Friday, November 10, 2006

Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands

As the nation of Fiji is composed of many small islands, we decided we ought to see some of them. We originally looked at Captain Cook Cruises and Blue Lagoon Cruises, both live-aboard small cruise ships that ply a more or less fixed route through the Mamanuca and Yasawa island groups. These cruises were a bit out of our price range, so we were forced to look at alternatives. A company called Awesome Adventures Fiji markets itself to the backpacker market. I’ve already mentioned that I cringe at such things, but since a five night trip with them was the same price as the least expensive two night cruise with the others I gritted my teeth and booked a trip. We chose the Lazy Threesome trip, five nights spread over two islands in the Yasawas and one in the Mamanucas, starting with the northern Yasawas (or the possibility of two islands and two nights on their own live-aboard cruiser). The company is deliberately vague in the brochure and you don’t find out exactly which islands or resorts that you are staying at until you pick up your tickets. I imagine this is so they can spread people out amongst the resorts, as well as picking the ones that cost them less.

We got picked up early in the morning from the Skylodge along with a few other people. We got speaking to a Welsh couple who were doing the same trip as us but interspersed with some extra days. Happily at the jetty we discovered that they had been assigned the same resorts as us. As we were headed first to Tavewa island at the extreme northern end of the Yasawa chain we had a four hour boat ride ahead of us. The ride was lovely cutting through beautiful calm blue seas, stopping off at the island, some of them tiny, along the way. After Naviti island the wind picked up and the water became a bit more choppy. Along the way we spoke to the Welsh couple, Dave and Elaine, and got on really well.

Eventually we transferred from the ferry onto a very rickety boat to transfer to Coral View Resort. A mild soaking later and we were on the beach and being welcomed by all the staff. The resort was a fairly basic, rustic place with traditional bures, basically thatched huts. The dining and entertainment room was cool, built straight on the beach with a sand floor. The staff were excellent, all very friendly and leaving a real sense that they cared about you. Joe, the guy in charge, apologised profusely on our first night because they were unable to do their normal welcome song.

Our time on the island was spent pretty much lounging in hammocks and reading, although we did take one excursion. The resort runs various boat trips, including one to the Blue Lagoon from the Brooke Shields film. We took one to the village on a nearby island. To be honest it was the only disappointment that we had on the island. On the trip out a tiny flying fish jumped into the boat. On the island itself we were marched in through the village, sat in the chiefs bure and waited for him to arrive. When he did we all shook hands with him and got to ask a question, going round the circle. There was no pre-amble and no explanations other than to the questions we asked. We later heard from other people that had done village visits on other islands that they had been given a really good and informative tour. Ours seemed purely a way of getting us to buy stuff from the ladies of the village, who assembled selling necklaces, sulus (sarongs) and various other trinkets.

On the second evening the whole staff formed to give us our belated welcome song. It was really quite nice, the whole staff singing together. Afterwards they held a cross dressing night, which everyone got into, some more enthusiastically than others. Sticking a bra over a football top just doesn’t cut it in my book. It was pretty funny and I think everyone had a good time. After lunch the Yasawa Flyer arrived again and we made our way southward again. At lunch the staff sang the farewell song which had Gemma and Elaine in tears. Elaine and Dave were staying an extra night at Coral View before joining us at the next island, but we said goodbye like we’d known them for years and wouldn’t be seeing them again.

The journey down to Naviti took only an hour or so. We boarded the little boat bound for Korovou Eco Tour Resort and booked in. The excitement of the previous evenings transvestite shenanigans had worn me out. I tried, in a blind panic, to escape the dancing after dinner. I failed. I think I managed about ten minutes of conversation afterwards before dragging myself off to bed. The accommodation at Korovou was a step up from Coral View, en suite bathrooms, with freshwater (albeit cold) as opposed to outdoor mixed fresh/saltwater at Coral View. Both resorts had a completely different character.

We awoke refreshed in the morning and after breakfast took a snorkelling trip to see manta rays. The presence of the mantas is seasonal, and they should have gone by now, but luckily they are still there. A short boat ride round the island and we were all in the water. The guy piloting the boat was spotting the mantas by looking for birds ahead of them. They chase fish to the surface, which the birds then dive in for, so the birds are a very good indicator. There was a lot of confused splashing around trying to follow the guy on the boat’s instructions to get out of the current and wait for the manta rays. Some people were splashing toward them rather too much which spooked them a bit. Gemma was calling out for me as her snorkel wasn’t on properly and all she was managing to do was swallow a lot of seawater. I had a decision to make, swim back and help Gemma, possibly missing the manta rays, or crack on looking for them. I selfishly chose the latter and was rewarded with a good view of a couple of rays, one massive one swimming right underneath me.

