on the beach under the clear tropical skies where the star constellations appeared upside down (to our European eyes). Surely this was paradise..?'
But is it all smiles and is it really paradise? I spent nine days on a voyage of discovery, taking in the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands with the guests and crew on board Blue Lagoon Cruises’ boutique cruise ship, Fiji Princess, before lapping up some luxury at the private resort of Matamanoa. Would I see the real Fiji or would this just be island-hopping for the tourists? But before the answer would be revealed, I needed to make the epic journey from the UK to Fiji: a total of 37 hours door to door.
We set off from our home in West Yorkshire on Saturday morning, travelling to Heathrow and on to LA with Air New Zealand. The free upgrade to the Sky Couch seating (on account of my wonky knee) made for a more comfortable journey than expected and I got at least four hours’ sleep on the 11 hour flight. (That said, the return journey in economy class was also very comfortable!)
After checking in at LAX and the luxury afforded to us by Fiji Airways in their Executive Lounge for our three-hour wait, it was onto the next leg of our journey: another 11 hour flight. Due to crossing the International Date Line, we then arrived at Nadi airport on the Monday morning. Dazed and confused? I’ll say so.
We were greeted at the airport by a band of Fijian men wearing fresh Gardenias behind their ears, serenading us with traditional welcome songs accompanied by their guitars and a ukulele: it was quite something, after all that travelling, to receive such a warm welcome.
It was then time to freshen up in our day room at the Hilton Hotel before heading to Denarau Marina where we boarded a ferry which would deliver us to our floating hotel some three or four hours later. We were greeted on board the ferry with a glass of bubbly and we settled back in our seats to enjoy the view: many beautiful tropical islands dotted in a clear blue ocean.
Many ‘bulas’ and smiles later, we found time to familiarise ourselves with our cabin before arriving at The Sacred Islands where we disembarked for an afternoon on the beach. We were the only ones there. Some guests enjoyed a swim or a snorkel but me, I slept in the tropical sunshine in the shade of a parasol.
That evening, we had every intention of joining the other guests for cocktails and the Captain’s dinner but, sadly after almost 40 hours on the go, we missed it. We fell into a deep slumber and woke up the next morning (which was Tuesday, in case you were wondering).
As cruises go, this is a leisurely one, very much in keeping with the Fijian way of life. As the crew kept saying, “We’re on Fiji time.” We never sailed at night and the longest sailing time on any day was the four hours we did on the first – and much of that was on the ferry.
Our first full day delivered us to the private beach on Blue Lagoon Island where guests could relax, swim, snorkel, hike or watch the preparation of the evening meal – a ‘lovo’ – where food is wrapped in plaited palm leaves and cooked slowly on hot stones in a specially prepared fire pit.
In the evening, there was a ‘meke’. There are two groups in the meke – the orchestra (Vakatara), whose members sit on the ground and sing and then there are the dancers (Matana). The male dancers wore full warrior costumes while the women wore traditional clothes and flower garlands.
Dining was on the beach under the clear tropical skies where the star constellations appeared upside down (to our European eyes). Surely this was paradise?
Well, yes, while being on holiday there it is idyllic, but there is more to Fiji than beaches and celebrations and I have to say, I take my hat off to Blue Lagoon Cruises for getting the balance just right between luxury travel and relaxation alongisde education and an introduction to Fijian culture. Their work with Vinaka Fiji – The Yasawa Trust Foundation shows a deep level of understanding of the needs of local people with a genuine ambition to introduce visitors to the real Fiji, while also giving travellers like me opportunities to help locals help themselves.
Blue Lagoon Cruises has had a partnership with the people of the Yasawas, since the business was established in 1950. And, in 2010, The Yasawa Trust Foundation and the Vinaka Fiji Volunteer program were established as a way of saying thank you (‘vinaka’) for the pleasure the people of the Yasawas have brought to so many people’s lives in sharing their beautiful islands with visitors.
The aim of the Trust is to improve the provision of basic needs, taken for granted in modern society, yet lacking from life in the villages. The volunteer programmes cover areas of education, sustainable communities and marine conservation and guests on the cruises are given a brief taster of some of the work of the Foundation and its volunteers.
