It is dark, we are tired from our long journey, and yet our spirits are immediately lifted by the sound of a Fijian welcome song drifting out to our small skiff. Pulling ashore we are greeted with fragrant flowers and hardy handshakes. We have never met before, but we are enveloped like family as the islanders heft our 18-month-old son, Sawyer, into the air. A small procession leads us through a colorful, floral lined white sand path to our bure where we are greeted with fresh fruit, soft pillows and more flowers.
We have landed on the island resort of Nukubati, a two-hour car ride from Labasa off the north coast of Vanua Levu. The resort exceeds our expectations, however, we are here to sample the diving. Will it be as plentiful as other areas of Fiji?
After a 40-minute boat ride, we dive Fish Market, in Ravi Ravi Passage on the Great Sea Reef. Upon entering the water we are greeted by a huge school of Longfin Spadefish. Further along the point we are engulfed in reef fish and finally a small school of Whitetip Reef Sharks. Our second dive, Cave Reef, is during an ebb tide so visibility is not great, but the reef provides multiple swim-throughs that are loaded with small fish and even a sleeping shark. Although the soft corals that Fiji is world famous for are lacking, the plentiful fish and hard coral structure makes interesting diving. The next day we dive Naseketi Wall and Pub Crawl at the mouth of Naseketi Passage. Covered in giant Staghorn Coral, the reef is teeming with schools of colorful fish.
Motoring back, we spy a white sand beach with a single umbrella in the distance. We ask to go ashore to photograph the picturesque scene. The divemaster shakes his head no and explains that it is one of Nukubatiís unique honeymoon islands, temporarily created by the low tide. Complete with a champagne picnic, the couple is left alone on their private island for a romantic day, then picked up as the sun sets and the tide rises.
From Labasa, we fly southeast to one of our favorites, the island of Taveuni. We are greeted like old friends with laughter, hugs and a cool drink. Taveuni is one of the worldís few landmasses that the international date line passes through. As Franklin stands in Wednesday, Sawyer and I are in Tuesday--a whole day behind!
Anthias flit about the reef in Beqa Lagoon.
Each morning after a leisurely breakfast we are whisked off to dive the Somo Somo Straits. A kaleidoscope of colorful soft corals sway in the current as we descend into the clear water. We dive Yellow Hole, Rainbow Reef and Cabbage Patch.
Spectacular in their own right, these dives are preludes to the Vatican of all soft coral dives: The Great White Wall. The dive begins straight down through a passage in the reef, opening onto a sheer vertical wall densely covered with exquisite pinkish-white soft corals. The beauty and expanse of The Great White Wall is so seductive we are not even aware of the brisk current.
After an exhilarating day of diving, we unwind at another of Taveuniís natural wonders, the Bouma Rain Forest. Its three waterfalls are the terrestrial equivalent to The Great White Wall. Sawyerís exuberance is contagious as he plays in the rushing water. Relaxing in the sunshine, we look forward to the day he will also join us on Taveuniís marquee dive.
From Taveuni we fly to Fijiís capital, Suva, on the east coast of Viti Levu. One hour by car and another half hour by boat, we step onto the shore of Naigani, one of the most interesting islands in the Lomaiviti chain. The surrounding waters, the Bligh Sea, derives its name from the captain of the HMS Bounty, who sailed past after the infamous mutiny. Today, Naigani sports a nine-hole 'barefoot' golf course.
Later, while loading the dive boat, Sawyer cuddles up with a lady from the village and declares they will either be at the pool, kayaking in the shallow lagoon or building sandcastles on the beach. The entertainment options for children are as plentiful as for adults.
Expecting at least a 30-minute run, we are pleasantly surprised when the divemaster cuts the engine not 10 minutes from shore. He explains (with a mischievous wink) he is still exploring the reefs and half apologizes if the no-name bommies are not up to Fiji standards. With one quick glance we christen the area Chorus Line for the schools of rainbow reef fish undulating in waves around us. Spending 80 minutes in less than 35 feet of water, we explore a field of eight separate bommies decorated with soft corals and gorgonians. Upon surfacing, our maniacal grins make the divemaster beam with pride. We finish the day, and our film, in this psychedelic microcosm. It will not be long before Naigani is on every diverís Fiji list.
