Tuesday, March 24, 2015

1MB Travels: Fiji: Adventure Flashpacking: Day 2: Blue Lagoon Coral Dive, Lovo and Meke Dance

With Fiji being 20 hours ahead of LA, jetlag really wasn't an issue. We woke up ready for adventure on our second day, to a gorgeous view and cooling ocean breeze...


...it's no wonder Fijians are said to be the happiest people on earth - they get to wake up to this.
Stopping by the activities desk, you can sign up for one of three dives per day, and the resort provides all of the equipment you need.  We could choose from 9am, 11am or 1pm. Based on the divemaster's descriptions, we went for the 11am - for more balance of coral and fish - even though that meant missing the Fijian bracelet weaving class (I know, rough life).

But first things first: breakfast on the beach!

That the only tweeting came from actual birds; the soft rustling of palm branches swaying in the ocean breeze, to the rhythm of island time: this was the very definition of serenity, and paradise. 
Buffet tables set up by the pool (yep, there is one, for those who for whatever reason don't want to take the few steps into the crystal clear ocean) offered food to please every international traveler. There were the basics: eggs, fruit, toast, juice, and hot stations where you can get omelets or crepes made to order.

We were excited to try the Fijian coconut filled 'pancakes' that were more like giant, sweet, chewy empanadas, and topoi (doughy chewy bread made with coconut cream).  And, raw coconut shards (though, I think I much prefer the tender meat from young coconuts).







While resting on a lounger after the ultra-strenuous morning, a random puppy came up out of nowhere and lay down next to me, quiet but for the sound of gentle breathing - and turned his head to watch and listen to waves washing ashore in such a way as if to say "do this with me". 

It lasted just a few minutes - but that turned out to be one of my favorite, most randomly magical moments, for this often over-thinking, over-planning OCDer while in Fiji.



Since we had a bit of a wait until our dive, and to ward off food coma, we took a hike up the beach.  When we pulled up to the island by speedboat on Day 1, I'd noticed a large tree that looked different from the others, and seemed to form a canopy over a recess in the rainforest-like greenery.  We decided to hike that way to explore - and Random Puppy came along, leading the way. 

Turns out the recessed tree was not the hidden gateway to some secret lost indigenous village, nor a cover for the TARDIS, but simply a place that naturally formed to provide shade to small animals.  But it was a lovely hike nonetheless, with frequent breaks to dip in the water for relief from scorching heat.  I wondered what life would be like, as a puppy in paradise, with fresh supplies of guests to adore him daily - and free run of the place.

Arriving back just in time for the dive meet up - we took a 10 minute boat ride out to the site. 

The original location was to be Tom's Thumb - but due to rough waters, we moved to the Cabbage Patch instead - where we saw giant coral formations in the shape of cabbage blossoms!

I got to give my new SeaLife MicroHD+ underwater camera a test drive, before the big shark dive later on in the week (wouldn't want to be fumbling with buttons while they swirled around us!) - excuse the quality of video - I was and am still learning how to use it!



To be honest, I had envisioned giant schools of fish in every direction - but I think that would be more over at the Rainbow Reef by Vanau Levu / Taveuni islands - which I hope to get a chance to visit next time.


We definitely burned off enough energy during the dive to justify wolfing down lunch!

There was Beef Curry with pampadam and naan.

And the Fijian interpretation of 'Thai chicken soup with rice noodles' and vegetables.  All very fresh and tasty.

I love that the hardest decision we have to make while at Blue Lagoon, is whether to hammock or snorkel.  Remembering the minibar at the last minute, we raided it for Fijian beer to enjoy on the loungers.
Despite 'Fiji time', days seem to pass by far too quickly. 

Before we knew it, it was time for Lovo and Meke night. 

The resort staff puts together an intimate feast of Fijian fare including roast pork and whole black snapper, kokoda (ceviche in coconut cream), ota & chickpea salad, taro and more served buffet style.


But first, a dance - Meke!  In keeping with the intimate, cozy family-run vibe of the resort, the meke dance presentation was not elaborate either, it wasn't polished and professional, but that's what was endearing about it: it was the staff of the resort and their families from the local village, just giving us a glimpse of their culture and celebratory song and dance.


