Advantages “Things that happen here would seem….”
Disadvantages “….Paradox in Paradise.” (Flecker)
“There are no shortcuts to anywhere worth going,” read the Thought for the Day in the Fiji Times. This at least gave me something to think about as my wife and I lounged by the pool at the Tanoa International Hotel just outside Nadi.Having travelled half-way around the world in just two days to be there, I was inclined to think that we had indeed taken a short cut. The first visitors to these shores from Europe took years over the journey, and suffered on the way. Surely the earth was never meant to be so small as it is now, nor finding one’s way to its ends so effortless.
More to the point, having taken the short cut, had we arrived at anywhere worth going?Certainly our immediate surroundings were more than pleasant: the shards of sunlight shimmering on the water, the brilliant blooms inset in the surrounding shrubbery, the soporific heat. The hotel is a cliché - a comfortable, well-contrived cliché, but a cliché just the same – with its open-walled bar and restaurant, its wood-slat-tiled walkways, its shops for beachwear, postcards and souvenirs. Its identical twins inhabit resorts around the world
I consult my wife about the plants. Some were unrecognised, but most were the same as we had seen elsewhere in the tropics, presumably transplanted here to the South Pacific, or vice versa. Just one tree is unquestionably an indigenous oddity – palmate with knobbly fruit about a foot in diameter, their grey-green outer cases fragmenting like grenades to disclose an orangey interior. We enquire of passing hotel staff as to its name, which they do not know. It does, however, provide perfect camouflage to tiny green finch-like birds with red heads. These at least we haven’t seen elsewhere.Arriving at four o’clock in the morning that same day, we found ourselves in time to watch – live on TV – Chelsea beat Birmingham in the FA Cup, leaving me in a quandary. Should I rejoice at being about to follow the fortunes of my team from such a distance, or despair at the shrinking of the world, which squeezes everywhere into the same homogenous mould?
An Australian family comes and settles next to us beside the pool, with a strident mother inculcating her young in the lore of sun-screen application, swimwear discipline and the control of aquatic toys. An elderly German couple order their first coffee and beer of the day. Island-hopping light aircraft drone down towards the nearby airport.Time to leave the cosseted microcosm of the hotel, and to try to see something of the island beyond.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *On setting out to circle the globe, the first question to be answered is where to stop en route. Somewhere in the South Pacific is obviously essential, but where? Tahiti? Samoa? The Cook Islands? All of them, ideally, but alas there was no time for that.
Our choice of Fiji was not quite made at random. Having claimed on the basis of no personal experience whatsoever in my F-review that “Fiji is also among the world’s more agreeable places,” I felt the time had come to put it to the test, and also to put to the test the mixed reports we had heard, ranging from “pure paradise” to “already spoiled”. Finally, straddling as it does the 180th meridian. Fiji has the merit of being exactly halfway round the world from home, longitudinally at least. Surely here was the place to find contrasts with what we were accustomed to, if anywhere.We had just a week for Fiji, which we allocated as follows: -
- 2 (or strictly speaking 1½) nights at the Tanoa, a mid-price hotel conveniently close to the airport for arrival in the middle of the night.- 4 nights on a mini-cruise around the outlying Yasawa Islands.
- 1 final night at the upmarket Sonaisali Island Resort, the island in question being just a two-minute boat-ride from the shore of the main island, Vita Levu.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Although our day at the Tanoa was primarily devoted to relaxation and recovery, we did find time for one outing.This took us into the town of Nadi, which, because of its proximity to the international airport and its location on the ‘dry’ side of Vita Levu has become the tourist capital of the Fijian Islands. Suva, the political capital, is relatively little visited and, I regret to say, we did not see it during our brief stay.
Needless to say, the shuttle-bus for our outing deposited us at a purpose-built emporium selling ‘native crafts’ and similar souvenirs, but having paid this a cursory courtesy visit, we strayed beyond. The town is busy and bustling, but cleaner, more modern and less threatening in atmosphere than some others we have visited, in the Caribbean for example. We bought fruit and booze in one of the local shops, and wandered around the market, always a good place to take the pulse of any town. In the mid-afternoon heat, Nadi’s was colourful but uncrowded and unhurried, with few tourists other than ourselves in evidence. Indeed, despite the souvenir shops, excursion-tour offices and backpacker hostels, it is clear that the town has plenty of life beyond tourism.From Nadi we joined a tour to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, a few miles to the north in the lee of a range of hills. This boasts a brilliant display of orchids (350 species, many not found elsewhere) but seems a sombre place, deeply shaded by thick foliage above, which lends a claustrophobic closeness to the humid air below. The garden’s scent, if it has one, seems mainly of decay. The guided walk around is brief, but we are almost relieved when it is over and we can sit back for an iced mango juice in the cane armchairs on the veranda.
