For deep-sea diving and desert islands, set sail to discover lesser-travelled North Fiji’s hidden gems. Carol Driver set sail…
The intrusive drilling sound of our speedboat as we slice through the ocean cuts through the tranquillity as we zoom along to our secret destination. Some of Fiji’s 333 islands can be seen in the distance – they’re lush and green and with the sun beaming down, it’s like a scene straight out of Lost.
Our guide Tim nods at the driver who quickly shuts off the engine – the silence is like a jolt to the senses as we silently drift along looking for the right spot.
“Here,” Tim says authoritatively.
We’re already kitted up in our diving gear, so we roll backwards off the tiny boat and descend into the warm, crystal-clear water.
The underground world comes to life before our eyes – coral of every pastel colour is highlighted by the sunrays piercing the surface. It’s teeming with life as schools of vibrant fish dart about, not in the least bit inquisitive about their huge intruders.
Tim and Simon fin along in front of me as I get distracted exploring the magical wonderland. As they turn to check I’m OK, I can see their eyes bulging behind their masks. They point behind me, motioning for me to turn around.
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I feel my heart pounding – I’m a keen diver, but I’ve never seen anything bigger or scarier than a trigger fish before, and I’m fearing the worst.
Everything seems to happen in slow motion as I turn to face a gigantic manta ray, spanning about five metres, gliding effortlessly through the water towards us.
Sensing it’s got company, it veers off, moving too quickly for us to follow.
Back onboard the Tui Tai, we boast to anyone who will listen – the crew, all Fijians wearing loud shirts and salu-salus (flower necklaces) – have probably heard a similar story a thousand times before, but they’re polite enough to act as though it’s the first.
I boarded the vessel at Natewa Bay on Fiji’s north island Vanua Levu. Having been reluctant to do a cruise, I was assured this is the best way to explore some of the more remote islands and some of the best diving in the world, anchoring overnight in the South Pacific Ocean.
But it’s not the type of cruise where you watch the world go by. Days start at 6am with yoga on the deck as the sun comes up. After that, guests – of which there are only 22 – can then choose to paddleboard, kayak, snorkel, surf, dive or go hiking and biking on an island.
Overnight, the boat is back on the move around the archipelago, so you wake in a new destination every morning.
My group takes the bikes over to the volcanic Rabi Island. It’s inhabited by just 5000 Micronesian people, most of whom relocated from Kiribati after World War II.
Hordes of smiley children run beside us as we pedal along the small, dusty tracks, weaving in between tiny huts. Everyone on the island is friendly. Before long, we are the VIP guests of the village.
We’re given front-row seats (after we’ve changed into respectable sulus) to a flamboyant dance as men and women don grass skirts and face paints and the beat of the drums kicks in.
It’s a stunning display of custom and expression – the attention to detail put into making the costumes reflects the level of importance in which the villagers hold the tradition.
My group applauds, but our hosts refuse to let us leave – apparently there’s one more part of our initiation into Fijian life. We’re told to sit cross-legged as the village chief is handed a small bowl brimming with a murky grey-brown liquid. He claps once, shouts “bula” – as an expression of gratitude – and downs the drink in one.
The bilo is refilled and my grinning host passes it to me, gesturing for me to follow suit, which I do. There’s uproar from the crowd of Fijians, who laugh wildly and pat me on the back.
It’s not the most unpleasant taste – a slight medicinal twang with a tongue-numbing side effect.
I hand back the bowl and wait for a wave of relaxation to wash over – the reason kava, which is made from the piper methstyicum plant, is so popular.
Our guide has been preparing dinner on Tavewa island for hours. We make the short speedboat journey to the shore where the sand is golden and feels like cake mix between my toes.
Tavewa is popular with backpackers, it’s fairly undeveloped – and it isn’t connected to the centralised power grid, generating its own electricity through diesel generators. But we don’t need any tonight.
The food is being cooked in a lovo earth oven. Fish, meats and vegetables are placed in a pit, covered with soil and left to cook. Our guide informs us, before we start eating, that this was also how cannibalism was performed – a practice which is, thankfully, now extinct.
After a feast fit for kings, we head back to the Tui Tai where cocktails are being served. The boat is pretty empty – there are only four of us stargazing.
One of the crew beckons for me to follow him and takes me down some steep steps where I find the rest of his shipmates sitting cross-legged in a circle.
There’s a huge bowl of murky-looking water in the middle, and a bilo being passed around.
I sit down; the whole room is filled with smiles and chatter and I’m made to feel incredibly welcome.
Soon the small bowl is handed to me.
It may not taste as good as the Cosmopolitans above deck, but I know where I’d rather be. Bula!
WHEN TO GO: Nov-Mar is humid and the wet season. April/May and Oct are the best for warm weather.
GETTING THERE: Fly from Heathrow to Nadi, Fiji, with Cathay Pacific.
VISAS: Not required.
CURRENCY: Fijian dollars. 1 GBP = 3FJD.
LANGUAGE: Fijian. Although the majority speak English.
ACCOMMODATION: Carol Driver travelled on board the Tui Tai. A five-night expedition cruise, which includes accommodation, food, drinks and activities (except scuba) costs from £1547 (per person, based on a couple sharing a room).
GET MORE INFO: tuitai.com or fijime.com.