And it was full audience participation too - they had everyone up on their feet and doing a sort of Conga line around the pool!


With the communal tables, set dining hours and engaging activities, you get to meet a lot of fellow travelers from all around the world.  We met some amazing people from Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia - from their twenties on up.

We closed out Day 2 with a fire dance, a bonfire on the beach, and that game where you stick a piece of paper to your forehead with a famous person written on it - and you can only use yes/no questions to try to glean from those around you, clues to figure out who you are. A fun game to play at the bar, on the beach, by the bonfire.

All I could think was:  please don't make me leave.


___________________________________________________________________

Fiji

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


Day 2 costs breakdown:
  • 1-tank Dive:  $120 Fiji per person (~$60 USD, 20% tax already included)
  • Beachfront Bure: $577 USD for two nights, total prepaid via Agoda (~$288.50 per night tax included)
  • Mandatory meal plan: $99 Fiji per person (~$49.50 USD pp / day, 20% tax already included) 
  • Beer (included with free in-room minibar): $0
  • Total: ~$254 USD per person

(See my Day 1 recap here.)
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Sunday, March 22, 2015

1MB Travels: Fiji: Adventure Flashpacking - Day 1: Yasawa Islands

Fiji is just a relatively short 10 hour flight from LA  We were due to arrive at Nadi International at 6am, and from there had a tight schedule to get to Denarau Marina, on the northwest side of the main island, in order to catch *the only* boat that day headed for the Yasawa islands at 8:30am.

Luckily, our flight arrived early, in time to catch a free shuttle supplied by the boat company.  

One hour later, just past 8am, we checked our bags and hopped onto the bright yellow Yasawa Flyer, which was to take us on a 4.5 hour trip around the Mamanuca and Yasawas islands.

Though the journey is long, the Yasawa Flyer is great for first time visitors, as you get to check out all the major islands / resorts along the way.  (Another option is to travel by seaplane.  Look for my upcoming post for a more detailed recap on research on Getting Around Fiji!)

Our favorite from afar was Beachcomber island - a perfect, cozy disc of an island, rimmed by white sand, underneath the bluest sky, sun-kissed sea, white clouds, palm trees.
But, Beachcomber's reputation is as a place for the hard partying crowd, so on we went towards the more remote and serene northern Yasawas.

We passed Octopus Resort as well, said to be tied for the best resort in the Yasawas besides Blue Lagoon Beach Resort, where we were going to stay.  But, we had to consider that Octopus was too far south to allow for a visit to the Sawa-i-Lau limestone cave, one of the key stops for our visit.


Blue Lagoon (yep, where they filmed that Brooke Shields movie), at Nacula island, is one of the last stops. 

The main yellow boat has a very efficient drop-off/ pickup system: at every stop, instead of taking time to dock - they stay in open water, and resorts send smaller speedboats up, in order to collect incoming guests and their luggage on one side, while on the other outbound guests embark for their return trip.  The Yasawa Flyer is apparently also the main source for supplies for resorts - along with our bags they also loaded produce and other items onto the speedboat.

(Like many other islands here, there are typically only 2-5 resorts on each small island - hence the single boat per day.)
As our boat pulled up, resort staff were lined up and broke out in song to welcome us.

A fresh tropical juice blend served as welcome 'bula' drinks.
After a quick orientation, we were led to our beachfront bure (bungalow).  We had found the best price on Agoda.  Like most resorts in the Mamanucas and Yasawas, one resort offered multiple levels of accommodations: for backpackers and low budget travelers, there were shared dorms that sleep 4-8 with shared bathrooms (just $43 USDpp/night!).  Lodge Rooms sleep two but also share bathrooms with the dorms ($80 USD /night) For a little bit more per night, you could get a garden view bungalow with private bathroom (~$200 USD/ night).

Top of the line rooms were premium beach front bungalows, literally on the sand just steps away from the water - and we found a deal for $288.50 USD per night total including tax!  Try to get that pricing in Hawaii for a room on the sand?!

