"OK," the Fijian dive master told us. "A couple of rules. Don't stick your hands out, don't pet the sharks unless we tell you to, and don't go swimming off by yourself. Righto? Let's go."
The sharks are lured in with chum, which comes down in huge garbage cans. We dived to 80 feet and settled next to a coral head, kneeling on the sandy bottom. As soon as the chum appeared, there was a frenzied cyclone of fish, some silvertip and nurse sharks, all of which arrived in seconds. One by one, we were led into the fray and permitted to pet the flat-headed nurse shark, which ignored us and kept ripping into the fish bits. Its skin felt like fine sandpaper.
I was happily hanging out, marinating in chum, when the fish turned tail and, in a single reflex, fled, like an underwater stampede. Feeling like the unpopular kid left in the schoolyard, I wheeled around, searching for the cause. Moments later, a 14-foot tiger shark (the kind that took the right arm of Bethany Hamilton as she surfed off Kauai) loomed into view, patrolling the joint like a mobster.
There is some innate fight-or-flight reaction when an enormous shark is cruising nearby. They move deceptively slowly, staring with a beady-eyed insouciance, perfect killing machines. I can only describe the feeling as similar to the one I have when I'm speeding and a police cruiser glides into my rearview mirror. But there is no describing quite how thrilling it was -- and my kids would think I was so cool when I showed them the video.
From the Davui, we rode the helicopter back to the mainland, then took a four-hour boat trip west to the Yasawa Islands, probably the most classically tropical of the Fiji islands. They also have the best weather, getting less rain than the rest.
A string of powdery beaches, tropical brush, friendly villages and the bluest water imaginable make the Yasawas every romantic's ideal.
We had booked a room at the barefoot-chic Navutu Stars, a new mid-range resort that is younger, more casual and hipper than the Likuliku and Royal Davui.
It was also about half the price. It's run by an Italian couple who lease the land from the local village, and it has an organic feel to it. It's the kind of place that has lounge music playing 24/7 and where people wear sarongs, surf shorts and lots of ethnic jewelry. I loved it.
The nine bungalows were simple and Mediterranean in style with whitewashed stucco, fresh hibiscus flowers on the bed and shells adorning the walls. It was marooned in the middle of miles and miles of blissful beaches and staffed by warmhearted villagers.
Twice a day, snorkeling trips or village visits were planned. I spent a thoroughly delightful afternoon at a nearby village where the women assembled in the community hall -- a cinder-block room with no furniture -- so they could sell shell jewelry, nothing priced above $10.
You can scuba dive in the Yasawas, although the diving is superior on Vanua Levu, the large, northern island in the Fiji chain and home to the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, where we met up with friends for the Savusavu Music Festival.
The town of Savusavu is about as authentically Fijian as it gets. In 1994, California-based Passport Hotels bought a neglected resort on Vanua Levu and spent millions remodeling it, turning it into a mix of family getaway, dive resort and honeymoon retreat.
The place is staffed with exuberant Fijians, who whisk the offspring off in the morning and return them, tired and glowing, at the end of a day of pool play, native crafts and more. Divers love it because it has world-class diving. Honeymooners love it because there is more to do than sit on a beach, if that's what they are looking for.
After flying from Nadi to Vanua Levu, we were driven across the island and to the end of a dirt road, site of the resort. A smiling woman awaited us at our enormous beachfront bungalow. Instead of handing us the typical juice and lei, she gave us a foot massage. I was sold.
Diving and dancing
Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the legendary Jacques, came onboard to ensure that the hotel became one of the best eco-dive resorts in the world. In his eyes, the diversity of life on Fiji's reefs is unparalleled, and he ranks Namena Island, a site close to the resort, the best dive in Fiji and among the top 10 dive sites in the world. Having now done it, I would concur.
The Cousteau resort also co-hosts the Savusavu Music Festival, which celebrates and encourages current generations to maintain indigenous island music. The dances had a modern, interpretive feel. They were indigenous, yes, but it was a next-generation indigenousness, some even were performed to island-style rap.
I was glad to witness a thriving South Pacific culture everywhere we went. This may be a new era for Fiji, with world-class resorts, helicopters and private islands, but ultimately one thing matters. It is still a place of simplicity, astonishing beauty and gracious people.