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Discovering Fiji

In search of the authentic Fiji, Shane Mitchell crosses the International Date Line and discovers a tropical Eden where dreamers and bare feet are always welcome

By Shane Mitchell

Even on a detailed chart of Oceania, Fiji is way out there. Athwart the 180th meridian, the 322 islands belonging to this archipelago were once bisected by the International Date Line. No one here seemed to care about this technical quirk in the space-time continuum except that it may have spawned the local wisecrack: "Here today, gone to Fiji." Both culturally and geographically, Fiji is also on the dividing line between Polynesia and Melanesia, midway between Tahiti and Australia. Swirling out from "the mainland" island of Viti Levu, the volcanic chain reaches into the Koro Sea and South Pacific Ocean, a nebula of verdant rain forest, tan beaches, and piercing blue lagoons. In many ways, Fiji looks like a snapshot of Hawaii before the high-rises. (The tallest building here is only 17 stories.) This sugarcane republic still has fewer than one million permanent residents, only three airports with paved runways, and a single (two-lane) highway. For someone who has harbored South Seas fantasies fueled by old Errol Flynn films and Joseph Conrad novellas, making the long journey to Fiji has its payoff: It's one of the last untrammeled places, where steamer ferries still ply the straits, and barefoot bush pilots land on grass strips to deliver guitar strings and watermelons.

Historically, Fiji has always attracted a certain dreamer with the bravado, or cash, to carve out his own little kingdom. In the 18th century, William Bligh bobbed through on a lifeboat after being booted off the HMS Bounty by his mutinous crew. Traders in search of sandalwood and missionaries in search of salvation arrived next. During the 1840's, a rough-and-tumble Yankee sea captain named Benjamin Wallis controlled the lucrative bêche-de-mer, or sea cucumber, trade with Manila. His wife, Mary, made sharp observations about their voyage in her diary, subsequently published under the title Life in Feejee: Five Years Among the Cannibals. More recently, cult leader Adi Da, a.k.a. Franklin Jones, established a wacky hermitage on the island of Naitauba, and life coach Anthony Robbins conducted motivational seminars on Namale. Mel Gibson purchased Mago Island from a Japanese conglomerate and promptly installed a personal bowling alley. And while I hesitate to lump developer David Gilmour in with this motley group, it does take long-range vision to reform a 2,200-acre isle, uninhabited for 140 years, into an impeccable resort. On my quest for the real Fiji—rather than the Italian or Australian interpretations scattered across the islands—Wakaya Island is my first hop after clearing customs at Nadi International Airport.

Despite the long haul from Los Angeles, my dawn sighting of the whitecapped passage between Fiji's two largest islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, reinvigorates me as the Wakaya Club's eight-seat Cessna Grand Caravan soars due east over the trackless Nandrau Plateau. The plane is custom-fitted with tan leather seats and square bottle-holders for FIJI Water, also founded by Gilmour when he got fed up with importing Evian to the South Pacific. In a short time, the locally bottled artesian water has leapfrogged over traditional cash crops (sugar, coconut oil, trustafarian surfers) to become a globally recognized brand. After landing on a grass strip, I ride down to the shoreline in a suitably utilitarian truck, passing through a dense forest of giant ferns and tangled banyans and then fields where a herd of wild horses graze.

Before dinner, Gilmour and I meet at the Palm Grove bar in a communal bure, or bungalow, with massive support poles bound by intricate coconut-fiber rope. "I wanted to create an awareness of Fiji," he says, referring to the water plant, which he recently sold to Stewart Resnick of POM Wonderful. "If you look at wind-flow patterns, Fiji is one of the least polluted places in the world. And in Yaqara Valley, on Viti Levu, I discovered an aquifer. It's a taste of paradise." Gilmour's tenure in Fiji dates back to 1970, when he first "jumped ship" during a refueling stop on a Pan Am flight between Hawaii and Sydney. In 1991, he built an aerie called Vale O, with a view of two seas, on Wakaya Island's highest peak. Since then, he and his wife, Jill, have added nine cinnabar-red bures, an open-air restaurant, an orchid hothouse, and a spa at the edge of a lagoon. His most recent project is a two-bedroombure with its own plunge pool, where celebrities will be able to hole up for a honeymoon without the glare of flashbulbs. However, Gilmour's legacy to Fiji has little to do with his rich-and-famous guests.

