There are over two dozen resorts in the Mamanuca and Yasawa islands, and each one has a different personality. Over two weeks in June I visit six of them, spending two days at each. None of them suck.1(Hello? South seas island?)
I definitely have my favorites, but yours may differ.
Imagine the fun of finding your favorite island…
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Bobby and I meet our friend Sorin in Nadi. Nadi is a strange sort of place, a very small city on the island of Fijian island of Viti Levu.2Literally, “Big Fiji”. It’s the location of the only international airport, but Nadi is not the capital of Fiji. That honor belongs to Suva, on the opposite side of the island about 3 hours drive away, or 20 minutes by maglev train.3Ha ha ha, just kidding. The maglev takes 45 minutes!
After a quick coffee-toast-and-beans at the Nadi Bay Hotel, we are picked up by Awesome Adventures. They are one of several booking services for the resorts on these islands, and part of South Seas Cruises, a sort of tourism megacorp for these islands. Each subsidiary runs their own ferries and transports.
Waiting for us is a packet containing an Awesome Adventures sulu.4A ‘sarong’, called a ‘sulu’ when worn by men, is a wrap-around skirt. According to my Fijian friends, men wear it with or without undergarments, depending on whether they enjoy the occasional refreshing breeze. There is also a booklet of ‘vouchers’, each good for part of our total experience. The first voucher we use is the voucher that will bring us to Bounty Island, and the second was for 2 nights’ stay at that resort. There are vouchers for included activities like snorkeling and a sailing trip. I am told that it would be a Bad Idea to lose our vouchers.
Resorts have different luxury levels, indicated by the coconut scale. 1 coconut is primitive lodging, while 3 coconut is luxury. This makes absolutely no sense to me, since coconuts are literally falling from the sky here, and the number you have in hand indicates nothing other than your ability to bend down and pick them up.
Sorin, Bobby and I are traveling at the 2 coconut level, with Sorin selecting the dorm option and Bobby and I choosing to stay in double-occupancy housing. (Double-occupancy housing is more like 2½ coconuts.)
At some resorts food is included. At others, it’s a ‘mandatory meal plan’, costing an extra Fj$90 or so per day.5At the time of this writing in June 2015, the exchange rate is about Fj$2 for every US$1.
The high-speed catamarans leave from Denarau Harbor near Nadi. Each travels island by island northwards until around 2pm, then south again, making one round trip every day. The resort staff is very efficient about making sure that you (and your luggage) get on and off at the correct location. There are even airline-like luggage tags labeled with the destination resort.
We jet out of Denarau. The locals sit and doze inside the catamaran, enjoying shade and air conditioning.6Island workers and residents get to use the ferry service for Fj$22 per trip, less than the tourist rate. Tourists climb up to the top of the boat where they are baked and buffeted by the wind. Our first stop is only a half-hour away. Kadavulailai Island is roughly the size of a football field and home to Bounty Resort. A small boat is waiting for the ferry and quickly ties alongside as the ferry comes to a stop. Our luggage is tossed into the boat, and we’re asked to step across. The gap between the two boats opens and closes like gnashing teeth, and I worry about my foot being smashed between the colliding hulls. I watch the biting gap, timing it like a video game, then hop across without any extremity damage. We untie and soon our small boat is navigating the coral maze leading towards the beach.
We shouted “Bula!” back and the launch scrapes onto the white sand.
‘Bure’ means ‘house’ in Fijian, and we’re shown to our island bure. It’s a small structure, perhaps 12 feet to a side, with a pointed thatched roof. Inexplicably, there is a chainsaw outside our front door. Is the island prone to periodic zombie outbreaks? I didn’t see that in the brochure.
That night we sleep under a mosquito net. The effect is more romantic than practical. First, the net would be useless in stopping a moderately determined zombie. Secondly, the islands seem remarkably free of mosquitos, at least this time of year. (Though we do occasionally meet a traveler who is positively rashy with bites. Some people seem to attract more six-legged attention than others.)
The dining bure, like all public structures in Fiji, is a thatched roof with open sides, protected from the sun but open to the cooling ocean breezes. Each resort has one, some slightly fancier, but all have the same general plan… tables under a roof where you eat your breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Meals are a place to meet fellow travelers and exchange stories with various levels of exaggeration. Since most of the travelers are college-aged ‘gap year’ brits and Australians, there is quite a bit of flirting going on over the chicken curry.
At most resorts, the main office is in the dining bure. Going to breakfast this morning, I’m startled to find that the woman at the resort’s front desk was clearly not born into the female gender. Unlike most asians, Fijian men do not have a natural feminine beauty. Nevertheless Kelly is quite attractive and I’m fascinated by her. She moves with grace has a beautiful Fijian smile. She wears a sarong and flowery blouse and has a plumeria blossom pin in her hair.
