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The Republic of FIJI consists of 333 islands situated north of New Zealand and in the heart of the tropical South Pacific Ocean. They are defined as an archipelago (a group of islands formed by volcanic activity in a large body of water) and most of the islands are uninhabited. For many, the word FIJI simply means “Paradise” and how right they are!
The largest island is Viti Levu, followed by its sister Island Vanau Levu (the word Levu means big). Both islands provide visitors with extreme activities, naturally breathtaking beauty and a simple way of life that is unparalleled. It’s a long haul to get there. Depart from Toronto or Vancouver to Los Angeles and then a ten and a half hour flight on Air Pacific to Nadi in Viti Levu.
The first word one hears upon arrival is "Bula," meaning hello or welcome, and the Fijians say it every chance they get.
The island is comprised of several villages. Although the villagers live a very simple way of life with very little in terms of modern amenities, they open their homes to invited guests (one needs to be invited to visit a village).
The village chief must grant permission for any visitor to enter his village. If permission is granted, it is customary for the guest to bring a gift, a kava root - found in every market (costs about $15 - $20 Cdn). It is important not to arrive empty handed– this is a sign of disrespect.
The kava root is presented to the chief at his home. In the native Fijian language, a ritual called a Sevusevu (pronounced: Sav-u-sav-u), or welcoming ceremony is performed, which is basically to appease both the chief, the ancestral spirits and to welcome you.
They make a drink by pounding the kava root into powder, placing it in a cloth, dipping it in water and continually squeezing the cloth until the water is a muddy brown colour - ready for everyone to drink. Served in a coconut shell, the chief takes the first drink and then the honoured guest(s)-you.
Drinking the kava will make your tongue tingly. There really isn’t much taste to the kava, once you get over its brown muddy colour.
Many traditional customs are observed at the kava ceremony. The most important one (next to the gift) is that visitors must wear a Sulu (a traditional wrap/sarong) - one must cover the shoulders and take shoes off before entering the chief’s home. If this is too much to remember, don’t worry, all the resorts organize visits to local villages and they will educate you on the proper etiquette.
The most adrenalin-charged activity that one can do is scuba diving near Beqa Island (pronounced "Benga") just off the southern coast of Viti Levu. If you want to experience an extreme close-up with the ocean’s most feared predators - sharks - this is it.
These are not the little boys, rather the big ones (3 metres and larger), which include the bull, reef, nurse and the tiger shark - and there’s no cage for protection.
I had the opportunity to go on a dive with Aqua-Trek Beqa Diving, located at the elegant Pearl South Pacific Resort (south coast). The crew briefed us on the dive and threw in a few shark tales to scare us, but it didn’t work.
I jumped in with the group and descended to 23 metres. After a little swim near the bottom, we came to a rope, grabbed it and lined up. I had no sooner settled myself, before the sharks started appearing (bull sharks) - and lots of them.
The dive masters were shelling out bin loads of tuna parts and the sharks knew that it was feeding time. It was a veritable feeding frenzy and the sharks get so close that you can touch them (but don’t). Then, all of a sudden, a tiger shark appeared right in front of us. It was about 4 metres long. Talk about adrenaline and heavy breathing! It was unbelievable as it whisked slowly and gracefully around us ever so close.
Another thrilling experience is the zip-lining (Zip Fiji). This may not sound as thrilling as the shark feeding, but it really is. Imagine the rush of getting harnessed-up, soaring through the Fijian jungle, gliding over a river and seeing wildlife at eye level as you zip 25 metres in the air?
These zip-lines are anywhere from 15 metres to 220 metres in length and guarantee an amazing fast ride. One of the best experiences is seeing the staff “hot-dog” it. They ride the lines upside down. It’s thrilling just to watch them.
If you like water, spend the day kayaking the Wainikoriiluva River (known as the luva River) with Rivers Fiji, it’s unforgettable. The Luva River winds past friendly villages, lush canyons, refreshing waterfalls and fast rapids. Don’t worry, experience in kayaking, especially through whitewater rapids is not necessary. Your guide(s) will brief you.
Even the most novice kayaker can manoeuvre these inflatables through the rolling waves of the class II whitewater and the chutes of rock mazes. Keep in mind, though, you will get wet and possibly tip. But the water is not deep and it’s fun.
