There is a story repeated all over Fiji. An Australian family visits and is overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome extended to them, and especially their children. They are so charmed by the locals, and so relaxed by the island paradise, they return year after year.
The story went a chapter further with Jay Whyte, an Aussie who first visited Fiji in 1991 and returned in 2006 with a dream. As a youngster, Whyte had been introduced to the “real Fiji” when a newfound friend, Pita, took him home to his village of Draiba. As an adult he returned, determined to give other tourists a hands-on introduction to Fijian culture, combined with the fun of jet boating, which he had tried and loved in New Zealand. The result is the hugely popular Sigatoka River Safaris.
It’s an overcast morning when we are picked up from Denarau’s Westin Resort and Spa, but this only makes the drive through the Sigatoka Valley to the launch spot more magical. Known as Fiji’s “salad bowl” for the produce it provides most of the island, the valley’s mossy mahogany trees are shrouded in mist.
At the jetty we meet our cheeky guide – who calls himself “Captain Jack” – and soon the tranquility is shattered. Captain Jack has us hurtling towards our destination at a pace that makes all the passengers shriek in delight. In between Jack’s sharp turns and 360-spins, he does slow down at times to give us a colourful potted history of Fiji, the river and its people. Then it’s a short clamber up the riverbank to the village of Vunarewa, where we don sulus (sarongs) for a tour of the village and a traditional yaqona, or kava, ceremony.
Made from the roots of a shrub, yaqona is cultivated specifically for serving as a traditional ritual at important occasions. Captain Jack has already chosen our “chief” for the day, a respected elder of our own “tribe” (he turns out to be a 65-year-old English doctor holidaying with his wife), who presents our gift of a kava plant to our hosts and he takes pride of place opposite the village elders as the kava is ceremoniously passed around. We are all invited to drink, although those who have heard of kava’s mildly narcotic effects, from a slight numbing of the lips and tongue to a gradual sense of relaxation, are hesitant.
The women of the village have prepared a delicious lunch of tropical fruits such as pineapple and breadfruit, a local spinach and chicken, which is worked off, perhaps aided by the effects of the kava, with traditional dancing.
Meanwhile back on Denarau Island, there’s a distinctly Australian flavour when it comes to dining. Guests of the Westin Resort and Spa and the Sheraton Hotel have been quick to embrace two Aussie restaurants that have opened their homes-away-from home in the resort hot spot.
The Westin is home to an offshoot of Moo Moo The Wine Bar and Grill, which already has a loyal following at its restaurants in Brisbane and the Gold Coast, but in Fiji you can sit so close to the waterfront there is sand literally beneath your feet. The specialty is a one-kilogram, spice-rubbed Wagyu rump, sliced at the table and shared between two, three or four diners. It’s served with a variety of sides, most notably a delicious pear, parmesan and rocket salad, and positively melts in your mouth.
Foodies are also flocking to Flying Fish at the Sheraton, for renowned Sydney chef Peter Kuruvita’s signature Sri Lankan curry, starring plump king prawns, and it’s every bit as good as the one-hat headquarters in Pyrmont.
Another favourite with a reputation that has already reached Australia is Ports O’ Call, also at the Sheraton, which offers fine dining in a more rarefied ambience reminiscent of a classic ocean liner.
Have you ever been to Fiji and would you go again? Let us know!