Saturday, May 16, 2015

1MB Travels: Fiji: Adventure Flashpacking Day 5: Rainforest Ziplining, Slipper Lobsters, and Young Coconut Plucked to Order

Sunday was my last day in Fiji, and we were originally just planning to 'chill' and enjoy the beach. 

But with the impending end to a bucketlist, adventure packed trip - we decided to make the most of every minute.

With the lack of info online about activities schedules in Fiji in general (most resorts say just stop by the activities desk, and vendor websites mostly do not post times) - we'd approached the front desk the day before, asking if any zipline companies would be operating Sunday.  We were told pretty much everything is closed Sundays, and a waterfall hike run by Uprising that would require a long boat ride was our only option.  The receptionist, at our insistence, supposedly confirmed this by phone to Zip Fiji.

A former boss used to always say: "Always ask twice", and it's been a part of my don't-give-up-easy approach that's carried through to my personal life.  So, I emailed the company before bed, and sure enough, we woke to an email clearing up the confusion - they are OPEN, and would we like a car to come pick us up in the morning?

So, with a pit stop to Uprising Resort's restaurant for international style buffet breakfast...
...with fresh scrambled eggs, fluffy pancakes and the ubiquitous 'tropical juice', we were off to the rainforests of southern Viti Levu.

25 minutes, and we had arrived at Zip Fiji's private eco reserve.  



We were outfitted with gear, then a scenic (and informative, thanks to our enthusiastic guides, who pointed out and told stories about local plants along the way) hike up the mountain to get to the first platform.

The course consisted of 8 ziplines, through lush tropical greenery and over the Wainadoi river valley under the sun-soaked, cotton-puff-cloud-filled blue skies of Fiji.   

Shark diving was hard to beat, but rainforest ziplining gave us on land, an experience to also cleanse all the stresses of every day life from our systems. Both provided that pure rush, that connected with nature and made you so, so (appreciative of being) alive.

Our tour guide was awesome and turned my iPhone into a makeshift GoPro - check out his video below! (Yes my phone made it back in one piece - seems that he's done this before ;))

 

Zip Fiji apparently also offers several zipline adventures including one in Nadi (around the airport area!) where outdoor ziplines yield to limestone cave systems 100 meters deep that you can rappel intoWe definitely need to check that one out if we make it back to Fiji some day.
 

Back at Pacific Harbour, our driver was kind enough to help us pick up our luggage from Uprising Resort, and take  us over to our next hotel:  The Pearl South Pacific. 

Where all of our previous 'resorts' did have a bit of the vibe of upgraded backpacker venues, The Pearl was a true resort in the traditional sense of the word - we definitely felt a huge difference in the beautiful, very modern architecture and grounds, the level of service from the moment we set foot on property, and the fact that their restaurant had a live band at lunch, performing covers of the latest Top 40 hits poolside.

Plus, thoughtful cocktails that meld Western with local flavors!  And no mosquitos in sight - not sure how they managed this, but it resulted in our undying love for The Pearl at first (non) sight.






 We had just 40 minutes before our spa appointment - just enough time to grab a bit of lunch.

Already excited to find that we had arrived on BBQ Day, with AYCE LOBSTERS at the lunch buffet - we got a bonus in the types of lobsters that were offered, one of which we had never seen before: a Slipper Lobster, common to the Australia / New Zealand / Fiji area.  I thought they tasted a bit sweeter and more tender than the lobster we get in the States.



Here's a shot of the other super photogenic whole lobster split.










Stuffed, we headed to the spa. A beautiful, modern 4-star space that we didn't want to leave.

And yes, we reaffirmed that there is nothing in the world like a free massage in tropical paradise.
Post treatment, we got to enjoy soothing ginger tea in the lounge.  The attentive hostess, noticing that pretty much every one of our limbs were polka dotted with mosquito bites - showed us this amazing "dilo" lotion (yes, we almost spat our tea out when we first read the name, with an extra consonant inserted by our subliminal selves).  

Apparently dilo is a fruit native to the south pacific, whose 'somewhat poisonous' kernel produces an oil that became popular for healing skin ailments: the extract is supposed to enhance the skin's natural regenerative functions, and speed up healing, with antiseptic properties to boot.  It's most commonly used for burns, inflammation and rashes.
 
The Pure Fiji bath/body/skincare products line uses a lot of this nut oil, and the Dilo Rescue body gel in particular worked wonders to ease our evil itchy mosquito bites.

