Island Dreams' owner Ken Knezick has been to Fiji one time too many...he is starting to like the taste of kava! The following is a report based on his experiences and impressions of many of Fiji's best dive resorts and live-aboard diving operations. We hope you find it of interest.
GETTING THERE - Service to Fiji is offered by Air New Zealand, Air Pacific, and, via code-share, QANTAS Airlines. On this trip we enjoyed very comfortable travel on Air New Zealand.
ARRIVAL IN FIJI - Customs and Immigration in Nadi is perfunctory. Once you've retrieved your luggage, just exit through the green gate marked, "Nothing to Declare." To test our mettle in this case, we were disappointed to realize that one of our participant's suitcases did not show up on the baggage carousel. The good news is that Air New Zealand proved to be exceedingly helpful. After filing the lost bag report, they took her to the airport gift shop and personally helped her to select clothing and other necessities to replace her temporary loss, and then reimbursed her for the cost of the items on the spot. Better yet, the errant bag came in the next day, and was transferred all the way out to Kadavu to catch up with us.
INTER-ISLAND TRAVEL - Fijian inter-island air service is provided by two major players, Sun Air and Air Fiji. Both fly a range of small aircraft well suited to the variety of islands and air strips they serve. Be advised that these carriers state a checked baggage weight limit of just 20 kilos (44 pounds) per person. While they usually allow special consideration to scuba divers, don't be surprised if you are asked to pay an overweight baggage fee. The charge is based on 1% of the cost of the inter-island airline ticket per kilogram. This translates to approximately U.S. 50 cents to $1 per pound. Keep in mind that, if the flight is extremely full, and you have a great deal of excess baggage, it is conceivable that you could be asked to leave a bag behind...to follow you on a later flight.
One solution to this apparent limitation is to pack a portion of your heavy gear in your carry on bags, which often are NOT included in the checked baggage weight calculations. However, before take off, you and your hand bags will be obliged to step up on the scale as well, so the pilot knows how heavy his aircraft is on takeoff. Please don't try to hide any bags during this process. You wouldn't want to save a few dollars, and then have your aircraft go into the drink as a result.
DIVE KADAVU / MATANA RESORT, Kadavu - On a recent trip, our first stop was Matana Resort, a dedicated divers resort a short boat ride from the simple air strip on the island of Kadavu. Situated in front of Namalata reef, Dive Kadavu offers two dives in the morning, one in the afternoon, boat night dives, and complimentary beach diving. The dive boats are spacious, aluminum catamaran-style flattops, powered by twin outboards. Conveniently equipped with sun cover, storage bins, double tank racks, and four ladders (one at each corner!), these are simply great dive boats.
The lodging at Matana Resort is simpler than some of the more upscale properties, but the rooms proved to be quite sufficiently comfortable. A range of accommodations is offered here, from bunkhouse-style cottages with shared bath, to more spacious, private beach-front bures. The food is good and the treehouse dining room, library, and bar provide an excellent place to relax and trade dive lies during surface intervals. It includes a nice music system, so bring a long a few of your favorite CD's to add to the entertainment.
The Australian owners of Dive Kadavu / Matana Resort, Bob and Rena Foster, run a friendly and capable operation that they oversee personally. Over the years, they have developed a close relationship with their local village and guests will have the opportunity to visit the native village, and experience a real taste of traditional Fijian life. I came away impressed with Bob and Rena's attitude, the relaxed ambiance of the resort, and the quality of their dive operation. Matana Resort is in a growth trend, adding more deluxe bures, and increasing its U.S. clientele. Considering the well thought out facilities, and the fact that most boat rides are fifteen minutes or less, there's no doubt that Dive Kadavu is an excellent choice for dedicated divers and dive groups, while adventurous non-diving partners interested in experiencing Fiji will also have a most enjoyable time.
TIP: Kadavu is apparently a good place to see sea snakes. On both of my visits thus far, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to dive with and photograph them. I would add that sea snakes are totally benign and non-aggressive with scuba divers. They are just one more exceedingly interesting and beautiful creature of the sea, and divers have no need to fear them.
GARDEN ISLAND RESORT, Taveuni - From Kadavu, flying via Suva, our group moved on to the "Garden Island" of Taveuni - as lushly beautiful a tropical island as you will ever see. We were met at the air strip for the 35 minute taxi transfer down the coastal road to the resort. Garden Island offers a simple yet comfortable level of lodging, which might be equated to the Casa del Mar Hotel in Cozumel. The rooms are small and without adornment, but the setting is pretty, every room has an ocean view, there's a freshwater swimming pool, and a well stocked, professionally run dive shop is just a few steps away. The food here is good, though not the gourmet fare served elsewhere in Fiji. Wani the barman is friendly, the drinks are relatively inexpensive, and the house musicians who play guitars and sing into the night while partaking from a bottomless wooden tub of kava, are excellent. Stroll over to join them in song and they'll surely invite you to share a friendly bilo (coconut shell) of this strange ritualistic beverage.