Finally, we visit the village of Viseisei, reputedly the first settlement of the Fijian people when they first arrived on the islands 3500 years ago. At this stage of our visit, we are unsure to what extent this is a “show village”, tidied up for tourists. The houses appear basic, but neat and comfortable, some built of white-washed breeze-blocks roofed over with corrugated iron, some in traditional thatch. The Chief’s house, its status signified by the white cowrie shells that decorate the jutting ends of its high roof-beams, is impressively large, as is the Methodist Church, its denomination indicated by the dedication to ‘Jone Wesele’ on the sign outside.The village is streetless. Green lawns, flame-flowered poinciana trees and apricot-blossomed hibiscus surround the houses. Breadfruit and coconuts hang in the trees overhead. Compared with dwellings we have seen in some tropical countries, these seem prosperous. Certainly the people appear pleased with life, greeting us with cheery shouts of ‘Bula!’ (Welcome, or Hello) as we pass.
In remoter parts of Fiji, we later learn, protocol would require us to present ourselves at the Chief’s House to seek formal permission before walking round, but not here. So yes, this is a show village, or at least one inured to being shown. Not, though, significantly more spick or prosperous than those we later saw in the outer islands on our cruise. But perhaps these too were show villages in their own way.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The Republic of Fiji consists of more than 330 islands strewn across an area of ocean of about 250,000 km². Only two of the islands are large enough to feature in most atlases; these contain over 90% of the population and virtually all the towns. Fewer than 100 of the other islands are inhabited at all, and most of these support just a few sparse villages, without roads or vehicles, accessible only by sea.It was in order to discover whether the outer islands would give us a different perspective on Fiji that we booked a four-day cruise on the MV Reef Escape, operated out of Denaru – the pleasure port of Nadi – by Captain Cook Cruises, an Australian company.
We are in luck. The Reef Escape has 60 cabins and can carry 112 passengers when full. When it carries its full complement, it must be very full indeed and the pressure on facilities such as the miniscule onboard swimming pool and the tender for shore visits or snorkelling outings must be intense. For our four days we shared them with only sixteen fellow-passengers, and the ship seemed admirably spacious and well-equipped as a result.Our first stop is just an hour or two out from Denaru, on a picture-book coral cay – an island created entirely by the accretion of coral from below. These cays look like every child’s drawing of a desert island – a clump of palmy vegetation ringed by a golden beach and turquoise shallows – but they are seldom inhabited because they usually have no source of fresh water. Other Fijian islands, in contrast, are volcanic in origin, and jut up out of the ocean like green teeth from bright blue gums.
Despite this first taste of isolation, we do not yet feel clear of Nadi, still less of the Sheraton Hotel and golfing complex that surrounds Denaru. When I begin drafting this review while watching the amber glow of the sunset silhouetting the cays, my working title is ‘A Parody of Paradise’. Perhaps I was just jaundiced by jet-lag.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
On our first day’s outing we had asked Tevita, the guide who showed us round Viseisei and the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, how the locals felt about the growth of tourism. I’m not sure how much we expected a straight answer, but he seemed a straightforward kind of person, as most Fijians do, and his reply appeared sincere. “Indebted,” he said.It was easy to follow his reasoning. The influx of tourists has brought hard currency to offset a decline in sugar cane and coconut cultivation. International hoteliers help build infrastructure for access to their resorts, and these provide much-needed employment. The pattern is familiar throughout the tropics.
But were they not worried, we asked, about the loss of local culture and identity? “No, no,” he said. “In our villages life goes on as it always has, and our culture is unchanged. Tourism doesn’t affect that.”What could we think, except ‘perhaps’?
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *In the course of our cruise around the Yasawa Islands that curve like a cutlass up towards the equator from the north-western corner of Vita Levu, we stopped at four villages. All were more primitive than Viseisei – cooking and washing facilities more often outdoor, for example – but were of an essentially similar pattern. All felt as if they would be comfortable to live in, and in all of them the people seemed content.
