Fiji Holiday - December 2023

 

Like many other people, the Covid epidemic in 2020-2022 had significantly affected our opportunity to engage in overseas travel.  While preliminary plans and bookings were made to travel to India in late 2020 for our daughter Amy’s 50th birthday, these had to be aborted and instead Amy and partner John ended up having to be evacuated home to Brisbane to avoid the worst of the pandemic in their adopted hometown of Chennai (Madras).

Unfortunately, during epidemic Maria also incurred a series of unrelated medical conditions requiring quite extensive surgical interventions.  These in turn resulted in her reduced general mobility on account of back and leg pain and associated shortness of breath. These conditions therefore had to be considered in any future overseas holiday planning.  We had previously always championed independent relatively active adventure holidays, where the challenges of negotiating various modes of transport be it trains, ferries, motorbikes were the norm.  Similarly, we shied away from organised all-inclusive tours; preferring to negotiate ad hoc local guides when needs be.  In keeping with these parameters was the general acceptance of good Three-star accommodation.  Maria’s limitations post 2022 therefore would require a radical departure for future holidays and these needed to be thoroughly assessed. We were advised by assorted family and friends that Fiji would be the easiest for a short-term trial holiday to negotiate in terms of interest, internal travel requirements and price.

We booked our Fiji holiday mid-year selecting the Xmas-New Year period as being the most suitable as daughter and son had both made alternate arrangements for their own respective Xmas holidays.

Our knowledge of the cultural and political history of Fiji was embarrassingly scant before departure and so I was grateful for some background notes on this prepared by the Fiji authorities; viz:

History

According to Fijian legend, the great chief Lutunasobasoba led his people across the seas to the new land of Fiji. Most authorities agree that people came into the Pacific from Southeast Asia via the Malay Peninsula. Here the Melanesians and the Polynesians mixed to create a highly developed society long before the arrival of the Europeans.
 

The European discoveries of the Fiji group were accidental. The first of these discoveries was made in 1643 by the Dutch explorer, Abel Tasman and English navigators, including Captain James Cook who sailed through in 1774, and made further explorations in the 18th century.
 

Major credit for the discovery and recording of the islands went to Captain William Bligh who sailed through Fiji after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.
The first Europeans to land and live among the Fijians were shipwrecked sailors and runaway convicts from the Australian penal settlements. Sandalwood traders and missionaries came by the mid-19th century.
 

Cannibalism practiced in Fiji at that time quickly disappeared as missionaries gained influence. When Ratu Seru Cakobau accepted Christianity in 1854, the rest of the country soon followed and tribal warfare came to an end.
 

From 1879 to 1916 Indians came as indentured labourers to work on the sugar plantations. After the indentured system was abolished, many stayed on as independent farmers and businessmen. Today they comprise 43.6 per cent of the population.
 

Culture
 

Fiji was first settled about three and a half thousand years ago. The original inhabitants are now called "Lapita people" after a distinctive type of fine pottery they produced, remnants of which have been found in practically all the islands of the Pacific, east of New Guinea, though not in eastern Polynesia. Linguistic evidence suggests that they came from northern or central Vanuatu, or possibly the eastern Solomons.
 

Before long they had moved further on, colonizing Rotuma to the north, and Tonga and Samoa to the east. From there, vast distances were crossed to complete the settlement of the Pacific to Hawaii in the north, Rapanui (Easter Island) in the east and Aotearoa (New Zealand) in the south.
 

Unlike the islands of Polynesia which showed a continuous steadily evolving culture from initial occupation, Fiji appears to have undergone at least two periods of rapid culture change in prehistoric times.
 

This may have been due to the arrival of fresh waves of immigrants, presumably from the west. Prehistorians have noted that a massive 12th century volcanic eruption in southern Vanuatu coincides with the disappearance there of a certain pottery style, and its sudden emergence in Fiji.
 

It is hardly surprising then, that the Fijian culture is an intricate network and that generalisations are fraught with danger. Although the legendary king of Bau, Naulivou, and his successors had control over a large area of eastern Fiji, at no time before colonialisation was Fiji a political unity. Nevertheless, Fiji does exhibit certain traits that sets it apart from its neighbours, and it is this that defines a distinctive Fijian culture.
 

Europeans
 

Fijians first impressed themselves on European consciousness through the writings of the members of the expeditions of Cook who met them in Tonga. They were described as formidable warriors and ferocious cannibals, builders of the finest vessels in the Pacific, but not great sailors.
 

They inspired awe among the Tongans, and all their manufactures, especially bark-cloth and clubs, were highly esteemed and much in demand. They called their home Viti, but the Tongans called it Fisi, and it is by this foreign pronunciation, Fiji, first promulgated by Cook, that these islands are now known.
 

