Combining a four day cruise through the Yasawa Islands and a three day exploration of the Mamanucas on board Captain Cook Cruises uncovers the heart and soul of Fiji, one of the world's great holiday destinations.
(We have a holiday competition with a romantic getaway on board MV Reef Endeavour on a 4 night Yasawas cruise)
We’re sitting in the crystal clear water, surrounded by stunning volcanic outcrops which rise straight up out of the ocean and behind us on the sand one of the local dogs approaches tail wagging, and waiting for an invitation. We call him over and he joins us in the water to cool off. A minute later and a group of schoolchildren also appear on the beach, on their way home, and they wave and stand on the water’s edge, jostling each other to ask the question: “Where are you from?”
It’s a common conversation starter for the younger Fijians who are genuinely keen to find out about visitors to their islands. After a short conversation, the kids are off up the beach and the dog, called Draki, runs after them.
This is the Yasawa Island group - far, far removed from the modern world where the tropical idyll of a romantic getaway is a fact of life, and a way of life. The Yasawas stretch 80km to the northwest of Viti Levu and typifies the South Sea islands cliché with stunning volcanic mountains tower over white sandy beaches, calm blue water, fishing boats and local communities which have proudly hung onto their heritage, and a love of life itself.
This is where remote beaches can be found, no footprints in the sand, and the local people make an effort to say “bula” and introduce their family to visitors on their island. The only way to experience some of these remote volcanic islands is on a cruise ship, and in many parts it’s possible to wade through water from one island to the next at low tide.
The Mamanucas are no less beautiful, and are the most popular and heavily touristed of the Fijian Islands because of their close proximity to Nadi and its international airport.
Captain Cook Cruises’ seven-day Ultimate Cruise is a combination of a four-day Yasawas cruise and a three-day Mamanucas voyage. This is an experience which captures the essence of Fiji and is the perfect romantic getaway in one of the most beautiful holiday desitnations in the world. From its stunning landscapes, outrageous sunsets and the genuine warmth of its people, the cruise combines the physical beauty and cultural heart of Fiji.
TUESDAY - Start of the four-day Yasawa Islands cruise
Embarkation day on most cruises can be a fairly chaotic event, and as we step out of our taxi at Denarau Island Marina this looks like it’s going to be another one of those days. We locate the “check-in hut” which caters for Captain Cook Cruises and the other various day trip and charter operations. We were on board The Reef Escape, but she's since been replaced by the MV Reef Endeavour.
Check-in takes place and it’s quick and painless, our bags are taken off us, and our stewardess Mere shows us to our stateroom. It’s 12sqm with air conditioning, a double bed and opens onto the outside deck with floor-to-ceiling windows. There’s also a separate bathroom/shower with a mirrored cabinet and good water pressure. Basic and comfortable, it’s not five star luxury, but it is tastefully appointed with enough space to unpack everything and not feel “swamped” in your own temporary home.
We sail out into Nadi Bay, with Tivua Island just offshore scheduled as the first stop and a chance to get in the water and go snorkelling. We’re told this is a great spot for beginners to learn, but we opt to explore the ship instead.
As an “experiential” cruise there are few opportunities to sleep in and ease your way into the day on the Reef Escape - the itinerary is full-on and designed to deliver value-for-money for all guests. Most days are a combination of a beach landing with snorkelling, along with a cultural experience of the Fijian Islands and her people.
After the daily 7.30am breakfast, we arrive at Viwa Island, the most remote of the Yasawa Island group situated 25 km west of Naviti Island. Most of the 41 guests on board file in to the glass bottom boat for the transfer across to Naibalebale Village and a visit to Viwa Primary School. It’s not just the school kids who’ve turned out. Mums and dads, a few grandparents, and toddlers too young for school life wander around the grounds.
As with many schools in Fiji, the classrooms are built around the rugby pitch which fronts right onto the beach. The classrooms are fairly ramshackle with old chairs and desks, a blackboard and not much else and one of the teachers explains that education funding has been a major issue in Fiji for years.