One we didn’t really enter, meeting only a few locals who had come out to sell us shells and trinkets at a nearby beach.At another (Ratu Naimasi) we are shown the village primary school. Most village schools are primary; those who go on to secondary education generally do so at boarding schools in towns, often on another island. The school, though simple in construction, is neat and tidy, surrounded by well-tended flowering shrubs. A choir of barefoot school children in green uniform tunics is assembled to sing to us – some hymns, some local songs, in mixed English and Bau – the language into which the Fijian government is attempting to reconcile the 200 or more local dialects.
We are slightly embarrassed by this staged reception, but the children seem to take it in their stride – some grinning broadly, others with faces knotted in concentration, though a few look mildly alarmed. On the wall behind them notices display the school’s mission statement – “learn to love and love to learn” – and a selection of precepts about hard work and civic responsibility of almost Victorian rectitude. Later, I have an opportunity to exchange a few words with the Headmaster, who tells me with pride and evident expectation of my approval that they stress the importance of discipline in all they do. On advice, we have all dressed soberly to visit the village, but do I really look that strait-laced?Taking us in hand, the children show us round the school. The library in particular is well-stocked, and the walls are covered with maps. We are asked where we have come from. My wife points out the south of England, a Canadian couple indicate Ontario and a Frenchman Normandy. The children nod politely, but it is clear that they – most of whom have never left their native island – cannot imagine what we are describing and have little concept of what a map on such a scale depicts.
Later that day, we return to shore to the adjacent village of Nabukeru. A welcoming ceremony is staged involving the formal offer and drinking of kava, a drink made from the dried roots of a local shrub. It is slightly soporific, calming rather than inebriating. Traditionally it is prepared by the roots being pre-chewed to the requisite texture by the young maidens of the village, but in these prosaic times they are more usually simply ground up. I try the kava, but find it rather tasteless, perhaps slightly muddy in flavour or perhaps this is an illusion fostered by its murky grey colouring.Either way, I revert to beer to accompany the meal that follows – a traditional “lovo” in which meat, fish and vegetables are wrapped in traditional aluminium foil and cooked in a pit, buried among pre-heated stones. I suppose the aluminium foil is more practical – and for that good reason is presumably what the locals use when cooking for themselves – but somehow it would have seemed more authentic if banana-leaves and coconut-fronds had been used. But the food tastes good and the subsequent song and dance routine in which we are invited to participate is fun, so such quibbles are quickly forgotten.
The next day, feeling no ill effects from the kava or even from the beer, we drop by on another village called Matacawalevu. Here we go through the ritual of presenting ourselves at the Chief’s House to ask permission, sitting cross-legged on his floor. He is a dignified old man who intones his welcoming words solemnly in English and Bau, and I feel is somewhat demeaned when the hospitality man from the cruise-ship arranges for passengers to have their photos taken beside him. But that is my sensitivity on his behalf speaking, not his; he takes it all in his stride with a tolerent smile. He looks as if he has sat there forever, though it is interesting to see a degree certificate from Auckland University framed on the wall. The interior of his house, one large ground-floor space onto which all three exterior doors open, is cluttered but not untidy with a higgledy-piggledy collection of furniture and decorations local and international, old and new.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In addition to the village visits, there is much on the cruise to enjoy.On the first morning we awoke early and watched the dawn as the ship ploughed its way between deserted islands, flying fish whirring out from under its advancing prow. The fin of a shark glided calmly by, describing a lazy pattern in the waves. The sense of relief and escape from civilisation’s pressures and concerns was palpable.
From the ship we went out in a glass-bottomed boat to reach deserted beaches, from which the swimming and snorkelling was superb. The water is warm as a bath, while the underwater grottos of the reefs provide sanctuary for the iridescent sea-life as electric blue, orange and yellow fish flit from hollow to hollow. The sand tends to be of the powdery coral kind, the bigger grains sticking to the skin, but not gritty or uncomfortable.One morning we are taken ashore before the sun is up, to climb a nearby peak before the heat becomes too heavy for such strenuous exercise. The climb, through ground-rambling clematis, violet salvia and wild vanilla, is exhilarating, and the effort more than repaid by the panorama from the top that encompasses neighbouring islands including Sawa-i-Lau, geologically unique in the area as a sharp limestone crag to which vegetation precariously clings.
