The original Blue Lagoon

the Blue Lagoon image  fiji-princess loungeTucked up in the bar of a little cruise boat in the Blue Lagoon area of Fiji’s Yasawa Islands, a few dozen passengers – and a handful of Fijian crew – are watching the movie Blue Lagoon.

It’s an odd experience to watch the young Brooke Shields discovering herself, and the boy actor whose name no-one can remember, whilst anchored in the location the movie was filmed.

A few hours ago it was us, the passengers aboard Fiji Princess, lolling in the crystal waters and frolicking on the white sands of the Blue Lagoon. (Well, perhaps not. The beach scenes in the 1980 movie were shot in several locations, not all of them in Fiji. But why ruin a good story?)Sea and rock formations, Sawa-i-Lau Island, Blue Lagoon

The previous day Fiji Princess had been moored at an island called Nanuya Lailai, also known as Blue Lagoon Island because this too was a location for parts of the movie. The beach here is possibly the perfect tropical island dream beach. Pristine sand and sea. Swaying palms. Tropical fish and coral an easy snorkel from shore. Deep water at all tides beckoning novice paddle-boarders and kayakers. And the whole scene enhanced by a crew member serving cocktails from a pop-up beach bar.

Our 55-metre catamaran theatrically ties up to a palm tree at Blue Lagoon Island, and we spend a day and a night in paradise. (Of course, the stern rope tied to the coconut palm is supported by a hefty man-made mooring holding the other end of the boat. But again, why ruin the story?) The beach is only a boat’s length away, so swimming ashore is an option.image

From the Captain down, the whole crew of Fiji Princess is Fijian. They are masters of multi-tasking. For example, Aggie the masseuse doubles as pastry chef. In between getting top marks from her clients for health-restoring massages, she turns out Fijian pancakes and tropical cupcakes for afternoon tea. And the man in grey overalls who spends his days in the engine room is the best vocalist aboard – in a nation where everyone is a good singer. He leads the entertainment in the evening.

The crew are always ready with witticisms to gee-up the passengers.

“The more you smile, the better the weather,” the boat-handlers assure us. And in the dining room it’s “The more you eat, the better you float”.

Floating in fresh water is rare in the Yasawas, but we do it at the Sawa-i-Lau caves, considered the heart of ‘blue lagoon territory’ in the northern Yasawas. Sawa-i-Lau Island is a limestone outcrop with steep hillocks and sheer bluffs, a novelty in the otherwise volcanic archipelago. Inside one rock outcrop are the caves, reached by steps up and stairways down. Within the caves are freshwater pools, lit by natural skylights. From the first little lake, it is possible to swim underwater, below a rock ledge, and surface in a second one.Sawa-i-Lau Caves

Sawa-i-Lau Island was the prime location for the original Blue Lagoon movie, starring Jean Simmons, filmed here in 1948. Its sculptural limestone rocks feature in both films. On some days, in different light, the Blue Lagoon might just as easily have been named the Green Lagoon, or the Turquoise Lagoon. In any hue, it is extraordinarily beautiful.

 

 

The Fiji Princess carries a maximum 68 passengers and is the only vessel operated by a company called, of course, Blue Lagoon Cruises. The history of Blue Lagoon Cruises is itself the stuff of movies. A young New Zealand stockbroker, Captain Trevor Withers, ‘went troppo’ here in the 1940s. He set up a fishing business which failed, then founded the cruise company in 1950, with a partner who went on to establish Fiji Airways. The only passengers Captain Withers attracted to his first sailings were Yasawa islanders getting a free ride home. The first person to buy a ticket was an American colonel, but he had to be returned to shore when he became stuck to wet paint on a newly spruced up toilet seat.

Blue Lagoon eventually prospered to the point of running three cruise boats at its peak. Today, new owners are hoping the refurbished Fiji Princess will attract enough business to allow a second sship, the retired Mystique Princess, to be brought back into service.

The beach at Nanuya Lailai and the caves at Sawa-i-Lau are two highlights of the cruise, but there are more, including swimming with manta rays, sunset over the Sacred Islands, and a visit to the school at Naviti Island.

 

*Blue Lagoon Cruises offers three, four and seven night trips, ranging in price from NZ$1,300 per person in a double room, to NZ$3,900 per person in a double room

*Meals and most activities are included, scuba diving and alcoholic drinks are extra

*Family cruises are available on selected dates, other sailings are adults-only. Whole-of-boat charters are suited to weddings, birthday parties, and corporate events.

