A South Pacific storm in a teacup

The date line's there, but don't expect a Y2K party in Fiji, writes Jeremy Atiyah

It seemed unbelievable to me that anybody ever went to Fiji. From the UK there were only two ways to approach. The very slow way, via Los Angeles; or the extremely slow way - via Australia. I finally chose the latter, partly in the belief that nowhere on earth could seem bad after 30 hours in the air.

But flying over the Pacific, looking down on blue nothingness for hour after hour, I still doubted I would ever reach Fiji. What the devil had those Melanesians been up to, setting out 3,000 years ago over uncharted waters? How many random, failed journeys into the blue had it taken to find these islands? How many shipwrecks? How many maroonings? How was my pilot going to locate a spot of land in 50 million square kilometres of ocean?

Funny, really. Later on I would see that the Pacific had become rather a crowded place. Royal Tongan Airlines, Air Nauru, Air Marshall Islands, Solomon Airlines, Air Caledonie and Air Pacific were all hopping about in the sunshine over Fiji. Distances were not so large. My own flying time from Sydney, indeed, was less than four hours. As the sun sank, suggestions of dry land began to appear: coral glowing turquoise from below the ocean surface, exposed sand bars, the white crests of breaking surf. Before I knew it I was looking over red earth tracks, brown rivers, corrugated- iron roofs and piglets. This was Viti Levu, Fiji's main island.

In Nadi airport I was amazed to see several Boeing 747s fresh in from Tokyo and LA. Getting here had not been such a miracle after all. I followed hand-painted signs through the airport, beneath churning overhead fans and a picture of the Queen. Storms beat on the corrugated-iron roof while lorikeets flitted about the baggage hall. I set off in a taxi through the rain, dodging foliage, potholes, cows and half-built garages. Viti Levu, I noticed, was similar to Bali - just not as beautiful.

Fijian resort hotels, mind you, could be quite something. Mine - the Sheraton Royal Denarau Resort - was located in a tropical forest park. South Sea masks and statuary sprang out at every corner amid dripping flowers and fragrances. Fake? Yes, but alluring too. Palm trees at fetching angles decorated the beach. Geckos snorted. Birds jabbered. Pawpaws and papayas burgeoned. All that was missing were the nubile bodies, say, of island girls, or the smouldering crew of HMS Bounty.

Instead I saw lots of staid-looking tourists like me. Mainly Americans nervous at being spoken to by men in skirts (the staff), and Germans enjoying long breakfasts, unaware that every time they rose to collect more food, finches were swooping in to sip at their cups of tea. The best people in Fiji, I soon discovered, were the Fijians, who smiled, and shouted warm greetings to perfect strangers. It was worryingly easy, in fact, to view them as though they had been born to serve in resort hotels, apparently uninterested in anything beyond making tourists happy.

But was this the real Fiji? Obviously not. The next day I bounced in a little plane over the clouds in search of something more authentic: the small northern island of Taveuni, where the first roads were being built, and where the interior was a jungle. My intention was to stand on the opposite side of the globe from the Greenwich meridian - the only piece of land on the planet (outside north-western Russia and the Antarctic) crossed by the 180th line of longitude.

I strolled past coconut plantations to the beacon marking the spot, only to discover signs of a brewing South Pacific storm in a teacup. A rain- beaten signpost stood in long grass by a deserted beach, indicating the point where each earthly day began. "The west side is yesterday," it announced. "And east is today."

Not strictly accurate, of course: a good century ago, the International Date Line was diverted to the west of the 180-degree line, partly for the benefit of those Fijians who would otherwise have had to change their calendars every time they walked down this road. But in a certain theoretical sense it was true, no? That this remote beach overlooked by dilapidated plantation houses was a pivotal point for the timekeeping of the entire human race?

The Fijian ministry of tourism would like to think so; indeed the whole South Pacific has been huffing and puffing for years on the subject of being "first" to 2000. In Taveuni, the first Mass of the new millennium - allegedly - is to be celebrated in the Waikiri Mission, a few metres to the east of the line. The BBC is planning a presence. There have also been plans to put fairy lights along the 180-degree line, and dole out crates of muddy cava-root beer for tourists. But a fat passer-by in bare feet and a T-shirt shook my hand and told me to forget about huge celebrations.

With the sun setting low over the sea, he gave me the sad reason: that the old tribal chief of Taveuni had just died. Out of respect for the deceased, he explained, all activity would be forbidden around the island's reefs for the next 100 nights, well beyond the millennium. Traditionally such bans applied to fishing, and were restricted to a small area of the reef; this time the ban was to cover diving and snorkelling as well, and extend to the entire island. Given that most tourists came specifically to dive (the local Rainbow Reef is among the finest dive-sites in the world) this meant a brewing storm.

"What? You've flown me halfway round the world to see the Rainbow Reef, and now you are telling me that some old tradition is going to stop me from diving?" I could imagine tourists reacting like that. Glenn Dziwulski, the American manager of the local dive-operation, the Garden Island Resort, told me later that he believed the ban had indeed been aimed at tourism, as a means of extracting money from the dive-operators in the run-up to the millennium. He would respect the ban to the letter but he wasn't coughing up.

Back at the 180-degree line, another old day was fading fast. The fat man shifted his weight from one side to the other and grinned. "But don't worry," he said. "We'll celebrate in our usual way, even without tourists. If it's daylight on this side of the line, it'll be daylight on that side of the line, too. Just like everywhere."

SOUTH PACIFIC: FIJI

GETTING THERE

Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Qantas (tel: 0845 7747767) which has return fares to Fiji, via Los Angeles, from pounds 820 (valid from 16 January).

Bridge The World (tel: 0171-911 0900) has a seven-night break (if you book a six-night break you get an extra night for free) in May at the Sheraton Denarau from pounds 917 per person including b&b accommodation and return flights.

One week at the Garden Island Resort (tel: 00 679 880286; e-mail: garden@is.com.fj; net: www.aquatrek.com), with full board, accommodation in an ocean-fronted room, including five days of diving, costs about $1,000 (pounds 625). Flights are extra.

Note that independent travel in Fiji can be very cheap, with plentiful facilities for backpackers. Flights, however, even for students and those under 26, are not much cheaper than the price quoted above. For example, STA Travel (tel: 0171-361 6262) has return fares in January for pounds 748, flying to LA with Virgin Atlantic and then on to Fiji with Air Pacific. The best deal around for all travellers to Fiji is with Bridge The World Travel, from pounds 747 per person. See '12 Best Pacific Holidays' (opposite page).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the South Pacific Tourism Organisation (tel: 0181-876 1938; net: www.tcsp.com) for brochures and information on various islands and hotels throughout the South Pacific.

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