Ni Sa Bula! This week we continue our dream vacation to Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu. We begin by visiting a local village, drink some kava, then check into a moderately priced adventure resort as we follow the bands at the Second Annual South Pacific Music Festival.
The trip to the local village is always one of the highlights. You can't come to Fiji and not visit a village -- it would be such a waste. It is a cultural treat, and a perfect place to buy Fijian handcrafts made by women. Don't worry if you forget your wallet. The Fijians have adapted to the 21st century -- you can charge what you buy to your room. Is that crazy or what?
Indo-Fijians and Fijians
Fiji's population is 51 percent indigenous Fijians and 44 percent Indo-Fijians. The Indo-Fijians live in settlements, while most indigenous Fijians live in villages. The colonial rulers who brought the Indians over from India as indentured servants (now called Indo-Fijians) set up settlements away from the Fijian villages. Keeping the two races segregated was meant to maintain the distinct Fijian community and identity. Almost everyone in a village is related, and the chief is treated like you'd imagine a chief would be (no one ever turns their back on him, his food is brought to himÂ¿).
Rules when Visiting a Village
At the village, guests can meet the chief and participate in a yaqona (kava) ceremony. Kava, derived from waka (dried root of the pepper plant), is a nonalcoholic drink that numbs the tongue and lips. This ceremony is quite long, and because it is performed in Fijian I have no idea what goes on. However, I do know to be quiet. When visiting a village, some basic rules must be honored: Guests should be invited (any resort can get you an invitation), and bring a gift of kava to the chief. Wearing shorts, hats and shoes (inside a room) is a big no-no. Women should keep their shoulders covered. It is also important to speak softly, show respect, and never touch someone's head. The most famous failure occurred in 1867, when Reverend Thomas Baker ended up as a meal after a tribal chief borrowed Baker's comb and Baker snatched it out of the chief's hair. The villagers were so upset, they even tried to eat his shoes. But rubber soles don't cook well, and they are now on exhibit at the Fiji Museum in Suva.
When my dad was picked first to meet the chief and drink the kava, I said, "Whatever you do, don't touch the chief's head -- and be sure to clap." When taking kava it is customary to give a hollow clap once, hold up the bowl, say "bula," and drink. You then hand the bowl back, and do three more hollow claps. My dad did a fine job, although from his displeasing expressions it was apparent that he despised the taste.
To my dad's dismay we drank kava a number of times. It was mostly after dinner, when we sat down around the kava bowl to hear each resort's string band. They play amazing music. I have never visited a country where so many people are so musically talented. It seems everyone knows how to play the guitar, sing and dance beautifully -- men, women and children. It also seems to be primarily men who drink kava, although I did see a few women (and even a couple of tourist children). However, the men -- especially those in the string bands -- appear to do nothing but play music and drink kava all night long. I know the Food and Drug Administration has warned of a possible link between kava and liver failure, but if they want to get the tests done right they should come here. The Bula Boys guesstimated they drink between 50 and 100 bowls each night. That's a lot of kava! After three bowls I was feeling fine.
A Traditional Ceremony
If you get a chance, try to attend a traditional Fijian ceremony. We got lucky, because the Cousteau resort was having a huge shindig to celebrate their 10th anniversary. These ceremonies start out very seriously, but after the formalities they turn into an old school fun party. Just like in the old days, the chief attended, and the ceremony lasted for a couple of hours. During the actual ceremony it is very rude to talk or move. In the old days, if you did either you would be clubbed to death (I feel bad for anyone who had to go the bathroom). When the chief showed up with his body guards, everyone got quiet real quick. Throughout the ceremony the chief was brought all kinds of gifts (mats, kava and a 400-pound pig). Then it was time to drink kava. After my third bowl I started to feel a little loopy -- not because it had any real effect, but because it was very hot, and I was exhausted from sitting with my legs crossed. All I wanted to do was stand up and stretch. Then I saw the big ol' dude holding a big ol' wooden club, and I decided I liked sitting with my legs crossed.
After the ceremony and speeches, there was a big party with mekes (dances) and song/chants. Mekes, an essential part of Fijian culture, are usually narratives of some important happening. They can either be handed down from generation to generation, or created for a particular event. Then comes everyone's favorite part: the huge feast. They had so much food: pork, chicken, fish, salads, local vegetables and fresh fruit. They also served all kinds of treats, and coffee and tea.
Checking Out Other Resorts
Many visitors who come to Fiji travel around to different areas of the country to get a feel for the diverse landscape. Even visiting other resorts on the same island can be a vastly different experience. This trip we stayed just on Vanua Levu, Fiji's second largest island. But we did sleep in three resorts, and as you will see each is quite unique.
