Friday, July 30, 2010

Fiji Day 12: Vatulele Departure, Hiking on Viti Levu, Fiji memories

We were the last two people off the island, so we got to have a private, last lunch on the beach:

We finally left Vatulele and met up with our new friends Richard and Hilary for a hike on the main island before boarding our plane for home.  We went to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, where we saw some orchids and other cool flowers and had a great, last stroll in Fiji.


Final Fiji memories and impressions, to hopefully bring back a smile when we re-read this in the coming years:
  • Smiles everywhere.
  • Our many-times-daily sunblock and bugspray ritual.
  • Lukewarm water at Namale (and lots of laughing about it).
  • Fiji Water everywhere, without the usual shipped-across-an-ocean guilt. :)
  • The Vatulele bartender shouting "CHEERS."
  • You push light switches down to turn the lights on.
  • Namale's concrete hexagrams with the names of past guests.
  • Fijians consistently calling me "Willi"
  • Namale band consistently singing about "wasting away in Margaritavill-ie"
  • Indian, Australian, and New Zelander tourists.
  • Yachties in Savusavu.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Fiji Day 11: Vatulele - Diving, Red prawn walk

Breakfast was eggs Florentine for me and pancakes for Lauren.  We lazed away the early morning writing thank-you cards, or rather thank-you postcards, since it’s always fun to receive something postmarked from Fiji.  Now it’s off to our very last dive of the trip…


Final dive was slightly more challenging than our other Fiji dives, but we still didn’t break a sweat compared to Monterey. Saw a sea turtle resting on the coral. We kept our distance, but he still gave us that grumpy-old-man expression that sea turtles have before making it clear that he’d rather be elsewhere, thankyouverymuch.  We watched him wing gracefully away.

Also saw a nudibranch, and enjoyed swimming around the multi-story reef pillar at the heart of this dive.  It was covered in coral and the coral was covered in fish.  Took a side-trip over the “cliff” leading to the large drop-off as well, where I enjoyed “flying” off the cliff’s edge without falling down.

Lunch was an odd-shaped but delicious ham-and-cheese-and-veggies-on-flatbread sandwich for me, and fish+chips for Lauren.  Meals are slow, lazy affairs here, and so we started lunch at 1pm and finished right at 3pm, just in time to catch our boat to the red prawn pools.

Vatulele is the only island in Fiji (and possibly the only place in the world?) that harbors a distinctive kind of bright-red prawn. There’s a legend about where they came from, involving a handsome prince, a beautiful princess, and one of the worst hand-in-face moments of all time.  He gets rejected, gets thrown off a cliff, all very sad.  In any case, the Fijians revere the red prawns as sacred, and they refrain from eating them or harming them in any way.

On the way to the red prawns, we saw some petroglyphs (origin unknown; they’re not Fijian, and they may date back as far as 3,000 years), and a lot of fossilized coral fairly high up on land. Geologists are still arguing about Vatulele’s past and future.  There are a lot of signs indicating that the island has been rising relatively recently (in geologic terms, of course), but there’s no good explanation as to why.

Finally we reached the prawns themselves.  The pool was absolutely lousy with them, brilliant bright red against the green algae that they rest on and eat.  They look pretty similar to crawfish, only brighter.  It’s a good thing that the locals have declared them taboo, since it would be pretty quick work for a couple of humans with a net to cook up a LOT of prawns for dinner.

A nice experience all around, and a cool boat ride back, where we got to watch the storms rolling from the main island of Viti Levu toward our small island of Vatulele.

Lauren was thrilled that the trotted out the band and kava bowl one last time for our last night at Vatulele.

    Wednesday, July 28, 2010

    Fiji Day 10: Vatulele - Reading, Cave walk

    Breakfast, lots of reading (Lauren is ferocious once she starts in earnest on a book), a quick “swim” in the ocean (Lauren got cold), showers, lunch, nap (Lauren) and email (me).

    Then the main event of the day: a casual, 40-minute walk through a jungle path toward a handful of caves near the resort.  Our guide, Waqa (pronounced “wahnga”) explained that unlike many other Fijian islands, Vatulele did not have any mountains to retreat to.  So in the old days, when a tribe invaded, the people on the island would put their non-warriors into caves instead, then do their best to repel the invaders.

    The caves were neat, and a couple of them had deep, incredibly clear pools of brackish water.  One of these was the favorite local swimming cave, and had a ladder built in for easy access.  Lauren and I both dipped our toes in, finding the water so clear that we were both surprised at the exact moments that our feet got wet.

