This is the second part of my article on some budget resorts in Fiji. If you missed the first part, you’ll find part 1 of this story here.
Manta Ray Resort
Our next stop is Manta Ray Resort, considerably more polished than Wayalailai. The resort is built into the jungle on the northern tip of Nanuya Balavu Island. Most of the bures are arranged on a slope looking out over the ocean. The resort dining hall is at the top of the slope, and there is a bar and lounge beachside. It’s a very comfortable layout, allowing you to enjoy the day lounging beachside, and eat meals up on the island’s ridge while enjoying the ocean breezes.
The resort gets its name from the manta rays that regularly feed nearby. When the current is right, they swim in the channel between this island and the next, and when that happens, we can elect to go swimming with them. We have only to listen for the bell ringing three times, and head to the beach.
Our bure is not fancy, a ten foot cube with a small attached deck. The queen bed occupies most of the space, and Bobby and I put our luggage outside to give us more room to move. It’s okay… we don’t intend to spend a lot of time there, and the bed is comfortable.
Bobby and I are just settling in when we hear the a belling ringing, one, two, three times. After a pause, the ringing repeats. Damn, the mantas are here! We grab our fins, mask, and snorkels, throw on bathing suits, and run down to the beach just as the last boat is motoring away from the beach. We wade out, climb up into the boat, and we’re soon motoring around the island.
When we get to the channel, we see a cluster of small boats at each end of the passage between the islands, and in the middle of the channel there is an area of splashing and bobbing heads. Occasionally a hand raises out of the water from this chaos, indicating that a manta is below at that location. And like hungry sharks, everyone swims towards the hand.
Our boat positions itself, and tells us to drop in and swim towards the raised hand. I roll off the boat backwards, and start finning towards where the mantas are located. And soon there it is, a magnificent manta with a twenty-foot wingspan gliding below me, mouth open, feeding.
Then I shoot past the manta, the current carrying me faster than I had anticipated, the manta no longer below me. I turn and swim against the current and find myself in the churning school of awkward swimmers, fins slapping against my head, paddling arms striking my back and legs as everyone tries to stay with the manta despite the current, GoPros reach out on selfie sticks like antennae, trying to capture the perfect Facebook video. But despite our efforts, we are pushed back, our legs tiring as we are driven further from the object of our desire. The manta seems not to notice the commotion. It’s enormous body stays perfectly still in the strong current with only a gentle stroke of its wingtips.
Finally we give up, allow ourselves to drift. That’s when we discover that our boat has circled down, and is waiting to pick us up and bring us up-current again to repeat the ride.
We do this ten times before the mantas leave, either bored or sated. We float on the surface panting through our snorkels, watching them disappear into the deep blue.
The next morning we go scuba diving in the reef around the island. The first dive is at a location called “Caves of Babylon”, a series of large lava tube swim-throughs along the coast of the island. While not highly decorated with coral, the rocky caverns are filled with schools of fish, and it’s fun to fly through the underwater obstacle course. Our second dive is called “Fantastic Wall”, and we drift along at 60′ watching the vertical edge of the island pass by, an underwater cliff that drops directly below us to 600 feet and deeper. The current pulls us sideways, and I feel like I’m on a conveyor taking me along the world’s largest Pollock, splashed in soft-coral colors of pink, red, purple, and white. The painting comes alive with butterfly and angel fish. It’s a really nice dive, and we surface after 45 minutes laughing and talking about how much fun we had.
That night, after dinner, we go out to sea again. The boat takes us out to the far side of the island where we can see the sunset. We climb into inner tubes and float on the calm sea. The crew hands us bottles of iced Fiji Gold and we drink and talk as the sun slowly descends. Our group bonds, literally, hands and feet touching to hold our raft of tubes together, fresh bottles of beer passed from tube to tube.
On the second day Bobby and I swap bures, moving to one of the upgraded beachfront residences. It feels like going from steerage to First Class. The bure is spacious, has a king-sized bed with soft linens, and best of all, has an attached bath in an open private garden. (Yes, the entire bathroom is outdoors, though there is a roof over the sink and toilet.) It’s beautiful, and Bobby is in decor heaven.
I am really loving this resort, but it is our kava experience that really cements Manta Ray as my favorite resort of the trip. The men make us feel like part of the family, sharing grog and stories with us. You can read that entire story here.
Our next stop is Drawaqa Island, where we are staying at Barefoot Manta Resort. The transfer involves taking the Mantaray Resort boat to the inter-island ferry, stepping onto the ferry’s port side, and then immediately stepping off the starboard side onto the boat that takes us to Barefoot Manta.