Driving south from Suva, we arrive at Pacific Harbor, where a boat is waiting to take us to the Marlin Bay Resort at Beqa Lagoon. For diving, the biggest dilemma is deciding where to start with so many great sites to choose from. We go with Glory Hole, Side Streets, Fantastic Gardens and Lionís Den. These are hard coral bommies and archways dripping in soft corals, sporting all the colors of the rainbow. We explore reefs inhabited with schools of lionfish and blanketed with Neon Chromis. We ride the currents as our own personal mode of transportation, and fight them when some marine beauty captivates us.
Thinking we have seen it all, the lagoon surprises us again. While exploring Twin Sisters, the bright sunshine is nearly extinguished as a densely packed school of baitfish engulfs us. Moving as one, the millions of tiny fish create a liquid wall, 60 feet high and half again as wide. Finding ourselves in the middle of their protective mass, we watch with amazement as they gracefully dart around us.
Chattering all the way back to Marlin Bay, we are exhilarated from our dance with nature. At the beach we are greeted by Sawyerís whoops and hollers as he excitedly gestures to a freshly dug firepit and its colorfully dressed attendants. Tonight we will enjoy another unique Beqa event--firewalking! Started many generations ago by the men of this island, the practice of walking on fire-hot rocks is a test of courage and concentration. Chanting, the men use long poles to arrange the firepit stones into a fiery pathway. As the sun drops below the horizon, the customs of firewalking are explained. Soon the chanting stops and one by one the men begin picking their way across the smoldering pit. Gingerly at first, then brazenly as they stop and wave at our gawking faces. Upon finishing their otherworldly exhibition, we retire to the main bure where the villagerís songs and dances last late into the night.
The next morning we fly 30 minutes south of Viti Levu to the private island of Vatulele. Clearly a destination of the rich and famous, the resort offers every guest a secluded strip of white sand beach. The surrounding reefs feature Staghorn Corals sprinkled with a potpourri of soft corals, gorgonians, colorful crinoids and a spectrum of reef fish. Truly unique to Vatulele is a community of Scarlet Red Prawns that reside in the islandís natural lakes.
Leading us to their lair, the local chief explains his villageís ancient customs and spiritual beliefs associated with the 'sacred' Red Prawns. Never are they to be harmed, collected or consumed. After meditating, chanting and calling the prawns in song, he lowers his feet into the brackish water. The prawns appear by the dozens and greet him with their long white antennae. After a respectful amount of time, we slip into the shallow water to photograph the sacred creatures. Returning to terra firma, we thank the chief for allowing us passage into his villageís sacred place.
Twenty miles due west of Nadi, the Mamanuca (mom-a-nuth-a) chain of islands dots the clear blue ocean. Typical access to these 20 plus islands is by ferry boat, though some who travel light can get to the larger resorts by helicopter or floatplane.
Three hours after departing the Sheratonís pier in Nadi we spot Castaway Island (Qalito Island) and are mesmerized by a sea of white umbrellas over the ocean side dining area. Sailboats and windsurfers line the beach as jetskis welcome us. Castaway is a family resort, with something for everybody including Kidís Club, featuring an activities list that would make any adult jealous.
The dive boat, a rigid inflatable, is spacious and fast as it cuts through the seas to our first dive. Fish Bazaar is well named as we are soon swimming with a cornucopia of South Pacific fish frolicking against a backdrop of hard corals. The aptly-named Supermarket provides a little bit of everything: an aggressive triggerfish, Whitetip Reef Sharks, fields of soft corals, schools of Sergeant Majors and a curious Moray Eel.
Each evening we enjoy Castawayís meals while the children entertain us with traditional Fijian song and dance they learned at Kidís Club. Watching our son sing words he now freely substitutes for English, we know the Fijians will have a lasting effect on him.
As our six-week journey in Fiji comes to an end, we are awash in the melancholy strains of 'Isalaya,' Fijiís traditional song of good-bye. While the boat pulls away from Castaway Island, we release hibiscus blossoms into the ocean and watch them drift back to shore. We, too, will return to Fiji.