AQUA TREK DIVERS Garden Island - Aqua Trek, Fiji's largest dive service, is acknowledged to be one of the best dive operations in Fiji. Aqua Trek employs excellent, aluminum, v-hull dive boats, both spacious and fast. Excellent dive sites start five minutes away from the resort, with Fiji's fabled Great White Wall only a 20 minute ride to the South. A daily, morning two-tank boat dive is the norm, with the option of an afternoon boat dive, or a night dive. There is no practical shore diving at this location. At the end of every dive day, the employees wash your equipment and hang it dry in the dive shop. If you are a dedicated diver looking for maximum value in Fiji, you will find the combination of Garden Island Hotel and Aqua Trek Divers, hard to beat. Give me a ring, or an e-mail, if you'd like to receive a brochure and more information about this great hotel / dive operation combo.
MATANGI ISLAND RESORT, Matagi Island - Also accessible by boat from Taveuni, is the renowned Matangi Island Resort, on the neighboring island of Matagi. (There is an interesting story behind the apparent spelling error. The island IS called Matagi, without the "n." But in Fijian, is sounds like MataNgi, with the "n." sound. The resort owners finally gave in and have added an "n" to the spelling of their name.) ANYWAY... Matangi is the first Fijian dive resort that many of us heard about, for they have long pursued aggressive and effective advertising campaign. I can assure you that its reputation for beauty and quality is well-deserved. Accommodating a maximum of 28 guests, this resort is built upon its own private island, the crater of an extinct volcano. As a result, the resort is well spread out, with plenty of room for privacy and personal space. The individual bures are at least fifty yards apart, insulated by lush landscaping. The main bure, which houses the restaurant, bar and lounge is as beautiful as any we saw on this trip. Most importantly, their dive operation is absolutely first class. Matagi is very special in that they refuse to degrade the reef by anchoring on their dive sites. Rather, the highly competent boat men follow your bubbles expertly, waiting patiently for you to regain the surface. The diving available around Matagi includes all aspects of Fijian diving, large hard coral reefs, splendid soft coral dives, beautiful tropicals and the chance to see a variety of large pelagics. Matagi is a divers resort in every positive sense of the word. For a special treat, try Matagi's exotic and spacious honeymoon tree house.
BEQA LAGOON RESORT, Beqa Island - Leaving Taveuni behind, we flew Air Fiji back to Suva, Fiji's capitol city, where we were met by a bus for the 1½ hour drive to Pacific Harbour. Once there, we transferred our luggage from bus to boats, and made the 40-minute crossing to Beqa, Fiji's fourth largest island. Beqa has gained renown in the dive community specifically due to Beqa Lagoon Resort (formerly Marlin Bay Resort), one of the best known and most highly regarded dive resorts in Fiji. This excellent property provides access to the best diving in soft coral laden Beqa Lagoon, while offering a high level of service and a gourmet cuisine unequaled among Fijian dive resorts.
This was my own first visit to Marlin Bay, and I must say that I came away exceedingly impressed. Set on 14 acres of hand-manicured, beach-front property, the ocean view cottage-style rooms are spacious and very attractively appointed. They're all air-conditioned, with the added advantages of high ceilings and screened, louvered windows on all sides, plus a large ceiling fan. There's an inviting, canopied, queen sized bed and an additional double bed for mixed parties. Original artwork from Indonesia adorns the walls. The result is a cool, comfortable, high quality, and very romantic lodging.
That level of ambiance is maintained throughout the property. There are couple-sized hammocks strung in the shade between the coconut trees lining the beach. They called my name every afternoon... a great place for nap. The communal house at Marlin Bay is one of the largest and most opulent bure-style buildings in Fiji, with a big kitchen, spacious open-air dining room, and an adjacent lounge furnished with comfortable sofas and coffee tables. There's a fully stocked bar, happy hour hors d'oeuvres, and a television monitor was provided so that our group could screen their underwater video footage at the end of the diving day.
The natural beauty, ambiance, and upscale resort facilities are reason enough to love this place, but the icing on Marlin Bay's cake is the gourmet kitchen. Served by romantic candle-light, the meals offered here are nothing short of superb. Over the course of our stay, the menu included Mahi mahi rolled in sesame seeds with a miso sauce, choice New Zealand lamb in pepper and crushed almonds, and prime rib of beef cooked to absolute perfection. The needs of vegetarians and any other dietary requirements were also met without exception. There were lovely fresh salads, and delicious homemade soups served in delicate covered tureens crafted in Thailand. Desserts included a delicate chocolate souffle, chocolate cheesecake, hot apple struddle, and home made ice cream. All of these delights were brought to the table at their freshest, served by soft spoken and attentive Fijian staff members that could work in a fine restaurant anywhere in the world.
