The catamaran from Captain Cook Cruises is slicing through the calm seas, heading for a holiday island. But this is not a trip from Fremantle to Rottnest. Behind us is Port Denarau, on the west coast of Fiji, and up ahead areis the Mamanuca Islands, with plenty to offer holidaymakers.
There are 20 islands in the Mamanucan chain but seven off them are covered by the Pacific Ocean at high tide. Some of the others are little more than a pimple in the ocean — a reef of coral, beautiful blue-green water, a circle of sandy beach and some palm trees swaying in the breeze.
Take your pick.
On one side is the 70ha Monuriki Island which has a classy tourist resort on its west side. This is the island where the movie Cast Away was filmed — the place where Tom Hanks had a ball with his friend Wilson.
On the other side is Treasure Island, where a holiday resort covers the entire 6ha of the island. There are 66 bungalows – with hammocks – only a few paces from the beach and the resort has an infinity swimming pool and manicured tropical gardens.
But our destination for a day trip is straight ahead — Beachcomber Island. If you have ever dreamt ed of coming across an island in the middle of nowhere, then Beachcomber Island is it. Known as Fiji’s party island, you can walk around it in 10 minutes. The little resort on the island has 22 bungalows, each with a sundeck. It looks the perfect spot to disappear and write that crime novel you have been promising yourself.
But that’s for another day. We have only a few hours on the island and lots to do.
First stop is the Barefoot Bar, just a few paces up the beach where we sample some local food and drink. Soon I am sitting on the wall outside one of the bungalows as some of our group try snorkelling. Later, I venture to a more comfortable spot on the warm sand as others strap themselves in for a spot of parasailing.As the day wears on, I become a bit more adventurous. I hand-feed some baby turtles, then go out in a glass-bottomed boat to the reef and feed food scraps to some very hungry and brightly-coloured fish.
After all this activity, and to get out of the sun, we are soon back in the bar, where we are entertained by a local band and some dancers. Sadly, we are back on the catamaran before the nightly beach party starts.
This day on Beachcomber Island is the highlight of our 11-day Fijian Jewels cruise out of Brisbane aboard the Sun Princess. After a red-eye flight from Perth, a day in Brisbane and a night in an apartment, we join 2000 passengers waiting to board the Sun Princess. And it is done like clockwork, as soon we were in our cabin and the suitcases were delivered.
There’s still the main swimming pool on the top deck with an oasis pool and spa tubs tucked away towards the rear. Still the all-you-can-eat buffet on top with the alternative speciality dining rooms, where the quality and the choice are first-class.
For entertainment, there’s the Princess Theatre at the front of the ship and the Vista Lounge at the back (or maybe it’s the other way around), a casino, plush bars and a nightclub.
There’s a gym (at least it looked like a gym because as I only saw it from the outside), a library, an internet cafe and duty-free shops. As before, you can choose to keep yourself busy with all sorts of activities from napkin folding to Zumba dancing. Or why not just sit back on the promenade deck and watch the sea go by?
There are places we never went, such as the daily GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual) meetings and the nightclub. After a busy day, dinner and then the theatre, it is usually time for bed with the occasional stop off at the casino. It is something of a standing joke between the MC and the obviously older crowd in the theatre that their next stop should be the nightclub in the hope that numbers might reach double figures.
Our first stop two days after leaving Brisbane is Noumea, the capital of New Caledonia, so named by Captain James Cook because the island reminded him of his father’s native Scotland (except for the tropical climate). Noumea has a population of about 100,000 and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the Pacific, fuelled by investment from France.
In fact, the French influence is evident everywhere — on road signs and shops and by the number of Renault and Citroen cars on the streets.
And the locals are used to receiving boatloads of tourists. Our bus from the harbour takes us to the Noumea Tourist Centre which is teeming with tour guides offering bargain rides on a bus or mini-train around the city.
On a drive around the city, you are likely to see plenty of colonial homes and old churches, lots of boats in the harbour and be taken up to the Ouen Toro Lookout where old Australian cannons from World War II still stand guard. However, too many parts of Noumea are spoilt by graffiti and it doesn’t look like much is being done to clean it up.
The next day our next stop is the strikingly beautiful Isle of Pines, which has an abundance of big pine trees and brilliant beaches.
From the jetty, it is only a short walk to the “back” beach at Kanumera Bay which has a sacred rock island a short distance from the beach — just a perfect spot for swimming or snorkelling.
As the day wears on and the wind gets stronger, it is time to move about 30m across the road to the front beach, otherwise known as Kuto Bay, where the white sand is even finer, with plenty of trees to provide shade. We could have ventured further into the island, which has a population of 2000, but back-to-back beaches are enough for one day.
Suva, the capital of Fiji, is our next stop. Hardly a day goes by in Suva without some rainfall and the rain is kind enough to stop minutes before we hit the main shopping area. The official residence of the president — with an armed guard in traditional skirt at the entrance — echoes the island’s colonial past while the Fiji Museum contains some gruesome exhibits from the cannibal era as well as the rudder from Captain Bligh’s Bounty.
A local taxi driver, who offers to drive the four of us around town for $10 each, waits patiently for us to leave the museum. With the rain gone, it is now humid and sticky. Asked if he has air-conditioning in his cab, he replies: “Sure — the windows are open.”To be fair, he is a real character with lots of local knowledge and it is well worth the money.
From there, it is on to Port Denarau and Beachcomber Island before our final port of call — Port Vila in Vanuatu. The locals must have known we were coming because as there are dozens of taxis and mini-vans queued up to take passengers the short distance into the city centre.
Immediately outside the harbour gates, the markets and stalls fill both sides of the road, offering all the usual T-shirts, sarongs, materials, trinkets and ornaments.
In town, it is easy to get around because as every vehicle on the busy main streets seems ready to quote a price if you are prepared to jump in.
To get away from the cars and the shops, we decide to hop on a little ferry boat for the three-minute trip to Iririki Island Resort in Vila Bay. We only have time for a long lunch, but the resort has 130 guest rooms in a mix of apartments and bungalows strung around the island. It looks very tempting but our cruise ship is warming up its engines for the long haul back to Brisbane.We manage to keep ourselves so busy doing not very much over the next couple of days that I never managed to make the napkin-folding class.
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