And it was worth the 'splurge': with these rooms you are not only so close to the water you can hear the waves through the windows, you also get a private hammock, and reserved lounge chairs under a cabana.

A requirement for me was a private bathroom, and these bures came with outdoor showers (it took a modest prude  traveler some time to adjust to this, but once you did you definitely feel 'one' with nature!)

The rooms are ceiling fan cooled, so it can get a bit hot, but we were excited to just be in the Yasawas (a Fijian word that literally translates to heaven).

After some quick hammock time, it was time to speed walk to the resort's restaurant to catch lunch.
In the Yasawas, resort restaurants have mandatory meal plans with set per person pricing that they charge to your room.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served at set times - with snacks in between - and you can't just walk up and order whenever you want.  This is the tradeoff for being remote - resorts have to be able to plan their supplies carefully, after all they only get one boat a day with supplies from the main island.  But luckily Blue Lagoon Beach Resort is said to have some of the best food in the Yasawas, and it lived up to its reputation!

For our first day lunch, there was a short menu of options including burgers to cater to picky eaters, and one dish that immediately jumped out to us foodies looking for local fare: Lolo (mahi mahi fish in coconut cream with cassava).  I normally find mahi mahi too tough and dry, but this was perfectly cooked: tender and juicy, with a delicious coconut cream sauce that we wanted to lick off the plate.

Another resort convenience is activities coordination: there's always options for each day, posted as blackboard specials - and you can choose to engage as much or as little as you wish.

For the first day we took it easy - easy to do as the Blue Lagoon is known for its beautiful beach and soft coral diving accessible right from the resort!  With our own snorkel gear ready to go - we dipped in for a quick look around, swimming with fish and great visibility (20 feet?) in clear waters before taking a much needed nap.

After a long travel day, it was nice letting the sounds of the ocean lull you to sleep.
Getting up for Happy Hour, we made our way to the bar for super touristy island drinks (what's a tropical vacation without them?).

Alcoholic drinks are the only things not included in mandatory meal plans, but the drinks are very reasonably priced.

The Pina Colada ($16 Fiji ~$8 USD) was on point.
I did attempt to ask for something local - and our friendly server said he would make me something off menu.  What came back was this lovely Bula (Fijian term used in the way Hawaiians use  'Aloha') drink - with ingredients that would go into a white Russian ($16 Fiji ~$8 USD).  But everything tasted super fresh and perfect for a hot day on the beach.
We did get a taste of the very distinctly Fijian drink just a little while later, when two staffers set up a mini kava ceremony for guests.

Kava, made from the root of the yaqona plant found in the western pacific, is dried and pounded into a powder, then strained with water to create a drink that has sedative and anesthetic properties.  Traditionally, it was used to welcome guests - bringing two groups of people together - and a requisite gift when paying villages a visit - but is also consumed at all times of day.

Kava is served in a large freestanding wooden bowl, scooped out with a half coconut shell and passed around the circle of guests.  You get to choose 'high tide' (full cup) or 'low tide' (half cup).  As a first timer we went for low tide.  You clap once with hollowed hands, yell 'bula!', drink the entire shell's worth of liquid in one go, then clap three more times and say 'moce' (mo-they, which means goodbye).

It looks like muddy water, and tastes like it, with a slight bitterness that gives way to a numbing of the tongue.  I did feel a bit sleepy after.  Definitely an acquired taste - but we could see why it would be so beloved for its natural ability to help people relax, and its unifying powers as a social 'ice breaker'. 

With the kava starting to take effect, we were in 'chill' mode for the gorgeous watercolored sunset over the beach.
And before we knew it, it was time for dinner.

This first night, it was a set meal - a platter of fried octopus, calamari, grilled shrimp on skewers, mussels in coconut milk, and various veggies with rice.

With that wrapped a relaxing first day in Fiji!  Stay tuned for a recap of Day 2.

