Dream lands

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The Independent Online
The inhabitants of Fiji's 1,000 islands once ate visitors from the West; now they greet them with open smiles. Gina Cowen checks out the reality of paradise, while overleaf we take a tour of the other specks of land that dot the vast Pacific Ocean.

I had thought Fiji was just an island in the South Pacific, with the kind of distant nonchalance that sees Tahiti as little more than a Gauguin painting on the wall of some metropolitan museum. Fiji islands number, in fact, about 1,000, from tiny, coconut-palmed jewels set in the blue, to Viti Levu - big Fiji - around 100 kilometres across.

Geographically, Fiji straddles the 180th meridian (as far around the globe from Greenwich as you'll get); anthropologically, the islands mix Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, and aeronautically, they intersect the main American-Australian flight path - providing, for me, touchdown on a round-the-world ticket.

But where, precisely to go in Fiji? There was a daunting smorgasbord of potential idylls - enhanced by cowrie necklaces, hibiscus blooms behind the ear, mile-wide smiles and "bula!", the ubiquitous, genuine call of welcome. The friendliness of Fijians is infectious.

Odd, this, from a race of warriors once famous for cannibalism. But then, as Tom Stoppard once put it, "Certainly a tribe which believes it confers honour on its elders by eating them is going to be viewed askance by another which prefers to put them in a little bungalow somewhere." Know who you prefer? From the Nadi airport I shared an old Leyland bus with some modern- day Fiji warriors - a rugby team. They dropped me at the turning to Natadola Beach Hotel. Brad, their coach, insisted it had the best beach in Fiji, and had booked me a room on his mobile.

So I walked down a dirt track to a glorious sweep of white sand, empty but for a young village boy on a horse, galloping wildly bareback. A very private resort it was, too, with a shaded pool and frogs in the garden at night.

The next morning I took an early ride, cooled by a light shower of rain which cast a perfect rainbow in an arch across the bay. There were ultramarine starfish in the shallow waters, and great white cumuli massing on the flat, ocean horizon.

Then I set out to explore the capital. Suva is an appealing, old colonial city (Fiji being a British protectorate from 1874 to 1987 - and having very recently rejoined the Commonwealth). I had been warned by a friend that "it pisses down" there. It did. I took shelter in the local market where tables were laden with tropical fruits and waka, the dried roots of the pepper plant so essential to Fijian culture in the form of kava, a mildly soporific drink that is shared at ceremonial times. It was probably drunk as an accompaniment to Reverend Thomas Baker, the missionary who ended up as a cannibal feast.

A touching display in the Fiji museum in Suva shows Baker's Bible, next to the fork used to eat him and the bowl that served him up. Also on display are the remains of his boots - with two squashed soles. He had such small feet; I wonder who ate them.

Levuka, the one-time capital, is a 12-minute flight from Suva over a luminous, aquatic palette and down on to a lick in the jungle, between volcanic peaks, on the island of Ovalau. There's a bumpy, scenic drive into town. The waterfront is lined with a string of old clapboard buildings. A tuna-canning factory, with an ecological blind eye, provides the community's main economy.

There are myriad churches, including the Sacred Heart whose bright green neon cross guides ships into the port, and whose bells ring the hour twice. Levuka had a rampant history that is now reduced to little more than a few backwater ripples of gossip. A century ago, such was its reputation that ships' captains are said to have been able to navigate into port following rum bottles floating out on the tide. Now there's the faded Ovalau Club, a Masonic lodge, a couple of restaurants and a few rather ramshackle hotels, including the Royal.

This is a masterpiece of unmodernised bedrooms (Somerset Maugham stayed in No 10), with an empty billiard room and a dining-room that is always laid up, but has the air of never really expecting to serve anyone.

The place is magical. And the longer you stay (I twice postponed my flight out), the more little paradises you discover, such as Devokula, the dream of Jeremiah Tuku Tuku, a Fijian of disarming simplicity.

He returned to his native village (an hour's drive out of Levuka) after working in Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, because he had a vision - to create what is now a small settlement of beauty, abundance and peace. Devokula is a youth project that aims to preserve traditional Fijian values and understanding of the land for future generations. Set on a hillside of wild guava trees running down to a black sand beach, it is a place where time stands still. Here, Jeremiah believes, the world will come to rest.

If you want a straightforward return to Fiji, Air New Zealand charges pounds 1,124 including tax, for travel in October. Discount agents such as Trailfinders (0171-938 3366) offer lower fares. A better plan may be to buy a return ticket to New Zealand, or a round-the-world trip; Gina Cowen's high-season circumnagivation cost pounds 1,085, including tax, through Trailfinders. She paid F$200 (pounds 115) per night at the Natadola Beach Resort near Nadi airport (00 679 721000); at the Royal Hotel, Levuka, Ovalau (00 679 440024), she paid F$15 (pounds 9) for a single room.