With its luscious landscapes, warm people and fetching tropical vibe, Fiji has become a byword for paradise. And although best known for dreamy resorts, beneath all that brazen beauty lies an approachable and intriguing culture and a seemingly endless swathe of thriving reefs.
The most relaxing way to see a lot of Fiji -in exceptional comfort- is aboard a Captain Cook Cruises voyage; visiting remote, untrammelled islands, meeting locals scarcely touched by the 21st century, and floating amidst psychedelic corals and fish.
The Captain Cook Cruises ‘4 Cultures’ voyage explores the rustic islands of Fiji’s north whilst highlighting the region’s ethnic heritage. If you can imagine waking each morning to a shifting panorama of emerald islands sprinkled upon a silken gem-blue sea; that’s just one of the pleasures of cruising amidst Fiji’s outer islands.
Unlike many ‘small ships’, the very spacious Reef Endevour features a profusion of lounging zones on each level, and comforting touches like being able to make your own coffee create a homely feel. Staterooms are accessed by external walkways - providing a fresh feast for the senses from the moment I open my door. An unpretentious atmosphere prevails on the Reef Endevour and the friendly Fijian crew are a big part of what makes these journeys so special. Longer distances are sailed overnight, freeing up days for island visits and aquatic bliss such as snorkelling, stand-up paddle boarding, kayaking, diving uncharted depths or simply lazing on idyllic beaches.
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We’re welcomed to hilly Kioa island with gifts of floral garlands. Likewise adorned with oversized frangipanis and bougainvillea, the islanders - Polynesians originally from Tuvalu- burst into powerful singing and percussion. After dancing up a floral storm, the women sell appealing handicrafts.
Just a short sail away is Rabi Island, where the resident Micronesian people originally hail from Kiribati. Resplendent in costumes of shells, feathers and pandanus leaves, their dance moves have saucy undertones.
From a distance Kia Island resembles a volcano thrusting out of the water. At the candy-coloured school, children hand out frangipanis and sing greetings. Previously a sandlewood hotspot, striking Kia now features a slumbering village of gelato hued timber cottages tucked under gargantuan breadfruit trees. A delicious buffet is set up on the island and guests dine under mango trees whilst chatting with locals. Popping with the colour that befits an Indian town, Labasa is a sugar hub ringed by mountains. In a colonial -inspired hotel, we’re treated to a delectable Indian lunch and Bollywood dancing, before hitting shops overflowing with Indian textiles.
As the Reef Endevour traces a path around the convoluted shores and mountain backdrop of Vanua Levu – Fiji’s second largest island - the landscape morphs from ostentatiously lush to stark and sculptural. I go snorkelling on each day of the voyage, and each time, am beguiled by a very different - though always transfixing - cornucopia of colours and almost implausibly intricate textures.
The 7 night 4 Cultures cruise makes for an intriguing, intensely relaxing break.
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But a Fiji mindset is something you want to hold on to. Eager to spend more quality time underwater, I topped off the cruise with a stay at Mantaray Island Resort, situated in the dramatically beautiful Yasawa Islands.
Mantaray Island Resort fronts a marine sanctuary that’s become home to a kaleidoscope of fish that have no need to be afraid of humans - and they show it. Floating over fields of sherbet coloured coral, I swim amidst a confetti of hundreds of fish – often having to be careful not to touch them. It’s not unusual here to get a peck from a friendly clownfish or have a dainty damsel fish come right up to your mask.
Whilst resorts in the Yasawas typically veer towards the uber-plush and expensive, Mantaray Island offers great value, a social, laid back atmosphere and flavoursome, hearty meals. Our beachfront reef bungalow is a sensual delight of cool white floors, lots of louvre windows coaxing the salted breeze, and an expansive stone and timber open-to-the-stars bathroom that’s popular with geckos and birds.
Come morning, I sit up in bed, look straight out over silky ocean, and contemplate the day: should I go diving to one of the spectacular sites nearby, take a freediving course, grab a kayak, walk to other beaches on the island, or hop on the snorkelling boat? If I hear drums indicating nearby mantas, the only option is to jump into the water!