The Koro Sun is the place for those on a budget, or looking for adventure. This resort will always hold a special place in my heart, for two reasons: It was the first Fijian resort I ever slept in, and because they employ Dick, their adventure tour guide. He is one of the coolest guys I've ever met, and is probably the best adventure guide in Fiji. Dick takes guests on hikes through jungles to incredible waterfalls. He teaches you how to catch crawfish with a reed, goes canoeing around a salt lake, brings you to a place where you can swim with wild dolphins, and leads a mellow mountain bike ride to a village. A slew of other activities throughout the 150-acre resort keeps anyone less adventurous busy too, including Ping-Pong, billiards, tennis, volleyball, golf, hiking, and swimming in two pools (one for adults, the other -- with a water slide -- for kids). Neither pool is impressive, but they are refreshing.
The Koro Sun currently has the only golf course on Vanua Levu. Guests can play rounds on their 9-hole par-3 course, and get free lessons from the golf pro, Vijay. I should have taken him up on those lessons, because when we played he kicked my butt silly. The golf course is an adventure itself: lots of ruts, high grass, and more frogs than you get shake a club at. Guests don't come here to play golf, of course; it's just an added bonus, and brings a great feel to the property.
The Koro Sun has 18 bures (Fijian thatched bungalows). Some have been remodeled, while others are still waiting to be. Guests can choose from either 1- or 2-bedroom bures; each offers indoor and outdoor showers. The five hillside bures have screened-in patios, with awesome views of the Koro Sea. I could sit out there all day, just writing or reading. The eight garden bures are so quaint, with white picket fences around private yards. In the past year the resort has added a honeymoon bure. It features a heart-shaped king bed, and an outdoor plunge pool. But the place to stay at this resort is the Grand Villa. The locals know it as "Jack's place" -- Jack Young is the owner, and an internationally renowned architect. When Jack is not in town, guests can stay in this phat 3-bedroom, 5,000-square foot, two-level house. Its Fijian name, Na Vale O, translates to "the house in the clouds." That's apt, because it sits at the very top of the resort property. It's probably 1,000 feet high, and the views are incredible. Guests can have a lot of fun entertaining, or swimming from the main building to the master bedroom suite -- plus they've got total privacy.
No matter where you stay, here's a bure tip: Because Savusavu is in the tropics, bugs are part of daily life. So don't leave the front door open, never leave food out, and throw away the fresh flowers that maids leave on the bed and sink (the flowers attract ants). Rates start at $260 a night, and all meals are included. Koro Sun Resort: tel. 877/567-6786; www.korosunresort.com.
No stay at the Koro Sun Resort would be complete without getting a massage in their rainforest spa. Just walking up to the spa is a treat in itself, because you take a colorful path lined with fruit trees and plants. I booked a Swedish massage for my dad, and he loved it. He couldn't stop talking about how he was in a covered, screened-in bure right next to a trickling river. Talk about relaxing! And it's not over-priced -- a 1-hour massage costs $60 USD. The Rainforest Spa is 100% natural, from the sound effects to the local ingredients (papaya, pineapple, pure virgin coconut oil, sea salt, Fijian cane sugar, seaweed, local nuts, star fruit, leaves from the banana and ti plants) that are used in wraps, scrubs, facials and signature massages. For more in-depth details, read about my previous stays at Koro Sun under "web resources."
South Pacific Music Festival
The reason we were in Fiji was to attend the 2nd Annual South Pacific World Music Festival. It's a 4-day event, and each night the bands performed at one of the host properties (Koro Sun, Namale, Cousteau and Hot Springs Hotel). The entertainers come from all over Fiji; one was from the nearby nation of New Caldonia. Words are too difficult to describe what it was like, and I know video won't do it justice, but here is a quick 2-minute clip of snippets from each night. I put it together to give you an idea of the wide array of music, and vastly different performers. BTW: The host of the festival (just like last year) was Laisa Vulakoro. One of Fiji's most famous singers, she has recorded 14 albums and performed all over the world.
Next week we check in to Anthony Robbins' Namale resort. Wait until you see this fantasy escape! Then find out if we make our way back to the U.S. as planned, or buy last-minute tickets and travel to another country my dad has always wanted to go to. (I'm putting my money on the latter.)
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John E. DiScala (aka Johnny Jet), is the founder of www.johnnyjet.com, the ultimate travel website and weekly newsletter. He logs over 150,000 miles a year, has been featured in over 700 articles (including Frommers.com, USA Today, Time, Fortune, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post), and has appeared on ABC, CBS, CNBC, MSNBC, NBC, FOX News Channel, and PBS. Sign up for Johnny Jet's Travel News, Tips and Stories at www.johnnyjet.com.
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