* Tourists will find a donation to Vinaka Fiji added to their bills on the Fiji Princess (NZ$100 per cabin on a 7-night cruise). This is voluntary and can be reduced or removed. Vinaka Fiji is a charitable trust improving basic amenities in villages in the Yasawas. The islands were isolated until 2002 when the Fijian Flyer ferry service began, and the 27 villages on different islands remain impoverished. Lack of clean drinking water is a major issue, along with poor health, inadequate education, and no jobs. Vinaka Fiji also runs a volunteer programme where visitors pay to live in resort or backpacker accommodation and help in villages daily. www.vinakafiji.org.fj

*Unless you have unusually poor sea-legs, sea sickness shouldn’t be an issue. The captain often deviates from the itinerary to seek out sheltered anchorages, and sailings are never longer than four hours.

*Take Fijian cash for shopping at village markets. There are no banks or ATMs in the Yasawas

* Pack a smile, and perhaps your ukulele, you need little else.

Aboard Fiji Princess – Blue Lagoon Cruises

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The best way to experience the Yasawa Islands of Fiji?  The repeat travellers on Fiji Princess think so. Several are on their third or fourth trips. What’s not to like about tying up to a palm tree on a private island and spending the day snorkelling, paddle boarding and kayaking?

Back from Paradise : Yasawas, Fiji

a busy day

If you wanted to design the perfect Pacific island, would you put a white  sandy beach lapped by crystal clear water along the sheltered side?  Make the other side a rocky coastline for fishing and diving? A little beach with a pristine reef for snorkelling at one end of the island, and a surf break at the other end?  Naukacuvu Island, home of Paradise Cove resort, ticks all those boxes.  How about a river with a sparkling waterfall in the middle? Aha … you tripped up there God.  But apart from the lack of fresh water, Naukacuvu is about as idyllic as you can imagine.  To add a bit of spice to the story, there is a criminal past, a tale of international crime.  Apparently the Italian mafia held the lease to the island during the 1980s and 90s.  They were building a hotel, had put in roads and planted gardens, and had plans for a big casino.  But then the law – or was it a Mafia hitman? – caught up with them.  The money was apparently the proceeds of crime, it was “dirty money” as one of the locals explained, and either Italian law enforcement, or another branch of the criminal fraternity, came knocking. Whichever, the developers abandoned the island and their part-finished hotel, never to be seen again.

Today all that’s left is the nickname Mafia Island, and a concreted-up building which was part of the hotel.

All that's left of the Mafia hotel

All that’s left of the Mafia hotel

The new Paradise Cove resort on Naukacuvu Island (part of the Naviti group of the Yasawa Islands of Fiji) has 18 bures, a restaurant, bar and swimming pool, and water activities including stand-up paddle boards, kayaks, snorkelling and fishing trips. The resort owners also own Blue Lagoon Resort and Octopus Island Resort in the Yasawas. They plan to double the amount of accommodation in the next year or so, and add a Japanese restaurant.
The Pros: There are many.  The rooms are luxurious, the outside bathroom a pleasant novelty, the food is very, very good compared to other island resorts. The staff are lovely. Most of them are in fact owners of the island. They come from Soso village on a neighbouring island a 40 minute boat ride away.bed

bathroom ceiling

The photograph above is looking up into the spectacular ceiling of our bure.

The Cons: Not many at all! Perhaps we could have some bacon at breakfast? (For some reason there are lamb sausages, chicken sausages, ham in the omelettes, hash cakes and baked beans, but no bacon to go with the excellent personally-cooked eggs from the egg station.) Perhaps the cocktails could have a little more kick? Oh, and we did have a rat in our room one night. This is rare. Apparently the staff quarters have many, but the guest bures are seldom visited by ratty vermin. It was almost worth it to be visited by the Paradise Cove rat-catcher. He carries a dinner plate smothered in glue, with a piece of coconut in the middle. The rat heads for the coconut, gets stuck in the glue and is carried off to meet his fate faraway. “He will die tonight”, the rat man promised with a huge grin.

Getting There: Now, this is the tricky bit. There are three options: float plane, the big Yasawa Flyer ferry operated by Awesome Adventures, and the Paradise Cove/Octopus ‘Magic’ boat. If you can afford it, fly. We travelled one way with Pacific Island Float Planes (the resort will do the booking), and returned by ‘Magic’ boat. Both options were chosen so we did not have to overnight in Nadi.  Flying in, landing on the sea in front of the resort is perfect – but it cost around NZD1000 for our group of five adults and two children. By boat is much cheaper, but it’s a two hour trip on the resort boat (a seven-metre aluminium launch with big twin outboards) and the sea can sometimes be rough. The Flyer is comfortable, but it takes time as it goes around all the island resorts and most people flying in from Australia or New Zealand have to overnight in Nadi on either side of their island holiday.