    Before dinner we took in the sunset at The Folly, a small stone gazebo about 20 feet up off the beach.

    Dinner was a different format: all the guests sat around a single, large table.  The chef served us a seven-course meal with wine pairings. All excellent.  There was local music and a lot of dancing afterward; almost all the current Vatulele guests are honeymooners like us.

    At dinner, we learned to our delight and slight surprise that the entire kitchen staff is Fijian.  The executive chef is from the main island and has a fairly extensive culinary background.  But the other cooks are local women who return home each night to cook for their families over open fires.

    Tuesday, July 27, 2010

    Fiji Day 9: Vatulele - Diving, Village trip

    After a day of scuba rest, Lauren was eager to dive again.  We dove with Vuli, the head of the dive operation here.  We saw two sea turtles, a small shark, and the usual explosion of tropical fish.  I’ve now identified my favorite, bright little fish as the regal angelfish.

    Lunch was delicious as always, and then it was back into the bumpy Land Rover for a tour of one of the villages.  We went to village 4, which is on the very far side of the island, about a 30-minute drive.  In the village, we met the chief and shared kava with him and his friends.  We toured the church, which they’d erected in 2008.  We saw a bunch of dogs and more pigs and chickens than usual.  Children very friendly and very excited to have their pictures taken and then look at those pictures on the LCD screens of our digital cameras.

    The main industry of this village – and the main export of this island – revolves around the tapa plant.  Families grow tapa in small “plantations” along the road.  They then cut down the small, thin trees and bring them back to the village.  In the village, they strip the white bark from the trees, soak it overnight, then repeatedly fold and beat the bark until they have long sheets much resembling canvas.  They export a lot of the blank, white tapa for use in painting and in making clothes.  They paint the rest themselves for export and for direct sale to tourists like us.  Lauren bought a painted, square piece to put up in our living room in Chicago.  It will be nice to think of Fiji during a Chicago winter, I think.

    Dinner was very good once again. Enjoyed chatting with new friends Richard and Hillary over cocktails before dinner.  Then enjoyed our meals: cream of mushroom soup to start, very spicy vegetarian “jungle curry” for me, and mahi mahi skewers with vegetables for Lauren.

    Monday, July 26, 2010

    Fiji Day 8: Vatulele - Lunch on our own island, Dinner on the beach

    A very lazy day for us. We spent much of the morning and afternoon reading and listening to the surf.

    The highlight of the day was lunch.  We had reserved the resort’s private island, 15 minutes away by boat.  They dropped us off with some coolers containing our picnic lunch, and we asked them to return in two hours.

    The island was small but very neat.  They’d set up a couple of thatched-roof shelters and a table for lunch.  Most important for Lauren: there were a pair of reclining beach chairs in the shade.  So after eating lunch, exploring the island, and watching the hermit crabs race along, Lauren had a chance to do what came most naturally to her on a deserted island.

    You see, when a man or woman climbs a mountain, or reaches the absolute depths of a cave, or lands on the moon, or whatever … there’s a natural impulse to plant a flag there.  For some, this is a literal flag.  For others, it’s more of a symbolic act.

    There was no doubt in my mind about what Lauren would do on this island: she napped.  She napped hard.

    When Lauren finally woke up and declared her nap “completely satisfactory,” we had 20 minutes left for a bit of snorkeling around the island.  Then the boat showed up and whisked us back home.

    The other highlight of the day was dinner.  We had reserved one of the small huts right on the beach for a romantic dinner by the ocean. The food has been consistently fantastic here at Vatulele, and the surf lapping a few feet from our table made it that much better.  We both started with cream of cauliflower and bacon soup, and then I had some very well-prepared lamb.

    Sunday, July 25, 2010

    Fiji Day 7: Vatulele - Church, Diving

    Had a nice, long sleep.  Awoke beneath our mosquito netting and enjoyed some truly hot showers.  This is a luxury that was tough to come by in Namale, but seems on tap here.

    Now, we head off to breakfast.  Then our plan is to attend the Methodist church service in the village, go diving in the afternoon, and spend the rest of the day relaxing.


    Have just returned from the church service.  Breakfast was delicious French toast for me, and an omelet for Lauren.  She reported that it was a little on the salty side but otherwise tasty.  We could both do without the little black specks dotting the plates and silverware here. They don’t really brush off, but instead become greasy smears on the plate.  We’re hoping that they’re bits of dirt or ash, but I’m a little hesitant to ask about them.

    The church service required a repeat of the ultra-bumpy Land Rover ride, past the airstrip and into the village nearby.  The service was all in Fijian, but the singing was really spirited.  It sounded a lot like a Talisman concert, for those of you familiar with the Stanford group.