___________________________________________________________________

Fiji
Yasawa Flyer
Shuttle boat from Denarau Marina, Viti Levu to Mamanucas and Yasawa island groups

info@awesomefiji.com
Ph: +679 675 0499
Website: awesomefiji.com/ferrytimetable

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


Day 1 costs breakdown:
  • Shuttle from airport to Denarau Marina courtesy of Yasawa Flyer: $0
  • Yasawa Flyer from Denarau to resort: $170 Fiji (~$85 USD pp, 20% tax already included)
  • Beachfront Bure: $577 USD for two nights, total prepaid via Agoda (~$288.50 per night tax included)
  • Mandatory meal plan: $99 Fiji per person (~$49.50 USD pp / day, 20% tax already included)
  • Drinks: $64 Fiji total (~$32 USD for 4 drinks, 20% tax already included)
  • Total: ~$295 USD per person
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Saturday, March 21, 2015

1MB Travels: Fiji: Adventure (Semi) Flashpacking - Prep

Fiji has been one of my bucketlist destinations for a long time, but I never really allowed myself to dig too deeply into it, lest I be crushed by the realities of budget and time constraints.

Like most people, this particular four letter word evokes images of white sand, pristine beaches with dreamily clear turquoise to azure hues - a utopic place where it's hard to tell where the sea ends and the sky begins.  Most people also immediately think of "honeymoon" and luxury resorts - neither of which were in my foreseeable future.

But then my 'year of yes' happened: after more than a decade of toil, I was finally at the best place I've ever been in my career; frequent business travel had made me more comfortable in/proud of my independence; outside of work, some incredible people had become a part of my life, who share interests in food / travel...and then a flash sale came up with Fiji Airways, with flights from LAX to Nadi-Fiji for under $800 roundtrip.

After getting re-certified as a PADI Open Water Diver in the (to us) frigid Paciifc Ocean last year, @gourmetpigs and I had been talking about going somewhere tropical for more enjoyable, wet-suit free dives - and Fiji would fit that bill perfectly PLUS offer land adventures via lush rainforests and cultural experiences from kava to village visits.  It would be the best of nature + culture.

After some quick research on accommodations, we were excited to find that it was totally affordable - there was a happy medium between the much publicized extremes of the 5-star resort with private butler, and roughing it backpacker style in bare bones dorms shared with strangers.

We could go, "flashpacker" style.

["Flashpacker": n.  an adventure traveler, typically a working professional, seeking the flexibility of independent travel with more upmarket, boutique accommodations vs a backpacker: all with tech in tow.]

With 333 islands said to be in the Fiji network, and only five days in that #bucketlist paradise, it was difficult to choose which to visit.

So, we started by identifying the main attractions in each island system, and figuring out which are our priorities AND feasible to do with our limited time.

While the beaches look gorgeous, what distinguishes Fiji from other tropical destinations is underwater: its vast expanse of soft coral, and rich marine life including sharks that live in the area.

Since our main reason to visit was to dive, that narrowed down to Taveuni (the Garden island), Vanau Levu (where the world famous Rainbow Reef is located) and Beqa Lagoon (off the main island of Viti Levu).  After reading about the Mamanuca Group of islands as party central for twenty-something backpackers, we decided to avoid them.

We did see that getting around the islands takes time, and meticulous planning (if you are not going with an all inclusive tour group / high end resort).  There was only one boat per day leaving from the main island (where the airport is) - to the island groups west / northwest of it.  If you miss that, you could either attempt a last minute seaplane booking at $375 Fiji (~$187 USD) per person flight, or you're stuck in a touristy part of the main island for one night.  Luckily, my OCD self enjoys creating spreadsheets and planning - to ensure we can maximize our time and get where we need to go in order to make it happen.

After looking at our options and what we can fit within 5 days, we decided on a combination of Yasawa Islands and Viti Levu (main island).
 
Look out for my day by day recaps of our adventures soon - from cageless dives with sharks with Beqa Adventure Divers, to ziplining over rainforests in Pacific Harbour! (Including costs and full budget for the trip.)

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Trip Planning Resources:
Transportation:

Itinerary:
  • Lonely Planet guide: Fiji
  • Tourism Fiji

Accommodations:
  • Agoda.com
  • Trip Advisor
  • AwesomeAdventuresFiji.com

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