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Nothing but Paradise : There’s Little to Do on Fiji’s Lush Island of Qamea Except Relax. And That’s Just Fine.

<i> Lessley is the Page Two Editor of The Times. </i>

When Paul and I were planning our wedding last year, he asked where I wanted to spend our honeymoon. I told my husband-to-be I had just a few requirements: An island. Someplace warm. No planned activities.

We considered Tahiti, but it was too expensive. We thought about the Caribbean, but I’d been to several of the islands. We looked at Hawaii, but he had lived on Oahu.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Mar. 31, 1991 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 31, 1991 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Column 1 Travel Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Fiji--Due to incorrect information provided by a photographer, two color photos used to illustrate a March 10 story on Qamea Island Beach Club were actually of Matagi Island, a similar resort nearby.

Then some friends mentioned Fiji. They ticked off the pluses: An isolated archipelago of 300 islands--100 of them inhabited--in the corner of the South Pacific, about 1,000 miles northeast of Australia. An unspoiled tropical setting where the people are genuinely warm and only the main island, Viti Levu, is remotely commercial. A place where some individual islands boast just one deluxe, intimate resort. It sounded like paradise, a sun-drenched place where honeymooners could truly be alone.

We considered splurging on what is perhaps Fiji’s most luxurious celebrity destination, Turtle Island--which was also the setting for the first “Blue Lagoon” film. But even with all meals, drinks and activities included, its more than $700-a-night tab was too steep for our unusually generous honeymoon budget. Fortunately, Fiji has resorts ranging from the luxurious to the minimal,the latter for the surfing-diving set.

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So we chose the Qamea Beach Club, a low-key resort offering a few cottages and a freshwater pool on a six-mile-long island interrupted only by 1 1/2 villages and almost nothing else. It sounded like a little bit of heaven, completely lacking in civilization and children under 16, but brimming with salty breezes, swaying palms and romance.

“No golf, no tennis, no sightseeing?” asked some of our incredulous colleagues, especially of my sports-minded fiance. “But what will you two do?”

“It’s a honeymoon,” we replied. “We’ll think of something.”

The resort on the island of Qamea (pronounced Ga-MAY-ah) can accommodate only about two dozen people at a time in its 12 bures, the individual thatch-roofed bungalows nestled in a lush tropical garden. And not infrequently, there are only four or five couples around.

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Qamea is probably not ideal for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time together. One of the Australian couples we encountered were on their second-honeymoon-away-from-the-teenagers (the wife’s version) or on a scuba-diving expedition (according to the husband). So while he spent long hours underwater (even at night!), she was left to sip brandy and soft drinks in inglorious solitude.

But for us, Qamea was about as close as we ever expect to get to the fantasy of a deserted South Seas island: white-sand beach, azure waters teeming with tropical fish, flawless skies and pounding surf.

There are few distractions. No television, no telephone, no radio, no newspaper, not even a clock in sight. The gentle beating of the lali --a hollowed-out log--to signal meals is the only timepiece. The days were so still that the whine of a motorboat was startling.

There are no cars--no roads, in fact--on the island. Many of the resort’s employees live in a nearby village, but even that is accessible only by boat at high tide. And there is no sightseeing--unless you count the reef walks punctuated by florescent-blue starfish and native women standing thigh-high in the surf, fishing with octopus as bait. Our biggest decision each day was whether to snorkel in the morning or the afternoon. We settled on morning, when the water is almost undisturbed by the wind.

We decided it was a good thing we liked each other. Together, propped up against a log on the sand, we watched brilliant sunrises and sunsets. We walked along the empty beach, getting caught in a sudden rain squall that ended in multiple rainbows. At night we studied a pitch-black Southern Hemisphere sky studded with stars. We hiked over the spine of the island to a nearby beach--a half-hour trek through massive bamboo and native timber that the locals negotiate in 10 minutes, barefoot. We took turns lounging lazily in our hammock, watching tiny, spotted frogs and caw-cawing birds. We even picnicked on a billionaire’s pristine, private beach.

We smiled a lot. We forgot to talk about work. We drank rum punch.

And, of course, we had romantic afternoons. At least we did when our newfound Australian and New Zealand friends weren’t cheerleading. The still of one languid day was shattered by the plinking of a ukulele and a screeching rendition of “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport” outside our open cottage windows. We made it to tea a little earlier than planned that day.

During part of our 10-day honeymoon, there were only two other couples in residence. The six of us, all in our mid-30s and recently married, hit it off immediately. We made great inroads in cultural exchange over a couple of Fiji “babies” (the local beer) and those swell rum punches. And our fast-formed friendships resulted in afternoons in which 100% of Qamea’s guests could be found arrayed on the soft-sand beach or at the stone-paved pool tucked away beneath the trees. (Later, another two couples interrupted our reverie--a grand total of 10 people while we were there.)

