Treading water and staring up at a shaft of light that has broken through a fissure in the limestone ceiling, I find myself inside a flooded subterranean cave. On all sides, lichen hang like velvet drapes on the walls, while the water itself is a shimmering peacock’s tail of indigo, emerald and teal. High above us, symbols, like hieroglyphics, tell of those who have come before us.
The Sawa-i-Lau caves are the spiritual heart and soul of the Yasawa Islands, a chain of 20 or so volcanic islands off the north-west coast of Fiji. This is where the main islanders’ ancestors are believed to have come from, and where a young Brooke Shields led Christopher Atkins on a merry dance in the 1980 movie Blue Lagoon.
According to local lore, to say I’ve touched the spirit of the Yasawa Islands, I need to enter a second chamber, a secret cavern that can be reached only by slipping under a rocky curtain and swimming through an underwater tunnel. Entry is tide-dependent, but today the gods are smiling.
“Don’t fight, just hold your breath and keep kicking,” Captain Jitoko — or Ji — had told us earlier during the safety briefing, while handing around waiver forms. “We’ll have guides positioned on both sides.”
I swim towards Sefo, our charismatic barman and guide, who’s treading water and manning the hidden entrance. “Trust me,” he says, looking directly into my eyes while adjusting my mask. “But more importantly, trust yourself.” My limbs are trembling, and it’s not from the cold. I’m scared. Like the lion from The Wizard of Oz, I’m lacking courage — the recent loss of one parent and the ill-health of another has left me reeling.
This four-night cruise aboard Blue Lagoon’s Fiji Princess is partly a journey in search of an authentic side to Fiji, far from the resort areas of the Coral Coast and Port Denarau, and partly so that my husband and I can reconnect — with ourselves and each other. Decades ago, we’d honeymooned in Fiji, so it seemed a natural choice.
On Sefo’s count of three I take a deep breath, slip under the watery ledge and kick like a mule. One kick, two kicks, and I’m through, the steadying hands of crew member, Jona, cushioning my head and pulling me out in a manoeuvre not unlike birthing a baby. To Jona’s satisfaction, I let out a lusty yowl; a mix of relief and wonder as I drink in the inky surrounds — a galaxy of light, sparkle and shadows.
Of all the things I expected to find in the Yasawa Islands, a Bear Grylls-style dunking wasn’t one of them. Within minutes my husband appears, his face beaming like a schoolboy as his hand reaches for mine. While we float around in the semi-darkness, Jona regales us with local legends about the young chief who kept his lover here. “This cave is the most spiritual of all,” he says. “Locals from neighbouring Tamasua Village believe it’s the final resting place of the 10-headed ancient Fijian god, Ulutini.”
Later that afternoon, we’ll visit Tamasua Village to share dinner with the villagers, but first we head back to the ship to freshen up. Refurbished in 2014, Fiji Princess is the flagship of Blue Lagoon Cruises; small enough to tie up to a coconut tree, big enough to boast 34 cabins. Being a smaller boutique cruise ship means she can sidle right up close to the islands, taking passengers off the beaten track and into areas where daytrippers from the major resorts can’t reach. Exploration equipment, such as kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, snorkelling gear and tenders for reef safaris, bring guests even closer to what feels like a slightly less touristy Fiji.
Before going ashore on Tamasua Island, we’re reminded of the cultural etiquette: dress modestly with long sarongs tied over our clothes; no hats; shoes must be removed before entering buildings; and bring a gift such as yaqona (kava). The final formality is to elect a leader for when we meet the chief. “Traditionally, each Fijian villager is born into a certain role in the family unit,” explains Jona. “And each village, comprising several family units, still has a head chief from the most prominent family.”
Our all-Fijian crew are a source of useful insights into traditional family life. One day they lead us on a hike across Nanuya Lailai Island for lemon tea and coconut cake at Lo’s Tea House, pausing on the way to shop at ‘Grandma’s’ shellmarket. On other days, they take us snorkelling to some of their favourite sites. In between, they teach us how to prepare a traditional lovo (a feast wrapped in palms and cooked under the earth), invite us to play volleyball and take us fishing.