After the spa, I had only about an hour before my hired car was due to come take me to the airport, and we chose to spend it by the pool (the beach at Pacific Harbour definitely doesn't compare to Blue Lagoon's warm, crystal clear blue water and soft pristine white sand.  But The Pearl had a swim up bar!).

That's when @gourmetpigs reminded me that we still hadn't gotten a fresh young coconut.  Throughout the trip, knowing it was cliche, we still expected that coconut would be served everywhere we went - but even til the last day, it was MIA - until The Pearl.  No, they did not have it on the menu either - but when we asked the bartender, he offered to climb up a tree to fetch a fresh one for us!!!  Now that's 5-star service!!  (Video to come).

It was hard to leave utopia - the only thing I'd missed was the chance to make a visit to the local village, but @gourmetpigs stayed an extra day and you can read all about it soon on her blog!

Can't wait til the next time we can say Bula to Fiji again!


(Read all about the other days on our bucket list Fiji trip here: Day 1 , Day 2Day 3, and Day 4)


___________________________________________________________________

Fiji

ZipFiji
Ph: +679-672-6045
Email: zip@zip-fiji.com
Website: zip-fiji.com


The Pearl South Pacific Resort
Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Ph:+679 773 0022
Email: stay@thepearlsouthpacific.com
Website: thepearlsouthpacific.com

Koro Makawa Rentals & Tours (car service)
Ph: 3450567
Email: kmrentals@hotmail.com
facebook.com/koromakawarentalsandtours


Day 5 costs breakdown:
  • Breakfast at Uprising Resort: included in price of hotel
  • Car service from hotel to zipline and back: $0 (FREE, courtesy of Zip Fiji), $5 Fiji tip
  • Zip Fiji:  $225 Fiji per person (~$187 USD pp)
  • The Pearl South Pacific
    • Lunch at The Pearl: $29 USD pp
    • Massage: $0 included with hotel stay, $10 Fiji tip
    • Dilo lotion: $10 Fiji
    • 1 night stay (@gourmetpigs only)
  • Car service (Koromea): $160 Fiji (~$80 USD)
  • Total: ~$307 USD

(Also see my recaps for Day 1 , Day 2Day 3, and Day 4)
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Sunday, May 10, 2015

1MB Travels: Fiji: Adventure Flashpacking Day 4: Shark Diving, Arts Village, Kumaran Chetty's

"Do one thing that scares you, every day." - Eleanor Roosevelt

I didn't grow up dreaming of swimming with sharks.

I ended up doing it metaphorically, involuntarily, most of my professional career - and on this trip to Fiji, literally, semi-voluntarily.

Truthfully, my original intention with Fiji was to dive the world famous Rainbow Reef. Fiji is the soft coral capital of the world, and scuba diving there is definitely a bucket list adventure.  I'd dreamed of a utopic underwater world, fish of all sizes and creatures of all forms flitting around, technicolor coral formations in all directions - marine life at 500% vibrancy.

But Fiji also features probably the best shark diving in the world - a once in a lifetime experience on par with, and possibly overshadowing the Rainbow Reef.  With the safety rule of not diving 24 hours before flying, we could only choose one.  As I was traveling with daredevil @gourmetpigs, and *because* the thought of diving with sharks (and as extremely inexperienced divers, at that - we'd only completed the minimum dives required to get PADI certified) terrified me - we decided to go for the shark dive.  When else in our lives were we going to do this?  And, if we were going to take the risk: might as well do it at the best place possible.

After some research, we decided on Beqa Adventure Divers - run by marine biologists who were conservationists first and foremost, running tours to educate, inform and raise funds to keep protecting sharks and their beautiful habitats. While they were perfectly friendly to guests/customers, what we loved was that they did not seem to be tourist pleasers, who would never encourage any goofy, risky behavior, nor tolerate silly selfie-takers. 

Four dive masters accompanied our group of five amateurs, led by a guide who asked to be addressed as 'Papa'.  Papa was charismatic and very entertaining on the boat ride to our dive site - but make no mistake, he had been running this tour for 18 years, loves the sharks like his own children - he knows almost all of the regulars by name - and never had any incidents.  He laid out the rules we were to follow, not only to keep us safe from the sharks, but the sharks safe from us (after all, if anything were to happen, the damage from a fear driven public would cause irreparable harm to the entire shark population).  

Our destination that early morning was to Shark Reef Marine Reserve, an aquatic park with coral walls built for the study of the resident shark population.  We would travel as a group to each wall, amateurs to lie prone, heads down - while divemasters used tuna heads and other feed above us to attract the sharks.  The first stop was at a ledge 30 meters / 100 feet down, in "The Arena", where we spend just under 20 amazing minutes with 30 to 40 bull sharks swirling around us.



