Fiji: 330 pearls of the Pacific

By Bob Schulman

Fiji's sunsets are straight off the travel posters. Photo by Bob Schulman.English explorer James Cook sailed by the Viti islands in the 1770s, but he didn't go ashore. He'd been warned to steer clear of the Vitis during a stop on the neighboring island of Tonga on his voyage through the South Pacific. Legend has it the Tongan chiefs told Cook something like, “Those guys will eat you for lunch,” pointing at their arch-enemies over on Viti – pronounced “fee-gee” in Tongan.

As the story goes, that's how Cook came up with the name “Fiji” for the archipelago of 330 or so islands west of Tonga.

Between the Fijians' rep for chowing down on just about anything that moved and gory tales of their zest for ritual sacrifices, it's not surprising that Captain Bligh and his crew rowed their leaky longboat past the islands after being booted off the HMS Bounty in 1789. “I dare not land for fear of the natives,” Bligh noted in his logbook.

Such tales helped keep the islands off the bucket lists of all but a handful of the era's gunrunners, whalers, painters, sandalwood traders and escaped convicts from Australia. Likewise, missionaries zeroed in on saving souls elsewhere in the South Seas, such as on New Zealand, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) and Tonga.

A big win for the missionaries

In the 1830s, stories about the stewpots of Fiji finally brought a tsunami of pastors to the islands from the London Missionary Society, and later on canoe loads of Wesleyan Methodists from Tonga. Progress was slow at first, and a good number of soul-savers themselves ended up saved for Fijian feasts.

The missionaries' big break came in the mid-1800s when the Methodists were able to convert a super-chief named Cakobau, and with him most of western Fiji.

Cakobou was later named king of Fiji, but in 1874 was forced to step down and deed the islands to Great Britain. Fiji won its independence in 1970.

Luxury 'bure' huts blend into the jungle at the Royal Davui Resort. Photo by  Bob Schulman.

Fast-forward to today, and visitors to the Republic of Fiji are still being menaced by painted up warriors waving spears. Only now, the scary lads are in floor shows at resorts scattered around the islands. Other shows at cultural theme parks such as the Arts Village on the main island of Viti Levu spotlight fire dancers and mock battles between villages.

Fiji Airways' new A330 jets feature 'masi' art. Photo courtesy of Fiji AirwaysSurprises for tourists

If you flew all the way across the Pacific to a bunch of coral-rimmed islands you knew mostly from movies like Tom Hanks' Cast Away and The Blue Lagoon, you might be more than a little surprised to find that the dominant language there is English (even above some two dozen Fijian dialects).That's a holdover from the country's colonial days, as is its parliamentary form of government (but mish-mashed with the clout of a council of chiefs from the islands' 14 provinces).

Chances are you'll find most Fijians are genuinely friendly and honestly pleased that you've taken the time to visit their islands. You'll soon learn that when the local folks stick out their hands to you, it's to shake yours, not for tips.

Drive from one end of Viti Levu to the other – a ride of four or so hours, often edging the island's beaches – and along the way you'll spot dozens of small villages looking much like they did centuries ago (except for power lines and TV aerials here and there). Drop by a village, and folks will likely invite you into their homes, perhaps for a snack of traditional Fijian rourou (pronounced row row) made of spiced spinach or taro leaves, along with a belt of coconut milk.

'Warriors' put on a show at the Westin Denarau Island Resort. Photo by Bob Schulman.Look close along the road and you'll see a smattering of signs in Hindi, a legacy of the late 19th century when English planters imported 60,000 indentured workers from India to do backbreaking labor on the islands' sugarcane  plantations.

Also dotting the road between the villages are the entrances to dozens of Viti Levu's resort hotels, guest lodges and boutique inns, many of which sport bures (thatched-roof huts) poking out of the jungle.

Bula, bula, pass the kava

Guests at the resorts spend lots of time flaked out on the properties' powdery white beaches and at poolside when they're not wandering around spouting off newly learned Fijian words like bula (boola, meaning hello or welcome) to anyone within earshot. Other popular attractions at the resorts are cooking lessons and mock ceremonies in which guests down bowls of kava (a mild narcotic drink tasting much like mud) against a background of traditional hand-clapping and shouts of – you guessed it – bula.

Band greets guests arriving at the Outrigger on the Lagoon. Photo by Bob Schulman.Culinary fans can take excursions outside the resorts to cooking schools like Flavours of Fiji where they learn to whip up as many as eight courses of Fijian and Indian delicacies. Among favorite dishes are kokoda (a raw fish salad) and a chicken and potato curry.

Excursions on boats and small planes take tourists to other islands in the archipelago, many rimmed by underwater Shangri-Las of unspoiled reefs. In the diving set, Fiji is known as of “the soft coral capital of the world.”

Diving pro Ted Alan Stedman describes the reefs as “...a Darwinian’s who’s who of soft corals, invertebrates, reef fish and big pelagic species such as humpback whales and manta rays.”

The days of missionary stews and ritual sacrifices are long gone, but one reminder of Fiji's past has managed to stay in vogue over the centuries. It's the ancient art form of masi in which patterned circles, triangles, crosses, bars and the like each have specific cultural meanings. You'll see it on everything from clothing and wall paintings to the livery of Fiji Airways' fleet of new Airbus A330-200 jetliners.

Replica of old-world Fijian chief's 'bure' at the Arts Village. Photo by Bob SchulmanFeatured on the planes' tails, for instance, is a masi centerpiece called a teteva in which various parts of the design mean things like spiritual values, people working together and, according to a brochure, “the love that the airline has for Fiji and all the customers it is privileged to serve.”

Historians generally credit the early missionaries and ongoing religious practices – for instance, just try to get a seat in church on Sunday – for the high values Fijians today put on personal morality. Like retaining traditional village life,  helping one another out when times are tough, sharing what little they have with strangers and reverence for their elders.

As Fiji's Permanent Secretary for Tourism Elizabeth Powell puts it, “We are each other.”

Staying there: Fiji's 100 or so inhabited islands host around 660,000 annual visitors, most of whom stay in 100-plus tourist-class resorts and inns. Among popular properties are Starwood Hotels' three resorts (the Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa, the Sheraton Fiji Resort and the Sheraton Denarau Villas) on an island just off Viti Levu, and the sprawling, 40-acre Outrigger On the Lagoon on Viti Levu. Among hotels in Suva, Fiji's capital city, is the Tanoa Plaza.

Elsewhere in the archipelago tourists bunk down in boutique resorts peppering the out islands. One such spot is the Royal Davui Island Resort on a speck in the Beqa Lagoon where 15 luxury bure huts pop up out of the jungle.

Getting there: Newly rebranded Fiji Airways (formerly Air Pacific) schedules nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Fiji's Nadi International Airport on Viti Levu. Flight time on the carrier's Airbus A330s and Boeing 747s (the latter set to be phased out this fall) is between 10 and 11 hours each way. Code-shared with American Airlines, this is the only scheduled nonstop service to Fiji from the U.S. mainland. Other flights – roughly nine-hour hops – serve Fiji nonstop from Hawaii.

More info: Visit these websites for Fiji tourism (www.fiji.travel), Fiji Airways (www.fijiairways.com), Starwood Hotels (www.starwoodhotels.com), Outrigger on the Lagoon (www.outrigger.com), the Royal Davui Island Resort (www.royaldavui.com), the Tanoa Plaza (www.tanoaplaza.com) and Flavours of Fiji (www.flavoursoffiji.com).

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