After the explorers, other Europeans followed. For over half a century, Fijian culture enjoyed what has been called its ‘golden age’, as tools and weapons brought by traders were turned by resourceful chiefs to their own advantage. Canoes and houses were built, confederations formed, and wars fought on a grand scale without precedent. Gradually and inevitably, however, the Fijian way of life was changing. As Christianity spread in the islands, wars ceased abruptly, and western clothing was adopted.
 

After Fiji was ceded to Great Britain in 1874, epidemics nearly wiped out the population and it seemed as if the natives were doomed. But the colonial government took the Fijians side.  Land sales were forbidden, health campaigns implemented, and the population picked up again. Theirs was not, of course, the culture of the heathen ‘golden age’, but one modified by the new religion and increasingly the new economic order. Yet in today’s Fiji, independent since 1970, a surprising amount has survived.
 

20th Century
 

The 20th century brought about important economic changes in Fiji as well as the maturation of its political system. Fiji developed a major sugar industry and established productive copra milling, tourism and secondary industries. As the country now diversifies into small-scale industries, the economy is strengthened and revenues provide for expanded public works, infrastructure, health, medical services and education.
 

The country’s central position in the region has been strengthened by recent developments in sea and air communications and transport. Today, Fiji plays a major role in regional affairs and is recognized as the focal point of the South Pacific.  Fiji is now home to many other races — Indians, Part Europeans, Chinese and other Pacific islanders living in harmony, and keeping their own cultures and identity. Fijians, slightly over 50 per cent of the total population, are essentially members of communities. They live in villages and do things on a communal basis.
 

The Indians have also regarded Fiji as their home. Most of them are descendants of labourers brought to the country from India to work in the sugar plantations about 100 years ago under the indentured labour system.  Although they were offered passages back in to India after their term, most preferred to stay. And through the years they have continued to work the land, becoming prominent in agriculture and also commerce. There has been some intermarriage, but this has been minimal.  However, Indians living in the rural areas have adapted well, some even speaking the local dialect and mixing well with the Fijians. As a country, Fiji is rural based with about 60 per cent of the population living in the rural areas.
 

Religion
 

A multi-racial, multi-cultural nation, Fiji is represented by all the major religions of the world. This is quickly obvious to the visitor who will see Christian churches, Mosques, Sikh and Hindu temples in towns and the countryside. More than half of Fiji’s population are Christians (52.9%), Hindus (38.1%), Muslim (7.8%), Sikhs (0.7%), Others (0.5%).
 

Race Relations
 

Race relations in Fiji are generally harmonious. The Compact provision in the Constitution requires that full account are to be taken of the interests of all communities. It is unlawful to discriminate on the grounds of colour, race or ethnic origins and it is an offence to incite racial disharmony.
 

Language
 

English is the lingua franca, but Fijian and Hindi are also taught in schools as part of the school curriculum. Indigenous Fijians have their own dialects and you can tell where one comes from, from their dialect. Indians too have their own, and generally speak a distinctive Fiji-Hindi dialect. This is not the same as the one spoken in India.

 

The choice of accommodation facing travelers to Fiji is enormous.  At the top 5 Star end you have a collection of resorts (Sheraton, Sofitel, Radisson, Hilton, The Westin et al) on Denarau Island – an island created out of drained mangrove swamps in the early 2000s after “The Coup” by a consortium of overseas investors (? US, Japanese & Australian) which are designed around manicured golf courses and tennis courts.  Then you have a mixed array of 4-5 Star more sensitively designed resorts along the southern Coral Coast which tend to incorporate the local topography and lush vegetation.  Then there other 3–4-star options scattered around the towns of Nadi, Suva and Lautoka.  The myriad of offshore coral islands also hosts an array of resorts, each specialising in diving and other water sports, romantic get-a-ways – many of these are restricted to ‘Adult Only'.  It is important to note that most of these resorts are intentionally marketed as “all inclusive” meaning that the residents are expected to stay in the resort for all of their dining as well as use the in-house activities and the tours they offer.  Given that most resorts are geographically dispersed from each other and from local towns makes one stay a little monotonous and restrictive; unless one also incorporates a couple of nights away on an island resort to get the opportunity to experience different restaurant menus and activities with a different set of people.

We chose to stay in the 3 Star First Landing Beach & Villa Resort a 20minutes drive north of Nadi on the way to Lautoka. Our resort prided itself on its close relationship with the surrounding indigenous villages and was no doubt a welcome employer of local indigenous residents.  The resort also has historical cred being the place where the original indigenous inhabitants first landed to settle Viti Levu - the principal island of Fiji, some 3500 years ago.