Then we move up to "The Shallows", at 16 meters / 55 feet - where smaller sharks from blacktips, whitetips, grey to lemon dart back and forth along the wall, sometimes at just arm's length from us. 

The thrill of the first dive was incredible: there is the expected adrenaline rush, but at the same time, an amazing stillness from being in the presence of the majestic creatures, designed by nature as the most efficient killers, but really simply following the basic instinct to survive - just like all other living beings.  We didn't see the blood-lust driven monsters from Jaws movies that everyone who thought we were insane were afraid that we would come across (ok we didn't encounter that exact species, great whites, either, but you get the point).  They're not swimming around looking for humans to tear limb from limb - most shark attacks happen because sharks can't see very well, and sometimes mistake humans for fish.

If you're wondering what was protecting us from sharks who can't distinguish us from lunch - it was basically our divemasters, holding blunt metal rods (shaped like those triangle-handled screwdrivers you get with IKEA furniture sometimes) that they use to gently nudge curious sharks away whenever they get a little too close. 

When we surfaced, we were very pleasantly surprised to hear that there was a second round!  This time, the divemasters HAND FED a line of bull sharks, right in front of us!  The sharks seemed to know the drill though, and were very comfortable with all the feeders and having us bunch of tourists around watching while they grabbed lunch from the divemasters, in protective metal mesh suits.

All in all, an incredible bucket list experience - one that we will always look back on proudly to have done!!!

After an adventure-filled morning, we headed back to the resort for a little R&R.


Since we arrived fairly late night the first night, it was great to get a chance to see and appreciate the resort property with its traditionally-styled bures (even at the oceanfront bar).
We ordered our requisite island drinks ('tropical juice' - a blend I think of watermelon, pineapple, and ? - seemed to popular here too)
And after all the excitement, we realized we were starving - and inhaled this lovely kokoda (traditional Fijian ceviche made with mahi mahi and coconut cream) presented in a coconut shell bowl, the best version of it we'd had in Fiji so far - with super fresh fish that was just the right supple texture and infused with flavor.




We also had mahi mahi prepared another way: as fish and chips, also tasty with a fresh fried golden crispy exterior and juicy, flaky fish beneath. 









The only bit of trouble we had in paradise was with mosquitos - they were everywhere, and made quick lunch of us wherever we went.  Time to break out my secondary supply of mosquito repellent - I was trying to stay 'natural' as much as possible, and had brought "Florida Water" from Hong Kong's "Two Girls" brand.  It smelled great, and was supposed to repel bugs.  But like all the other repellent I brought, this didn't work very well.  In Fiji, if mosquitos are a problem for you (I'm allergic and bites swell up sometimes to knuckle size), I would advise on giving in to tropical-strength / max strength DEET repellent. They smell like death and are bad for the environment and for the person inhaling the fumes - but they will work to keep those bloodsuckers from making a meal of you.




Photo credit: artsvillage.fiji.com
We'd heard that Arts Village was a great place to visit, and that it was 'just across the street' from Uprising Resort, and decided to walk off our lunch there.  

Found out this was a bad idea for 3 reasons:

  • Across the street turns out to be 15 minutes
  • In the Fijian heat, every minute feels like half an hour
  • During wet season, downpours can happen at any minute without warning

We totally got scorched in the heat of the first part of the walk, then drenched in the rain running for cover (which was still a distance away).

Photo credit: artsvillage.fiji.com
Oh yeah, and there was a fourth reason: while we had planned fairly meticulously the rest of the itinerary to ensure we maximized every minute of the bucket list trip, I had somehow missed looking up showtimes for the the Arts Village fire walking and meke dance.  Maybe in the back of my mind I thought it was something that would occur a few times throughout the day, or perhaps once in the evening (allowing us plenty of time to get there after our shark dive).  

Apparently there was only 1 show time, at 2:30 - and we had missed it.  

Also, 'Fiji time' meant that all the little shops close by 3:30pm / 4pm. While to be honest we were not impressed by the number and quality of shops we did manage to see, we also don't know what it might have been like if we had arrived early enough for most stores (and possibly table vendors) to be open.  I had been looking forward to getting some unique souvenirs, especially handcrafted items like the Fijian weave bracelets / bags - but the shops we saw mostly carried standard issue postcards, magnets, generic shell jewelry and bath products.  There was also a small market, where we were hoping to find local snacks and other food treasures - but that one also catered to tourists and carried mainly processed items from Australia.