“But we have air conditioning,” jokes 12 year old Matai as she points to a corrugated iron slat propped up with a piece of wood inside her classroom. Matai and her sister Siteri “adopt” us for the morning - as kids in these more remote villages tend to do - and they proudly show us around their school. They explain that because the school is so small classes are doubled up - so the likes of years six and seven share the same class room.
Their father Barry introduces himself. He has 10 kids in total, including Matai and Siteri, and one of his older “boys” is 21 years old and plays prop forward for Nadi on the mainland. “He’s going to play for Fiji one day,” Barry proudly predicts.
Some of the mums have set up a temporary market at the edge of the rugby pitch selling local handicrafts such as sulus (sarongs), jewellery, carvings and paintings, while their little ones sit patiently by their sides.
It’s all very laid back and to finish off the visit, the students put on a “variety performance” of traditional singing and dancing and excerpts from famous plays. Each classroom has their own segment to perform and they finish with the traditional Fijian farewell song, Isa Lei. For most of the visitors, it’s their first genuine Fijian cultural encounter away from the mainland resorts and the perfect introduction to the Yasawas.
After an a-la-carte lunch, it’s time to grab the snorkel gear, which has been supplied, for a drop-off at the first stunning beach of this leg of the cruise - BBQ Beach. Why is it called BBQ Beach? Is it because you fire up the barbie and burn a steak here? No, this spot was found by the crew and is quite remote but it has no shade, and they’ve seen way too many pasty white guests return to the ship after being fried in the Fijian sun.
Naturally, we’re all warned to take plenty of sunscreen and hats, but the warnings are quickly forgotten once you set foot on the picture postcard beach on a turquoise lagoon with nice snorkelling within metres of entering the water. The Manta Ray Island Resort, with just 10 bures on the other side of the lagoon, is the only visible sign of civilisation out here and the two hours in paradise passes way too quickly.
They don’t warn you about the sheer beauty of some of the destinations in the Yasawas - we wake up and find ourselves moored in the middle of a bay just off Yasawa Island, surrounded by volcanic mountain peaks and the impossibly-blue water which combine to form a classic South Pacific scene.
It would be way too easy to simply sit on the top deck and just admire the stunning landscape, but the glass bottom boat leaves at 9am for the Blue Lagoon of Sawa I Lau, reportedly one of the locations for the 1979 film Blue Lagoon which starred Brooke Shields. The original Blue Lagoon, shot in 1949 and starring Jean Simmons, was also filmed in the Yasawas.
Ancient limestone monoliths rise up out of the ocean as we cruise towards the famous Blue Lagoon and it’s no wonder filmmakers fell in love with this part of the world.
Because of its Hollywood movie connection, Sawa I Lau is also a day-trip destination from nearby islands but luckily today it’s only our ship that’s in the area and we have the whole lagoon to ourselves. There are plenty of little bays and beaches to explore, and an ancient limestone cave system, but most people who are fortunate enough to visit Sawa I Lau simply pick a quiet spot and sit down in the warm water to take in the surreal vista.
After lunch back on board the ship, we pass up the opportunity to snorkel on School Beach on Yasawa Island and instead rest up ahead of the evening’s main activity - a visit to Nabukera Village on Yasawa Island. As with all traditional villages, we’re advised to dress appropriately for the occasion which means covering shoulders and knees, and not to wear a hat.
The local ladies have a market set up for our arrival, and the boys in the crew prepare for the Yaqona Ceremony, or village welcome, by pounding kava roots into a fine dust. Water is added to the kava and strained through cloth which produces the famous brown drink used in traditional ceremonies.
The Yaqona Ceremony has great importance in Fijian culture and the villagers are already seated inside the community hall dressed in their traditional clothing. We remove our shoes outside the hall, with men standing in the front and women at the back (it’s not sexist - it’s a patriarchal society) and as a group the men call out “dua, dua, dua” which informs the villagers they’re ready to enter. They respond with “O dua, dua, dua” which gives us permission to enter.
One of the crew, who is assigned as the spokesman for the ship and its guests, kneels and presents the village with the kava and asks permission to visit their village and for their protection. The spokesman will also say that it’s an honour to experience the culture and hospitality of the village. A village representative then accepts the sevusevu, or gift of the kava, and gives us permission to meet with the people and use their beaches.
