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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?