The resort occupies a flat sand bar at the northern end of Drawaqa Island, and while it’s not unpleasant, I don’t find it that interesting either. The bures are actually canvas tents built around a timber frame, which is unique and feels like glamping.1 The bathroom is outside the tent in a fenced-off area at the back, and I’ll never get tired of showering outside in the tropics.
The best part of the resort is a hike along the ridge of the island which offers several nice views of the ocean and surrounding islands. There is a scuba shack and kayak rentals as well as other activities (snorkeling with the same manta rays as Manta Ray Resort), but the place doesn’t have the same energy level as some of the other resorts I’ve visited, where you feel like part of the village. Here there is more emotional distance between you and the staff. Here you feel like a customer.
The most notable thing about Barefoot Manta is that different lodging classes also get different meals, and are segregated to different tables in the dining bure. None of us like this, because one of the joys of these resorts are the different people that you meet over dinner. Your dining companions could be a pair of 21-year-old gap-year backpackers from Sidney, or a vacationing Indian doctor and her husband. Usually the conversation is interesting and lots of travel tips are exchanged. At Barefoot Manta seating is assigned, based on economic class, and I prefer the randomness of the other resorts.
Our penultimate island is Tavewa, at the far end of the Yasawa island chain, hosting the small and humble resort of Coralview. The resort is extremely basic, offering both bures and dorms, all reasonably clean but very much within the ‘budget’ category. The resort does little to make Tavewa interesting, but rather out-sources its entertainment to nearby attractions. On our visit we go to the Sawa I Lau cave and to the Blue Lagoon.
Our boat takes several hours to reach Sawa I Lau Island, stopping at a few other resorts on the way to pick up additional passengers. Eventually we reach the island, small and rocky, and we’re dropped off onto the beach where a number of women wait to sell us sarongs, shells, and doormats. Large and voluptuous, they gesture us to come to them, sirens of commerce. But we have seen all of this before, and we didn’t come two hours across rough seas in a rowboat to buy a… wow, look at that beautiful Triton’s Trumpet shell!
No. Must resist.
We climb the concrete steps that lead up to the cave entrance, and then climb down into the cave along an iron stair rusted by a decade’s worth of salt water. It is so rusty in places that the railings are broken and bent. Some of the steps have holes in them. When was my last tetanus vaccine? How long do they last?2
The steps end in a blue pool, gently lit with light coming through natural skylights far above, the ceiling of the cave 30 meters over our heads. The water is filled with happy Australian backpackers, swimming, splashing, and of course flirting. A single rock where you can sit and rest looks like a penguin colony of mating Aussie twenty-somethings, packed tight and chattering.
A few alpha-males (and one alpha-female) climb the cave wall, far above the water, climbing to ten meters, then twenty. The ones too timid to climb start chanting for them to jump from their vertical perches, and they do, the most athletic doing a perfect swan dive, the others falling feet-first.
I notice several swimmers hovering around an indentation in the wall to one side of the pool. When I swim over, they tell me that there is more cave on the other side, but there’s no light inside, and they’re waiting for the guide to come with a flashlight.
I breathe deep four times, then plunge down, my hands ahead of me, feeling my way through a smooth tube of rock. I swim as far as I can, then angle upwards as my lungs start to burn. Lucky I’d swam far enough, and my upward-stretched hands encountered air, not rock.
I float in blackness, seeing nothing. I can breath, my legs are paddling, and there is a quiet splashing. That’s the extent of my sensory input.
I paddle like that for a few minutes before I start to see a soft green glow coming through the passage I entered. A minute more and I can make out the edges of the chamber where I float, perhaps fifteen feet away in each direction. Above me are shadowy stalactites.
I circle the chamber and find another passage leading off, deeper into the mountain. It is blackness, and I can’t proceed without light.
Then there’s a blinding flash. When I can see again, I’ve been joined by a guide carrying a torch. He is followed by a gasping young woman, then a young man, then another and then another until my small chamber is packed with giggling, tickling nubiles. I cling to the chamber wall to one side, thinking that my neighborhood is going to hell.
But with the guide comes light, and he leads us deeper into the cave, far back along watery passages. The whole group moves (splashes, paddles) behind following the guide’s light. To fall behind is to fall into darkness. Yet often I choose to fall behind, floating in the dark, the echo of laughter in the distance.