In the morning, my waitress, Ariette, delivers fresh pineapple-ginger juice and white toast with the crusts removed to a breakfast gazebo facing the house lagoon. Then, I wander over to the billiards room to view Gilmour's extensive collection of antique South Pacific maps and engravings, many depicting Fijian warriors and their encounters with early traders, like Captain Wallis. Manager Rob Miller guides me to an open bure, where a crew is roasting and pressing meat from coconuts gathered from Wakaya's old grove to extract sweet oil for the restaurant. (It's great drizzled on the grilled langoustines at lunch.) We also take a look at the new school in the staff village. He explains that many Fijian children lack educational opportunities (eighth grade is the typical cutoff in the backwater). Wakaya provides primary classes for the island's junior residents, and Gilmour has a scholarship program for secondary school education. The University of the South Pacific has a campus in Suva, Fiji's capital.

Later in the afternoon, I snorkel on the shoreline, in the company of angelfish and yellow tang, who noodle around chunks of soft coral. Little stone frogs guard an entrance to the Breeze Spa, where therapist Sereana performs an expert watsu session in a chlorine-free, glass-mosaic-tile pool with underwater speakers. Every time she dips me, I hear a cappella hymns sung by a local choir.

Fijians take Sundays seriously. The indigenous population is overwhelmingly religious; earnest missionaries saw to that. For a live performance the next day, I attend a white Carpenter Gothic church, also built by Gilmour, where the staff kids squirm, giggle, and poke each other in the pews. They rise to perform "If You're Happy and You Know It." I clap my hands, too.

Back on Viti Levu, in the crowded south coast city of Suva, I pay a brief visit to Pure Fiji Spa to learn about the native dilo nut oil. (It's used in treatments at Wakaya.) Gaëtane Austin settled in Fiji shortly after World War II, when her diplomatic-corps parents relocated from Tonga. The family first started concocting coconut-sugar scrubs and passionflower bath soaks in their kitchen; they now employ women from several islands to harvest natural ingredients, manufacture pressed-flower paper, and weave baskets. According to her daughter, Andrée, nuts from the tropical dilo tree contain a unique fatty acid that promotes new-tissue growth. Since I forgot to pack sunscreen, I climb back into my taxi with a tub of "rescue gel" to comfort my scorched nose on the way to Pacific Harbour.

The Kings Road is lined with rice fields and grogshops selling kava, a mud-puddle psychotropic that numbs the tongue faster than a dental hygienist can. On a field surrounding a shantytown, I catch sight of skinny boys in tattered shorts tossing a rugby ball while pretending to be Waisale Serevi, the national sports hero and Pepsi pitchman. Next year, Fiji will play in rugby's World Cup. Grog and rugby—clear signs that Britannia once ruled here.

As my bags bounce in a battered workboat across the smooth Beqa Lagoon, I sit in the stern, relaxed. The shark god that governs this water must be content today. Charlie, my navigator, steers toward Ugaga Island, an eight-acre gumdrop that has been turned into the Royal Davui resort. Southwest of Suva, the Beqa barrier reef shelters limestone islands from the deeper waters of the broad Kadavu Passage. Davui owner Grahame Southwick is a fifth-generation Fijian who also operates a commercial fishing fleet—hence, the seared yellowfin tuna in wasabi cream on the dinner menu. In some ways, the South Pacific tuna industry is just as cutthroat as the earlier bêche-de-mer trade was. With 16 mahogany vales (villas) clinging to cliffs that overlook a marine sanctuary, Royal Davui is a lovely hedge investment against the perils of overfishing and the protests of Greenpeace. Vale 13 sits above a shallow reef that ripples turquoise and silver at dusk. I sit on the deck next to a private plunge pool and watch an ominous cotton ball build to the south. Every few minutes, it lights up inside, and a bolt of lightning zaps the ocean. A myth relates how the shark god Masilaca promised to show the Sawau tribe that lives across the lagoon how to dance across hot coals without getting burned. As guardian of the reef, he supposedly protects islanders from toothy marine denizens as well. No one from this area has ever been attacked by a shark.

