“No drama, we are in Fiji”, our hospitality director, Florian announced to myself and the other 33 passengers prior to embarking on the Captain Cook Cruise ship while he explained what to expect during our journey at sea.
I was aboard the MV Reef Escape, which is a 68-meter flat bottom passenger ship. Captain Cook Cruises’ fleet offers several different voyages to explore the Fijian islands. For myself, I chose the seven-night, “Northern Fiji Dateline Cruise”; it seemed to offer a bit of everything for my first time visiting Fiji. In fact, this cruise sails through all four divisions of the Fijian Islands, easily named Central, Northern, Eastern and Western.
The MV Reef Escape in Fiji.
Florian, our blonde and blue-eyed hospitality director, who was suited up in a crisp white cruise uniform continued to inform us about Fiji. He explained in his German-Australian accent where we would be spending our time and the general information on how the day’s events would work. Because I am a spontaneous traveler and not accustomed to all of the strategic planning, I knew this trip would be like no other that I had experienced.
Here we sat in the ship's Ra Marama Lounge as Captain Brian gave us the necessary but somewhat unsettling Safety Briefing. Most substantially, he instructed where I was to find and how to use my life preserver if the Captain suddenly gave the command to “Abandon Ship!”
Captain Cook Cruises is based out of Australia and has been sailing the seas for almost 40 years. They are family-owned which is prevalent in daily life on the ship; the company jaunts around the Fiji Islands, Sydney Harbor, the Murray River and the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland.
There are many cruise variations to select from in Fiji, such as a three- or four-night cruise to the Mamanuca Islands or the Yasawa Islands. Day trips can be arranged for those that can’t commit themselves to a night or two on a ship for some island hopping adventures.
Captain Cook Cruises offers many options in the Fiji Islands.
With the anchor hoisted and feeling pretty lucky for this adventure, it was time to shove off from the cinematic Denarau Island. I anticipated enjoying the glistening alabaster sands, ultramarine Pacific Ocean, and convivial smiling faces of the Fijian people, and this adventure cruise would certainly do all that while discovering the outer islands.
It wasn’t long before we reached one of Fiji’s 330 plus islands — Tivua. This is Captain Cook’s private island and it was our first stop among many for an afternoon of snorkeling, trekking, beach time, and lounging.
Snorkel the placid reefs of Tivua.
Six minutes was all it took to circumnavigate by foot the soft golden sands of the island. The snorkeling in the warm tropical water was a perfect way to brush up on my skills; the current was so gentle I floated on the surface when my snorkeling partner pointed below to a decent sized stingray peacefully resting on the sandy bottom. I was calm at first and then images of the thrill seeker, Steve Irwin’s horrific stingray accident began to flash in my head. I looked at the stinger swaying below and it sure did seem long. I swam the other way, but I think it was scared too because it took off with a dust devil of sand. Whew!
We cruised our way along the western shores of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, and up the northern coast to the small islands of Nanuyakota and Nananu-I-ra.
We came ashore on Nanuyakota to a perfect walkable coral sand bar. I met the Japanese man who owned this island and operated a black pearl aqua farm for 35 years.
You can purchase pearls directly from the source!
The second island of the day, Nananu-I-ra, was the largest of the three small islands we had visited thus far. Captain Cook’s tender boat dropped us off along the reef for more pristine snorkeling. The coral in Fiji is some of the most colorful and brimming with sealife. We kicked and dog paddled our way to the sandy shore and were on the beach.
We arrived in the morning of the third day to the lovely colonial port town called Levuka, which was the former capital city of Fiji. The quaint seaside town is a multitude of hues backed by the tropical rainforest. I met up two lovely Indo-Fijian women, Katherine and her daughter Saroj. I spent the morning at their house in Levuka learning to cook Indian staples, such as Dahl (Indian split pea soup), Samosas (deliciously fried dumplings with potatoes and vegetables inside), and Roti (Indian flat bread).
In the back of the kitchen a third woman, Kata, was mixing up a batch of fresh Kava, also known as Grog. It is the mashed root of a type of pepper plant mixed with water and then strained over and over again through a piece of material that resembles a dirty dish rag, but aptly named a Grog bag.
My cooking buddies and I each took a bowl of the Grog. Three bowls later I felt the tingly numb feeling in my mouth that I had heard about.
Is it the Kava that makes them smile?
Afternoon cocktails on the ship are a daily ritual. Captain Cook Cruises offers an extensive drink list of everything from wine (mostly Australian imports), beer, such as the prominent local Fiji Bitter, Fiji Gold, and Fiji Premium, and other blended fruity concoctions. Some of the most popular drinks are the classic Pina Colada, the Sula Swing, and the Shark Attack.