We return to the entrance chamber, which now seems impossibly bright. Eager to escape the returning crowds, I dive down through the tunnel, then rise up quickly towards the surface, intending to breach like a dolphin. But I misjudge, and my forehead smashes against rock. I stop for a moment, stunned, then dive down again and swim a little further, this time rising cautiously and with a hand outstretched. I return to the air timid and slightly bleeding, perhaps wiser even with the mild concussion.
There are still some waves in the lagoon, but they are baby waves, small, friendly, cute waves. And floating with tranquility on those waves is Cloud 9, a large two-story raft complete with a bar and wood-fired pizza oven.
We’re welcomed on board by an elderly Chinese woman. She tells us to order as much as we would like from the bar or the pizza kitchen, then goes back to a table covered with ledgers. We’re there the entire day, and all day she goes through those ledgers, scrutinizing receipts, counting money. While we’re protected in the lagoon, the wind is still blowing, and I’m amazed that nothing blows away. I expect that if a single Fijian dollar did blow overboard, she wouldn’t hesitate to dive in after it, fully clothed.
We order a pizza, then another. The pizza is delicious, even more so for being baked on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I order a single cocktail, and immediately regret it, knowing that I have a rough ride back to Beachcomber Island. But life is short, and the sun is warm. The rum-and-fruit-juice concoction goes down quite nicely.
We spend the day there on the raft with a handful of other intrepid wayfarers. Nothing happens. We lay on mattresses and sleep, Bobby wrapped like an Egyptian mummy in a towel to protect his fair complexion. Quiet music plays from the bar, accompanied by the melody of wind & percussion of small waves against the hull.
Then it is time to go. And of course the wind has shifted 180 degrees, preparing to fight us on our return. We arrive that night at Beachcomber wet, salty, and smiling. We are warriors. We journeyed to a pizza parlor, and lived to return.
We sleep early and deeply, our beds rocking us to sleep with the memory of our journey.
It’s like regular camping, but with more glamour!↩
10 years, in case you’re wondering. I googled it for you.↩
The lagoon, that is. Puberty is a wonderful and transformational experience in a young person’s life, with pimples.[footnote] Some of the outdoor scenes were shot here. (“Most of the movie was shot in a parking lot!” says Bobby at least a dozen times during the day.) Basically it’s just a big white-sand beach. And there is no shortage of big white-sand beaches in Fiji.
We stop at Beachcomber Island on the way back to the mainland. The island is tiny. You could walk around it while eating a small candy bar and still be licking your fingers when you finish the circle. The resort occupies most of the center of the island, with a little room spared for a beach on one side. Check out Google Maps if you think I’m exaggerating.
The resort caters to the party crowd, and there are DJs playing every night in the bar bure. The night we arrive I order a drink from the bar and then going to stand about 100 yards away. From that distance I can really appreciate the talents of the Australian DJ, and still watch the young shirtless men dancing in the warm tropical air. Very nice.
The next day is windy, with high seas. All of the normal water activities are called off… the seas are too rough.
“Is there nothing to do?” we ask the beautiful Fijian woman at the activities desk.
“Well…” she says, “Cloud 9 is still open. You could go there. It’s a bar and pizza parlor floating in the middle of a coral reef.”
The Cloud 9 shuttle boat comes by at around 10am, and even before we’ve stepped aboard I’m already pretty dubious about this trip. The seas are rough, and the shuttle boat is pretty damned small. I get the feeling that a rogue wave could easily kick this little boat’s ass. But the die is cast. Sorin, Bobby, and I climb aboard, the captain pushes the throttle fully forward, and we thrust into an angry sea.
The sea fights back. It throws a few buckets of cold sea water into our faces, followed by enough wind to make us feel even colder. Just when we’re catching our breaths, another wave breaks across our faces. Sorin wisely moves forward to the protected spot just to the right-hand side of the skipper. Bobby and I cuddle behind, exposed, alternately screaming and laughing as each wave hits.
This continues for an hour.
The sea, my friends, is relentless. I doesn’t give up. It fights against us every inch. Occasionally there will be a respite, just long enough for us to let our guards down. Then the bow of the boat will plunge into a breaking wave and a tsunami will break over our heads, leaving us gasping and smelling like kelp.
The shuttle’s motor has fought this battle before, as has the skipper. He weaves between the worst waves, riding through troughs and diagonally over crests. We make slow progress. In about an hour and a half, we motor into a quiet atoll of tranquility.[footnote]An atoll is a ring-shaped coral reef. An atoll surrounds a body of water called a lagoon. Channels through the coral connect a lagoon to the open ocean or sea.↩