On Sawa-i-Lau is a famous blue lagoon, to which a visit is scheduled, but cancelled at the last minute because the control of visiting rights was under dispute between two villages. Apparently such rights are jealously guarded, and all shores visits have to be negotiated between the ships’ crew and the relevant villages. I found this reassuring, providing at least some guarantee that the islands will not be swamped and transformed by an excess of insensitive visitors. But there is no doubt that the villagers want visitors to come, or that the visits are already changing them. Everywhere we went the women of the village would set up an impromptu market, not just for shell-jewellery and handicrafts, but for garments such as sulu (a local cross between a kilt and a sarong) and trinkets that must have been manufactured elsewhere. One doesn’t begrudge them the extra income, but it would seem a travesty if these villages were to evolve into glorified souvenir stalls.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The cruise was unquestionably the highlight of our stay in Fiji from every point of view: scenic beauty, swimming and relaxation, local and human interest.Maybe this is one reason why we found our last night at the Sonaisali such a letdown, the others being confusion over the type of room we had booked (so that we ended up having to pay for an upgrade) and confusion over our dinner reservation (our table having been mistakenly allocated to someone else, we were invited to wait in the bar until the staff called us in when another became available, which they forgot to do). Since this is quite an expensive place and we had booked it as a treat, this was annoying to say the least.
However, for the record, its location is impressive; the luxuriant grounds are well-tended, and the rooms are large and lavishly furnished. Some of the service was great. But it didn’t justify its cost or pretensions. And our fellow-inmates reminded me of a rule I have observed elsewhere: that there is an inverse relationship between the price of staying at a hotel and the apparent enjoyment of it by its guests.If so, they must look grim indeed at Turtle Island, a resort of rarefied exclusiveness that we sailed by on our way to the Yasawas, which costs $US1000 per person per night for a minimum stay of four nights. It looks pleasant enough, but not exceptional. At least we only paid a fraction of that, even at the Sonaisali.
At the other end of the spectrum, there seem to be quite a few cheap hotels and backpacker hostels in and around Nadi. Shopping in the market or local shops, it would probably be possible to stay quite inexpensively in Fiji, though unquestionably there are much cheaper places in the world.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
In case I haven’t made it clear, I liked Fiji.The scenery and greenery, especially in the outer islands, is sublime. For water pastimes, conditions are ideal, though the mainland beaches round Nadi are mostly black sand, with somehow detracts from the sense of idyllic tropicana.
The climate? Hot, of course, very hot – Fiji is not far south of the equator. And humid with it; even the ‘dry’ side of Vita Levu receives plenty of rainfall. One downside of this is that there are lots of mosquitoes and other biting insects.The people are relaxed, self-confident, and generally friendly. Humorous too, though one does begin to tire of cannibal jokes after a while. Among themselves, the men display a boisterous, knockabout sense of fun – it is easy to see why rugby has become the national game. There are social problems and racial undercurrents between native Fijians and those of Indian origin that have led to serious political trouble in recent years, but this will not impinge on the average tourist.
The food? I’m not sure to what extent I experienced the food, having eaten only in international hotels and on the cruise. Fresh fruits like mango and papaya were excellent, so were fish, whether lovo-baked, grilled or cooked with coconut cream and lime. The Indian influence ensures that there are plenty of curries available.They can be washed down with the ubiquitous Fiji Bitter (“The Sportsman’s Beer” according to its slogan), produced by a subsidiary of Australia’s massive Carlton and United Breweries. It is drinkable enough, though I somehow doubt that it would be recognised as bitter by the Chesterfield branch of CAMRA. Wines are all imported and relatively expensive.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *So, to revert to my initial question, yes, the short cut had taken me to somewhere worth visiting. Probably Fiji’s much less worth visiting now than it was in the past, with so much being busily converted into resorts indistinguishable from those in, say, Thailand or the Caribbean. Why fly twice the distance from the UK to arrive in essentially the same place?
But Fiji does have its own distinct flavour and character, and it is rather an attractive one. The further we sailed into the outer islands the more we warmed to it. As you will have detected from my comments throughout this piece, I was far from sure that we were being shown the real Fiji. Perhaps it is unrealistic, as a Western tourist jetted briefly in and cosseted around, to expect to see the real anywhere. That is, of course, the paradox that underlies all modern tourism – the very means that enable us to reach these farflung places change their nature and make them less worth reaching, maybe make them impossible to reach at all.
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