The resort caters primarily to an older demographic (including many annual regulars) and to families ie no hipsters or influencers here.  However, it offered all the basic services of a rather plain restaurant menu, lots of fluffy cocktails and Buckets of beers from the bar, snorkeling, canoeing and fishing activities plus the pleasant cultural song and dance performances, in the evening. 

The beach at First Landing Resort (at low tide)

The accommodation offered is primarily in Bures or bungalows which all retain a classic colonial appearance with high vaulted ceilings and the use of lots of exposed wooden beams and wooden plantation shutters.  Nevertheless, the buildings are all showing their age and look a little tired.  The indigenous staff on the other hand could not have been more pleasant or helpful and never tired of extending the traditional ‘Bula’ greeting to us.  I should also note here that my old school chum the then Prince Charles stayed here during his royal visit back in 2003.

 

During our time here we noticed several large families of Indians holidaying here – now some were locals from different regions of Fiji while others were from Australia, India, Canada, US, Malaysia ie anywhere where there existed a large Indian Diaspora.  They probably felt more comfortable in our own indigenous run resort rather than in one of the overseas chain resorts full of western tourists.

Our resort gives the appearance of having been located in the midst of a tropical  botanic garden with grounds overflowing with hibiscus, musseandas, bougainvillea’s, gingers, cordylines, crotons, ixoras, orchids,  coconut palms, philodendrons but even more magnificent are the giant flowering Poinciana's and golden flame trees dotted throughout.  The gardens are meticulously maintained by a bevy of staff throughout the day.  These plants are well known to us after our years in Darwin and Qld.  However, no tour around the island failed to spend considerable time describing and pointing them out to us.  We in turn took the cheek of pointing out to them the occasional Jack Fruit, Breadfruit, Pineapple, Guava trees in amongst the fields of sugar cane being grown along the roadside.  No doubt tourists from more temperate climes would have been more appreciative of this repeated information.

Early on in our trip we took a taxi trip over to Fiji’s second largest city Lautoka just to get a feel of the ‘urban throb’.  This is a commercial port city with large docks and associated marine engineering and other heavy industry in evidence.  The traffic was just short of the mayhem one experienced in India with lots honking by drivers of second-hand dented and scraped vehicles (Toyotas are routinely imported second hand from Japan)

While we were there a gigantic ‘love boat’ Princess something or other had been forced to dock here as the more salubrious ports were each hosting other cruise liners.  Hence the town was flooded with these swarms of strangers all speaking German or with a distinctive US Florida drawl.  Worse was to come when we discovered that our own private resort had invited a number of these hombres to swarm into our own space to use the swimming pool, bar, and dining facilities.

Maria with her own 'fluffy' drink

All over Fiji, Indian Minor birds are in plague numbers, so much so that they have driven away or killed most of the native species.  These birds together with the cane toads all over the grounds at night are a man-made curse. Although many of Fiji’s islands continued existence are threatened by rising sea levels, we never heard any mention of climate change during our stay despite the strong stance being taken on this issue by Fiji’s Prime Minister at recent international climate forums.  The emotive picture below is displayed locally to demonstrate the impact of rising sea levels which shows a village chief with his grandson standing in the sea where once he had stood on dry land.

Any drive along the Queens Highway (which circumnavigates Viti Levu - the main island of Fiji) one will encounter frequent substantial speed bumps along the way.  These are not only intended to control speeding motorists (max 80kph) but more importantly to preserve the safety of villagers.  Indigenous Fijians retain a very strong life-long attachment to the village of their birth as well to the village of their wife’s birth.  No matter what their occupation or where they pursue it, they retain land ownership and responsibilities for it for life.  Hence the recognition and priority given to village life over the commercial interests of general road users – can be a little frustrating to say the least! However, the locals don’t seem to mind as it complements their self-deprecating reference to just another example of ‘Fiji time’.  We also discovered that the use of (more expensive) private hire cars rather than everyday taxis will provide a much more informed source of information about places being visited.  They were simply more accustomed to dealing with tourist questions.

If the indigenous inhabitants own most of all the land, the families of the former indentured Indians (brought over in the late 19th Century by the British to work their sugar cane plantations) monopolise the commerce of the nation.  This includes all small retail businesses, larger commercial shopping centre developments, taxis, and most importantly they lease land off indigenous chiefs to establish and manage the nation’s biggest export earner after tourism – sugar cane.   