    The village was similar to other Fijian villages we’ve seen.  Lots of corrugated metal siding and roofing, colorful construction, hand-painted touches, dogs and chickens milling around.  Everyone was very friendly, and the children especially were very outgoing and pleased to say “hi” and “goodbye.”  Our guide explained that everyone on the island was Methodist, and that many people would attend three church services every Sunday, and take the day-of-rest fairly seriously otherwise.

    Sadly, it seemed that the equivalent of the town dump was scattered by the roadside as we walked back out to the airstrip: items that wouldn’t biodegrade and wouldn’t burn well littered the floor of the jungle.

    We had a bit of a wait by the airstrip until the Land Rover returned, and then we waited for the charter plane to touch down with two more couples onboard.  Lauren and I found ourselves once again in the very back of the Land Rover, which can make for a very bumpy ride.

    We’ve now returned to our bure, where we have a half-hour before lunch, and about 3 hours before our afternoon dive. Lauren is catching up on her reading and doing her best not to itch a few stray jellyfish(?) stings from yesterday.  We are definitely roughing it a little!  But our spirits remain high.


    Lunch was choose-your-own-pizza-toppings, with a wood-fired pizza oven outdoors.


    Had a nice, long, warm, relaxed dive in the afternoon.  Dove a site called Fishtank, and it lived up to its name.  Tons of colorful tropical fish, and we also saw a big school of snapper a ways out in the blue.  Divemaster reports that El Nino wiped out all the coral ten years ago, but what has grown since is impressive and fairly extensive.

    Most notable for me: this dive was the best “flying underwater” dive I’ve had since my 0’th dive in Cabo San Lucas.  Really dramatic canyons, grottoes, and outcroppings to swim over, through, and around.  Coolest of all was a coral wall dropping off to more than 200 feet.  We hovered and swam at about 65 feet of depth.  With visibility at 80 feet or more, you could see a LONG way down.  I’ve now confirmed that I (luckily) don’t suffer from any vertigo.  It was a blast!

    It was “curry night” at dinner.  Lauren chose the veggie curry, and I had the tandoori chicken curry.  Highlight of the meal was definitely the dahl soup we both started with.  Food has been uniformly good here.

    Saturday, July 24, 2010

    Fiji Day 6: Namale and Vatulele - Transit, Snorkeling

    We left Namale as we arrived, to the sound of singing from the staff.  We left behind a concrete hexagram with our names engraved, and with a large “VINAKA” (“thank you”) spelled out in coral.  I asked them to add our hexagram to the slowly-growing walkway down by the dive shop.

    Namale was a truly special place.  I’m certain that it will be one of the very best places I visit in my life.  We are so lucky to have been able to come here for our honeymoon.

    Next we boarded the same small plane back to Nadi.  A man from Vatulele met us at the airport, got our bags checked on to the next plane, and asked us to wait a couple of hours.  We found a surprisingly awesome coffeeshop called Esquire in the domestic terminal of the Nadi airport, and whiled away our time there.

    Then, it was time to board the plane to Vatulele.

    This plane was worth writing home about all by itself!  Probably the smallest plane I’ve ever been on, it had room for two pilots and six passengers.  Lauren and I had front-row seats and got to see the (very, very chill) pilot work his magic during the 25-minute jump from Nadi to Vatulele.

    It was clear from the moment we landed that Vatulele was going to be a different experience from Namale, though hopefully wonderful in its own way. The Vatulele airstrip is just a cleared length of dirt and grass.  Whoa!  And the road from the airstrip to the hotel isn’t paved.  Heck, it’s not even a particularly nice dirt road.  We had a big, four-wheel-drive truck, and we felt every bump.  I was excited to really, REALLY get away from it all, and I was curious as to what we’d find at the end of such a road.

    When we arrived at the Vatulele Resort, the staff here greeted us with singing as well. They showed us to our bure, which is quaint and is in the same Santa Fe style as all the resort buildings.

    Vatulele is the more “beachy” of the two resorts on this trip, and our bure was no exception.  We had our own private path down to the lovely white beach.

    Comparisons to Namale were impossible to avoid, and at this early stage they did seem quite different.  Namale was much more luxurious.  The amenities at Namale are very nice, and the nearby villages and the town of Savusavu are a bit more developed than the small island of Vatulele, from what we understand.