Sounds like a weight watcher's nightmare right? Well fortunately, at Marlin Bay there is hope, and lots to do beyond "eat, sleep, and dive." In addition to the two daily boat dives, occasional night dives, and unlimited shore diving, I was able to entertain myself and burn off calories by walking to the surrounding native villages, hiking to the local waterfall, or paddling about in one of the resorts fleet of (complimentary) ocean kayaks. Most evenings a group of local musicians entertain with guitars and Fijian singing, and every Thursday night there's an authentic demonstration of Fire Walking, which originated on Beqa Island. If you like, they'll even boat you over to the mainland for a round of golf at the Pacific Harbour Country Club.
Another major benefit is the fact that no additional airfare is required to reach the place, just a taxi from Nadi down the coast to Pacific Harbour. This saves money, and negates the potential problem of overweight baggage on domestic flights. If you are looking for a totally relaxing and romantic Fijian holiday, with great diving and a host of other diversions, I hope that you will consider Marlin Bay Resort...because you'll thank me later for the recommendation!
FIJIAN CULTURAL CENTER - On the afternoon that we departed Marlin Bay, we boated back to Pacific Harbour and then rode the one mile to the Fijian Cultural Center. This is a stop that I would recommend to anyone in the area. The cultural tour is in the form of a one-hour boat ride around a small island, with stops at various natural display areas for demonstrations of traditional Fijian life. Dressed as impressive Fijian warriors, the guides are exceedingly knowledgeable and well spoken and do a good job of conveying a feel for the lifestyle of the past, and its transition into the lives of present day Fijians. If you have the time, attend the daily dance exhibition as well.
AIRPORT HOTELS - There are many lodging choices available around Nadi airport, starting with the Toka Toka Hotel directly across the street from the terminal. In the moderately priced yet upscale range, your two best bets are the Fiji Mocambo and the Tanoa International. Both are attractive Fijian-style properties with lovely grounds and spacious rooms. They include shops, bars, restaurants, and all the amenities required by tourists or business travelers, for well under $100 per night. If you are looking for top of the line luxury, be advised that the Sheraton Hotel has now merged with the Regent Hotel Nadi, to make a huge, multi faceted (and expensive) lodging option now called the Royal Sheraton Hotel.
A GENERAL OVERVIEW OF FIJIAN DIVING - Fiji offers tropical island splendor and an appealing native culture, but what is a scuba diver to expect in Fijian waters? For starters, consider that Fiji advertises itself as "the Soft Coral Capitol of the World" for a very good reason. Reef cruisers, wide-angle photographers, and snorkelers will revel in the size, quality, and variety of colorful soft corals; and the hard corals that make up the reef structure are equally verdant. Keep in mind though, that these soft corals are so prosperous due to Fiji's substantial currents and tidal changes that bring sustenance to the reef. Fiji's population of tropical fishes is broad and beautiful, and invertebrates abound. I saw more unusual nudibranchs here than anywhere I can remember, though this may be due to Murphy's Law of underwater photography, because I carried the wide-angle Nikonos 15mm on most dives. We also saw our share of larger fish, barracuda, various jack, mackerel, tuna, and reef sharks. On a previous trip, our party saw migrating whales from the boat, and the possibility is always there to see manta rays or even a hammerhead.
Time of year plays a major factor in Fijian diving, as water temperature and visibility vary greatly with the seasons. Fiji is south of the equator, and thus the seasons are reversed from our own. The rainy season officially begins in December and ends in March. (January and February are traditionally the rainiest months.) The best time for dive tourism begins in mid April and runs through December. The water temperature in April can be in the low to mid eighties, and decreases as the year progresses. By November, the water can be down in the mid seventies. As a rule, visibility varies inversely with water temperature. In April, the warm water fosters plankton growth, somewhat reduced visibility, and more large pelagic activity, such as plankton feeding whales and mantas. Later in the year, as water temperature drops the visibility increases. So, after all this pedantry, when's the best time to go diving in Fiji? In my years of personal experience as a dive traveler, the absolute best time to go diving is "last week" or "next week," so go when you can sneak the money and the vacation time, stay wet, be sure to do your safety deco stops, and ENJOY!