So learn from our mistakes and if you go: 
1) Take a taxi
2) Plan even your visit to the local arts village to give yourself time to fully enjoy it.

Venturing on to check out local fare at Kumaran Chetty's down the street, we had a lovely meal of lamb curry 



...and Mahi Mahi curry.  A little more expensive than we had expected, at $35 Fiji total (~$17 USD) including drinks, but we were glad to have been able to check out a local spot.

All in all, an amazing Day 4!


(You can see my recaps for Day 1 here , Day 2 here and Day 3 here)


___________________________________________________________________

Fiji

Uprising Beach Resort
Queens Rd, Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Website: uprisingbeachresort.com

Beqa Adventure Divers
Lagoon Resort, Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Ph: +679 345 0911
Email: contactus@fijisharkdive.com
Website: fijisharkdive.com

Arts Village
Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Ph: +679 345 0065
Website: artsvillage.com.fj
Program:
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday
10:45am – 11:45pm – Boat Tour
12pm – 1pm – Temple Tour
1:15pm – 2:15pm – Lovo Lunch
2:30pm – 3:30pm – Fire walking & Meke Show

Kumaran Chetty's
Lot 9 Pacific Highway, Pacific Harbour, (Opposite Pacific Timber), 3450096 Navua, Central, Fiji
Ph: +679 9962062
facebook.com/pages/Kumaran-Restaurant

Day 4 costs breakdown:
  • Car service from hotel to Beqa Adventure Divers and back: $0 (FREE, provided with dive - just have hotel call to arrange in advance).  Tip optional (we tipped $8 Fiji total roundtrip)
  • Shark dive:  $375 Fiji per person (~$187 USD pp) PADI certification required, Open Water Diver at minimum
  • Lunch at Uprising Resort: $27.50 Fiji per person (~$13.75 USD)
  • Dinner at Kumaran Chetty's: $17 Fiji per person (~$9 USD pp tip included) 
  • Taxis: $10 Fiji (~$5 USD)
  • Uprising Beach Resort 2nd night (@gourmetpigs caught a promo code that knocked $100 off this night's booking.  And free upgrade to beachfront bure continued!): $31 USD total tax included) prepaid via Orbitz
  • Total: ~$229.75 USD per person

(See my recaps for Day 1 here , Day 2 here , Day 3 here, and Day 5 here)
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Sunday, April 26, 2015

1MB Travels: Fiji: Adventure Flashpacking Day 3: Limestone Caves, Fijian at Tata's, Pacific Harbour

Island time - it can flow so slowly and ebb so quickly at the same time.  Before we knew it, the last day at Blue Lagoon Resort was upon us.  

With the hard stop of boat pickup at 1:00pm (the trade off for remote serenity: there is only ONE boat per day back to the main island), we had just enough time for breakfast and one more activity - a limestone cave excursion!

The breakfast buffet at Blue Lagoon is excellent - and something to look forward to.  They take care to change it up just a little each day so you don't get bored.  

We discovered a hot tray we'd missed the day before: it catered to international tastes, but all tasted super fresh and delicious, especially the lamb sausage!


What I was most excited about however, were the local items: gulagula was my favorite: a Fijian traditional donut with bits of banana and sultanas in a hot steaming football shaped fried airy pillow of deliciousness.
There were also Babakaus, another kind of Fijian donut made simply with flour, yeast, sugar and water.
All fueled up, we headed down to the activities desk where we piled into a speedboat towards Sawa-i-Lau, the famed limestone cave where they filmed a scene in The Blue Lagoon movie from the 80's starring Brooke Shields (I think this scene - sorry, a bit graphic)!

It was small, but breathtaking - from the beach, you take stone steps up to the narrow entrance, then descend into water and swim through to a skylit opening with soaring limestone walls.

We had been a bit apprehensive about the part where we had to swim underwater, beneath a solid stone roof, in order to access the inner rooms. 

But luckily, it was only for a few moments - no more than a 45 second swim - and our guide brought a floating device that guests who were not strong swimmers could hold onto, and be towed with, once we got into the inner rooms.

The darkened inner chambers had a sense of mystery and danger to them, heightened by the tour guide's mentions of water eels in its murky depths.  We broke the tension by shouting "Bula!" loudly throughout the rooms.

Once we were done with the tour, we were free to roam through a few tables of vendors selling trinkets and shell jewelry on the beach.  I loved that they recognize you came in your swimsuit and didn't bring any cash, so though the setup looks makeshift, they actually are very organized in recording your resort room number, and then providing a billing slip so that we can pay the boatman when we got back to the resort.