    By contrast, Vatulele’s amenities struck me as “very, very nice summer camp.”  They’ve done much less to drive out or contain the elements here.  No real windows (just screens).  Mosquito netting on the bed.  A jungly walk between our bure and reception which – though short – has already inscribed a few itchy mosquito bites on Lauren’s skin.  There are some manicured and landscaped bits, but mostly they’ve cut narrow paths through what was already growing there.

    Some of these differences are probably due to resources – there are just fewer people here, and the infrastructure is less developed.  And some of the differences are probably also philosophical.  Vatulele bills itself as being very eco-conscious and very integrated with the surrounding land and communities.  This is all good with us, but it does result in some compromises on the creature comforts.

    We spent our first Vatulele afternoon on some really amazing snorkeling, seeing probably more fish per square meter than we’ve seen anywhere else thus far.  We also saw a handful of white-tipped reef sharks, and some “magic coral” that changed color.  Although diving is not included in our room price here at Vatulele, we’ll probably spring for a few dives and enjoy the fantastic reef literally yards from our hotel room.

    Dinner was fish for Lauren and steak for me.  The food has really shone here at Vatulele so far.

    Friday, July 23, 2010

    Fiji Day 5: Namale - Diving, Horseback to waterfall, Pearl shopping

    Will again!

    We started the day with the now blessedly familiar routine of breakfast and bus-to-dive-boat.

    Friday’s dive site was called Lighthouse, and was right next door to Black Beacon from Thursday.

    It’s a tough call, but I think that Friday’s may have been our best Namale dive.  Sunshine the entire time, lots of sea life, and Paul going ape on a few more Crowns of Thorns.  I’m sad now that I haven’t taken the plunge and gotten into underwater photography, since pictures would really help get across just how stunning this experience was.

    On the ride back from diving, we passed the three horses tied up and ready to take us up to the waterfall for lunch.  We had booked a Friday waterfall lunch on our first day at Namale, and Lauren had decided to add horses to the mix on Thursday.

    [For those of you following along at home, let me make it clear: I got on a horse for this woman.  That is love.]

    My horse turned out to have a bum back-right leg, so our guide dismounted in the middle of the trip and gave me his horse.  At our pace he could outwalk the horses anyway.  We enjoyed a slow, 30-minute ride up past the golf course.  At the end of the ride, we reached a multi-level waterfall, complete with steps and a small deck:

    The van carrying our pre-ordered lunch arrived about 30 seconds after we did.  (Things like this have stopped surprising us at Namale). They set up the table, asked what time they should return, and then left us to enjoy our food, the sound of the waterfall, and each others’ company.
    Especially notable was the local taro-and-coconut dish that they cooked up at Lauren's request in the photo above.

    After eating, I took a dip in the chest-deep pool below the top-most waterfall.  The water was a bit cold, but more than anything I wished that we had brought along our dive shoes, as the bottom was very rocky.  All well worth it for moments like this of course!

    We finished at the waterfall a bit early, and we opted to walk back rather than wait for the van.

    Quick shower, and then it was time to return to Savusavu in search of the one thing Lauren hadn’t been able to get to in Savusavu the previous day: pearl shopping.

    Now, we had seen the pearl “fields” – really strings of buoys – every time we’d gone out diving.  So Lauren hoped that there would be beautiful pearls to buy on-site and good deals to boot.  Think “roadside strawberry seller” but for big, colorful pearls.

    We had tried to visit the small J. Hunter pearl shop on Thursday, but we’d arrived just after closing time at 5pm.

    On Friday, Lauren was on a mission, so we zoomed to Savusavu in a cab, headed straight for the pearl shop.  We made it just in time.  But alas, Lauren didn’t find quite the right pearls, and she didn’t find quite the right deal, either.  We resolved to try again next time we visit Namale.

    Upon returning to our house, we found some going-away papers, and so we started the unhappy task of packing up for our Saturday morning departure.

    Dinner featured the band boys once again, and the kava bowl once again.  Lauren was raring to go on the kava, and she took great pride in explaining all the tricks and variations to the folks who had recently arrived at the resort.

    We were both sad with this being our last squat around the kava bowl at Namale, but I also felt like we had planned this leg of the trip just about perfectly… We’d had plenty of time to relax by ourselves but had never been bored. We’d done all the activities we really wanted to do.  We had just about run through the lunch menu and were starting to repeat some dishes.  It was about time to leave.

    Rupes had mentioned that he had something special planned for our last night.  So when he whisked us away from the kava bowl at 7:30, we were pretty excited.  We took a circuitous bula cart ride that ended by the dive shop. The Namale staff had set up a string of lanterns ending with a candlelit table for two, all overlooking an ocean cove ten feet away. It was beyond romantic.