On the six-hour taxi ride north along Viti Levu's Coral Coast, wild pigs and mongooses dart out of the sugarcane beside the highway, where billboards advertise corned beef and Punjab Flour: HONEST IT TASTES REAL GOOD. Beyond the port town of Lautoka loom the high peaks of the Koroyanitu Range and beyond that of the Nakuavadra Range, where the FIJI water plant is located. Outside the village of Rakiraki, my driver, Ramu Jai, turns a corner in his Jeep and pauses next to a modest headstone under a rubber tree. "That is the grave of Chief Udre Udre," he says. When I ask him why this man was famous, Jai replies, "He ate more people than anybody else in Fiji."Anthropophagy is the fancy term for the consumption of "long pig," or human flesh. The practice died out when missionaries finally persuaded warring chiefs to suppress their appetites. Fijians tend to be dismayed by their voracious past, but replicas of cannibal forks and carved war clubs are tasteless curiosities that are still sold at souvenir shops. And there is no question that the trim men I observe sedately walking alongside the Kings Road in their formal black sulus (sarongs), Bibles tucked under their arms, can still channel their inner gladiator. When I run into a burly American mercenary, he seems quite pleased with the fierce reputation of the local warriors: PMC's (private military contractors) have been recruiting Fijians to serve as armed escorts in Iraq and other global hot spots. He mentions that a Fijian team recently foiled an ambush outside of Baghdad after one member was wounded. "That cannibal past comes up fast when they smell blood," he says. Sadly, economic necessity feeds this labor exodus. Fijians are willing to risk life and limb overseas because it's so lucrative: the average weekly wage for a middle-class taxi driver is about $50; mercenaries get $2,000 a month.

Jai finally drops me off at a jetty on the hilly northern coast near Vatu-i-Ra Passage. Dolphin Island caretaker Stanley Simpson arrives in a small outboard, tosses my luggage in the forepeak, and roars across to the 13-acre domain of Alex Van Heeren, who rents to weekly guests when absent at Huka Lodge, which he also owns, on the Waikato River, in New Zealand. Stanley's wife, Dawn, stands on the stone dock. A Fijian mother hen, she clucks at my exhaustion and wrinkled attire. We walk under cool frangipani and jacaranda trees to a tobacco-stained bungalow with a wraparound veranda, downy sofas, and a dining table. She brings out cold tea and says with a laugh, "Lots of ice! I know Americans like lots of ice." While she preps mud crab in fresh coconut-cream curry, I gratefully shower in the sleeping pavilion next door. A black-and-brown tapa (mulberry bark) mural hangs above the bed, where I collapse shortly after sunset.

The next morning, I paddle a kayak around the bay. When the tide turns, I hike across the island's steep side to a bluff above Bligh Water. A coconut-frond hut has a daybed and a sheet-metal fan that operates by pulley. This primitive camp becomes my favorite hangout until the mosquitoes discover me. Returning to the main bungalow, Dawn plays my Best of Al Green CD on the stereo while I watch her pat roti dough by hand. (She and Stanley were born on different islands but share a love of Indo-Fijian curries.) I depart for the mainland with her recipe and a jar of homemade mango marmalade tucked in my bag. Impulsive gestures of friendship are easy to find here.

The dusty town of Nadi has a main drag of tourist shops and an outdoor market, where vendors fan themselves behind piles of spices, breadfruit, and kava root. Since it's also the airport hub, I have to retrace my steps here to reach the outer islands. At a ticket counter for the country's sole seaplane charter operation, I get a headache from the Canadian-born bush pilot who wants a fortune to fly me to Vanua Levu. I balk until Jenny Leewai Bourke, owner of Nukubati, arrives with her luggage and her friend, Mitimiti Dreunimisimisi. "The air is different up there," says Jenny, when I ask why I should explore Fiji's second-largest island. "You won't regret it." Bourke grew up in Labasa, on Vanua Levu's northern coast, and married an Irish-Australian fashion designer. "My children are fruit salad," she says with a laugh, using local slang for multinationals. As the seaplane climbs over a mountain range, where the rain forest hides white-water rivers and tiny farming outposts, I adjust my internal slide rule to a new perception of far, far away. We glide to a stop in the lagoon next to Nukubati Island, where Jenny has built a seven-room resort on a 50-mile coastline unmarred by electricity or indoor plumbing. (Nukubati runs on solar power and generators; rainwater is captured in cisterns.) She barters diesel for fresh fish, grows papaya and yams, and hires women from nearby villages to weave floor mats for a plantation-style lodge filled with dog-eared books, rattan furniture, and Fijian art. My guest cottage has a thatched-roof porch and a fan-cooled bedroom. It faces west on a mocha beach where blue jellyfish occasionally get stranded and, in keeping with the island ethos, become compost for the vegetable garden.