But mostly they sing for us, with passion and pride; in the mornings, while serving breakfast; after lunch, while resting under the shade of a coconut tree; and in the evenings, up on deck, strumming guitars and singing like sea gypsies under a blanket of stars.
And if singing is a constant, so too is ‘Bula!’, the national greeting that means hello, good health, I’m happy to see you — and anything in between. Delivered with gusto, it’s a blessing of health and happiness that we receive wherever we go. And if you ever come to Fiji, you’d better have a lusty ‘Bula!’ ready in reply.
I’ve come to these islands to get beyond the resorts, for a spot of cultural immersion that’s not merely something rolled out as after-dinner entertainment. On Tamasua Island the entertainment begins before dinner — and we’re the performers. Hitching our poorly-tied sarongs we straggle ashore, bellowing the visitor’s traditional greeting — “Doh-A, Doh-A, Doh-A”; our out-of-tune rendition bringing shy giggles from the children who have rushed out to meet us. Our gift of kava, held aloft like a Wimbledon trophy by our self-appointed chief, brings even wider smiles from the waiting men.
With the sun low and lovely in the sky, we sit cross-legged on the grass for the kava ceremony, a relaxed camaraderie between our Western and Pacific cultures already well-established. Looking xacross at the coconut trees, their trunks curved like dinosaur ribs against the coral sky, I reflect on how many past chiefs and tribes have previously met in this grassy space, sharing kava and chewing the fat in equal amounts.
Participation isn’t compulsory and there’s no shame for those who choose not to try the mildly narcotic drink — Fijians are very laid-back about such matters. If you do partake, the rules are simple: give a one hand clap on receiving the shell, glug it down in one gulp, then three claps once you’ve finished. Be warned, it’ll give you a numb tongue and tastes like dirt, but the feeling of relaxation is worth it.
We then join the locals in their communal meeting hall for a dinner of plump mud crabs in coconut milk, yams with spinach pesto and apple fritters cooked in sticky brown sugar. We dine cross-legged on the floor, eating with our fingers, island-style. There’s no pretension, no show; just a simple, shared meal rounded off by the heart-wrenching farewell song Isa Lei. “This song expresses happiness, joy, sorrow, hope and love,” says a village elder. “It means we’re sorry you’re departing and that we long for the time when we shall meet again.”
The next morning we anchor off Drawaqa (or Barefoot) Island, a fluff of green afloat in a sea of blue. “We’ll have a barbecue here later,” announces Captain Ji. Then, as we’re all nodding our approval, he adds, “The beach is the grill and you’ll be the meat.”
As he crumples with laughter at his own joke, I deduce this means we’re in for a hot day on an exposed beach. Drawaqa Island’s stretch of sand is open to the elements, but the beach fairies have gone ashore early, putting up umbrellas, laying down beach mats and setting out morning tea. But as lovely as this is, I’m keen to leave the world above water behind.
Dubbed the ‘soft coral capital of the world’ by Jean-Michel Cousteau, the reefs of the Yasawa Islands are perfect for diving and snorkelling. Being largely undeveloped, the marine environment is still pristine, with each of the volcanic islands offering a different experience. Dive sites with names such as Garden of Eden, Dream Maker, Breath Taker and Fantastic Wall hint at the riches below.
“Welcome to Manta Alley,” says Captain Ji, as we glide through the tie-dyed stretch of turquoise and emerald water between Drawaqa and Naviti Islands. “The manta rays come here each year between May and September to feed on the nutrient-rich plankton.” As it’s the first week of May, we’re hoping to see some of these gentle giants, but at the moment our luck’s out.