(Photo by Bobby Pin)
Walking around the resort after breakfast I come across a blue plastic tub, about the same diameter as an oil drum, filled edge-to-edge with frantic baby hawksbill turtles. These little swimmers are desperately crawling over one another to grab a breath of air before being pushed back down by other adorable baby turtles in the cutest little life or death struggle ever. I’m fascinated by this tiny churning sea of swimmers. It’s like watching “Lord of the Flies” as enacted by puppies.
The turtles are being raised by Bounty Resort’s resident marine biologist after their nest was found behind one of the resort’s buildings. The chances of the turtles reaching the sea were slim, so they were gathered when they hatched and placed into a large ‘turtle pond’ under the trees in the resort. Unfortunately they’ve developed an algae growth in the pond and on their shells. The turtlettes have been moved to the bucket while the pond is scrubbed and disinfected.
By noon the pond has been refilled with clean fresh sea water. But before the turtles were put back, each palm-sized shell had to be scrubbed of excess algae. Will we help? Yes please!
The next hour is spent workin’ at the turtle wash. Pick up a lil’ turtle, carefully cradling it in my palm. With a toothbrush scrub scrub scrub it’s little shell, it’s little flippers, it’s little head. Flip it over and quickly scrub it’s little underside. (As you can imagine, the little guys get very squirmy when you put them on their backs.) Then rinse them under some running water before dropping them into the big pond, where they swim happily away from the Toothbrush Monster.
It takes about 10 minutes to scrub a turtle. I do 5 in an hour, but luckily there is an army of earnest young boys and (mostly) girls, cooing and scrubbing (and flirting, of course.) The turtles get shiny, and the bucket gets empty.
Our big activity at Bounty Resort is to leave the island aboard the Sea Spray, a sailing ship. The ship itself is magnificent, a gaff-rigged schooner in white sitting at anchor in a sapphire sea.
The Seaspray was the focus of an Australian TV show. It featured Captain and Journalist Dan Wells and his two children. They explored the South Pacific with their loyal Fijian crew. Apparently it was quite the thing in Australia.
We board and the captain gives his Australian safety briefing: “Drink all of the beer you can, mates. No extra charge.” And with that over with, we haul anchor and sail out to sea.
For most of our voyage we chat with our fellow passengers, exchanging stories & resort reviews. As more beer is consumed, there is a proportionate amount of flirting that takes place. Bobby zeroes in on Billy, a young Brit who is extremely handsome and just the right amount of dumb.8Thank to Miss Coco Peru for this wonderful expression.
Billy is a little confused but mostly pleased with the attention.
We sail around numerous small islands, eventually bearing downwind towards one distinctive shape… the island from the movie Castaway. It’s a small uninhabited island with a stone peak. Only a few scenes were filmed here.9Spoiler courtesy of Bobby: most of the movie was shot in a parking lot.
There is a reason that Fiji looks so much like our idea of a tropical island paradise. Robinson Crusoe (1932), The Blue Lagoon (1979), Swiss Family Robinson (1995), and Castaway (2000) all used these islands as a setting.
Bobby, Billy and I are talking about our experiences in Fiji and Thailand, and eventually the subject turns to ladyboys… those Thai men who decide to live their lives as women. Being Thai they make beautiful women, and in fact some straight men prefer ladyboy partners. I suspect that the attraction is a combination of female beauty with male sexual behavior. Or perhaps it’s just the raw sexual excitement of the new and taboo.
Billy looks down at his feet, then looks up at us. “Can I tell you guys something?” he asks. “I’ve never told this to anyone else. I’m a little ashamed of it.”
“Of course!” we say eagerly. “You can tell us anything, Billy!”
“Well, when I was in Thailand I picked up this pretty girl and we went back to my room.” he says, hesitantly. We lean in. “She was really, really hot, and a great kisser. We had amazing sex.” He hesitates, and looks down again. “I think that she might have been a ladyboy. When I felt between her legs there weren’t the normal flappy things, just a hole. I’m kind of sick about it. Did I sleep with a guy? Does that make me gay?”
We laugh and assure Billy that if he did, it didn’t make him gay, it just gives him a great story. I tell him that for some reason a lot of straight guys preferred ladyboys, and that he shouldn’t worry about it. He smiles. “Thanks, mate. She really was a fantastic kisser.”
