From the moment I step aboard Captain Cook Cruises Fiji Reef Endeavour, I know I’m in for a special cruise. I am greeted by a wall of song – a welcome that washes over me like a warm wave (which you’ll also find everywhere in Fiji!) – along with a customary shell lei and smiling faces across the pool deck.
My first port of call is Tivua Island – Captain Cook Cruises Fiji’s private island – for an afternoon of snorkelling or relaxing on the beach. I swim with black-tipped reef sharks and a breathtaking array of marine creatures and rainbow-coloured coral. This is the first of many snorkelling sessions and I’m told each one gets progressively better. How? I guess I’ll see.
The island is stunning and showcases an exquisite, unspoilt region. A leisurely lap of the island reveals little but warm, soft sand, native palms, a bird and a few bungalows. It’s a nice way to ease the passengers into the cruise; a good way to meet some cruise buddies, and the snorkelling alone is well worth the stop.
I’ve had three nights at Shangri-la Fijian Resort on Yanacu Island which was amazing. I was spoilt by the staff, the food and the whole resort experience. But my one-day jet boat safari, which took me to a village for an afternoon feast and kava session, has me hankering for more local and authentic experiences.
Sitting at the captain’s table for dinner, I’m lucky to have the ear of Captain Ian Davison, who is also happy to tell us all of tales of his 20 years on the Endeavour. The food is divine (seriously) and, better still, the champagne is flowing and free.
The features of the Northern Yasawa Islands cruise are the food, beaches, snorkelling, diving, village visits and the opportunity to laze about doing nothing at all. The marine activities crew offers snorkelling training, but if you don’t want to get wet there are daily glass-bottom boat tours. There is always something to do, but no compulsion to do anything. Your time is subject to Fiji time – a concept you may find difficult to grasp at first but will come to enjoy (and possibly want to bring home with you).
For mine, the features are meeting real Fijians, in their homes, as you experience true local hospitality. It’s a privilege to share their lifestyle for a few hours at a time.
This is exemplified by our night on Gunu Beach, where, once we alight, we’re treated to a handmade market where all the makers – mostly women and children – are present to showcase their products.
The sevusevu ceremony follows, where we appoint a locum chief and are accepted into the village with a welcome ritual that includes ceremonial kava.
The traditional lovo feast – food cooked in the earth – is followed by a meke, which is a celebration of song and dance where everyone, even the village dog, participates. We frolic with the kids, sing with the men as they become more (or less) animated by the effect of the kava, and dance with the women, whose smiles seem wider than their faces.
If the whole cruise was like this, no one would want to leave.
If there’s one way to start your day it’s to hike to the top of a mountain and watch a Fijian sunrise. I can’t lie, the walk is more a hike and the hike is hard. I have to stop and catch my breath a couple of times, but once at the top, and as the brilliant yellow glow grows larger on the horizon, I know it is so worth the effort. Brilliant. The silence on the top of that mountain from all 18 hikers speaks volumes of the scene before us.
If that is the best way to start your day, then surely rolling out a beach mat on one of the most beautiful and famous – and I mean movie famous – beaches in Fiji is the ideal way to continue it. Our stay at Blue Lagoon on Nanuya Levu offers a brief recharge session in lukewarm turquoise waters and a short sunbake on the fabled beach. The beach itself is as you would imagine it – heavenly. But it’s surrounded by hellish razor-sharp rocks that make you feel as if you’re in another world entirely. I can’t resist a climb to the top of an outcrop to snap a shot of the beachgoers and get some ‘me’ time, even if only for a half-hour.
The afternoon brings another village visit. This time we’re heading to the Ratu Namasi School. The energetic choir welcomes us with bright songs and so many smiling faces. As the kids disperse, they take each of us by the hand for a tour of their school. They’re so proud of their grounds and buildings, which, back home, would barely pass building standards. Their stripped-down lifestyle makes ours seem bloated and superfluous.
You should have nothing to complain about when you see how happy Fijians are with their lot. Sure, they live with multimillion-dollar views. The same locations, though, are fraught with seriously hazardous weather and the constant threat of Mother Nature’s heavy hand. Overall, though, their laid-back lifestyle makes you realise, you don’t need much to be happy.
In the afternoon, we swim in the caves of Sawa-I-Lau – ancient limestone formations carved by constant wave action and hidden within a little island. According to legend, this is where a young chief once hid his betrothed after her family threatened to marry her off to a rival chief. Every day, the chief would swim here with food for the girl until they could escape and live together happily ever after. Sawa-I-Lau is also known as the resting place of the 10-headed ancient Fijian god, Ulutini.
All that aside, it is a must-do Fijian activity, and a truly special experience, laying back as you stare at the sky between naturally sculpted limestone towers and pillars.
After a long day sightseeing, basking in a virtual Eden, it’s time for the ‘White Party’ – an a la carte dinner where everyone dresses in white. After which, the highlight of the night is the Fiji Olympic Crab Race. A strange day at the races!
Our last day promises to offer the best snorkelling and diving experiences. I’m forgoing the first and instead spending the morning on Yaqeta West beach. Armed with a good book, a beach mat (supplied) and my sunglasses and sunscreen, I relax under palms and take the odd dip interspersed with casual conversations with local villagers. Nirvana!
The afternoon’s dive is truly spectacular. Reefs that are thousands of years old are home to hundreds of schools of fish and marine species and coral of otherworldly colours. Hovering over this wonderland, I spot a pair of colour-changing squid (or cuttlefish, I’m not quite sure) and spend the next 20 minutes watching these strange cephalopods change their colours like some freaky disco.
An afternoon basking on Drawaqa and leisurely snorkelling 10 metres offshore ends my Fijian foray. The last night onboard is capped off by an Asian feast, super-fun music quiz and a kava session with the crew.
I spent only four nights on the Endeavour, but I wish I’d had more time onboard. What can I say? The ship has seen better days, but is in perfect working order, super clean and you won’t want for anything. But it’s not the room you’re here for: it’s the snorkelling, the beaches, the chance to relax and unwind in the sun, the food, the people and Fiji.
The crew is beyond amazing.
Our tender pilot Herman – quick-witted, dry and could easily have a second career as a stand-up comedian – is also incredibly knowledgeable about all areas we visit. In a half-hour chat during a kava session, I learn more from him about Fiji’s culture, history and people than I did in a week’s worth of research.
Our marine biologist, Amos, could also double us a stuntman, gymnast and circus performer, delivering his reef talks with humour and passion. I watched him free dive to remove a crown of thorns starfish – a serious coral threat – with bare hands and a stick. No mean feat.
Our hospitality manager, Ilisoni, is a beautiful person. Always upbeat, sweet and able to wrangle a boatload of rowdies with ease and aplomb. And the man can organise a party!
I had access to reefs, places and villages I could never get to by myself. Add to that the connections with village chiefs, schools and other areas I could never have had without local knowledge.
Most of all, I had fun. If you want to see the true heart of Fiji, this is how to see it.
Leon travelled as a guest of Captain Cook Cruises Fiji and Tourism Fiji.
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