Personally (if my budget did not stretch to flying to and from Nadi to the resort), I would take the Magic boat and put up with a few bumps. Unless I had pre-school children, in which case I would take the Flyer. (Holding babies and toddlers on the bench seats of the fast-moving Magic in a swell for two hours is quite challenging.)

That’s all. See you there next year!

Beautiful Paradise Cove, Fiji

Your typical Tropical Paradise. White sand, clear water, palm trees, snorkelling, fresh fish. It’s idyllic, no doubt about it. But there’s a dark history here. The island is also known as Mafia Island. The Italian underworld had big plans for a casino here, until the law caught up with them.  Of which, more later.  Pamrovia rests.

Your typical tropical paradise, about as good as it gets.

Your typical tropical paradise, about as good as it gets.

pamrovia rests

Fiji versus Rarotonga

Fiji versus RarotongaBeen to Raro this winter?  Pamrovia has, and we highly recommend Cooks Beach Villas for a family holiday with pre-schoolers. (View from our deck.) Self-catering with a supermarket across the road, two bedrooms, clean and comfortable, a swimmable beach with not too much coral underfoot (though do take your reef shoes), swimming pool (a bit chilly after the warmth of the sea) and free glass-bottom kayaks. Cost: NZ$400 per night.

And we are about to test a brand new resort in the Yasawa Islands. Paradise Cove opened in July, and the Pamrovian whanau has two beachfront villas for a week, all meals included. Resort versus self-catering? Child-friendly versus adults-only? Watch this space! (This is all Honest Travel – no discounts asked for or taken.)

Speaking of Fiji, here’s a story about a trip to back-country caves published earlier this year.  SONY DSC  cave safari vehicle

Delving into cannibalism

Pam Neville leaves the resort and heads to the hills on a Fijian cave safari.

 Cannibalism is on the menu throughout this excursion into the wild jungle outback of Fiji. Apparently the locals have given up eating people – since yesterday – but that courtesy is not necessarily extended to New Zealanders.

Two young guides, bubbling with more than their share of the teasing, in-your-face Fijian sense of humour, can’t resist ribbing the Kiwis. It’s all to do with rugby rivalry. Deep inside an eerie cave with a grisly history, they show off a “cannibal oven” under limestone rocks. Just the right size for roasting Richie McCaw, they reckon.

There are cannibal jokes, cannibal recipes, and cannibal history from the times when Fijians did in fact eat one other. The practice continued well into the 1800s and Fiji became known as the Cannibal Islands. In London earlier this year, a set of Fijian cannibal forks sold at auction for 30,000 pounds ($54,000).

 But on this bumpy four-wheel-drive trip, the history is mixed up with the humour, and as the guides admit – a certain amount of “bula-sh**”. The only reason Japan invaded the Solomon Islands rather than Fiji in 1942, we are told, is that the invaders had heard that Fiji was full of cannibals and they were particularly keen on eating Japanese.

We are a couple of hours drive inland from Sigatoka, one of Fiji’s bigger towns and capital of the Coral Coast.  This is Rugby Town: home to the country’s most fanatical rugby supporters, the top provincial team, and a host of top players. Former All Black Joe Rococoko, current NZ Sevens player Waisake Naholo, and Australian union and league star Lote Tuqiri are from this area.

The welcome sign at the entrance to Sigatoka could say ‘welcome to the Coral Coast’, ‘welcome to the salad bowl of Fiji’ (most of the country’s vegetables come from the Sigatoka Valley’, ‘welcome to Sigatoka river adventures”, or ‘welcome to some of the best resorts on Viti Levu’. Instead, the sign proclaims ‘Welcome to Rugby Town’.

The closest 5-star resort to Sigatoka, the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort, sponsors the local rugby team, The Stallions.

“The most successful and greatest provincial rugby team in Fiji rugby history”, the team calls itself.

An eye-opening Saturday can be spent watching a match in Sigatoka, or better still watching the spectators. The Outrigger on the Lagoon takes guests at the resort to a roped-off sponsors area during the April-October rugby season. It’s a favourite out-of-the-resort tourist activity.

Everyone talks rugby – man, woman, child, Fijian, Indian, tourist – so no wonder it’s on the minds of our guides as we tour the Naihehe Cave. This is an immense network of limestone caverns and formations deep under a marble mountain. Sculptured human-like formations of ‘cannibal man’ and ‘cannibal woman’ are particularly stunning. Access is through a narrow crevice. We crouch and bend nearly double, then walk crab-like in a stream of water gripping a bamboo pole laid on the ground. No built-in lights or hand-rails here. We wear small head torches, and grip strong Fijian arms to get over slippery rocks.

