It’s about time I picked up someone who looks like me!” exclaimed the cabdriver at Fiji’s Nadi (pronounced Nandi) airport. I had flown 16 hours and more than 8,000 miles from New York, and I thought that I had landed in the ’60s. Everywhere there were smiling men and women clad in colorful sulus (sarongs), sporting Afros, and exchanging a robust “Bula!” (hello).
Now a multicultural nation, the forebears of Fiji’s 352,000 dark-skinned natives — known as Melanesians — sailed in canoes from Africa before 2000 B.C.E. My driver is of East Indian descent. His people were indentured servants of Europeans — like almost half of this Southwest Pacific archipelago’s 870,000 inhabitants. They made the journey more than 100 years ago to work on sugar cane plantations.
The island’s beauty can be described as lost world exoticism: verdant mountain vistas, luscious rainforests and beach-scapes, native villages, and Hindu temples. You can almost channel Captain Cook’s ships.
Viti Levu, at 4,010 square miles, is the largest and most populated of the islands (which include Vanua Levu and the Yasawas). Accommodations include any number of beachfront budget resorts or a luxurious bure (a thatched roof cottage resembling the native dwellings). The Fijian dollar, worth about half of the American (50 cents for a roadside fish roti!), stretches far for any budget.
Visitors are invited to partake in a yaqona — a welcoming ceremony with a drink brewed from kava root, served in an ironwood bowl, and sipped from a coconut-shell dish. The temperature lingers between 75 degrees and 80 degrees, and the pace is languid.
My destination was the Sheraton Denarau, in a tropical atmosphere conveniently located on the beach. After a short flight north to Savusavu on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu (2,137 square miles), I arrived at the American-owned Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort and settled into a private bure (there is no telephone or television!) on what used to be a 17-acre coconut grove. There is an on-site naturalist and marine biologist, as well as offerings of scuba diving and hiking. There are also treats like mango cobbler to impress the palette.
A two-hour drive north and a short boat ride whisked me to Nukubati (pronounced nu-kum-bati), a private island resort in a coral bay run by a local family. It offers just seven colonial-style bures with a private patio facing the Great Sea Reef. I sipped champagne at sunset, played volleyball with the staffers, ate banana-leaf-wrapped fish and pork, and visited a local village for fresh mangos and homemade breads. My stay was a feast for all the senses — and padded my waistline. Thank goodness for after-dinner barefoot dancing in the open-air lodge!
For information on Fiji, visit www.bulafiji.com. For Jean-Michel Fiji Resort, call 415-788-5794 or visit www.fijiresort.com. For Nukubati, visit www.nukubati.com. For Turtle Island Resort, call 360-256-4347 or visit www.turtlefiji.com. For airlines, call Air Pacific (800-227-4446) or Air New Zealand (0800-737-000). Both airlines offer nonstop flights from Los Angeles. There are numerous inter-island charters, including Air Pacific and Turtle Airways.