We headed North and on the evening of our second day, we transferred by tender to the island of Tamasua where we were heralded with much singing and the bestowing of garlands of flowers (Salusalu). After a brief tour of the village and a talk about their fundraising efforts in order to be able to purchase and install some solar panels, we then were asked to take off our shoes and step into the village hall for the Kava ceremony (also known as the Yaqona). There was then a small market to peruse before returning inside for a special dinner prepared by the women of the village.
The feast was billed as ‘an authentic experience of a dinner such as the Fijians would have themselves on mats laid out on the floor’. Having seen that the villagers had limited means (the simple housing and occasional overcrowding), I have to say that my expectations were not high. However, the feast just blew me away!
It was simply one of the best meals I have ever eaten (and I am privileged to have dined at a few Michelin star restaurants).
There was Na Tumu (Bream soup) to start, and an array of tempting dishes prettily arranged on mats in two long rows in the hall, flowers sprinkled in between.
There was Ika Vakalolo – freshly caught bream, filleted and poached in coconut cream with chopped onions, tomatoes and a touch of ginger, garlic and salt; Ika Wai Tomutomu – red snapper, charcoal-cooked and dipped in a bowl filled with Bula Smile mix (lemon, onion, tomatoes, coriander, chilli); Baigani Tavuteke – sliced, baked aubergine topped with tuna flakes, chopped onions, tomatoes and coriander with a touch of coconut cream; Rourou – poached shredded spinach with onions, tomatoes, ginger and garlic; and the highlight of the meal, Tuba Vilau – dressed land crab poached in coconut cream with chopped onions, tomatoes, coriander, garlic.
All the Fiji Princess guests were raving about the food and we suggested to the villagers that they might do well to consider producing a recipe book or recipe cards to sell as part of this experience. This was, as advertised, an ‘authentic experience’ and for a foodie like me, it was the highlight of my trip.
That night, back on board, it was movie night on the top deck and they were showing the movie Blue Lagoon. What else?
On Thursday, we were in for another cultural exchange – a fascinating visit to Yasawa High School and primary school to learn more about the volunteer programme. The setting was nothing less than idyllic: the non-boarding children arrive at school by boat, landing on a pristine beach and walk between sports fields surrounded by palm and shade-giving trees, with a backdrop of the most stunning tropical scenery. The immaculately-dressed pupils greeted us with a traditional welcome song and a fresh coconut to drink from – very refreshing!
After an introductory talk, we were invited to wander the school and to talk to the pupils and teachers. There was an air of excitement in the school and many of the children and young people were keen to practise their English on us. I met a lovely girl a year away from the school-leaving age of 17, who told me of her ambition to become an air stewardess and to one day visit New Zealand.
There are not yet any computers at the school and this is one of the things Vinaka Fiji is working to address – but first, they need a building. There’s so much to be done, but I am sure they will achieve their goal.
After lunch back on board, there was a talk about Vinaka Fiji’s marine conservation programme by a marine biologist. This was followed by scuba diving for qualified divers. (The trip also offers the opportunity for shark-diving, which my husband thoroughly recommends.)
And so, it was our last night on board and it was time for farewell cocktails and a delicious barbecue on the Sky Deck. Like all the meals and afternoon tea treats prepared by the crew, this meal too was delicious and the food was plentiful.
The next day we headed to our next slice of paradise – but that’s another story.
Vinaka, Fiji. Thank you for a most memorable trip.
Flights from London Heathrow to LA with Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.co.uk/) Prices range from £800 to £1,400 for return flights in Economy Class. Additional options: Economy Saver, Economy Flexi, Premium Economy and Business Premier. Flight times are between 10 and 11 and a half hours.
Connecting flights from LAX with Fiji Airways (www.fijiairways.com/). Prices range from US$400 to US$2,500.
Blue Lagoon Cruises (www.bluelagooncruises.com/). We did the four-day Wanderer Cruise: www.bluelagooncruises.com/cruise-itineraries/wanderer-cruise/. Other itineraries are available.
4 nights from 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2015 FJ$2,660 (Hibiscus Deck) and FJ$3,400 (Orchid Deck) per person for a double/twin cabin.
I met with Yvette Vaucher today who was the first woman to climb the north face of the Matterhorn.…Read more
I'd have preferred it if this article had fewer details about the Cote d'Azur and more about the…Read more
For God's sake, why put flights to Zurich, which is hours and hours away. The nearest airport is…Read more
Hi, I'm wondering if there was in fact some typo's with the breathing/pacing figures above...…Read more