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Australians David and Sally Nelson--he works with computers and she’s an executive secretary in Sydney--and New Zealanders Paul and Pip Barnett--he owns a furniture store and she’s a nurse--were old hands at Fiji, a popular vacation spot for the folks Down Under. We teased them unmercifully about their accents; they taught us ribald Australian drinking songs.

Life is casual at the resort, but not Spartan. The bures , while modeled on traditional Fijian huts--one room with high, thatched roof, open-beamed ceilings and bamboo walls--are thoroughly modern where it counts. Each has a Western-style bathroom, complete with small, unstocked refrigerator under the counter. Ours also came equipped with a mid-size gecko, which ate insects and ignored us. Each bure has a wide, wooden porch--most with stunning views of the beach--with deck chairs and hammock. (One complaint: The only adequate light for reading at night is a few feet above pillow level.)

And there are the little touches: Next to the porch are two half seashells that are filled daily with fresh water to wash the sand from your feet. In the mornings, the shells double as frog baths.

Meals are served in the big bure, the central dining hall/bar. Lunch and dinner fare is posted on a blackboard, and the food is surprisingly inventive and delicious: Western-style main courses with native appetizers such as seaweed salad. Local soups and massive lobsters alternate with crepes and outdoor sausage-and-chicken barbecues. Breakfast can be entirely Western (eggs, bacon and toast) or guests can choose fresh pineapple, mango and papaya, and even Australia’s beloved Vegemite topping. And there is always 4 o’clock tea and biscuits. It’s possible to eat every few hours, almost cruise-style. Several nights a week, a local Fiji band--three guitars and one ukulele--entertains. Cross-legged, the players sit in a corner around the communal kava bowl, strumming away in high-pitched voices. Our personal favorite was the syncopated “Fiji Baby,” in which the lyrics go something like this:

It’s / a / quar / ter / to / 8 / and / doan / be / late, / Fi / ji / Baby. Apparently, the bars in Fiji used to close at 7:45 p.m., but that’s certainly not true on Qamea.

Kava, the traditional local drink, is a nonalcoholic concoction made from the root of the pepper plant. The custom is to clap once before accepting the kava, served in shallow bowls, then drink it chug-a-lug and clap three more times. One guest likened the taste to muddy water; others were more enthusiastic. We found the slightly bitter brew produced a mild anesthetic sensation.

White wine is the preferred beverage of Jo Kloss, an American who owns the resort with her husband. They built Qamea from scratch a few years ago, importing everything by boat from the bigger island of Taveuni. In her bathing suit and sula-- a brightly patterned cloth wrapped waist- or chest-high--the ebullient Kloss holds court most afternoons, spinning tales about eccentric celebrity guests.

Our transformation from tense urbanites into carefree beach-goers didn’t come without some strenuous traveling. One drawback to Fiji is its sheer distance from Los Angeles. Crossing the Equator and the International Dateline means the change of a season and the loss of a day. And like many newlyweds, we were shellshocked from the frantic weeks leading up to the wedding. So it wasn’t until we landed at Nadi (pronounced NAN - dee) International Airport--after 11 hours in the air plus a short stop in Honolulu--that it began to register: We’re not in Pasadena any more.

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Our first clue: A sunburned man in khaki shorts marched through the airport waiting room shouting “Savu Savu. Taveuni. Savu Savu.” With a jolt, we recognized an island’s name from our guidebook and realized that this was our pilot. When he had collected his 12 weary travelers--destined for several islands--we hopped into his 1950s-vintage aircraft.

Our second clue: After an hour’s flight and one stop, we set down on a dirt airstrip carved out of the jungle. A stray horse gets his exercise here, occasionally chasing the planes down the runway. Our bumpy arrival was followed by a short van ride over a muddy road to a landing, where we waded out to a motor launch.

The clincher: 20 hours’ travel time after we locked our front door, a group of brightly dressed, smiling strangers--the staff of Qamea--was gathered on a beach singing a Fijian welcome to a bedraggled, barefoot couple.

Qamea’s slow pace made it easy for us to relax.

But for those to whom doing nothing is a little too laid-back, there is a dive master; Qamea and its fellow northern islands--Taveuni, Matagi and Vanua Levu--are known for their superb scuba spots. On Qamea, there’s a Hobie Cat and windsurfer for guest use; the resort’s grand fleet (a couple of open launches and a few larger diving/supply boats) also is available for fishing excursions.

We were content, however, to take only one side trip: to the private island of Laucala, owned by the late financier Malcolm Forbes. There seems to be a sort of gentlemen’s agreement among the caretakers of the resorts of Qamea, Laucala and nearby Matagi--there’s occasional visiting back and forth between resort guests, often for drinks or snorkeling.