We got back in the boat and moved to another spot, this time with people having been briefed to calm down in the water and also with Gemma’s kit having been tweaked. She did manage to see a manta ray this second time. I think I saw about five or six, in one place three were doing a sort of looping dance with one another, just gently spinning through the water in a somersault motion. Manta rays are absolutely majestic creatures, effortlessly gliding through the water in currents that I had to really struggle against. We also got some good views of them from in the boat on the way back.

In the afternoon we were on the deck as the band played the Bula song and Dave and Elaine arrived from the Yasawa Flyer. We spent the rest of the day with them drinking and chatting. Late in the evening I mentioned to the main host, Moses, that I hadn’t yet tried kava. This got us an invite to the bure at the end of the beach were his uncle, and most of the island’s locals were drinking it. Kava is a drink made from a powdered root, and has a mild narcotic effect and reputedly reduces anxiety. Dave, Gemma and I went along while Elaine bowed out. It seemed a little shady at first, but was fine once we were in there. As we drank half coconut shells filled with the liquid, that tastes and looks like dishwater, Dave pulled out his magic tricks and proceeded to wow everyone (as he had done every night previously). I vowed to learn a couple of tricks, as they are instant cross-cultural ice breakers. The locals continued as we bowed out and went back home. Despite kava’s reputation as inducing sleep, both Gemma and I had a terrible nights sleep.

After breakfast and checking out of our rooms Gemma, Dave, Elaine and I walked over the hill to Honeymoon Beach. A path cuts through the trees and up a steep hill, then down the other side through a small settlement with a couple of houses and fairly extensive fruit and vegetable gardens. The beach is private with a donation box, so we dropped in a few dollars on the way through. We were the only ones on the beach, a wide stretch of sand with beautiful clear water lapping against it. Walking along the beach toward the rocks at the end we saw hundreds of hermit crabs plodding up the beach. I love hermit crabs, so I was very impressed to see so many of all sizes marching their way toward the trees.

After lunch and a couple of beers the Yasawa Flyer appeared on the horizon and another farewell song started up. We said goodbye to Dave and Elaine, promising to visit them in Wales sometime. Our next stop was Bounty Island in the Mamanucas, named after the HMS Bounty of ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ fame (The crew of the Bounty were the first Europeans to sight Fiji). The island is also famous for being the location of Celebrity Love Island, although that one rather passed me by. It was quite a long ride to the island and I spent a good portion of it on the front of the boat watching the sparkling water rush past as we stopped at various islands along the way. At one island hundreds of fruit bats were circling the treetops.

In the launch on the way to Bounty I developed, perhaps irrationally, an utter and overriding hatred of three English girls who were also on the boat. They were vacant, painfully skinny, wearing stupid giant sunglasses and clutching designer handbags. It took 10 minutes for them to move their emaciated frames up the boat when requested to. I think they may have been malnourished and therefore not fully alert. Just the mere sight of them brought out a murderous rage in me. On approach to the island they were in a flap trying to identify features that they’d seen on Celebrity Love Island, and failing miserably because it was filmed on the other side of the island.

Once again the character of the resort was completely different, as well as the accommodation. This time we had a fridge, air conditioning and hot shower! I don’t think the staff were as friendly as the other resorts we’d been to, although their welcome and farewell songs may have been the best. Before dinner we sat on the jetty and just watched the water for a while. A small stingray swam up and round the jetty posts. The food at Bounty was excellent. I didn’t stay out too long after the singing finished and got an early night.

In the morning we took a nice walk around the island, which only took half an hour. Aside from the resort and some buildings that I guessed were from Celebrity Love Island, there wasn’t anything except beach, trees, shells and birds. Lovely. After the walk we moved our bags from the room and went snorkelling from the beach. They have quite a nice range of corals just off the beach and a stunning range of fish species. We spent a little while in the water just drifting from one patch of reef to another marvelling at the colour of the fish. The rest of the day was spent just lazing in hammocks and on benches until it was time to be picked up by the boat and ferried back to Port Denarau, and from there back to Skylodge. We didn’t get an upgraded room this time, but weren’t really bothered. The room we did get was fine, the only discernible differences being that the ‘lesser’ room was slightly smaller and had no towels.

And so ended our time in Fiji. It was a completely relaxing time for us and almost like a holiday within a holiday. Having both luxury and more basic accommodation was nice. I enjoyed both. I probably say this about everywhere we’ve been, but I would definitely go back to Fiji. The people are lovely, the islands are perfect little idyllic paradises and the marine life is amazing.