The actual kava drinking ceremony then begins - in complete silence, the elder of the village presents the visiting representative with the first bowl. Before receiving it, he claps once then drinks the kava in one go. All the men then clap three times as a sign of respect. After that the kava bowl is passed to each of the main dignitaries.
After about 15 minutes, the ceremony is completed and we’re invited one-by-one to have a bowl of kava with the villagers. This is when the formalities end and the atmosphere becomes a lot more relaxed. It also signals the start of the lovo, a traditional Fijian feast cooked in the earth oven outside the main hall.
As we feast on slow roasted pork, chicken and vegetables, the locals prepare for their spectacular meke, a traditional celebration of song and dance.
Another village visit kick starts the last full day of the four day Yasawas Cruise, and this time it’s Matacawalevu.
It’s only a short hop from Sawa I Lau, and many of the villagers here proudly claim to have appeared in the modern version of Blue Lagoon. Again the local ladies set up market stalls around the village for our arrival and half the cruise guests decide to hang on the pretty beach and do a bit more snorkelling. We are introduced to the chief of the village, Ratu Salema, who invites us into his home to tell us about the history of his village.
He sits cross legged on the floor of weatherboard cottage and says Matacawalevu has a population of around 160, although it can often be more than that as some of the men work most of the year on other islands and return home for holidays. It’s a more modern and prosperous village than most others in the Yasawas as many of the locals work in nearby resorts, and much of the materials used in the village’s infrastructure was donated by an Australian who owned a successful copra plantation in the area just before WWII.
After a BBQ lunch on the sun deck, it’s off to Sunrise Beach on Drawaqa Island for another beach and snorkelling experience - with the promise of manta ray spotting in the idyllic lagoon off the beach. The beach itself is inviting, but the Fijian crew, or the "boys", say there’ve been plenty of mantas in the area lately, and a dozen snorkellers hold onto a banana boat while being dragged behind the glass bottom boat.
The boys are standing on the bow of the glass bottom boat to spot the manta rays and within minutes, one of them points and shouts and we all kick hard to try and find them. Only two of the snorkelers actually spot the first one, and we grab hold of the banana boat which is dragged through the water in pursuit of the rays.
We chase to no avail, and then while swimming back to the boat, another snorkeller taps me on the shoulder and swims past. I follow and spot the big manta ray gliding through the water. My underwater camera is switched off because I thought the chase was over, and by the time I fire it back up, the ray is long gone. We all climb back into the boat and are dropped off at a nice snorkel spot with a gentle current that returns us to Sunrise Beach exhausted.
That night, the four day cruise says goodbye to departing guests with a lavish Pacific Island Night Dinner, and a fantastic crew show which culminates in third engineer Cedric’s rendition of Hang Down Your Head Tom Dooley.
SATURDAY - Start of the 3-day Mamanucas Cruise:
It’s changeover day, and 18 of the 41 cruise passengers are remaining on board for the three day Mamanucas voyage. The remaining cruisers are offered the choice of two separate day tours while the crew prepare for the arrival of the next batch of guests - the choices are a cruise and snorkel excursion to Tivua Island with a BBQ lunch, or a tour to Nadi’s Orchid Gardens followed by a cruise around Nadi Bay with lunch included.
There’s no shortage of food on this cruise, and despite all the physical activity, nobody can say they go hungry. But this is no gourmet cruise - food quality is good and meal servings are generous, but it is fairly simple home cooking done well. Captain Cook Cruises tries to use local produce as much as possible, and at times it can be a little disappointing - the option is to do the same as the top end resorts in Fiji which import all their produce at a hefty price (passed onto guests of course) to ensure their restaurants maintain five star standards.
Breakfast runs from 7.30am to 8.30am, and offers cereals, fruits, yoghurts, toast, juices, and a cooked buffet with eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms and tomatoes. Lunch alternates between a-la-carte service with a starter, choice of two mains and a dessert, and a buffet on the sun deck - when the weather allows - which has fish, chicken, roast meats, and a variety of salads.
