Travel: What a wonderful world this can be
Stephen Roe goes to Fiji, where he is showered with garlands, hears heavenly voices and lolls in hammocks
Sunday 24 January 1999
As we sat cross-legged on the floor of his home, Dalomo's village chief told me, with sadness in his voice, that his people did not live as long as his ancestors, who often reached 100 or more. Now they were lucky to survive beyond 65. He attributed this lack of longevity entirely to the recent change in diet.
Apart from the menus, very little else has changed in the daily lives of these proud people. They live in thatched bures (simple cottages), constructed from palm leaves and thatch grass cut from the surrounding fields. They grow root vegetables and fresh fruit, catch fish and, on special occasions, they will roast one of the pigs, chickens or ducks which roam freely around the village. There is no electricity - all cooking is done over wooden fires - and there are just five outside water taps for the entire village of 150 people, around 25 families. The nearest shops and doctors are a 10-hour boat trip away in Nadi, on the main island of Viti Levu.
Fortunately, visitors are no longer viewed as a source of nutrition, but are welcomed as honoured guests, once they have paid their respects to the village chief. The perseverance of those early missionaries who survived paid off. Taking pride of place in the centre of the village is a simple Methodist church. Villagers are expected to attend daily services and they worship three times every Sunday. A strict Christian code is also applied, obliging everyone to share food and possessions with the sick and needy.
Without hospitals or medical facilities, the Yasawa islanders still depend on herbal remedies, practised for centuries and passed on by each generation. It is claimed they even have a cure for cancer. Plasters are never used to cover cuts and scrapes; they simply crush certain leaves and apply the sap to stop any bleeding.
As one of the last remaining parts of the Polynesian archipelago still culturally intact, the children of Dalomo are taught in the village school how, in 1789, their forefathers gave chase, in makeshift canoes, to Captain William Bligh. This was less than a week after the infamous mutiny when he was cast adrift from HMS Bounty.
Of Fiji's 300 islands, the Yasawas are legendary for their emerald-green rainforest peaks, spectacular reefs and fine sand beaches. When I took a fishing boat to explore the reefs, caves and coves along the coastline, smiling local children swam out with fresh mangoes they had collected from the beach. They didn't want payment, they were just being hospitable. It was one of many ways in which the people of the Fijian islands expressed their kindness and gentle natures - a complete contrast to the aggression and legendary cruelty of their ancestors.
A race of physically large people, these gentle giants welcomed me everywhere with the familiar Fijian greeting of "bula", meaning good health. Even the traditional dress softened their appearance. Arriving at Nadi's international airport, it was difficult to take even the tall and solidly built customs officers seriously when they appeared wearing sulus, a local version of a wrap-around frilly skirt.
For the privileged few foreign visitors who make it to the Yasawas, life is anything but basic. I arrived by a small light aircraft, seated next to the pilot who skilfully set us down on a grass airstrip which doubles as the village football pitch. Waiting in a shady corner, staff from the Yasawa Island Resort broke into song and threw garlands of fresh flowers around my neck while thrusting a chilled fruit punch into my hand.
Accommodation at the island's only hotel is for just 32 guests in 16 luxury, air-conditioned, thatched bures. Glass doors and plantation shutters opened in front of the foot of my king-sized bed on to a long veranda, facing a deserted white-sand beach, with the Pacific Ocean just yards away. Only a hammock slung between palm trees interrupted my view. As I took in the early morning sun, sipping coffee and nibbling a fresh papaya, huge, brightly coloured butterflies hovered about me as if I was in some kind of Disney cartoon movie.
There is such an abundance of fresh seafood available along these shores that
even the breakfast menu included lobster omelettes and crab pancakes.
The resort's owner is Garth Downey, an Australian millionaire horticulturist. After visiting the Yasawas as a tourist, he decided to come back and buy the resort. His aim is to create "everything that a South Pacific hideaway should be, but so often is not". There is no television and just one satellite telephone line for the island. Only the persistent mosquitoes can break the spell. They invariably appear in swarms after a rain shower. While there is no malaria in Fiji, there are occasional cases of dengue fever in the remoter areas.
Most of the staff, who outnumber the guests on a ratio of three to one, come from the local villages, yet they do not seem to resent the contrast between work and home life. Their service is genuinely warm and caring and would be the envy of many more sophisticated hotels around the world. Every Sunday evening about 60 local choristers gather at the resort to sing in magnificent harmony.
Encouraged by resort manager Erin Suzuki, a certified diver and marine biologist, I snorkelled around superb reefs right off the beach. Within a five-minute boat ride, I was able to float over beautiful untouched reefs, and I was soon enveloped by hundreds of tiny fish glittering in the sunlight. Swimming above these coral canyons I could see to astonishing depths, which sometimes even gave me a feeling of vertigo. It is difficult to imagine anywhere better to de-stress from the pressures of 20th-century city life.
Arriving back on the main island of Viti Levu was something of a culture shock. After just a few days I had become accustomed to the absence of traffic, shops and concrete buildings. Within a 20-minute drive from the airport I had reached Denarau, where the Sheraton Group operates two luxury beachfront resort hotels linked by an enticing 18-hole championship golf course.
Here I could kick back and enjoy being served cocktails from a bar in the centre of the swimming pool and enjoy all the pampering that sophisticated, well-heeled international tourists demand. But it wasn't quite paradise. I had just come from there.
Air New Zealand (tel: 0181-741 2299) offers return flights from London Heathrow to Fiji via Los Angeles from pounds 734, including the option to travel onward to New Zealand.
Where to stay
A beachfront bure at Yasawa Island Resort (tel: 00 679 663 364) costs from pounds 244 per day based on two people sharing, including all meals, watersports, tennis and visits to local villages. Inter-island air transfers from Nadi cost pounds 120 per person. Air New Zealand's South Pacific "Go As You Please" package (tel: 0181-741 2299) offers Yasawa Island Resort from pounds 273 per person for the first night, including only inter-island air transfers, and pounds 129 for each subsequent night.
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