I heard it said that many Indians, after successfully working in Fiji apply to emigrate to countries such as Canada and Australia to enhance the educational and career opportunities of their children – but a lot obviously remain.  Despite this economic disparity between the two ethnic groups, we heard no mention of any socio political tension between the two groups…..nevertheless the country did experience that coup in 2000 when the hard line indigenous leaders with the Army’s backing successfully assumed control of the country by over throwing the elected Indo Fijian Prime Minister (Mahendra Chaudhry) from office.  A most politically incorrect but amusing local clarification of Indo-Fijians is to refer to them as being ‘those wearing a dot rather than a feather’.....sshh! 

So, what did we do in Fiji?  We tried lazing poolside – cabanas not very comfortable when trying to read and one had to pick your time when it was not full of noisy kids. 

The bar was popular during the 5-7 Happy Hour.  We of course undertook a couple of tours.  The initial one to the lush botanical expanse of the Gardens of The Sleeping Giant and Mud Pool was a bit of a fizzer.  We took ourselves into Denarau Island to enable us to dine at a well-known seafood restaurant the Bonefish which turned out to be most pleasant and we lashed out and bought our first crayfish meal in probably 30 years.

Crayfish at Bonefish

There is an Indian owned department store called Jacks which offers up market tourist clothing and souvenir handicrafts.  They have branches in all towns, and we shopped there a couple of times. While we did buy a hand-printed tablecloth in a village shop – they simply do not have the range of Jacks – a pity!  This also applied to the small souvenir shop in our own resort.  We also booked a day’s sailing to nearby Tivua Island for a day of snorkeling and swimming.  However, we soon discovered that Maria’s balance was unable to manage the undulating coarse coral sand beaches.  However, she was able to swim in the shallow waters around.  Broken bits of reef are scattered right up to the high-water mark and make it a little hard to negotiate without reef shoes (Maria wisely had some).

Tivua Island

Maria takes a dip.

Disorientated Beachcomber

We were taken out in a glass bottom boat to view the existing corals as well as some they had recently planted back on the sea floor.  Most of these corals are brown with little colour and few fish in evidence – our own Barrier Reef kills it.  The promised ‘Fijian BBQ Lunch’ was the usual offering – mixed salads, boiled cassava, Taro, curried Masala chicken with plenty of bone shards, Mackerel fillets cooked in coconut Miti sauce, claggy steamed rice and pawpaw, watermelon, pineapple segments.  Now this BBQ offering was presented to us on several different occasions and varied little – nothing to yell about.  The most disappointing aspect of this cruise was the absence of the advertised Tall Ship on which it was to be based.  Instead, we were crammed onto a 150seat aluminum motorised catamaran – too many had booked the tour we were told (cost us close to A$360 for two of us).

The Catamaran we went on and the sailing lugger as per the brochure.

We did another day long (14hour) tour to experience a canoe trip up and over rapids on the Navua River to a rather spectacular waterfall at the base of which one could swim. 

After the swim one could elect to return downstream on a bamboo raft.  Now on the trip up I suffered quite bad cramps in my legs and so decided to forego the swim but did the ½ km walk up to the falls.  Now Maria felt that the rough and tumble of shooting the rapids upset her sense of balance and so sat out the 1km trek to the falls until I returned….

Warning no further rides in cramped canoes for me and no undulating walks on soft coral beaches for Maria.

 

After the river adventure we were returned to a traditional indigenous village for a traditional Kava ceremony, some dancing and singing.  We were then offered yes you guessed it another ‘Fijian BBQ Lunch’.  After lunch we were shown some Pandanus palm leaf weaving, coconut husk splitting, nut cracking etc then some Tapa cloth design.  Tapa Cloth is made by repeated hammering of the bark of the Mulberry Tree and is quite expensive to purchase. (The 2mx2m Tapa cloth bought home by my father back in the 1930s and now displayed in daughter Amy's house would be very valuable by comparison).  Many of these indigenous skills are performed nightly in our own Resort.   It was interesting that the tour guide at this village repeated an oft quoted remark that everyone in Fiji was most grateful for the return of tourists whose contribution to the future development of the economy post Covid was truly appreciated.

Uncovering the Lovo (aka Hangi) for lunch

Formal Kava Ceremony

Village Ladies

When it was time to return to our coaster bus, we found all the villages toilets were blocked.  Now during the day Maria had developed a pain in her gut which after 4hours in the bus required an emergency toilet stop.  This latter tour had involved us in a 0600hr pick up as our resort was furthest away and so of course we were the last to be dropped off – a little after 1945hrs – a very long day which resulted in us missing happy hour but also deciding to forego dinner……instead we had a couple Bombay Sapphire Gins with Campari and Tonic – we’ve almost finished our Duty-Free haul.

