Casting away in the South Pacific

Casting away in the South Pacific
Snorkelers explore the sea on a Blue Lagoon cruise, which travels to remote destinations for a glimpse of Fijian culture. (Blue Lagoon Cruises)
On our first night aboard the Mystique Princess, cruise director Albert Wong warned us about the consequences of being left ashore.

"You may get eaten," he said with a wink.

His little joke: Cannibalism has not been practiced in Fiji for nearly 200 years.

My friend Amy Lindsay and I were among the 30-odd passengers on a four-day cruise last April through the remote Yasawa Islands of Fiji. At the suggestion of some well-traveled acquaintances, I decided to take a Blue Lagoon cruise on a South Seas stopover for a much-needed break after a business trip to Australia.

An article in the Feb. 23 Travel section about a cruise through Fiji incorrectly named Nadi as Fiji's second-largest city. Nadi trails Lautoka, which is the second-largest city.

Fiji airline -- The information box accompanying "Casting Away in the South Pacific," Feb. 23, incorrectly listed Fiji Airlines as flying nonstop to Nadi, Fiji. Air Pacific flies nonstop to Nadi.

Blue Lagoon Cruises, started by an Australian and a New Zealander, has been navigating these waters for more than 50 years. The two businessmen had planned to develop a tuna fishing operation but ended up launching a small cruise company, named "Blue Lagoon" for the 1949 movie starring Jean Simmons. At the time, tourism was uncharted territory in Fiji. The company's first ship had only six passenger cabins.

Tourism now is Fiji's largest industry, and the company has four ships. Its flagship, the Mystique Princess, has 36 cabins and holds 72 passengers.

Though the Mystique Princess was only half-full on my sailing, the passengers were an international group ranging from 16 to 76 years old. Five couples were honeymooners from the United States, Australia and New Zealand. An extended family from Australia was on board for a reunion, and a group of Italian physicians and their spouses had just attended a convention in Sydney.

We had met up at the international airport in Nadi, Fiji's second-largest city, on the island of Viti Levu, and took a shuttle bus a short distance north to Blue Lagoon's home port in Lautoka. A downpour dampened our welcome aboard the Mystique Princess, but we remained dry as we boarded because the crew held umbrellas over the gangway. It was the last rain of any significance on our cruise.

Once underway, the Mystique Princess zigzagged northwest to the Yasawa island group through a maze of coral heads into a channel called Bligh Water. Capt. William Bligh passed this way in his longboat after being thrown off the Bounty by mutineers. But he was chased by Fijians in canoes, so he didn't linger.

But lingering was the pastime of choice for most of the Mystique Princess' passengers. With short distances between the islands, no "must-do" tourist attractions and a competent, friendly all-Fijian crew taking care of us, we relaxed, lounging on deck in jeans or shorts, reading or chatting. Dressing up was an option, though, and at our first night's anchorage at Vaikiki Bay, some passengers brought out flashy sequined evening dresses for the elegant captain's dinner of a shrimp salad and prime rib.

The welcome-aboard tropical cocktail and the delicious meal sent me drifting into the Australians' "no worries" mode, and in that relaxed state, Amy and I found the way to our cabin.

It had a picture window, twin beds and enough drawer and closet space for the contents of our two suitcases. It also had comforts like air conditioning, a bathroom equipped with a hair dryer, and room to move without bumping into the walls or beds.

Nothing went bump in the night, either, and no engine drone or pitching waves disturbed our sleep. Unlike larger cruise ships, which often travel great distances at night, the Mystique Princess sailed during the day.

Coral canvass

The next morning we cruised northward under overcast skies, and I got a better look at the Yasawas. These ancient volcanic islands were the setting for Tom Hanks' 2000 movie "Cast Away." For good reason. The islands are remote, reached only by boat or private seaplane. They have few resorts, telephones, banks or roadways. The terrain is hilly and covered with shrubs; coconut palms line the shores. The ship stopped at Yasawa, the northernmost island in the group, and a tender took us to a soft, deserted beach. Then the more intrepid among us followed Albert through a tangle of green vines and across fields with grass as high as my eyes. Our destination, a World War II American lookout station -- now a Japanese weather station -- sat atop a hill, giving us inviting views of our ship anchored in a cove.

Our walk left us ready to cool off in the warm sea, and again we followed Albert -- this time to a reef. Some passengers had never snorkeled, so he gave them a quick lesson. But Dashini, a 16-year-old from New Zealand, kept getting water in her mouth and came up sputtering. Albert went underwater to diagnose the problem.

"You're grinning too much," he told her. "That's breaking the seal around the mouthpiece."

"I can't help it," Dashini said. "It's too beautiful."

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.