"Those dark, rugged mountains encircling Nadi and Lautoka recede slowly. Your gleaming cruise ship cuts through the water, white foam spurting from its bow. Ahead 240 square miles of ocean and islands -- and a voyage into history where cannibal warriors fought with chilling ferocity; and where white men came to explore."
Or so said the brochure I skimmed skeptically as my husband and I sat on the deck of the Oleanda in Fiji's Lautoka harbor, surrounded by luggage and 35 other passengers. We had all just boarded our Blue Lagoon cruise ship and were awaiting cabin assignments. Most of the group boarded the ship straight from a tour bus, wearing name tags and tentative smiles. I wondered how 30 years of Blue Lagoon tours would have affected the supposedly pristine Yasawa Islands.
Within an hour (by 8 p.m.) we had been assigned cabins, left the small harbor dominated by the sweet smell of the sugar-processing factory and chugged 45 minutes to anchor for the night.
The clockwork precision of the Oleanda's activities, evidenced right from the beginning with our prompt departure, is a hallmark of Blue Lagoon cruises. The three-day, three-night trip to the Yasawas, usually booked several months in advance, has become Fiji's most popular tourist attraction. The confident motto, "the ultimate Fiji experience," is emblazoned everywhere. And although calling it that is a bit of hyperbole, the cruise provides much of what it promises.
The five boats, 20 cabins each, leave nightly at 7 p.m. and make the same stops, each following a slightly different route. The night we left, the Marie-Anda also set sail. Although we never anchored together overnight, we intersected at some points and returned to Lautoka harbor with split-second precision at exactly the same time.
That first night, at the "captain's dinner," the roast beef was truly inedible; our tablemates -- a secretary, a salesman, a dairy farmer and the owner of the Bacon Hill Piggery -- agreed. It was a depressing beginning, but meals from then on were decent and wholesome, if not gourmet.
The cruise was organized down to the last minute with nothing substantial left to chance, including not just the "start" times for meals but the "finish" times as well. Our plates were swept away as we ate the last bites. But meals were the only times I felt truly "packaged." Somehow, despite the tight schedules and the fact that the crew had done it all hundreds of times before, their natural Fijian charm, friendliness and sense of fun always preserved a spirit of spontaneity.
Over the next three days we passed many of the islands, islets and reefs that make up the Yasawa Island chain. Described by an American explorer in 1840 as a "string of blue beads lying on the horizon," the Yasawas are beautiful. The group makes up a handful of the 300 islands of the Fiji archipelago, two-thirds of the way across the Pacific from California toward Australia.
The Yasawas are of volcanic origin and have jagged, dramatically steep western faces merging into gentler, green eastern slopes footed by beaches and mangroves. The water is a warm, clear turquoise with coral and fabulous fish (some of which the crew caught for our meals). The reef life was varied, but as avid snorkelers, we were disappointed. Last year's storms and recent changing weather patterns, with raised water temperatures and cyclones, destroyed much of the fragile coral. (We were reassured to hear the Blue Lagoon boats had weathered 145 mph winds and 35-foot waves, although one boat sank at the dock.)
Scattered throughout the Yasawa Islands are small villages -- as remote as any in Fiji. We visited two.
Nathula, on Nathula Island, was especially memorable. We were ferried ashore by the crew and walked a dirt path through hibiscus, frangipani and oleander to the cluster of woven-bamboo and thatched huts (mbures). Tevita, one of the crew members, explained the customs to us. Everywhere (as in most of Fiji) we were greeted by friendly smiles and the welcoming word " 'bula."
The dignity, cleanliness and natural grace of these tall, handsome Melanesian people were impressive. We wandered freely for an hour, watching women bathe children in tubs and cook taro root over open fires, and men chase wandering chickens. When we filed back to shore, about 40 of the village's women had set up a shell market -- each sitting on the sand with shells and shell or seed jewelry she had made spread out in front of her. The most elaborate, heavy, 30-inch necklace was $7 -- most were only $1 or $2. Other women sold tapa cloth (Fijian patterning on beaten mulberry wood), turtle shells and grass skirts.
That night we came ashore near Nathula again. The crew had prepared a lovo -- a traditional Fijian feast including roast pork, chicken, fish, taro root, tapioca and jams, all wrapped in pandanus leaves and baked on hot stones in an underground fire. We stepped ashore to a lantern-lit area and listened to the crew singing and playing guitars as we ate. The village dogs crept around the shadows.
Suddenly some of the villagers appeared in the light, dressed in bright cottons and grass skirts. It became a meke or Fijian song and dance -- beautiful, compelling, mostly a cappella chanting, accompanied only by hand claps and a hollow log drum. Although we couldn't understand the words, it was clear the dancers were enacting old legends. At the end they insisted that the passengers, young and old, join with them in further dances.
It seemed hard to believe these friendly people were cannibals 100 years ago. Their history is a savage one: tribal warfare, launching 90-foot war canoes using the bodies of young girls as rollers and burying people alive under the posts of new houses to appease the gods. The "cannibal isles" were dangerous. Captain Cook had some encounters with the Fijians in the 1770s, as did Captain Bligh and the crew set adrift by the Bounty mutineers in 1789. They escaped the war canoes only with the help of a strong, favorable wind, and Bligh became the first white man to give a lengthy description of the Fijians.
Our days on Oleanda passed in pleasant routine: chug a few hours in the morning, anchor, swim, snorkel and explore for a few hours, then cruise on to another spot. Morning and afternoon tea were served; it was rather novel to have tea in china cups on beaches.
You can't help getting to know something about your fellow passengers, as everyone eats together at long tables. The cruise is without a doubt a group experience, and therefore not for everyone. Passengers literally rub elbows. The unlikely looking group we encountered at the beginning was in fact a pleasant melange of ages and personalities -- mostly Australians and New Zealanders.
From captain to cook's assistant, the crew was uniformly laid back. The captain went fishing at night without anchor or lights, ran out of gas and had to be rescued. Crew members wre especially gregarious. One crew member dressed as a noisy Miss Piggy at the last night's costume party. And they were always courteous and helpful.
One of the high points of every cruise is a visit to the Sawa-I-Lau caves. Formed in limestone cliffs at the edge of the ocean -- and filled with ocean water and shafts of light -- the caves make eerie swimming for visitors. The second cave is only approachable by a short tunnel four feet underwater. A crew member helped those of us who were afraid get through the tunnel and made sure there were no bumped heads. In the second cave it was very dark and almost mystical looking up a volcanic bore-hole to the sky.
The Oleanda and its four sister ships are 125-foot cruisers, each with 10 upper- and 10 lower-deck cabins. The cabins are tidy and comfortable enough, but spare. Although the bunks are narrow, the sheets barely cover the mattresses, and we had to share our bathroom with a few cockroaches. There are really only two differences between upper- and lower-deck cabins. The upper deck has windows, the lower only small portholes (just three feet above the waterline below). And in the lower-deck cabins, you can hear the sound of the engine, which runs all night. It's definitely worth avoiding the lower deck for that reason, as the sound kept many awake the first night. The all-inclusive price of the trip is approximately $300 per person for upper cabins, $275 for lower.
The cruise is worth it -- the Yasawas are difficult to reach otherwise and the combination of the islands and villages and the shipboard experience makes it a pleasant, relaxing three days.