"You're grinning too much," he told her. "That's breaking the seal around the mouthpiece."
But she learned to contain her pleasure underwater and to save the grins for the open air.
We floated over a wonderland of coral in many shades: yellow, dusky blues, black "trees" that grew from the ocean floor like a forest that had lost its leaves.
The fish were even more colorful than the coral. I snorkeled among blue starfish, white- and black-striped angelfish, iridescent parrotfish and elongated brown fish with orange stripes. Close to shore I spotted orange- and white-striped clownfish darting through the fingers of blue sea anemones, picking off minute morsels of plankton.
Snorkeling whetted my appetite for lunch, and we reboarded the ship to find a buffet spread with rolls, cold cuts and cheese for sandwiches, along with vegetables and fruit. Papaya, bananas, pineapple and watermelon were offered at every meal.
As we lunched, the ship cruised south to Malakati, a village on Naviti Island. At a small stone church, we sat on narrow wood benches as Albert described the yaqona, or kava-drinking, ceremony we were about to see. Yaqona (pronounced ya-cone-ah) is a mildly tranquilizing, nonalcoholic drink that numbs the tongue and lips. The herb has an honored place in Fijian culture, and its use was once restricted to high priests and chiefs. These days yaqona has become part of the tourist scene.
The village chief and other men, dressed in long grass skirts over shorts but with no shirts, mixed the kava with water in a large wood bowl using what looked like a very used sock that was wrung out several times.
This was one of those times when you have to choose between local custom and hygiene. Maybe it was peer pressure; maybe it was the knowledge that previous Westerners had survived this ceremony. Hey, I figured, rationalizing my fears, it could be a sterile sock. I tried the drink.
It tasted like ground twigs, and though it numbed my tongue for a short time, I noticed no further effects.
But the music was intoxicating. At first the village women and men sang hymn-like tunes, but those gave way to a livelier beat as the lead singer, a ringer for Harry Belafonte, played bongos and belted out reggae-like songs. Other men played larger drums or banged bamboo sticks in rhythm. Soon everyone, including passengers, was dancing. With little ventilation in the hut, we broke into a sweat almost instantly, and the resulting aroma of warm bodies mixed with flowers was intense.
Thinking the ceremony must get tedious for villagers if they have to stage it every week, I asked Albert how often the ship comes to this settlement. Only three times a year, he told me, because the line varies its stops among other islands and villages. He said a part of the cruise fees -- almost $400,000 annually -- supports children's education and medical clinics in the islands.
Outside, the village women had set up shop on mats, carefully arranging their wares of wooden carvings, shells and jewelry made from seeds and shells. There was no pressure to buy, but I purchased necklaces for relatives with money borrowed from Albert because I had not carried any money ashore.
We came back aboard ship to a seafood smorgasbord of prawns, oysters, lobster Thermidor and a light vegetable tempura while the ship sailed on to the next day's destination.
An ideal ending
Our final day was dedicated to water and beach play. The Princess was tied to a palm tree on Nanuya Lailai, an island owned by Blue Lagoon, and I gleefully jumped off the deck into the water. I tried nearly every activity offered -- kayaking, rides in a glass-bottom boat, snorkeling, swimming and sleeping in hammocks -- and felt wonderfully exhausted.
While the passengers played, the crew worked, preparing a lovo feast. The lovo is a Fijian version of a clambake. The crew first dug a hole in the sand, filled it with wood and stones, and lighted a fire to heat the stones. Then it was leveled to make a platform for the food -- a leg of pork, fish, lamb, cassava, yam, taro and spinach, some items wrapped in foil and others in hand-woven palm fronds. Banana leaves and damp sacks were stacked on top, and then the pile was covered with sand and left to bake for several hours.
Don't expect much from the lovo, a Blue Lagoon alumnus had told me. But he was wrong: I relished the food.
Maybe it was the meat's smoky flavor. Maybe it was the warm glow cast by the torchlight on the beach. Maybe it was the Yasawa Sunset, the bartender's mix of rum, Kahlúa, coconut cream and pineapple juice. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed every mouthful -- as I had every moment of the cruise.