We enter the water from the tender, with the plan to drift on the currents and snorkel back to shore. The water is a warm 27C, with perfect visibility, allowing us to see every nook of the brightly-coloured corals. Shoals of anthias dart between elkhorn coral as we spot starfish, sea fans and giant clam beds. My husband reaches for my hand, leading me away from the others to show me a patch of rare black coral, its filaments waving about like dreadlocks.
Later, a marine biologist from the island comes onboard to give a lecture on the marine environment. “We work with dive centres and volunteers to monitor manta ray numbers, behaviour and habitats,” says Sammy. “We also count shark and turtle numbers, report on crown of thorn sea stars, and monitor the overall health of the reefs.”
Passengers also have the opportunity to give back to the communities they visit through Blue Lagoon’s sister company Vinaka Fiji, a volunteer enterprise and charitable trust that assists remote Yasawa communities in marine conservation and school education programmes. Since Cyclone Winston struck the islands in February, help is needed now more than ever.
We’ve been invited to visit Yasawa High School on Naviti Island to see for ourselves the damage done by the cyclone and to bring donations and supplies. After stepping ashore, where a giant-sized ‘WELCOME’ sign has been spelled out on the beach in seaweed and shells, the first people I meet are two British girls from Hampshire, Hattie and Lydie, friends who are travelling the world on a gap year and have somehow washed up in the Yasawa Islands as volunteers. “Coming here is a chance to teach the children about things outside of their village,” says Hattie. “In return I’m learning how other people live.”
The pair are working one-on-one with primary school-age children, helping with reading, writing and spelling on a programme that has seen Grade 7 pass rates increase to 71% since its inception in 2012. “While the experience allows me to give back, I’m also expanding my own perspective,” says Lydie.
Of the 300 volunteers who’ve signed up with Vinaka Fiji in the last 12 months, a whopping 70% are from the UK. “Volunteers of all skills and abilities are needed,” says vice-principal Alifereti Nasila. “If you can hold a hammer, you can help.”
As we gather on the steps, the children treat us to a spirited dance performance, telling about their love of island life in the Yasawas and some of the hardships they face. While each of the islands is unique in its own way, singing is the constant that unites them all.
Afterwards, we tour the school, where the damage from Cyclone Winston is still very much evident. There’s a dormitory block without a roof, bare slabs of concrete hinting at buildings that were completely blown away, and twisted, headless coconut trees shivering like skeletons in the breeze. “We’re still finding tables and chairs in the distant fields,” says Nasila. “And our science block is all but destroyed.”
Still, a sign on the damaged science room reads: “Difficult doesn’t mean impossible. It simply means that you have to work hard.” It’s a motto befitting of the islanders themselves and their resilient character.
Under the brilliant blue skies, I’ve become attuned to the daily ebb and flow of island life, from the sound of village drums signalling the arrival of visitors to the appearance of dolphins predicting overnight rain. And I’m reminded of how, at the start, I was told the heart of the Yasawa could be found in the Sawa-i-Lau caves. I actually feels its found in the spirit of the people who inhabit this extraordinary environment.
Getting there & around
Air New Zealand flies daily between Heathrow and Los Angeles with onward connections to Nadi (Fiji) with Fiji Airways. British Airways flies daily between Heathrow and Hong Kong, with onward connections to Nadi with Fiji Airways.
When to go
The dry season — early May to late September — is the ideal time to visit. December to April is the wet season.
Lonely Planet Fiji. RRP: £15.99
Rough Guide to Fiji. RRP: £15.99
How to do it
Blue Lagoon Cruises offers three-, four- and seven-night itineraries through the Mamanuca and Yasawa Island groups. The four-night Wanderer cruise (Orchard cabin) costs from £1,375 per person, based on two sharing, while the seven-night Escape to Paradise cruise (Orchard cabin) costs from £2,264. Prices include all meals and guided shore excursions and exclude international flights.
Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa offers pre- and post-cruise accommodation near Port Denarau Marina, from £220 a night in a luxury oceanside room.
Published in the December 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)