At some point in the past, the villagers of Wayalailai Island must have looked at one another and said “All of these white folk are coming onto our islands and making resorts, which bring more white people and lots of cash. Why can’t we do that?”. And so Wayalailai resort was created, a small resort of a half-dozen bures and a few dorms.
The ferry stops halfway between the islands of Wayalailai and Kuata. While waiting for transport to our island, I look over towards Kuata. Jutting out of the sea just offshore of that island is a large rock, on top of the rock is a tiny figure, gesturing wildly at the ferry, jumping crazily around the top of the rock, waving his arms. Is he stuck there? Does he need help?
I take out a telephoto lens and zoom in on the rock. It’s a Fijian warrior, wearing only a grass skirt and palm armbands, waving a club and jumping threateningly around the top of the rock. He leaps, and his club swings through the air to strike the rock, clearly sending the message “your brains here, motherfucker!” He does this over and over, waving his arms and making threatening gestures. At one point I think I seem him grab his crotch and give us all the finger.
You can click to zoom, but he won’t be much bigger.
“What is that?” I ask another passenger on the ferry. “Do you see that guy over there? He looks angry!”
“Oh, he’s just John, the bartender at the Barefoot Kuata resort. When the ferry is due to arrive, he takes off his work clothes, puts on his islander kit, and gives us all a show. He does this twice a day, when the ferry is northbound and then in the afternoon when it is heading south.”
Watching John the Bartender jumping atop a rock in the ocean, I imagine him looking at his watch, sighing, going to the employee’s locker room to put on his grass skirt, and then wading out through the ocean to climb fifty feet up onto a rock, dragging a large club behind him. “I am not getting paid enough” he thinks, as he brandishes his club at the tourists day after day in the sun and rain.
Wayalailai feels like a Fijian village with a better landscaping. When we arrive (“Bula!“) we’re told that the resort generator has exploded, and that the backup generator would only be run for a few hours every day. (Fair enough, the bures aren’t air conditioned anyhow, but having the fans operational would be nice.)
Looming over the resort is the rocky peak of the island, and we spend one afternoon doing a sunset hike up to the summit. The hike winds up around the mountain, going back and forth as it ascends through first jungle, then grasslands.
As we pass one shady tree I look back to see a small white mound as the base of the trunk. It is about the size of a frisbee, and looks like some sort of fungal growth. “What’s that?” I ask our guide, a small villager named Mali.
Bobby and Mali lean down to look at the small mound. “Semen!” says Mali brightly, and then he looks at me in a way that says “…obviously!“
“Semen?” I ask. What?
“Umm, semen, like…” and I shake my clenched hand rapidly in front of my crotch. “Semen‽”
Mali’s eyes widen and he laughs and blushes at the same time. Then he slowly and carefully says “Semen…t”.
“Ahh, cement!” I say, and wonder what a pile of cement was doing halfway up a mountain with no structures anywhere nearby. At least my manliness feels somewhat less intimidated.
The last part of the hike is across the bare rock of the peak, clinging on all fours across a granite ridge line. Finally we ascend to the very top, and the view is epic. I can see the resort and village 1,000 meters below us, the turquoise and azurite of the reef surrounding the island, and a chain of other islands trailing out over the horizon. The wind is blowing, and Mali extends his arms, ready to take flight.
I think that this is when I fall in love a little with this island. It isn’t just the view… it is that these villagers have created a resort that is humble but loving, a place that feels less like a luxury resort and more like home.
The next morning, as we pack to leave, Sorin finds a large snake sleeping in his pile of dirty clothes. He is not sure if it’s venomous, so he shows it to the cleaning lady, who shrieks and runs off. One of Sorin’s cabin mates climbs onto the bed and refuses to come down. Eventually the cleaning lady comes back with one of the men from the village. He removes his t-shirt10Revealing a lovely physique! and then uses his shirt to catch the serpent in Sorin’s drawers. It’s exiled back to the jungle, and peace returns to the island.
- 1(Hello? South seas island?)
- 2Literally, “Big Fiji”.
- 3Ha ha ha, just kidding. The maglev takes 45 minutes!
- 4A ‘sarong’, called a ‘sulu’ when worn by men, is a wrap-around skirt. According to my Fijian friends, men wear it with or without undergarments, depending on whether they enjoy the occasional refreshing breeze.
- 5At the time of this writing in June 2015, the exchange rate is about Fj$2 for every US$1.
- 6Island workers and residents get to use the ferry service for Fj$22 per trip, less than the tourist rate.
- 7The Fijian equivalent to Aloha!
- 8Thank to Miss Coco Peru for this wonderful expression.
- 9Spoiler courtesy of Bobby: most of the movie was shot in a parking lot.
- 10Revealing a lovely physique!