These remarkably undeveloped islands offer an authentic taste of Fiji

Travel News from Stuff - 13-11-2023
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Treading water in the spiritual centre of Fiji’s Yasawa Islands, the energy is palpable.

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It may be because I’ve been kicking my legs furiously for a good part of an hour as I explore the flooded Sawa-i-Lau Caves; a subterranean swimming hole with lichen-draped walls, a natural skylight, and water the colours of a peacock’s plumage.

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Or it may be because the caves are considered the heart and soul of the Yasawas, a sprinkling of 20 or so volcanic isles with palm-fringed beaches worthy of a Tourism Fiji campaign. They are where the mainlanders’ ancestors are said to have come from, and have inspired many a local legend.

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One tells of a giant hawk who made his home in the caves and abducted a princess from the village of Naicobocobo. Heartset on vengeance, her prince summoned strong winds to lift him into the air so he could stab the hawk in the neck - winds that can still be felt in the cave today.

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The day we visit, though, the air is so still there’s barely a ripple on the water’s emerald and indigo surface. I breathe a sigh of relief when our guide tells us it’s too high to swim through to a second chamber which can only be reached by swimming through an underwater tunnel at low tide. Perhaps I’m missing out though: the hidden sanctum is said to be the “true heart of the Yasawas”.

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Still, I already feel as though I am getting an authentic taste of Fiji; a feel for what life was like in the Pacific Island nation before mass tourism took hold. Staying at Oarsman’s Bay Lodge, a scattering of bright-blue beachfront bures on the nearby island of Nacula, the third-largest island in the Yasawas and the second-farthest from Nadi, I feel a million nautical miles from the swanky hotels of Denarau Island, where guests while away their holidays sipping expensive cocktails by the pool. I’m a big fan of both pools and cocktails, but after a full-on year in a full-on city, I’m seeking the kind of solace that only an extended spell in nature far from the madding crowds can bring.

Just under 40 years ago, travellers who wanted to visit the Yasawas had to obtain a special pass from the District Office in Lautoka. While the islands are popular with tourists these days, they remain remarkably undeveloped, particularly in the far north. Buildings are dwarfed by coconut palms, village life carries on much as it always has, and even in the most-visited stretches, a footprint-free stretch of white sand is usually just a short walk or boat ride away.

Approaching Nacula on the catamaran that ferries people between Denarau Marina and the Mamanuca and Yasawa islands, it probably looks much as it did when 1980 Brooke Shields flick The Blue Lagoon was filmed in the area: bright green hills roll down to a long strip of palm-fringed white sand lapped by water that looks like it’s been tie-dyed in 50 shades of blue.

My first afternoon at the low-key resort is the perfect antidote to a stressful year. I ogle butterfly- and parrot-fish through borrowed goggles as I float above the purple and gold coral of the lagoon, swim with a sea turtle, remind myself of my terrible sense of balance on a stand-up paddleboard, watch butterflies perform aerial ballet from the sun lounger outside my bure, and devour a curry in the open-air restaurant made with freshly caught fish.

As the sun begins to set, the handful of guests, who come from as far afield as Brazil and Israel, gather in the restaurant to trade travel tales over cocktails as a band of local musicians play a chilled mix of traditional Fijian and old-school western hits.

I’d thought I’d spent all my time on the island sleeping and swimming, but the activities on offer prevent me from becoming too much of a sloth. One day I join an excursion to the “Blue Lagoon beach” on neighbouring Nanuya Lailai Island, where we find Nemo and hundreds of carbon copies in water so warm and soothing it feels like a liquid hug. On others, I visit a local village; learn to make kokoda, a coconut and raw fish dish similar to ceviche; hike to what, in the heat and humidity, feels like a tropical Mt Everest for panoramic views of the northern Yasawas; and found the deep relaxation I’d craved during a kava ceremony.

The energy, on my last sun-drenched day, isn’t palpable at all: guests loll on loungers, in hammocks, and in the Hollywood blockbuster-worthy blue lagoon. It’s as pretty a picture of serenity as I’ve ever seen.

Oarsman’s Bay Lodge is located at the northern tip of the Yasawa Islands and offers accommodation from shared dormitories (FJ$75 (NZ$56) per night) to freestanding beachfront bures (from FJ$650 (NZ$488) per night). See:

Fiji Airways has direct flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. See: Air NZ has direct flights from Auckland, with connections across the domestic network. See:

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