My favorite of the tasty treats is the Bounty’s Passage, which is a blend of Kahlua, Baileys, Tia Maria, and Crème Blended. The cocktail glass is coated with chocolate sauce before the creamy blended drink is poured in. The bartenders, Seru and Jobe, even write your name in the chocolate using a straw. I was amazed at how only several days into the cruise, the staff knew me and everyone else on the ship by name. It is definitely personalized service.
It is always cocktail hour on
the International Date Line.
We later berthed at another port town called Savusavu, which was burgeoning with the hustle and bustle of seaside life. The Indo-Fijian influence was apparent in Savusavu. Fiji’s history is fascinating and the culture is unpredictably rich. The native ancestral Fijian islanders are a blend of Polynesian and Melanesian descent, but almost 40% of the population of Fiji is comprised of Indo-Fijians, who trace their roots to India; their ancestors came to Fiji in the late 1800s to work the sugar cane fields as part of a worker’s program.
The people on the streets of Savusavu were a lively bunch. It is also in Savusavu that the J Hunter Pearl Farm exists. Captain Cook Cruises transports out on its glass bottom boat on Savusavu Bay to view the approximately one million cultivated oysters that produce pearls of various grades and colors — mostly precious black pearls.
Black pearl cultivators.
After walking up and down Savusavu’s main street in sweltering heat we bellied up at the Bula Re café for a couple of Fiji Golds. The Bula Re is a great place to sit on the patio and look out over the waterfront.
Later that afternoon back on the MV Reef Escape, we sailed around the point of Savusavu and wound up at Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Fiji Islands Resort, an award winning 5-star eco enclave that neighbors a protected premier snorkel and dive spot. The Cousteau resort has its own marine biologist on site.
It was here that I experienced one of the best snorkel trips during the two weeks in Fiji. Coral in tints and shades looked as if they had been plugged into a light socket and illuminated from within; the fish reflected shades that are not seen in the rainbow. None of us in our snorkel group wanted to escape the water.
Majestic Bouma Waterfalls.
But the adventure continued when we anchored up next to the island of Taveuni — one of the highlights of the trip. We hiked a quick ten minute trek through the rain forest to the majestic Bouma Waterfalls, the same falls featured in the movie, “Return to the Blue Lagoon”. It was splendid fun to play in the cool and powerful fresh water.
During the evening, we were honored with a traditional dinner (kanavata) with the villagers of Naselesele Village. We were welcomed into the village with the traditional Kava ceremony. What a cultural experience. Captain Brian was in charge and acted as our Chief. He commissioned Florian, Saimoni (the ships entertainers), and Meli (an engineer from the Reef Escape), to assist with the ceremony.
Saimoni, our spokesperson for the evening, gave to the village chief the traditional Sevusevu (gift) of Kava. Meat, taro root, and cassava root were all unearthed from the historical “Lovo” oven — the feast was served.
Villagers prepare the lovo.
I had the supreme honor of sitting with the chief for a bowl of Kava and a chat. He explained the ways of the village and answered all of my questions. The village children performed song and dance to show us their culture that has been passed down through the generations. This was not at all a touristy experience, but remarkable authentic.
Seru draped yards and yards of fabric on the floor around the performers and passengers. This fabric was presented as an additional gift to the village which the village woman would later sew into clothing such as Bula shirts.
It was day five and Sunday. We awoke to find that we had sailed south about halfway down the island of Taveuni. Ashore this morning I had a spiritual experience of attending a Catholic Mass, spoken mostly in Fijian. The children’s choir sang songbird hymns. Instead of the typical western church pews, mats on the floor were placed to sit down on and enjoy the service only after you removed your shoes (which is very customary in Fiji) and left them by the doors. When the Sunday service concluded we hopped on a bus and traveled for a brief moment back to Saturday — we had crossed the International Dateline also known as the 180th Meridian.
Attend Mass in Fijian.
Our last full day on the Dateline Cruise was an easy and lovely day. The waters became quite calm as we came back inside the protection of the reef. We docked outside Manava Cay, certainly one of the tiniest islands in the archipelago. This island literally was a couple of palm trees, a small bure (hut), and a couple of bushes. We came ashore on Reef Escape's tender boat and I was thrilled that I chose the option for snorkeling.
Tiny Manava Cay.
The coral along the Manava Cay was a treasure trove of bright blues, greens, and yellows. I spotted a five foot white tipped reef shark. The very first time I had seen a large shark in the wild. After my experience fleeing the stingray I thought that I would flipper away from the shark. Instead, I was mesmerized and wanted to see more. The MV Reef Escape was such a memorable cruise, and luckily for me, Florian was right, even sharks were “no drama, we were in Fiji!”
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— Feature by Michelle Schoser, Jetsetters Magazine San Diego Correspondent; photos by Michelle Schoser and Shannon Bundy, and courtesy of Captain Cook Cruises.