We set out one morning for Laucala (pronounced La-THAH-la) with Dan the boatman and Betty, another Qamea staffer, in a small skiff. Once on the 4.7-square-mile island, we got a rare treat--a private tour of Forbes’ home. One of Dan’s friends happened to have the key; who wouldn’t have asked to peek inside? Forbes’ personal hideaway turned out to be a modest hilltop house with breathtaking 360-degree views and a private pool. There’s little to suggest that it once hosted one of the world’s richest men--except for the works of art cramming the walls and the photos of Forbes with Liz, Ron and Nancy and British royalty.

Our unofficial guides assured us that Forbes--who died at the age of 70 a few months before our visit last June--had so loved the island that he planned to be buried there to ensure it would stay in the family. And in December, his ashes were indeed buried on his isle.

Laucala is now also a resort, with four air-conditioned bures (one with two bedrooms) down along the shoreline away from Forbes’ home. Or you and nine friends can rent the whole island for six nights for $32,650.

Laucala is a metropolis compared to Qamea: It has roads, vehicles, a tidy concrete-block village with several hundred residents, even a thoroughly modern church. Nearby sits a cluster of outbuildings used in the working copra plantation. A dozen employees run the simple operation, cutting the coconut meat out of the shells, drying it overnight and then packing the sweet-smelling, curled bits into burlap for shipping. Elsewhere, it’s squeezed for its oil.

The place also boosts its share of rich man’s toys: a gleaming deep-sea fishing boat and a tennis court. And, of course, its own airstrip. One of the real pluses of staying on Laucala must be the private ride in the twin-engine plane called the Capitalist Tool, which flies guests directly to the island from Nadi.

Just around the bay from Forbes’ dock is a picturesque cove where we spent the rest of the day, picnicking on a lunch packed by Qamea’s staff. Sunning yourself on a billionaire’s private beach does have a certain cachet, but Malcolm’s island also had the best snorkeling.

On our fifth day, two more guests arrived on Qamea. And we resort veterans instantly knew that the new couple had to be American.

After an exhausting trip from their home in New Mexico, Ken and Ruth had scheduled a diving lesson for same afternoon they arrived. No one but Americans (“We’ve got to get our money’s worth, dear”) would travel halfway around the world to a remote Fijian island with their activity card already full.

Sipping our pina coladas in the sun, we advised them to take a nap. Relax. Have some tea and biscuits.

“Oh no, there simply isn’t enough time,” said Ken, the hard-driving dentist, earnestly. He and his wife, a lawyer, plunged right into the dive, followed in short order by snorkeling, early morning windsurfing and hiking. It made us tired just watching them.

But 48 hours in, the inevitable happened.

After a lunch of spicy seafood crepes and cold Fiji beer, the sports-minded Ruth offered her husband a list of options. “OK, what do you want to do now? Reef walk? Hike? Go over to another island?”

“Oh,” he demurred. “I’m really comfortable. Let’s just sit in the sun for awhile.”

Paul and I like to think of it as the Miracle of Qamea.

GUIDEBOOK

Finding Paradise in Fiji

Getting there: Both Air New Zealand and Qantas fly from Los Angeles to Fiji’s Nadi International Airport (via Honolulu) for a fare of $1,202 with 14-day advance purchase. Both airlines have flights leaving LAX on Monday, Thursday and Saturday; Air New Zealand also has a Tuesday flight.

No visa is necessary, but a valid passport is required.

Accommodations: Qamea Beach Club costs about $1,264 for four nights to $2,180 for seven nights, per couple. Includes room, meals, boat transfer, 10% government tax. Air transportation to and from Nadi International, liquor and scuba diving are extra. Call 011-679-880-220.

Forbes’ Laucala Island Resort accommodates a maximum of 10 adults and costs $1,700 per person for four nights, $2,400 per person for seven. Includes room, meals, a limited amount of liquor, round-trip air transportation from Nadi International and scuba diving. Ten percent tax extra. (719) 379-3263. Turtle Island’s all-inclusive price for four nights (meals, drinks, air transfers and all activities) is $3,388 per couple; for seven nights, $5,500. (800) 826-3083.

Other nearby resorts geared to honeymooners and/or divers, but for the more budget-minded traveler: Matagi Island, Namale Plantation, Dive Taveuni. Tropical Adventures in Seattle, (800) 247-3483, specializes in Fiji packages complete with air transportation and featuring stays at one or more resorts.

When to go: During the driest season, between May and October. Fiji is in the Southern Hemisphere, so our summer is their winter.

For more information: Contact the Fiji Visitors Bureau, 5777 W. Century Blvd., Suite 220, Los Angeles 90045, (213) 568-1616.


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