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Fiji: Jewel of the South Pacific

Fiji's warm residents and range of water activities make it a holiday paradise

Within 24 hours, everything had changed. Just the day before, Category 3 cyclone Winston had been an annoyance which hovered like a ghost over my week-long trip to Fiji.

It had diverted my travel itinerary, turned blue skies grey and churned the warm turquoise waters of the South Pacific into frenzied, turbulent peaks.

It was not ideal, but my guide, Louisa Finiasi from Tourism Fiji, monitored weather reports and assured me of Winston's path away from us.

Then, as though fuelled by our complacency, Winston funnelled like noxious cotton candy, gathering strength over 30 deg C waters before viciously charging west as a full-force Category 5 cyclone.

I was rather casually informed of the storm's imminent arrival while dining at the Sofitel Fiji's new Waitui Beach Club(www.sofitel-fiji.com; room rates from $296) the night before.

Surrounded by the glow of tiki torches, guests drinking rum and splashing about the infinity pool, we joked about how we would batten down the hatches, while dreamy wisps of clouds floated in a sherbert-coloured sky.

But as I made my way to the airport at six the next morning and saw the dark fortress of cumulus clouds rumbling across the sky, I knew it was something serious.

From Tourism Fiji, I learnt that Winston, projected to make landfall that day at 6pm, would be the strongest storm to hit Fiji in modern history.

Although I anticipated mass hysteria, only families with young children showed signs of stress as they tried to secure a flight at the airport. The Fijians seemed to take the impending storm with preternatural calm. If they were worried, they kept it to themselves.

Fiji is made up of 333 mostly uninhabited islands. Yellow and white sand beaches are bordered by palm trees and some of the best snorkelling and dive sites in the world.

I, however, was alarmed. Settled comfortably on board my 9.20am Fijian Airways flight - one of the last flights out - my relief was choked by worry for the wonderful people I had met. I thought about Louisa, with whom I had eaten every meal and shared every activity during the past week. I remembered what she said whenever I expressed nervousness: "It's okay. I am talking to the man upstairs."

This time, as my flight took off, I was talking to the man upstairs too.

SNORKELLING PARADISE

Fiji is made up of 333 mostly uninhabited islands in the heart of the South Pacific. Yellow and white sand beaches are bordered by palm trees and some of the best snorkelling and dive sites in the world.

The breeze is laden with frangipani perfume. The light is sharp and the colours - stunning shades of blue and green - paradisiacal.

  • GETTING THERE

  • On April 6, Fiji Airways will begin its non-stop service between Singapore and Nadi, Fiji .

    The twice-weekly, 10-hour- long flight will leave Singapore on Wednesday and Saturday and return from Nadi on Tuesday and Friday.

    Book before June 16 to secure special launch fares starting from $839 adult economy return, while children fly for as low as $529 return.

Strangers wave and enthusiastically say, "Bula! Bula!" - which means hello, but literally means "life" - to anyone who passes by.

On my first afternoon in Fiji, I take a walk from where I am staying at the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa (fiji.intercontinental.com; room rates from $360) on Viti Levu's south-western coast to the far end of Kama beach.

It is a hot and lazy Sunday and a few men lead horses - bearing tourists and local children along the beach - by the reins.

A young man on horseback trots in my direction.

"Bula vinaka!" - a warm hello, he says. Familiar with the beach touts of Bali and Phuket, I am ready for the hard sell.

Instead, he asks how I am doing, where I come from and whether I am enjoying my day.

Although it sounds lovely, I would not like a horseback ride on the beach. Vinaka, I say in thanks.

"Sega na lega," - no worries, he says and, just like that, he is on his way. I chastise my city-born cynicism on the walk back to the hotel.

Never in all my travels have I met a more warm and welcoming people. The majority of the nation's 900,000 Fijians live in the cities and villages around Viti Levu and Vanua Levu islands. The main language spoken is Fijian, or Bauan, although there are hundreds of dialects spoken in Fijian villages. Many people speak English as well.

About 60 per cent of its population are Christian "iTaukei", or those of indigenous Melanesian descent. In addition to a small percentage of Polynesian people, the other 40 per cent are mostly of Indian ancestry, the descendants of Indian sugar cane farmers brought over as indentured labourers by the British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

To this day, the Indo-Fijian population is centred on urban centres and islands dominated by sugar cane farming, such as Vanua Levu.

Labasa is the island's largest town - it has a population of 30,000 people and its airport is a single room. Passengers stand shoulder to shoulder with drivers waiting for their charges. Our luggage arrives on a large orange hand-cart from which we extricate our bags.

Louisa and I are headed to Namale Resort & Spa (www.namalefiji.com), one of Fiji's best, near Savusavu, a town that is a two-hour drive south. Although Savusavu has a small airport of its own, we have flown into Labasa so I can experience the Fijian countryside.

From the taxi window, I can see field after field of sugar cane, dotted with brightly coloured pink and teal houses. Many have red flags fluttering at the front, indicating a Hindu home, and we see a few temples and mosques along the road.

The winding way takes us past roadside fruit stalls, forests, fields and waterfalls and up over a small mountain range. A picturesque view of Savusavu's wide, arching bay - the second-largest in Fiji - greets us on the other side.