The evening meals are a bigger production with a choice of starters, mains and desserts, usually followed by entertainment provided by the multitalented crew. Seating is mostly pre-assigned, and changes most evenings. On each leg of the cruise there’s usually one lovo at a village and these should really not be missed.
At breakfast it’s obvious this is a much busier cruise than the previous leg. Sacred Island is the first stop and we’ve been granted exclusive access to a remote beach for snorkelling and sun bathing. It’s reputedly the birthplace of Fijian culture and the beach itself is one of those unspoilt slices of paradise with no footprints (until we step off the glass bottom boat).
The wind is whipping through the island group making snorkelling a little unpleasant so we retreat into a sheltered spot on the beach to just enjoy the peace and quiet of this tranquil place. This 3-day cruise is very beach-focused and Nova Beach on Waya Island is offered for the afternoon for snorkelling and swimming and later that evening it’s another special cultural event, a visit to Nalauwaki Village for a church service.
We’re greeted by one of the village elders on arrival and the quaint church itself is the centre of all the activity ahead of the service. It’s a Methodist church and the young minister delivers a “fire and brimstone” service in the Fijian language and by the tone of his voice and gesticulations, it seems everyone in the village has been especially bad this week.
In stark contrast, the church choir produces music of such exceptional beauty it’s hard to imagine that any of them have ever been sinners - prior to the service hospitality manager Trevor Clarke suggests we close our eyes when they sing. It seems almost impossible the human voice on its own can produce such an evocative response - even from the locals who hear the choir several times a week.
We’re blessed and sent on our way, and as we step outside the sun drops against the village and it’s bathed in an orange hue. The children approach and ask us where we’re from (the standard introduction in this part of the world) and we’re chatting with three sisters - Joanna, 13, and her younger siblings Miku and Sera. They go to church every week and walk across Waya Island to their school.
Another day, another fabulous beach. Sunset Beach on Waya Island is one of those places that has an “end of the world” feel to it. It’s fairly isolated, just a low key backpacker joint on the beach itself, and it looks out over the stunning islands themselves on one side, and open ocean on the other.
This is the last chance for snorkelling on the trip and all the diehard “water people” are dropped off at a small reef with some interesting coral and tropical fish. The water, as it seems to be all throughout this area, is crystal clear and those who opted to stay back on the beach have a beautiful sheltered lagoon to swim in. Some of the locals cruise into the beach on their fishing boats. They’ve just come to say “hi” and find out where everyone is from. And if you know anything about rugby, then you’re onto an animated conversation straight away.
It’s all wonderful and pretty overwhelming at the same time, and we pass up the opportunity to go to Namara Village School on Waya Sewa Island with another Yaqona Ceremony and lovoto go to in the evening. We’re taken across to Yalobi Village on Waya Sewa which is another beautiful fishing village set on the beach and we’re welcomed with the traditional kava ceremony.
The lovo again is spectacular and the local villages light torches on the beach as the sun sets across their beautiful islands. We know there’s a meke to come as well - and while the theme of the performances are similar each village has their own version of how to celebrate their culture. This one is a serious tribute to their ancestry and heritage, with a sense of humour to the occasion: the “angry warriors” are someone’s dad or uncle and the whole village erupts into laughter.
Disembarkation day after a good cruise is always a sad occasion, but we leave with a sense that we’ve experienced way more than anyone else could have if they’d travelled independently in this region. Being on board this cruise means you can visit islands and villages that are not accessible to anybody else, and every day is a combination of fantastic beaches and fascinating Fijian culture.
At times it can all seem a bit overwhelming as you get whizzed across to the next beach with snorkel gear or get ready for the next village visit but the cruise line is trying to give value for money and it delivers on that front. The crew of mostly locals know all the good places and understand the customs of each area and can advise how to make the most of all stops on the cruise and they happily interact with guests - when they start up a game of touch rugby on a beach, everyone is invited to join in.
This cruise is very pro-active and not really the type of voyage to spend lazy days on deck or in your cabin - the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
And what most people get out of this cruise is a perfect blend of the South Sea Island tropical idyll with stunning mountains, palm trees and blue, blue oceans and the genuine warmth of the Fijian people. And their love of life is what draws many people back to their home.