Known as Fiji’s Garden Island for its pristine tropical rainforests and ridiculously beautiful beaches, Taveuni is to be the starting point of our journey aboard the Tui Tai, a lovingly converted tall ship which operates in this rarely-visited area of the south pacific.
Fiji’s 322 islands range in size from the large Viti Levu and Vanua Levu to much smaller islands, of which just over 100 are inhabited.
I spend the 90-minute flight with my face pressed against the window gazing out over turquoise seas and tiny volcanic atolls before the pilot sets us down at Taveuni’s Matei airport (little more than a dusty track cleared out of the dense undergrowth); from here, a small speedboat zips us across the waves to the vessel that is to be our home for the next few days.
We climb aboard to the harmonies of the crew singing a traditional Fijian song, and welcoming cries of “bula” (a far cry from the greeting given to our European ancestors not so long ago, when cannibalism was still rife in these parts.)
The country’s people are a fascinating blend of Melanesian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Indian, Chinese and European influences, and are rarely without a smile on their faces – and flowers in their hair.
The Tui Tai staff are incredibly welcoming, and within minutes of arriving our luggage has been whisked away, garlands of hibiscus have been hung around our necks, and fresh coconuts placed in our hands.
The vessel was once kitted out for budget travellers, and while it may still pride itself on venturing off the beaten track to some of the most inaccessible islands in the Fijian chain, the refurbished boat is now a byword for luxury.
With a maximum of 22 guests at any time (and only four during my visit), the fact there are 18 staff on hand to see to your every need means there is no compromising on service.
My home was an “expedition cabin,” a simple affair with a double bunk and modest en-suite bathroom, but if you want to splash out, there are also staterooms which come with their own private rooftop cabanas.
Guests are spoiled with a gourmet menu served from the on-deck outdoor kitchen, an amply-stocked bar, a daily house-keeping and laundry service, and long list of spa treatments.
Each day, the boat sails at the crack of dawn, with staff going about their daily business for several hours before the guests arise.
For us, the day starts with an invigorating Mana yoga class (a fusion of yoga and pilates) on the gently swaying deck before the mats are cleared away to make space for a breakfast of fresh fruit and stacks of syrup-filled pancakes.
Days are then free to explore, and can be as action-packed or as laid-back as you so desire.
I signed up to just about every activity on the itinerary – from guided snorkelling trips over giant rainbows of soft coral, to bike rides along the coast past remote villages, to gentle kayak outings through the mangrove-flanked lagoons.
Not many tourists make it as far as these islands, so we are treated as something of a curiosity – although soon prove popular once we join in with the children’s games of volleyball or football.
The behind-the-scenes organisation on the Tui Tai runs with clockwork precision, and food, cold drinks, kayaks, bikes – and even a massage table – appear on even the most remote sandy white beaches.
Fiji is rated one of the world’s top ten dive destinations for its sheer diversity, offering something spectacular for divers of every level from breathtaking corals to caves, and even shark dives.
As a complete beginner, the Tui Tai staff walk me through the basics on board before kitting me out and taking me to the calm shallows to learn a few simple skills. With these mastered, I am able to dive at up to 12 metres to explore the kaleidoscope of corals and the vibrant reef fish which inhabit them.
As the days go by on the Tui Tai, they start to acquire their own rhythm, with snorkelling, kayaking, paddle-boarding, hiking and biking outings punctuated by tea and cake at 11am, lunch under the verandah, and plenty of down time to soak up the sunshine from the super-sized canvas day-beds. For those eager to learn a bit more about their environs, there are also daily lectures on Fijian history, culture, wildlife and efforts to protect the marine environment.
Each day then ends with a gourmet dinner under the stars, and the staff singing along to the strumming of a ukulele until the small hours.
On one night, we are privileged to receive an invite from a tiny village on the island of Qamea where we meet the village chief and are treated to a performance of dancing by the warrior boys and Fijian girls (and despite our British reserve, encouraged to join in.)
We are also given the chance to take part in a traditional kava ceremony which involves a ritual of sitting cross-legged in a circle on the sandy ground, clapping once, as is the custom, and then downing a small coconut shell full of the mildly narcotic liquid. While the grog looks a little bit too similar to dirty dishwater for my liking – and is most definitely an acquired taste – it does leave you feeling pleasantly benign.