Built atop 200ha of coastal cliffs and rainforest, Namale embodies the island's rustic romance. There are only 19 units on the property, each one unique and inspired by traditional Fijian architecture, with dark and somewhat dated decor.

Owned by United States motivational speaker Tony Robbins, who maintains a private villa on the property, the all-inclusive resort starts from US$871 (S$1,180) a night and includes a nine-hole golf course, volleyball and tennis courts, one of Fiji's two bowling alleys, a game room and a 930 sq m spa.

Guests can spend the day snorkelling off the resort's private beach, fishing in the resort's lagoon or joining one of the day's organised activities, such as a reef walk to explore the rock pools at low tide.

If you spend only one night at Namale, stay for the catered waterfall lunch, held on a wooden platform next to a pristine waterfall in the middle of the resort's rainforest, and the salt water drift.

Secure in life jackets, my fellow guests and I walk into a tidal river about a 20-minute's drive from Namale. The high tide channels a swift saline current up river and I am softly swept away as soon as my bootie-clad feet no longer touch the ground.

About 15 of us bob along the river, past mangroves and the occasional riverside home. There are a couple of Namale guides in the water with us and two more are in a boat which trails behind us, dispensing bottles of beer and water.

The experience ends after about 30 minutes in a large saline lake bordered by forested hills. With no signs of human activity, the lake feels otherworldly, quiet and still.

INLAND ACTIVITIES

Fiji has a deserved reputation for its surfing, snorkelling and diving, but I am pleasantly surprised by the opportunities inland too.

Back on Viti Levu, I join an adventure tour with Sigatoka River Safari (www.sigatokariver.com; starting from $162 an adult, $95 a child aged four to 15) which takes 20 of us on a half-day tour up river aboard a specially constructed jet boat.

It glides and turns with expert precision on the narrow Sigatoka river which, at 120km, is Fiji's longest. It runs from the heart of the island to the sea, cutting through unspoilt hillsides and the Sigatoka Valley, where fertile fields bear the majority of the nation's fruit and vegetables, including papaya, corn and sweet potato.

For many years, the river was the main transportation channel between villages and children still float in buckets or use wooden poles to cross it to get to school.

There are 35 villages in the valley and the river safari works with 15 of them - rotating between each for a village visit once a week.

Fijian society is tightly knit and its people hold their village chiefs in high regard.

Today, we are visiting Tumbairata, a village of 200 people, to see how many Fijians live.

Up the river bank, about 40 houses surround an open field.

Tumbairata is relatively well-off. It has electricity and a water pump, which many other villages do not. Traditionally, Fijians lived in "bures" - single-room structures of hardwood and bamboo with roofs made of thatched mountain reeds.

Although most bures have been replaced by cement or wood-beam homes, in Tumbairata, the village chief has maintained the largest bure, elevated and separate from the rest.

We join him and the village elders for a kava ceremony. Kava is a drink made of ground kava root steeped in water, turning it a muddy brown. The darker the water, the stronger the drink.

Many Fijians, particularly those in the villages, drink it every night for its calming properties. Drunk from a coconut bowl, the non-alcoholic but potent beverage can numb your tongue and give you a relaxed buzz.

After kava, we walk to the village's communal hall for a traditional Fijian lunch of cassava and taro root, rice and roti, a light chicken curry and rou rou (taro leaves) sauteed with onions and coconut milk cooked over a wood-fire stove.

It is simple and delicious and, on my last day in Fiji, I have a chance to cook it, along with dhal soup, coconut barfi and fresh roti, at a three-hour Flavours Of Fiji cooking class (www.flavoursoffiji.com, $105 an adult, $69 a child aged eight to 16) in the Denarau area of Nadi.

After lunch, some villagers gather in the hall to sing traditional songs and they invite us to dance.

Fijians are blessed with beautiful voices and their songs - about family, community and love - resonate with the South Pacific roots of their makers.

Perhaps it is the buzz from the kava, but as the sonorous melody echoes through the hall, I feel like I have been blissfully hypnotised. The atmosphere is full of joy and mutual respect. As the party winds down, a goodbye song is sung, plaintive yet hopeful, about seeing one another again.

PARTING THOUGHTS

Thoughts of these people in their fragile villages flood my mind as I take off from Nadi.

By the time Winston has passed over Fiji, 44 people have died and almost 25,000 homes are damaged or destroyed. With record-breaking 306kmh winds, it is the strongest tropical cyclone on record in the southern hemisphere.

A couple of days pass before I can confirm the safety of Louisa and the people I met and that the places I visited suffered minimal damage.

A month later and life in Fiji is back to normal.

Although a few of the badly hit outlying islands in the east are still being rebuilt, other parts of Fiji are open, just in time for Fiji Airways' new direct flight from Nadi to Singapore, which launches on April 6.

One look at Tourism Fiji's website, where the tourism board has set up a #FijiNow page posting travellers' pictures post-Winston, the stream of clear turquoise waters and postcard-perfect views impress on me the need to return.

Perhaps I will venture to one of the smaller islands and learn to surf or scuba dive, and drink kava on the beach as the sun sets. For a moment, I am transported back to life on island time. It is "bula" as usual in Fiji, sega na lega.

  • The writer's trip was sponsored by Fiji Airways and Tourism Fiji.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Jewel of the South Pacific'. Print Edition | Subscribe