Recently announced “happiest country on Earth”, Fiji is a place where tropical warmth comes second to the warmth of local smiles.
While it is certainly possible at the resort to shut yourself off from the world and soak up the tropical blue skies while palm trees sway in the breeze overhead, what a terrible disservice this would be.
As we arrived in Nadi in the early evening, with just enough light to watch the locals carry out the final events of the day, the streets were dotted with workers waiting to catch buses, roadside hawkers selling the last of their wares, hitchhikers outnumbering passing cars and troupes of athletically built young men playing rugby on every spare piece of flat land. There is something so relaxed, almost slow motion, about the local people’s actions, who were seemingly in no hurry to finish up the day. This is what travellers come to understand as “Fiji time”. Tourism here, while very important to the local economy, seems incidental to these people’s lives. Life goes on external to the tourist trade, and would likely quite happily exist without it.
Shangri La’s Fijian Resort & Spa, Yanuca Island, Fiji is set on its own private island, about 45 minutes from Nadi International Airport. After crossing the bridge connecting the island to the mainland and driving along faintly lit palm-lined roads, guests arrive at the reception where they are greeted with a cacophony of “bulas” (“hello” in Fijian), fresh coconut water and cool hand towels. The scent of sweet tropical flowers fills the night air, and we feel we have surely reached paradise.
While it is certainly possible at the resort to shut yourself off from the world and soak up the tropical blue skies while palm trees sway in the breeze overhead, what a terrible disservice this would be. Put down that daiquiri and picture this instead: You, galloping bareback across the fine white sand on a stunning white thoroughbred, and the wind at your heels. Recently included in the top 10 most beautiful beaches in the world by Conde Nast Traveler, Natadola Beach is extraordinary. Resort guests can choose to explore the beach on their own or join a biweekly Natadola tour. After horse riding, sipping coconut water and a dip in those Conde Nast-recommended waters, a fully catered lunch buffet brimming with tropical fruits, succulent carved meats and scrumptious desserts ensues.
Dotted along the Coral Coast are tiny villages where locals still predominately live. Small clumps of humble dwellings share the coastline, which is surely among some of the most breathtaking real estate in the world. Rukurukulevu Village, conveniently next door to the resort, offers a great opportunity to sample the local brew, kava kava. On entering the village, tour buses are greeted by a fierce group of warriors. Well-practiced in the art of intimidation, these youths obviously relish their role in the ‘welcoming ceremony’.
The yaqona (yahgohnah) ceremony involves sharing a gift of kava (or yaqona as it is known in Fiji) the guests bring to the village. You are handed a coconut shell cup known as a bilo (beeloh) and instructed to clap once, drink it down in one shot and then clap three more times, after which your host will do the same – you are now a bona fide member of the village community. After a couple of cups, it is usual to experience a Novocain-like numbing in the mouth and an incredible sense of relaxation. The drink is a mind-altering drug like alcohol or narcotics; kava kava is more like a sedative. It makes one wonder about its role in the perpetuation of Fiji time and its effect on the locals’ responses to the global happiness survey.
Do Your Bit
Without a doubt, the most special experience offered in Fiji is building a fish house. As part of Shangri La’s Care for Nature Project, a campaign to restore the coast’s coral reefs from the effects of coral bleaching, crown of thorns and cyclones, guests can join resident marine biologist Mosese Navici in building homes to encourage coral growth and marine wildlife to breed. They begin their budding construction careers by foraging for washed up pieces of shell and coral, which will eventually serve as both structural and decorative elements of the fish house. With some help on the building materials (cement) and design, completed fish mansions will be assigned fish house numbers and left overnight to dry. The following day, the fish houses will be transported by kayak to their designated underwater addresses and, through geographic coordinates, they can be monitored through Google Earth.
After a short stay, we can attest to the results of the “happiest people on Earth” poll. We have never felt so warmly welcomed nor so accommodated. Smiling here truly is infectious and it is impossible to leave without a feeling of peace and a promise to return.
Tips for visiting a local village:
- Please don’t wear hats or caps, particularly not in the presence of the village chief.
- Cover up – you can wear a light jacket and a sarong. Christianity has made an impact on the villagers’ sense of modesty.
- Do not wear shoes in the village hall.
- Don’t touch anyone’s head, even the children’s, regardless of the temptation to show this sign of affection.
- Be gracious and return the hospitality. Prepare a simple ‘thank you’ speech. Bring small gifts of crayons or candies for the children (but please don’t hand them out yourself; let a local parent make those decisions).