It was nice to have a bit of time before the boat ride back, to answer the call of the clear, warm water beckoning us in.


Back at the resort, it was a bit of a whirlwind - checkout had to happen quickly, and our bags were rushed to the front desk for labeling and for porters to take them to the beach, where we were to await a speedboat to whisk us back to the bright yellow Yasawa Flyer we arrived on just a few short days ago.

(My only regret is that we didn't have time to do the village visit as it was to be that afternoon, after the boat departure time.  If I am lucky enough to make it back to Fiji again, will need to plan for a longer stay, definitely to include a full Friday at the resort!)

It was a wistful goodbye, toasted with one last pina colada at the beach bar and serenaded by a bittersweet ukelele'd island song.  

The practiced resort staff of course had already planned for our food needs: they had tandoori chicken wraps or sandwiches ready for purchase, to be handed to us on the way to the boat!

For the comfort and safety of guests, the resort loads people into one boat and luggage into another.


Both shoot out to the Yasawa Flyer, and again with practiced efficiency, passengers are shepherded onto the Flyer on one side, while porters transfer luggage onto the boat from another.  The whole process took no more than 5 minutes.  Then we were off for a 4.5 hour ride.

As you've seen in our recaps so far, getting around the islands is not an easy feat - besides the long boat trips, ground transportation also takes a lot of time, and there are not a lot of ready options.  The bus from the marina on the northwest side of Viti Levu island to Pacific Harbour on the southeastern side would have taken around 4 hours and required us to fast-track to the bus station to catch the last bus out within a half hour of the boat docking, and taxis are not only scarce, we'd read in Lonely Planet that they can be sketchy with many unlicensed drivers who may not be up front with fare charges.  


So, we contacted Koro Makawa for car service - the driver would be waiting for us when we docked around 5:45pm, and he'd take us to Pacific Harbour for $160 Fiji (~$80 USD) total (cars at this rate can accommodate 1-3 passengers).  It was well worth it, not to have to deal with hauling all that luggage to a bus station and spending more precious time on a long ride, after already spending 4.5 hours on the Yasawa Flyer.

Our driver kindly made a stop for us to grab dinner too - at a local restaurant called Tata's: an open air, sort of glorified shack of a place less than a half hour from the marina. 


The short and focused menu consisted almost entirely of curries (many Fijians are of Indian descent, so there is heavy culinary influence there).  

We tried the lamb with rice and daal.  And realized that outside of the opulence of high end resorts, meat may be an expensive / luxury good in this island nation: at local restaurants there is a huge disparity versus what we would consider a size 'small' by American standards.  Though, it only cost $7 Fiji (~$3.50 USD) for the dish.  The lamb was tasty but not particularly mind blowing.



Thinking seafood is the thing to get, we ordered the crab curry in large size ($35 Fiji ~$19.50 USD) but again found the portion much smaller than expected.  There were probably 2 claws and 2 legs total.  The curry sauce was flavorful and definitely caused us to lick our fingers clean, but we wanted more meat in the crabs themselves.  

Glad we got to get a little bit of local flavor though before heading out to Pacific Harbour - we would arrive in the evening in time to catch some sleep before our big Beqa shark dive!!!

___________________________________________________________________

Fiji

Blue Lagoon Beach Resort
Nacula Island, Yasawas
Ph: +64 3 442 9998
Website: beachresort.com.fj

Yasawa Flyer
Website: awesomefiji.com

Koro Makawa Rentals & Tours (car service)
Ph: 3450567
Email: kmrentals@hotmail.com
facebook.com/koromakawarentalsandtours

Uprising Beach Resort
Queens Rd, Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Website: uprisingbeachresort.com

Day 3 costs breakdown:
  • Sawai-i-Lau excursion:  $59 Fiji per person (~$29.50 USD pp, 20% tax included)
  • Pina Colada: $21 Fiji (~$10.50 USD pp)
  • Lunch to go: tandoori chicken wrap $10 Fiji per person (~$5 USD pp) 
  • Yasawa Flyer boat ticket: $170 Fiji per person (~$85 USD pp)
  • Car service (Denarau Marina pickup to Uprising Pacific Harbour): $160 Fiji for 1-3 passengers +$10 tip (~$85 USD total)
  • Tata's dinner: $58 Fiji (~$29 USD)
  • Uprising Resort (free upgrade to beachfront bure!): $73 USD prepaid one night via Orbitz (tax included)
  • Total: ~$223 USD per person

(See my recaps for Day 1 here , Day 2 here , Day 4 here, and Day 5 here)
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