With a welcoming community spirit that embraces visitors as family, Fiji’s sharing culture is deeply rooted.
With eyes closed, a young boy in a turtle-patterned Bula shirt tilts sideways into his father’s lap. He’s fast asleep. Next to him, his elder brother is fidgety and looks bored.
Their father wears his best Sunday dress, a collared shirt neatly snugged at the neck with a tie, tucked into a sombre-toned sulu, the kilt-like garment that Fijian men wear on formal occasions. The family matriarch on the other hand, like her colourful peers, is far more vibrantly dressed. Immaculate in a forest-green tailored tunic worn over matching ankle-length skirt trimmed with hibiscus patterns, she has a frangipani tucked behind her left ear. Our eyes meet above her son’s head and her face erupts into an ear-splitting smile, the kind that would light up a dark night.
A card-carrying atheist with little interest in a lengthy sermon, the sole reason I’ve joined the congregation on Oneata Island is to enjoy harmonious hymns sung by a rapturous Fijian choir. Sung a cappella in their native tongue, passion is evident in their ethereal, melodious voices. The entire community is present, all in their Sunday best, and at times the entire village’s voice rise together in song. Unexpectedly, their hymns move me to tears, despite not understanding a single word.
Melanesian culture, strongly influenced by the Christian faith, dictates that Sundays are sacrosanct. On Saturdays, men prioritise fishing excursions to ensure an adequate contribution for Sunday lunch, when all gather after church for a shared meal. Fijian villages operate as a communal society where property and resources are shared. By the custom of kerekere any neighbour or relative may ask for something that they need, which is provided without question. In the Lau Islands, the word maikana is used as an invitation to anyone walking past on a Sunday to ‘come inside and share our meal.’ It’s this underlying community spirit which underpins Fijians gentle demeanour and their consciousness of good neighbourly relationships.
Brought up in a materialistic society, this character of inclusivity and generosity is one of the main reasons I keep returning to a country who throws its ample arms open wide to visitors. Oh sure, this South Pacific archipelago has countless physical attractions that belong in any self-respecting holiday armoury. Tropical climate, tick. Dreamy beaches shaded by palm trees, tick. Luxury resorts with five-star facilities on tap, tick.
But the real treasure of Fiji is the Fijian themselves.
Bespoke hideaways like the dual villa boutique Taveuni Palms Resort on the garden island of Taveuni have tapped into this cultural characteristic, picking up a cabinet full of trophies along the way, mostly thanks to exceptional staff. Exquisite accommodation in the form of two private villas each set on an acre of land overlooking Somosomo Strait draws visitors, but it’s attention to detail that keeps travellers returning.
Taveuni Island is home to Fiji’s floral emblem, the rare and revered tagimoucia, whose crimson and white blooms hang in chandelier-like clusters of ruby raindrops on a mountain ridge in the island’s garden-strewn highlands. So, it comes as little surprise that the Beach Villa is generously decorated with fresh floral blooms. With five intimate and private dining locations across the villa, each exquisite meal offers a reason for Executive Housekeeper Sia to showcase her skills, dressing the table with fresh blossoms and seashells. Sensing the promise of romance one night as we enjoy dinner on the deck, Sia mischievously ducks inside to scatter a carpet of petals across the timber floor of the master suite. She spells out a blessing for love in scarlet frangipani petals on the bed.
Romance between Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins sizzled in the film Blue Lagoon, set in the ridiculously beautiful Yasawa Islands. The film piqued the interest of island hedonists who pegged the Yasawas for their own romantic island paradise. Just 18 years old when he landed the role that would make him a superstar, Atkins said in an interview, “the conditions during the filming were very rustic. When we got there, there was no water on the island and there was really no place to live.”
Not so any more. The Yasawa’s, alongside their equally pretty island cousins the Mamanuca’s, are some of the most popular islands thanks to elegant bures on the beach aplenty. Given Atkins youth and naivety he could be forgiven for thinking there was no place to stay. In actual fact, there are villages and resorts dotted across the six main islands that make up the Yasawas.
Much of Blue Lagoon was shot at Nanuya Levu Island, which is now known as Turtle Island. After hosting the film crew, the island’s American owner constructed 14 beachfront bures that became Turtle Island Resort, creating a lush tropical retreat on the once ravaged island.
Separated from Nanuya Levu by an isthmus which disappears at high tide, Nanuya Lailai Island is home to one of the area’s real characters.
‘Bula bula, welcome to Lo’s Tea House,’ laughs Loraina Masibuli as we walk into Enedala village on the south coast of the island. ‘Call me Lo,’ she says with a dazzling smile.
We’ve taken a well-trodden path that winds through a coconut plantation, teeters across a couple of tree trunks strung together as bridges and over the ridge to arrive at Lo’s Tea House. Even by Fijian standards Enedala village is tiny, housing just 30 people from 11 families.
‘This is my Grandfather’s village, it’s my family’s land,’ Lo explains.
Lo’s ramshackle tea house’s interior walls are lined with cotton cloth in colourful designs. External walls are clad in lime green clapboards trimmed with burgundy shutters. Beach sand that clings to our feet is as welcome inside as the hermit crabs that sidle in confidently. As we sip tea and tuck into a generous wedge of chocolate cake dripping with chocolate frosting, Lo reveals the secret to the rich smokiness of her cake.
‘My secret ingredient is fresh coconut milk straight from the nut,’ she says. ‘We have plenty of coconuts here!’ she laughs, spreading her arms wide to indicate the coconut palms that dominate the landscape as far as the eye can see. Shunning modern conveniences, Lo’s cakes are baked as her grandmother did, in a cast iron pot over an open fire.
‘I bake my cakes using firewood, rather than using gas, which gives it a special taste,’ she says.
Lo’s husband is a chief at Nabukero village near the Sawa-i-lau Caves to the north of Nanuya Lailai. His chiefly duties keep husband and wife apart, with him returning to Endala village by longboat just once each month. With her husband absent, the first ten years were tough for entrepreneurial Lo as she established the business. Visitors were sparse in the early days, sometimes just two or three arriving each week.
As Lo’s fame grows, more travellers stumble across her unassuming tea house on the beach.
‘All the guests now come because I serve the famous Fiji Lemon Leaf tea.’ she says. ‘The tea is the best. It makes you healthy and strong!’
The northernmost island in the group is called simply Yasawa Island, home to a handful of villages and exclusive Yasawa Island Resort. A rock-star arrival by light aircraft offers a tantalising view over a cobalt blue sea dotted with turquoise lagoons surrounded by coral reef. Far removed from civilisation, Yasawa Island is known for dazzling, pristine beaches rarely disturbed by human footprints.
Bukama Village elders had much input into the construction of the adjacent resort and were consulted during all phases to ensure minimal impact on the local environment. Today, generations of villagers have grown up alongside the resort which provides a valued source of employment. So interlinked are village and resort that staff treat the hotel like an extension of the village, welcoming visitors in typical communal fashion to their ‘home’.
In turn, hotel guests are welcome to visit the village and make new friends. If you’re fortunate enough to be staying on a Sunday, I recommend fine-tuning your vocal chords, dressing in your Sunday best and attending the church service. It’s likely to be an unforgettable highlight of your travels to Fiji.
Taveuni Palms Resort taveunipalms.com, Yasawa Island Resort yasawa.com, Turtle Island Resort turtlefiji.com
More Information fiji.travel, All photos credit Fiji Tourism. ◼
© This article was first published in Oct-Nov 2018 edition of World Travel Magazine.