Thrills and skills: All hands on deck and on shore in Fiji
Welcome to the luxury cruise that likes to give something back. Channel 4 News presenter Sue Turton climbs aboard the Tui Tai for an unforgettable journey through the Fijian islands
Saturday 02 May 2009
You can see Fiji from many perspectives, but this one is special. Start in the town of Nadi, which lies on the western side of Viti Levu, Fiji's largest island. Handily, this is also the location for the archipelago's main international airport. Here you board an eight-seater plane for a 90-minute flight over ridiculously beautiful seas and tropical atolls. Your destination: the island of Taveuni in the north-east of the Fijian archipelago... and a journey aboard Tui Tai.
The vessel epitomises Fiji's move upmarket from backpacker hideaway to aspirational luxury destination. Originally designed for shoestring travellers, the Tui Tai has been refitted to palatial standards. Indeed, if you're looking to discover Fiji's grittier side, this isn't the boat for you: the Tui Tai offers adventure with velvet edges.
Captain Lai was the ship's captain – he briefed us on fire extinguishers, life jackets and the like. Next up was marvellous Meli, the chief steward, who turned out later on to also be ship's barman, cockroach killer, organiser of pretty much everything, and a demon dancer to boot.
Meli showed me to my cabin, a modest room with a double bunk, en suite bathroom and air conditioning.
I'd barely noticed that we'd slipped our moorings and set sail before I fell on my bunk and saw the bluest sea rushing past my open door. I was asleep within seconds. The Tui Tai treatment had begun.
Sure, there were just five passengers on a boat that can accommodate five times that number, so we were spoiled, but this was something else: tea and cake at 11am and 3pm; luncheon served by the waterfall, on the beach, or under the verandah; dinner by candlelight as Captain Lai charted a course for the next day's island or dive site.
Life on board soon acquired a rhythm of its own: an early-morning dive at seven (a close encounter with a white-tipped shark certainly wakes the senses) then back to the boat for cooked breakfast on deck. But it's up to you how hard you push the trip: it can be a boot camp or a lazy relaxing meander through the islands.
The activity book was brought out at dinner each night for us to sign up to the next day's events. You can go diving, kayaking, hiking and snorkelling all in one day, or enjoy a massage on the beach, or simply sit under the awning on huge canvas day beds and read a book as the boat swings with the tide. But one thing you can also do, as you enjoy your time in Fiji, is give something back.
One evening we dropped anchor beside a heavy, hot sun off Kioa Island. The sight of Captain Cook's Endeavour sailing into view 240 years earlier had had the Fijian people reaching for their machetes. Today it is customary to ask the chief for permission to visit his village before you pitch up.
"Welcome to London," said village elder Petueli Lisati as we stepped ashore. The church, pastor's house and cluster of homely shacks took its name from the London Missionary Society who brought Christianity to these islands in Cook's wake in the late 18th century. We were immediately diverted to the group of women selling home-made baskets and jewellery. Then, as we reached the school at the end of the beach, the effects of the Tui Tai became apparent. Here was a tidy building, a well-kept garden and handwritten signs hammered onto posts, conveying earnest thoughts such as "a lying tongue causes many a problem".
The school's library, Petueli told us, was built by people who'd arrived from the Tui Tai. And many of the books had come from the vessel. Some of the schoolchildren had received Tui Tai scholarships to further their education.
The vessel's owners have a word for this engagement with the islanders: "contributionism". It can be as basic as the instructions you get before you leave home. Along with your itinerary comes a helpful list of useful gifts for local people: prescription glasses, clothes, medical supplies, children's books and toys. But it can be much more.
Even the power is thanks to the Tui Tai. A tourist on one trip had visited the village to discover that the generator ran only between 6pm and 11pm. There was a computer in the classroom, but with no electricity during school hours the children couldn't use it. So the tourist went home and sorted out some solar panels for the school and now the children can use their PC.
Later, I met Salote. We picked her up in a village at the mouth of the river we were due to paddle down. She was to be our local guide. Salote told me that Tui Tai pays the village 12 Fijian dollars (about £4) per tourist for the right to kayak along their river. The money isn't intended for one person's pocket. It is instead put in a pot for civic projects, in this case a mortuary for the village and the surrounding area. At present, Salote explained, the nearest mortuary was a long way away.
"Contributionism" has regal status here. Jazmin Grace Grimaldi, Prince Albert of Monaco's daughter, brought a group onto the Tui Tai in 2006. They helped to instal a water system in one village and provided chairs for school children who had been sitting on the floor in another. The following year the Canadian singer Alanis Morissette used her rock-star clout on a trip to help villagers hit by the cyclone. The Tui Tai took emergency supplies as well as Christmas toys to lift people's spirits.
My contribution was far less impressive. I would have been happy to paint a school room or build a wall, or teach some English, but the Tui Tai team wanted me to spend my time on a busman's holiday. So instead they asked me to use my Channel 4 News presenting skills to record some of the islanders' stories about how their society emerged. And there was one community whose story touched me deeply: on the island of Rabi, which sits on the international date line just off the north-eastern tip of Vanua Levu, Fiji's second largest island.
I think it was Friday. But on the Tui Tai there are no days, just dive times, meal times, activities and village visits. We stepped ashore and were ushered into a circle where a huge group of dancers, singers and musicians waited patiently on mats. They'd provided seating for us, as it seemed our pampered behinds were too delicate to sit on the floor. Here warrior boys stamped out their territory and Fijian girls swooped across the floor as Pacific music wafted across the beach and out into the bay. The guests were expected to perform too, joining in the dancing with gusto. Behind us, most of the villagers had also come out to watch the entertainment. Then we had one more task to perform: we were all asked to stand up and talk about ourselves.
On every other Fijian island I had been to aboard Tui Tai, being British appeared to be a plus. Not here. As I explained my origins and profession I felt I was losing my audience. I soon found out why. These people had come from an island in Micronesia called Ocean Island. The British had ransacked their home by mining for phosphate for 80 years, then relocated them to Rabi.
According to the islanders, they were tricked into selling their rights to the mineral deposit in the late 19th century, and allowing the British to exploit it for decades. When it was exhausted, the British authorities bought them land in Fiji. They were promised beautiful houses had already been built, but they arrived on the beach to find nothing but tents. It was the coldest winter they'd ever encountered and many died.
Forty years on, a kindly gentleman called Porter Abere sat on the beach in Rabi and told me he still feels like a foreigner in Fiji. He wants to return to Ocean Island. He led me back to the musicians. The band had written a song about their lost homeland and wanted to play it for me.
It felt strange: a heartfelt song about an island ruined by mining sung as the sun set on their new home, a land that – to the visitor – looked like paradise.
There is a downside to the Tui Tai. After the crew sing "Isa Lei", the Fijian farewell song, and you jump ship, you'll find it difficult to readjust. But you can also expect a fuller heart... once it mends.
There are no direct flights between the UK and Fiji. The easiest approach is via Los Angeles on Air Pacific (001 310 568 8676; airpacific.com ), which code-shares with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com ), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747 747; virgin-atlantic.com ) and Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk ).
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-3117 0500; www.reducemyfootprint.travel ).
Tui Tai Adventure Cruises (00 679 885 3032; tuitai.com ). Tui Tai has 12 private cabins with en suite, four of which are staterooms. Five- and seven-night cruises start at £2,594 per person, all-inclusive.
Tourism Fiji: (01372 475 772; fijime.com ).
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