With pristine oceans, spectacular marine life and accessible anchorages Fiji is an ideal destination for a vessel like the Tui Tai, and it’s arguably one of the best ways to see some of the more remote island groups – especially if you want to let someone else take the strain.
Tui Tai expeditions cater for a maximum of 22 passengers and depart each week on five and seven-night cruises. Packages partnered with resort accommodation and private charters are also available.
A seven-night expedition cruise on an all-inclusive basis (including scuba diving and spa treatments) costs from £2,530 based on two people sharing a double room. For more information go to www.tuitai.com and www.fijime.com
Where to stay
The Fiji Orchid Inn (www.fijiorchid.com) on the largest island of Viti Levu, offers the perfect stopover to relax and refresh before continuing your journey on to the white sandy beaches of the outer islands.
Located 15 minutes drive north of Nadi International Airport, and set in five acres of lush tropical landscape, this boutique resort has six deluxe bures with large canopied beds and rain showers, two day rooms, a restaurant, bar, spa, and large swimming pool encircled by orchids. Prices for a garden bure start from £218 per person per night, based on two people sharing.
At the Koro Sun Resort (www.korosunresort.com), a relaxed, friendly resort in Savusavu, the capital of Fiji's second major island, Vanua Levu, I stayed in one of the uber-plush Edgewater Villas which have private swimming pools, sun-drenched balconies, and steps leading straight into the ocean. Highlights include kayaking to the island's largest salt lake, and taking on the resort staff (placed second in the Fiji Volleyball Championships) in a late afternoon “friendly” on the beach-front court. A one-bed Ocean View bure for two people costs from £143 per night, inclusive of all meals and transfers to and from Savusavu airport.
* During November, Bridge & Wickers (www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk) is offering seven nights on a room-only basis in a garden bure at the Fiji Orchid from £1,999 per person based on two sharing including transfers and international flights. It is also offering seven nights for the price of six on a B&B basis in a raintree bure at the Koro Sun from £1,972 per person, based on two sharing. This includes international flights, domestic flights and transfers.
Fiji really is the perfect adventure playground with a wide array of activities for adrenaline junkies and nature lovers alike.
It offers fantastic diving, snorkelling, surfing, kayaking, hiking, biking and trekking, as well as sky-diving, and hot air ballooning for those who want to experience the archipelago from the air.
Travellers looking for a real taste of adventure can scuba the White Wall of the Somosomo Strait near Taveuni – one of the world’s top dive sites – or venture into the Beqa Lagoon off southern Viti Levu where tiger sharks are often found lurking beneath the surface of calm blue.
Skydive Fiji (www.skydivefiji.com) offers both novices and experienced skydivers the opportunity to experience a free-fall skydive from up to 10,000 feet over the beautiful Denarau Island, while Zip Fiji (www.zipfiji.com) gives visitors the chance to fly through the tree canopy on zip lines running from platforms up to 45m high at speeds of up to 60km/h.
Adrenaline junkies can also surf the Cloud Breaker, the world-renowned six-metre wave found offshore at the island of Tavarua, or sand-board down the Sigatoka sand dunes on Viti Levu's southern coast.
For something a little more sedate, join a dawn hot air balloon flight over the rainforest-covered Fijian highlands with Adrenaline Fiji (www.adrenalinefiji.com), or, for a taste of the more traditional, try your hand at Bilibili rafting on a Fijian bamboo raft. For more information go to www.fijime.com/thrillme.
How to get there
Fiji is easily accessible from the UK, and while travelling does take the best part of a day each end, it's definitely worth the journey if you can stretch to a two-week holiday, or use it as a stopover en route to or from Australasia.
Nonetheless, you do need to plan carefully, as it's an awfully long way to go for things to go wrong (as I discovered when my luggage failed to show up, and had to manage without it for almost half a week).
I flew with Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.co.uk) which flies four times a day from London to Hong Kong with two weekly interconnecting flights to Fiji every Thursday and Saturday with Air Pacific (www.airpacific.com).
Return flights from London to Fiji start from £1,019 in Economy Class and £3,270 Business Class.
Internal flights can be arranged through Pacific Sun (www.pacificsun.com.fj) which offers regular inter-island flights.
My outward route to meet the Tui Tai took me from Nadi to Taveuni (a one-and-a-half-hour flight) which costs from £125 each way; the return leg was a one-hour flight from Savusavu back to Nadi which costs from £100 each way.