I have previously mentioned that our resort’s menu was uninspiring.  However, there were two splendid standouts; the first was a whole Coral Trout baked in banana leaves with Fiji's signature Miti sauce which combines coconut cream with red onion, lemon or lime juice, tomato, chilli, ginger, and salt.  It’s a tangy, biting, creamy combination of flavours that pairs well with all kinds of Fijian dishes.  This same sauce is used in the Fijian Kokoda raw fish salad.

The second meal involved a magnificent 300g Beef Scotch fillet imported from New Zealand or Australia (somewhere) cooked to perfection on a hidden charcoal grill.  I even went to the trouble of interviewing the chef prior to ordering to ensure he shared my thoughts as to how it should be cooked (rare) – it was beautiful especially accompanied by a bottle of Yalumba Cabernet Sauvignon (the best bottle they had).  After the meal Chef came out and I didn’t hesitate to congratulate him “on a job bloody well done!”.

On Xmas morning, during breakfast, the resort arranged for a local village church choir to serenade us with some special hymns.  The choir was composed of about 30 men and women of middle age who sang in 4-bit harmony several traditional Christmas hymns – very moving indeed.  This event reflected the deeply held religious beliefs held by most of the population – there are Christian churches of all denominations (especially Methodist) scattered within most villages and all over the towns.  In addition, there are several impressive Mosques located in all the major towns plus a couple of Hindu temples – but it is the abundance of churches which really catches your eye.

There are plenty of billboards and advertisements on public buses exhorting the community to ‘love Jesus’ and to obey the teachings of the lord as well as roadside signs offering ‘Free Bible Lessons’.

We booked into the resort’s gala Xmas dinner for $60 per head. ,This turned out to be a rather stodgy affair of ‘lovo’ meats (pork and chicken) cooked in the ground, roast turkey, fresh water prawns, local chilli clams, baked whole fish in banana leaf,  cassava/sweet potato mash, roasted root vegetables , lamb curry ………while the menu looked impressive its delivery via a row of bain-marie resulted in it being served only warm and mostly grossly overcooked- but what do you expect trying to serve 150 guests at once  .We had received prior approval to bring a bottle of duty free champagne to the table  which helped digest the meal a lot. After the meal we were entertained by a group of village warriors performing a series of traditional dances – not bad if not a little scary.

 

 

Xmas Buffet

 

 

 

 

 

Our regular entertainment

We later backed up for the resort’s New Years Eve buffet dinner and this was a far superior affair (for the same price of roughly A$68/hd) but which included 4 hours of cultural entertainment from warrior dancers, Polynesian dancers from Kiribati performing some incredibly sensuous hip and buttock gyrations and later some performers dancing with fire sticks.  Polished off our last duty-free bubbles on the stroke of midnight and watched some fireworks over the beach.  We were also able to at last try a little Kava - 3 cups of a presumably much diluted brew did nothing for me.

Informal NYE Kava Party

Dancers with Fire Sticks

 

Happy New Years

By staying in and around our own resort we became quite friendly with a lot of the staff, and they genuinely went out of their way to offer us assistance whenever it was required.  As indicated earlier, we have readily booked into 3-star accommodation and put up with its occasional dodgy plumbing, missing tiles, tiny bar fridge, sparse furniture, lack of suitable lighting and a desk and these were all evidenced at this resort. 

However, there were a couple of additional brickbats about our resort’s Ocean View Spa Bure which cannot be ignored viz:  the king-sized bed was really only two single beds pushed together and most uncomfortable and the other was the toilet which was designed for use by children and not for adults with stiff backs and long legs which had to be propped under one’s chin when using these miniature ablutes. 

The more general reservations I have of this and probably most other resorts in Fiji and the rest of Polynesia, is their general geographic isolation and lack of inter-action with the local community. In particular, I object to their all-inclusive nature of operations.  I do not value a holiday “trapped” in one location and only able to experience a single dining venue. However, this would not be of such concern to younger, fitter holiday makers who would utilise the facilities and activity options far more than we did. 

Hiring a private tour guide and car would overcome a lot of the issues.  However, we paid for such an arrangement and a full day, and it cost us A$285 - this was ‘mates rates’ for a friend of the Bar Manager who was not an experienced tourist guide.  By not being able to identify an experienced local guide with car we did not feel as though we had got an’ informed feel’ for Fiji.  However, we quickly appreciated that Fiji while being a most hospitable place, was not as cheap as a lot of SE Asian countries. 

Now, I dare say many visitors come to Fiji expressly for the familiar feel-good environment and whose priority is to 'just relax' poolside, engage in underwater snorkeling or diving or simply play golf.   Maria and I do not share this holiday concept and will not be doing it again. 

Amen!

 

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