Tuesday 21 March 2006

Diary of an adventure cruiser : WAIKATO TIMES, NZ

Diary of an adventure cruiser

20 March 2006 , Waikato Times, New Zealand

By JEFF HOWELLJeff Howell has five unforgettable days aboard the Tui Tai in Fiji.

Looking for something more exciting than a sun lounger and a trashy novel for your next holiday? How about a cruise?

No, not that kind of cruise. This is different. For pokie machines and deck quoits, think mountain bikes, kayaks and dive gear. For portside cities and souvenir shops, think isolated bays, dive spots and natural wonders. Dress-down, not dress code.

Everyone's on first names, including the crew.

Welcome aboard the Tui Tai, a 40m Fijian motor sailer, which plies the waters of Vanua Levu and Fiji's eastern islands. There's an all-Fijian crew of 16, and room for up to 24 guests in air-con cabins.

With a couple of runabouts, a Padi dive operation, and enough adventure gear for everyone, Tui Tai is a cruise ship set up for serious, active fun.

Day 1
We cast off mid-morning from Savusavu harbour to the start point for our first activity, a kayak trip up the Yanowai river.
Our pace is sedate. The river teems with life. Kids play in the water, trampling through taro plots, jumping from giant trees, floating downstream clinging to morsels of banana palm, paddling in impossibly overladen tin boats.
Kayaking back to the rendezvous point, Liga, our guide, entertains with stories of iguanas, how-to-cook-breadfruit, and a long abandoned goldmine.
Most of my fellow travellers are American. Half the guests Padi-certified. John and Suzy have come all the way from Tucsonwith mates Pat and Carl. They relish the prospect of two dives a day, the first scheduled for this afternoon.
The divers saddle up and head to deep water. I grab a snorkel and flippers and jump overboard for a low-tech coral experience.
Imagine being shrunk in size and plonked in an aquarium. Coral sprouts like giant mushrooms, human brains, and sawn-off coconut palms.
Some twinkle on the ends; others look like spilled blue paint.
Fish. Angel fish, south seas devils, bristletooth, black snapper. Little aquamarine ones swim in dense schools, brahmin blue fluorescent starfish with waving tentacles.

Day 2
Paradise is waking with sleepy eyes, walking to the deck and diving into the deep clear blue water. The world's biggest swimming pool.
After breakfast (omelette, cereal, coffee, fresh pineapple) we kayak around the mainland coast.
When everything gets too hot, we ditch the kayaks for a swim in the bay, and take turns surfing behind the support dinghy.
After lunch we head to Nagigi village in a classic old window-less school bus. The visit is remarkable: unrehearsed, candid and authentic.
The elders were expecting us. Sitting cross-legged under the meeting house verandah, men sing and pass around kava (a local infusion, mildly intoxicating, made from the root of the yaqona bush).
Over the road, the rest of the village slug it out at an all-you-can-eat volleyball match.
We stroll around the village. Back at the meeting house, women present garlands, sing songs and get us all dancing. Smiles, pride, exuberance, grace, warmth, fun.
Night falls as we head home. The aroma of wood smoke, kerosene and burning fern leaves. Dirt roads, bumps and potholes. Headlight beams through the dust.
After dinner everyone lounges around the big communal dining table on the back deck. Then to bed early. Clearly, this is no party cruise.

Day 3
During the night the Tui Tai cruises to a channel between the islands of Taveuni and Qamea.
What a beautiful place to anchor: deep blue water hemmed in by luxuriant, mountainous and mysterious islands.
From a distance it could be Milford Sound. Except it is 30< bay. the in bob coconuts fallen and>
Morning exercise is a 10km mountain bike ride, and a hill walk to see Taveuni's famous Bouma falls. Along the way the skies open, turning the dirt road into a puddled, muddy, hideous mess. Exhilarating. We arrive at the Bouma information centre in muddy glory.
Ten minutes later, sweat is still oozing from every pore.
The first waterfall at Bouma is a torrent of water falling 30m into a deep shaded pool. The second is another 20 minutes up the track. Talk about steep. Talk about slippery. Talk about sweaty.
The swim at the top is heaven. After a picnic lunch of yummy vege rotis, water melon and more swims, we opt not to pedal back, preferring the comfort of the minibus.
Tonight's dinner features seafood: tasty white-fleshed walu and masala prawns bought from Savusavu market.

Day 4
Patrick, the divemaster, promised today's snorkel would be the best of the trip. Too right. Called The Farm, it is a coral wall on the edge of a deep channel.
Hectares of coral blooming up from seemingly endless depths, schools of fish, even a lurking reef shark.
On nearby Rabi (pronounced Rambi) the locals are commemorating 60 years of habitation –- and we are invited. Latter-day Pacific migrants, they arrived in Rabi from Banaba island in far-off Kiribati in 1945.
They'd been forced to leave Banaba after Britain, New Zealand and Australia mined it to oblivion, extracting rich deposits of phosphate-rich guano.
As Banaba became unviable, the British Government simply found them another island to live on in distant Fiji. Remember, these were colonial times.
Rabi is normally closed to visitors, but Patrick is Rabian.
He wrangled the visit and ushers us into the VIP pavilion before disappearing to catch up with family and friends.
Across from me sits a woman who looks remarkably like our governor-general. Maybe, maybe not. Anything's possible in the Pacific!
Dignitaries make speeches. A police band plays. Girls and boys perform, dancing the age-old vivacious and sensual Pacific moves that have captivated foreigners for centuries.

Day 5
A scorching day. Mountain biking seems like a good idea until the first giant, swoon-inducing hill. Stopping at the first beach, we end up staying all day.
The crew ferries over some deck chairs. Around noon they bring lunch (beef curry, rice and rotis) and a well-stocked chilly bin.
Later, more crew arrive in the inflatable for a volleyball challenge. They are 10 times better than us, but we seem to win an equal share of games. Fijians are natural diplomats.
Our final night aboard Tui Tai. A Fijian sing-a-long and kava on the back deck. Plenty of Fiji Bitters are downed as we dissect the last five days. Everyone agrees: the trip's been active, yet no one had felt pressure to over-exert themselves. The divers rave. The Americans are in love with Fijian warmth and informality. We toast the crew, the food, the spontaneity.
Later, as Tui Tai cruises the moonlight back to Savusavu, the wind rustles the sails and a thousand stars dance above the silhouettes of distant islands.

· The five-night cruise costs about F$1790 share twin, including meals and activities (except Padi dives). There are three and four-night packages. See www.tuitai.com for details.
· Jeff Howell is a Hamilton writer.


Vinaka and kind regards,
Miriam Whippy
Reservations Officer
Active Fiji / Tui Tai Adventure Cruises

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