FIJIAN BEER - While you will also find a few of the more popular Australian brands, like Four X and VB available, the ubiquitous Fijian brew is called Fiji Bitters. To feel like one of the cognoscenti when you order one, just call for a "Fiji Baby." They also offer a low calorie version called Fiji Gold, which tastes about the same; light. But Fiji Babies are cold and fun, and do a good job of quenching a divers' thirst at the end of a day of hot diving...or fire walking.
FIJIAN MUSIC - If you enjoy music and singing, you'll find special pleasures throughout Fiji. Every hotel, big or small, has a resident group of musicians who gather around the Kava bowl nightly to engage in an informal but very pleasant sing. The traditional Fijian songs, accompanied by guitars and sung in broad three and four part harmony, capture the spirit of the soft island breezes and swaying coconut palms. But due to the influx of international tourism, the Fijian performers have added many traditional and contemporary American songs to their repertoire. The result is an eclectic mix that can progress smoothly from Fijian tribal songs to an American spiritual, then segueing directly into an Eric Clapton tune. Don't hesitate to pull up a chair and sing along. In the way of musicians around the world, you'll soon be welcomed into the fold, and the guitar or kava shell passed your way with deference.
KAVA - Kava, the traditional Fijian drink, was once reserved only for the pleasure of village chieftains, but in recent generations is taken by all aspects of society. Westerners have individually described kava as tasting like dishwater, muddy swamp water, dirt, and other yet less appetizing analogies not to be printed here. An infusion of water and the squeezings of the pepper root, Kava is drunk in one complete swig from a half of a polished coconut shell. Some will tell you that the effects of Kava are limited to making your lips tingle. My personal experience with Kava began in Vanuatu, where it is brewed quite strong. From this I can assure you that Kava can also makes your toes, and everything in between, tingle. My mistake was trying to go shell to shell with an Aussie expat who has imbibed the potent stuff 4 or 5 times per week for the past 15 years (because it was cheaper than beer of course). I soon found myself in uncharted territory which peaked with a glorious out of body religious experience under the bright canopy of stars in the dark Vanuatu night, followed soon after by my bodies total rejection of the kava and a serious bout of the dry heaves. My Kava hangover lasted three days (but did not quite detain me from diving 150 feet to "the Lady" on the SS Coolidge the next morning). Fortunately, the kava in Fiji is concocted more subtly and is offered as a social gesture as much as an intoxicant. Don't be afraid to give it a try. If you're new to Kava, ask for "low tide," and you'll receive only half a shell full. The tradition in Fiji is to clap once before receiving the shell into your hands, drink it off in one draught, then clap three times to seal the experience. It's a pleasant ritual of bonding with the group. After partaking of a few shells, you'll be an old hand, and perhaps find that your musical abilities have improved immensely, and you can now sing along with the band, IN Fijian. Just clap your hands, say "Bula...vinaka vaka levu"...and Enjoy!
THE FIJIAN PEOPLE - Above all else, the greatest experience for me when traveling in Fiji is the pleasant interaction with the Fijian people. Whether a chance meeting on a village lane, or singing with newfound friends around the kava bowl, I have always felt a warm welcome. Those Fijians unspoiled by encroaching civilization are as friendly, open, and unassuming as any people you will find in the world today. Though living in what westerners would consider a primitive fashion, their environment provides all the sustenance they could hope for. Bananas hang from the trees, ripe for the picking, coconut palms are so prolific that you are advised not to stand beneath them. Taro and tapioca root grows wild along the waterways, as do papaya, mango, and many other edible fruits, plants, and vegetables. Finally, the ocean provides a food source of inestimable worth. Put simply...the Fijian people "have it made in the shade!" It's interesting to note that their outgoing, friendly demeanor only pales following excessive contact with "civilization." Drive through one of the larger towns and the astute traveler will soon note the marked difference in attitude. As I see it, Fijians living in their simple, traditional fashion, can be counted among the richest people in the world, with all the means of sustenance, beauty, and pleasure lying at their feet. They only become poor when they've viewed television and see "what they're missing." It will be most interesting to see if the traditional Fijian custom ways can survive in the 21st century.
MORE FIJI INFORMATION - There is an excellent one hour video available that provides an overview of the variety of dive resorts around Fiji. Produced by videographers Stuart and Susanne Cummings, it is available from Watermark Multimedia. Phone them at 561-289-6039 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Fiji Visitors Bureau is also an excellent source of information. They have an office in Los Angeles, which can be accessed via a toll free call to (800) 932-3454.
Beyond these resources, Island Dreams has dedicated color brochures for all of the hotels and resorts mentioned in this report. You are invited to call or e-mail for additional information, considered advice, or assistance with resort bookings and discount airfares. Enjoy Fiji....BULA!!
Copyright © Island Dreams, Kenneth D. Knezick