    We returned home to find a last bottle of champagne and a bunch of other really nice touches. The surf and the treefrogs lulled us to sleep one last time in this little corner of paradise.

    Thursday, July 22, 2010

    Fiji Day 4: Namale - Diving and Savusavu

    Will here.  I am guest-blagging.

    After another tasty breakfast, we eagerly bounded toward the dive shop.  That’s how I remember it, anyway.

    Another boat ride just past the pearl farms brought us to the Black Beacon dive site.  It’s named after the small, unmanned lighthouse jutting out from the reef, and it’s fairly near the site from Wednesday.

    Our divemaster was Paul this time, and Lai once again came along with us.  Similar (and similarly awesome) fish and coral life, with our favorites being the “families” of small, bright, tropical fish that live within the protective strands of some twig-like, hard coral.  Saw a few parrotfish as well, which always makes me happy.

    Paul surprised us a bit by unsheathing his dive knife and going Rambo on some large invertebrates along the bottom.  He used his slate to explain: “Crown of Thorns … Very Bad … Enemy of Reef.”  We signaled OK, and then he gestured to some living coral, some gray, dead coral beside it, and finally the (now thoroughly savaged) crown of thorns spitted on his knife.  We got the message.

    The dive concluded with the world’s best safety stop.  There’s a reef shelf right at 15-20 feet next to the mooring line, and it was no burden at all to hover among scores of tropical fish and bright coral while waiting the prescribed 3 minutes.

    After the dive, we sat down for a lunch of delicious pumpkin soup, with some chicken satay for me.

    Then, having heard good things from Chris and Mary, we hired a taxi into the town of Savusavu, with Lai coming along as our guide.  If you ever want to walk around Savusavu, you need to go with Lai.  He’s such a confident, friendly, outgoing guy, and he seemed to know every third person we passed on the street.  And this was in spite of the fact that he comes from a village near Namale, and doesn’t often go into Savusavu proper.

    The town of Savusavu was fascinating.  The heat, the bustle, and the concrete construction made a lot of my Taiwan neurons fire, actually.  But Savusavu was clearly a poorer and less developed place.  Most people seemed very happy, though, and absolutely everyone was friendly.  Although they must get plenty of foreigners coming into the yacht marina, we were still definitely oddities in town; the locals were as curious about us as we were about them.

    We had happened to arrive in town as they were gearing up for a small local festival, so we bought some barbecue off the one vendor who had already set up shop in the festival’s field.  (Incidentally, we discovered that “barbecue” continues unchallenged as a universal word.  The Fijian word for it is indeed “barbecue.”)  A sausage, some beef shortribs, and some roasted(?) taro for around $2.50US, with plenty to share between Lauren, Lai, and me.

    We poked our heads into some gift shops and local grocery stores.  Lauren succeeded in her mission to find some more reasonably-priced sunscreen to replenish our supply.  And Lauren succeeded in her OTHER mission to buy (and snarf) some coconut-flavored pastries from a local bakery.

    One really cool stop was the natural hot springs, where local folks go to cook dinner and to cook down leaves for craftwork (making mats and such).  This was right next to the local soccer field.

    [The Icelanders would be proud.]

    Sam had boasted that in Savusavu, you could put your dinner on the spring, go do some shopping or play some soccer, come back and hour later and be guaranteed to find all your belongings right where you’d left them.

    Leaving Savusavu, I was struck by the interchange between the small minority of boat-livers, vacationing yacht owners, and Western backpackers on the one hand, and Fijian and Indian locals on the other.  The crowded bus/taxi depot.  The buses disgorging huge herds of uniformed schoolchildren.  The strong sense of community as people gathered to chat on streetcorners, or ran into each other in passing.  Dogs scampering across the street.  Hand-painted signs.  Really a remarkable afternoon.

    Our plan on returning to the hotel was to soak in a hot tub near our room and finally drink the bottle of champagne they’d given us on arrival.  (We’d been too tired to drink it on our first night).  So we threw on our swimsuits, grabbed the bottle, headed out the door and called for an ice bucket on the way out.

    This being Namale, the ice arrived a few minutes later, along with a surprise tray of appetizers.   There are so many nice touches here.  We sipped our champagne as the sun slowly set, toasting each other and feeling so grateful to have this time together.

    Just as we were getting up to leave, a new couple came along, and we had a nice few minutes getting to know Jordan and Jana, also from the States.

    Dinner was penne pasta for Lauren and chicken parmesan for me, with light music playing, the breeze blowing, and plenty of good conversation.