The difficult access made this cave a haven for the local tribe escaping a rival cannibal tribe around 200 years ago. The village population survived deep in the caves (where only they knew the location of air vents and crevices for smuggling in food) for months. The slit-like entrance in a creek bed, which tourists now squeeze through, meant cave residents could easily club to death any rival warrior who came looking for them. A tasty addition to their vegetable diet, the guides say, “No bula-sh**”.


And speaking of Raro, let me introduce you to one of the island’s characters. Copy of trader jackHere’s a story I wrote a couple of years ago about Jack Cooper, the owner of Rarotonga’s most famous watering hole, Trader Jacks. His new restaurant is now up and running. (No freebies taken, though it’s possible Jack shouted me a shandy.)

Copy of trader jacks

A Tiger for Punishment

The famous Trader Jacks of Rarotonga is soon to have a sister restaurant serving Asian food, reports Pam Neville

“Another foolish venture” says the sign advertising the opening of Bamboo Jacks. It hangs proudly behind the bar at Trader Jacks on the waterfront at Avarua, Rarotonga’s main town, but the irony is difficult to fathom given that Trader Jacks is a bustling, successful-looking joint, crammed with tourists stuffing themselves with fish fresh from the Pacific and cold local beer.

But then you meet Jack Cooper, Trader Jack himself, and the words make more sense. Jack Cooper tells how Trader Jacks has been wiped out by cyclones three times since it opened in 1986. After the first time, insurance companies declined to do business with the restaurant, so when Cyclone Meena annihilated the building in 2005 the million-dollar rebuild was financed solely out of the pocket of the uninsurable owner.

Plenty of people had told kiwi Cooper, not long off the boat from New Zealand, that his waterfront restaurant would not withstand cyclones but “like a foolish white man” he went ahead and built it because he believed tourists wanted to watch the sea and the sunset while they ate. With the same “foolish” spirit he rebuilt, twice, and after Meena did her worst in 2005 he moved a six-metre shipping container to the site. By cutting holes in the metal walls, adding a bar and kitchen, and dumping a few truckloads of sand around, Jack was back.

Jack in a Box became another famous, if short-lived, Rarotongan watering hole, keeping the customers happy and the cash flowing. When the new Trader Jacks building on the wharf was finished, Jack in a Box was moved to the outlying island of Aitutaki where it serves the local big game fishing club.

Time will tell whether this latest venture, Bamboo Jacks, is as foolish as the advertising proclaims. In reality it is probably more a canny business plan than a foolish venture. If a cyclone destroys Trader Jacks a fourth time, customers can be directed down the road to Bamboo Jacks which is in an old but less vulnerable building. And Jack Cooper says Rarotonga lacks an Asian restaurant, other than Indian.

“We’ll be pan-Asian,” he says, referring to the planning he and his long-term Rarotongan partner Rosa are doing. “We’ll be a mix of Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean, Vietnamese and Chinese.

“There will be a chef from overseas, and I’ve bought a Buddha in Auckland to create some Courtyard Zen in the outdoor area.”

Despite the joking image of a white man ‘gone troppo’, the real Trader Jack remains a suave and successful businessman who runs a fish processing plant as well as the restaurant, and is the major sponsor of Vaka Eiva, Pacific canoe championships which bring close to 1000 visitors to Rarotonga each year.

Put Trader Jack in a suit and he could still be the Jack Cooper who was General Manager of the St George Hotel in Willis Street, Wellington, from 1977 to 1982, or an older version of the entrepreneur who set up the 1860 Victualing Company bar and restaurant in Lambton Quay in the early 70s.

He recently celebrated his “third 21st birthday” and he’s still learning. The sign advertising Bamboo Jacks, like pretty much everything else in the building, can be moved at short notice. In this third version of Trader Jacks, he has pack-up-and-run features such as the central Vaka Bar. It has a hydraulic roof which can be lowered onto the bar to create a box-like arrangement which can be lifted to safety.

“We can strip the place in one day if we have to, and then head for the hills.”

Between “foolish ventures” Jack Cooper is writing his memoirs, to be called Forty Years Behind Bars. The book will cover the past 30 years in Rarotonga, and the earlier years in Wellington, including experiences from the infamous 1981 Springbok Tour. The Springbok team was to have stayed at the St George but protestors invaded the hotel, causing damage such as filling toilets with cement. The team was forced to spend the night under the stands at Athletic Park.

Publisher and publication date are undecided, but amongst the facts Jack promises previously untold tales from places such as Scribblers Bar in the St George Hotel which he opened to cater for newspaper staff and which housed memorabilia from the early days of The Evening Post and The Dominion newspapers. And there will be plenty of humour, often self-deprecating.

“People say I’m mad, and that’s probably fair,” says Trader Jack.