A short 40 minute flight to the north of Viti Levu will get you to the sister island of Vanau Levu and a new set of experiences. This island is much more laid back. One of the must-see locations is Nukubati Island (pronounced "Nook-oom-bah-tee") just off the west coast.
It is a private island surrounded by an ecological paradise. I was fortunate to be taken by the staff of the resort on a food-gathering trip for an evening feast. I learned that when the tide recedes, the water is shallow, exposing the reefs, and the food is gathered.
Here, I was taught to spear fish and catch octopus. Fijians only catch what they can eat, so the food is fresh everyday. While walking on a reef in knee-high water, I saw something I never thought existed - a blue starfish.
As the tide was rising, we made our way back to Nukubati where the food was cooked in the traditional way. A fire pit was filled with large rocks. The fire made the rocks very hot. Then the fish were placed on the rocks (much like a bar-b-que) until they were grilled just right.
Palm leaves were placed on the ground and as the sun went down, the feast began. Imagine this - the resort staff (about 30) and guests sit around the palm leaves and dine together under the ambiance of the moonlight reflecting on the water and torches that surround the dinner party.
Nukubati is a luxurious resort without any televisions or telephones (but they do have internet). They have an amazing staff who all love their job. There are only seven seaside bures (meaning a wood & straw hut – really a cabin) allowing a maximum capacity of 14 guests. Talk about your own island paradise!
For those looking for that true tribal experience of living and being a productive member of a village, a unique program called Tribewanted provides this. I met Jimmy Cahill who is the Tribewanted Project Director on the small island of Vorovoro (off of the west coast of Vanau Levu). He took me around for a day. It was unforgettable.
I worked alongside his team with village members and participated in the day-to-day running and development of the village. Villages in Fiji do require assistance in terms of everyday items we take for granted. Tribewanted helps sustain these villages, builds the community and provides an adventurous and life-changing experience for tourists.
On the east coast, overlooking the peaceful waters of Savusavu Bay, is the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort. This resort is recognised as the world’s best resort hotel for scuba diving and the number one eco-resort worldwide.
The resort carries the name of the very famous oceanographer (he is the son of the late Jacques Cousteau). Just a 40-minute boat ride from there, Johnny, the resort’s full time marine biologist took me to what he said is one of the top ten dives in the world and a favourite of Jean-Michel Cousteau.
If it was good for Monsieur Cousteau, it was good enough for me!
He called this the Chimneys Dive. As soon as I jumped in, I knew why. There are two gigantic reef stacks (in the shape of chimneys) towering from the ocean floor to just about 3 metres from the surface.
The colours, plant and aquatic life are vibrant! We descended, spiralling our way down the first chimney to the bottom (about 24 metres) and swam across to the other chimney and ascended in the same spiral motion.
There were so many large schools of small fish swimming around us that I really felt like I was in the movie FInding Nemo.
Fijians have the reputation of being known as the friendliest people in the world. Walk through one of the main cites, a village or even around your resort, and you will be greeted with a very loud BULA followed by a very friendly “Welcome Home.” GL
Frank Greco is a world traveller, producer and host of a television travel show called The Travel Guy broadcasting in more than 100 countries through The Travel Channel International and other networks. Contact Frank at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Travel Guy Travel Tips
1) Learn a few Fijian words to honour the villagers and staff at your resort:
• Vinaka means “thank you” and is pronounced vin-ah-ka.
• IO means YES and is pronounced ee-oh.
• Sega means NO and is pronounced say-ng-ah.
• Koro means village and is pronounced as it is spelled
2) Never touch a Fijian’s head, especially the chief of a village, as the head is considered sacred.
3) Kava is not for everyone, but everyone must take a drink during the sevusevu ceremony. Listen to the server. He will ask if you want a “High-tide” meaning a full shell of kava, or “Half-tide” meaning a half shell, but three claps of the hand after you finish the drink signals respectfully that you do not want anymore.
4) If you are staying away from the resort areas, it is a good idea to pack everyday items like toiletries or snacks because they will be hard to come by.
5) Water at the resorts is usually fine to drink, but be safe and drink bottled water. The villages use boiled water at the kava ceremony for the tourist visitors.
6) For more information, check out these websites:
All resorts have a welcoming ceremony
Sundown on the island of Viti Levu