After the hot and sticky plane ride, we sit down to lunch as Justin Hunter and his wife, Leanne, arrive, having driven an SUV for three hours on red-dirt roads from their pearl farm in Savusavu Bay. He opens a briefcase to show us precious golden, sea-green, and blue-black gumballs. A marine biologist with a degree from the University of Washington, Hunter worked at Natural Energy Labs in Hawaii before returning to his childhood home. Since the pearls are beyond my credit limit, he gives me two luminous oyster shells. After devouring freshly caught octopus cooked in coconut milk, we spend the late afternoon lolling on an anomalous sand spit that emerges inside the Great Sea Reef. In full dress, Jenny and Mitimiti wade into the lukewarm sea. Unlike the crystal lagoons surrounding the south coast of Vanua Levu, this bay is murkier with nutrients. Jenny feels around a coral head and pulls out a red-and-black sea cucumber, which looks strikingly like a penis. So this is what Benjamin and Mary Wallis crossed oceans to hunt?

As the sun disappears, our captain takes an unwise shortcut back to the island. The tide has been rising but we still hit a coral shelf. Above, the Milky Way is brighter. Suspended under this indigo sea of stars, I calmly scan for constellations invisible in the Northern Hemisphere (oh, look, there's the Southern Cross) while everyone else on board radios for help or attempts to push us off the razor-sharp coral with bare feet, an effort more likely to attract hungry sharks than to get us back in time for our own dinner. By now, I should have mentioned that Fijians have a banana-peel sense of humor. When a rescue dinghy approaches in the pitch black, we can hear staffers giggling at the panicked 18-year-old driving the boat.

Back at the lodge, Mitimiti walks in her bare feet across a ceremonial reed mat laid on the floor. "I feel like a queen," she says, grinning, head high. A granddaughter of the King of Tonga, she is also related to Cakobau, the high chief who ceded authority to Britain in 1874. (Fiji remains a member of the Commonwealth; Queen Elizabeth II has a cameo on the currency.) To my untrained eye, the straw she treads on resembles a Pier 1 bargain, but Jenny explains that handwoven mats are more prized than Justin Hunter's pearls. Normally reserved for weddings and funerals, few people use ceremonial kuta as throw rugs. It's a novelty to even step on one.

Sena, Jenny's assistant, escorts me to Nasea, a typical village set among mangroves on this distant shore, where a two-year-old teaches me a final, humbling lesson about this emerging nation. Kicking off my flip-flops to enter a modest concrete-block house, I'm invited to sit on the only chair and watch two grandmothers weave kuta mats. Outside, a child is wailing, but I'm not really paying attention. More women and children gather on the veranda, so we modestly sit cross-legged in our sulus and chat up a storm. My Fijian is limited to bula (hello) and vinaka (thank you), but the genuine welcome reminds me that polite hospitality is not exclusive to parts of the world with air-conditioning and crocheted doilies.

We all rise to follow another weaver, who wades into a stream to harvest an armful of green reeds. The crying starts again, and I begin to wonder what is wrong with whoever is bawling in the background. Finally, after thanking the village elders for a gracious morning, my growing entourage crosses the common lawn. Standing in front of one shack is a barefoot little girl named Laite. When I wave, her eyes go wide and she breaks into another howl, running full tilt in the other direction. Everyone in the village roars with laughter. As the ignorant outsider, I have no idea why this so funny. Then Sena tells me: "She has never seen a white person."

Rare air indeed.

Shane Mitchell is a T+L contributing editor.