Just a few generations ago the popular tourism tagline ‘Fiji Me’ had a whole other meaning. Repeat visitor, Roderick Eime, reminds himself of the attractions of the Fiji Islands as they moved from cannibalism to haute cuisine.
Fiji, a land renowned the world over for its welcoming smiles and laid-back persona, wasn’t always the ideal holiday destination for Westerners. For centuries prior to European settlement, sailors avoided the so-called Cannibal Isles due the fearsome reputation of the warriors.
In the early 19th century, English missionaries arrived armed only with bibles and crucifixes and were quick-marched into the great chief’s pot. Perhaps the most famous of these Christian martyrs was the Reverend Thomas Baker who, along with his entourage was ambushed, butchered and eaten in 1867.
The reverend, however, had the last laugh but it wasn’t until 2003, when the chief of Nabutautau’s relatives finally apologised to Baker’s descendants in a lavish matanigasau (reconciliation) ceremony attended by more than 600 people, that his curse was lifted.
In 1874 when Fiji was ceded by the paramount chief Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau to the British, cannibalism ceased and Christianity became the dominant religion. Yet reminders of Fiji’s violent tribal past travel home with tourists every day. The ornate wooden clubs and weapons are accurate reproductions of the heavy tools used to dispatch rivals and prepare them for the Ratu’s feast.
The advance of Christ’s word through the islands did not bode well for the ancient Fijian culture and many ‘heathen’ objects were destroyed by order of the God-fearing missionaries who by now held sway over the population. Centuries-old ceremonial kava bowls were burned along with pagan icons and idols and those that survived can be seen in the Fiji Museum in Suva along with Thomas Baker’s remaining shoe.
Sacred Kava – be a good guest and drink
One remnant of the ancient culture that has been preserved and now holds pride of place in Fijian village life is the kava (yaqona) ceremony performed by the chief and his most senior aides.
Yaqona (yang-GO-na) is a mildly tranquilising, non-alcoholic drink that numbs the tongue and lips. Better known as kava, it’s made from the waka (dried root) of the pepper plant (Macropiper methysticum).
New mats are first spread on the floor where the hand-carved tanoa (a wooden bowl as large as a metre across) is placed. A long fibre cord decorated with cowrie shells leads from the bowl to the guests-of-honour. The guests then offer a bundle of waka to the hosts followed by a short speech announcing the purpose of their visit, a custom known as a sevusevu. This is received by the hosts and acknowledged. The waka are then scraped clean and pounded in a tabili (mortar) but they used to be chewed. Nowadays the pulp is put in a cloth sack and mixed with water in the tanoa, whereas in the past, the yaqona was kneaded and strained through vau (hibiscus) fibres.
The mixer shows the strength of the liquid to the mata ni vanua (master of ceremonies) by pouring out a cupful into the tanoa. If it appears right, the mata ni vanua says “Loba” (squeeze). The mixer squeezes the remaining juice out of the pulp, puts it aside, and announces, “Sa lose oti saka na yaqona, vaka turaga” (the kava is ready, my chief). He runs both hands around the rim of the tanoa and claps three times. The mata ni vanua then says “Talo” (serve). The cupbearer squats in front of the tanoa with a bilo (half coconut shell), which the mixer fills. The cupbearer then presents the first cup to the guest of honour, who claps once and drains it, and everyone claps three times. This continues in rank order of the guests, all the time being careful to observe the strict protocol and clapping. During the drinking from the bowl, you should be completely silent.
- While the village visit is a relaxed and happy affair, guests should be careful to observe some simple rules when visiting any village throughout the islands. Fijians are naturally respectful and good-mannered, often more so than their guests. It would be a pity to spoil a cheerful event with a careless faux pas.
- Make sure you have kava as a traditional gift of respect, or if not, offer basic staples like tea, sugar or flour. A ball for the children is always appreciated.
- When offered kava, gulp it down. Don’t sip. And always remember to clap, even if in fun.
- Visitors should remove their hats
- Dress modestly. Men should wear shirts and ladies a blouse and below-the-knees skirt or slacks. Bathing suits are a no-no.
- When entering a private bure or residence, always remove your shoes even if the host tells you not to bother. Stand slightly stooped and never fully upright inside.
- If staying in a village, always accept an offer to sleep inside a bure. To refuse is an insult.
- Fijians are naturally hospitable. Do not abuse this good nature by failing to help out with either labour, cash or food.
Modern Fijian culture
The Fiji of today is typified by lavish and expansive resorts, both on the main islands and in the remote groups where an entire island is often a resort.
Resort development has flourished despite a complicated traditional land tenure system that allows the 83 percent held by indigenous Fijians under communal relationships to be leased but not sold. Hence it is under this system that most resorts operate including the most prominent of these, Denarau Island, a short drive from the international airport at Nadi.
Here, visitors will find the Westin Resort and Spa Fiji, Sheraton Villas, Sheraton Resort, Radisson Fiji, Wyndham Resort, Sofitel and the Hilton Resort and Spa. All-in-all, some 1720 rooms and 35 restaurants.
This concentration of high-end resorts and private residences is touted by the developers as “Fiji’s only integrated island resort offering a variety of accommodation, activities and investment options. These range from premier resorts, an international championship golf course, lifestyle property and an abundance of holiday activities involving the marina.”
It is this marina at Port Denarau that attracts yachties and superyacht owners alike with one of the highest standard of operations in the region and is claimed to have Fiji’s most comprehensive marine services and haul out facility including a 50 tonne travelift, forklift services, short and long term boat storage and dry stack facilities. A new 836 square metre, two-storey yacht club is also under construction.
A true superyacht marina with 100 berths, including six over 35m and one over 75m, Port Denarau provides substantial retail and entertainment facilities and is perfectly placed to take advantage of the ‘Superyacht Decree’ introduced by the government in 2011. This ‘decree’ vastly simplifies the entry of superyachts into Fiji waters and permits extended chartering and cruising.
While commercial cruise operators Blue Lagoon, Captain Cook and Tui Tai offer excellent tourist quality products, it is private chartering that will deliver the ultimate experience in these waters that encompass almost 20,000 square kilometres and 300-something islands, most of which are uninhabited.
A private charter will allow you to take in such evocatively named locations as Taveuni, Rabi, Kioa, Yasawas, Mamanucas and the charming old heritage-listed capital of Levuka which retains the kind of Fiji character first seen by early traders and explorers.
The most accessible cruising is in the Yasawa and Mamanuca islands, just a couple of hours from Port Denarau. There are plenty of superb resorts, great diving and islands to stretch your weary sea legs.
Taveuni, known locally as the ‘Garden Island’, is everything you could imagine any mythical tropical island paradise to be. Sparsely populated, intensely green and dissected by streams of liquid silk. Going ashore, you can hike the narrow paths that guide you through the undergrowth to the next waterfall, and then the next. Every so often you might come across a cranky, bright red land crab throwing up a challenge. If you allow time, trek all the way to the volcanic crater at 800 metres where Lake Tagimaucia nurtures its legendary namesake bloom.
Both Kioa and Rabi are curious little islands, known for their transplanted Polynesian and Micronesian populations. It’s a delight to receive an energetic greeting in their respective native customs, carefully maintained despite the distance from their original homelands.
Private ships have begun finding their way out to the Northern Lau group, previously off limits to all but the most independent of travellers. With its strong Tongan influence, the islanders trace their heritage back to the days when they were at war with the Fijians some 150 years ago. The Lau Islands are the birthplace of the late Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (the first Prime Minister and founding father of the modern nation of Fiji) and are held in high esteem as a result.
According to Capt Dave Jameson of yachthelp.com, Fiji enjoys a mild, tropical climate with warm dry winters from May to October and a warmer wet season from November to April. Don’t let “winter” put you off as temperatures average around 29 degrees and the weather is settled with blue sunny skies. During all seasons the winds over Fiji are light or moderate and the trade winds are predominant from the east to southeast. Fiji offers a multitude of cruising options to match any discerning guest.
Fly in – fly out
All international flights will arrive at Nadi International Airport on the north-western corner of the main island of Viti Levu. Flights from Sydney, for example, are just 3.5 hours, and after a short walk from the airbridge, you’re at immigration.
Downstairs there is a small duty-free store before you exit to the taxi rank. Taxis are plentiful and inexpensive or, if you have prearranged transfers, your driver or representative will be there immediately as you exit customs. Compared to many international destinations, Fiji is a breeze.
If you are boarding a vessel at nearby Port Denarau, the taxi ride is only 15-20 minutes, about the same if you are at one of the resorts on Denarau Island.
Domestic flights hub out of Nadi too and it is from here you will board either a private aircraft or a Fiji Link (formerly Pacific Sun) ATR 72-600, ATR 42-500 or De Havilland Twin Otter aircraft to destinations in the Fiji Islands group.
Just like the Superyacht Decree, there was also a ‘surfing decree’ introduced around the same time which opens all of Fiji waters to surfers regardless of whether they are staying at a resort or not.
Even though it is possible to surf all year round, local experts will tell you April to October is best when low pressure systems in the Southern Hemisphere generate consistent swells as high as four metres. Those same experts will tell you Fiji’s surf is not for beginners as there are lots of reef breaks ready to shred the unwary. Apart from a couple of simple beach breaks like Sigatoka on the main island of Viti Levu, most are located in the Mamanuca chain off Denarau, home to Cloudbreak and others near Tavarua and Namotu.
Wind and kite surfing is great in Fiji and is best around the Sigatoka River mouth.
The scuba diving opportunities in Fiji are immense and would easily fill an entire article on their own.
PADI accredited operators are administered from Australia, so standards are high with properly ticketed resorts. As with anywhere in the Pacific region, watch out for unregistered operations who may not be as rigid with their upkeep.
Fiji is widely acknowledged as the soft coral capital of the world and according to Undercurrent, the expert divers’ source “The best diving isn’t on the big island of Viti Levu. Instead, go to the outer islands. This is a good area for sea snakes, soft corals, stonefish, and clown fish. Other large creatures and pelagics that can be seen include turtles, dolphins, mantas and a wide variety of sharks.”
And if the big predators don’t faze you, the world-famous Beqa Lagoon shark diving with Aqua-Trek is a life-changing experience. Experienced dive guides will hand-feed hungry bull and even tiger sharks right in front of you. That’s right, no cage. ∞
For more information on activities, accommodation and transport contact Tourism Fiji or visit: www.fiji.travel