It eased the pain of leaving beautiful Castaway Island, somewhat, knowing we were about to step onboard a Captain Cook cruise through the more remote Yasawa Islands, an archipelago of about 20 volcanic islands, forming Fiji’s western border.
It was a precision-timing manoeuvre, joining the cruise mid-stream, which was by now almost as far north as you can go in Fiji waters. Tourism Fiji somehow made it happen: a speedy tender from Castaway to board the Yasawa Flyer which island hops gradually up the archipelago, a great way to take in all the islands, like a ‘reccie’ mission for future reference.
It wasn’t until 1987 that tourists were able to get into this part of Fiji. Before then, accessibility was limited to day trips from cruise ships, but with a flush of government funds for ecotourism, a number of small resorts and backpacker lodges have since sprung up – more affordable accommodation than other parts of Fiji – with, blessedly, not a shop or car in sight. The Yasawa Flyer is one of the main commercial routes to get there. (You can also go by helicopter.) It does a daily trip from Denarau Marina on the mainland via the Mamanuca Islands to the Yasawas weaving through picturesque channels and bays at the foot of majestic volcanic mountains right up to the famous Blue Lagoon. It’s worth a trip in itself.
After four hours (it seems much quicker, as it does when you’re kicking back in the sun gawking at paradise), the second last stop on the route, we’re greeted by the Captain Cook Cruise tender in what feels like the middle of nowhere, no sign of civilisation, to spirit us to the mother ship.
“How long till we reach the cruise?” I ask our friendly driver.
“About 15 minutes”, he smiles. “Fiji time”. A knowing grin.
It takes longer but who cares because what a ride: skipping past an endless lineup of picturesque islands, the odd fishing village here and there, in this far off part of Fiji which most tourists never get to see. “Just around this island”, our skipper assures us after a while. And, there she is. A lone shimmering vessel – the MV Reef Endeavour – moored majestically between a cluster of mountainous isles, home for the next few nights.
I have never cruised before, so I’m not sure what to expect. I soon come to realise the beauty of it is you get to be in a different place every day, without going anywhere. In this part of the world, we’re transported to spectacular locations you simply couldn’t get to without a berth on a cruise ship.
“It’s a resort in itself but the scenery changes”, says the ship’s Captain, Ian Davison, “You get to see the whole of the Yasawa Islands in a week. In a resort, you just see one beach”.
“You only unpack once”, adds the ship’s Hospitality Manager, Scott Wade, an Australian, raised in Fiji, who’s responsible for the day (and night) activities – which can be as sparse or as jam packed as you desire.
Within minutes of being on board, we’re whisked over to Yasawi i Rara island to visit the local school where the children greet us with song and a game of footy (the rugby initiation starts early and remotely in Fiji). They all learn to speak English from birth, even in these isolated fishing villages, their sight words written in two languages on the classroom wall. Visits from cruise ships are welcome as they bring much needed funds to the school, both via a ‘fee’ paid by the ship and individual passenger donations. There’s a ‘wish list’ on the pin-board. It’s not i-Pads they’re after but writing pads, chairs and balls.
This vessel also pulled its weight in the relief effort after Cyclone Winston, teaming up with Rotary and Sea Mercy to deliver food, clothing and supplies to villages in the Lau Group and Yasawa Islands, wiped out by the ferocious winds. “It looked like a different place”, one Fijian crew member tells me. “Even the palm trees were flat”.
The best thing people can do, they tell me, is to keep coming. And they do. This ship is almost at capacity (120 passengers) with people of all ages: an extended family from New Zealand making the most of an inheritance; a grandfather taking his daughter and her young family on the trip of a lifetime; an elderly lady who tells me she planned to do a Fiji cruise for her honeymoon 45 years ago but never got around to it. With her husband passed on, she’s finally taking the plunge.
There are kids aplenty and why not, with an on-board Kids Club and staff offering to watch them when you go ashore in case you’d like to swim or snorkel without distraction. Cruising Fiji is a kids’ paradise with kayaking, snorkelling, swimming, glass-bottom boat rides, and it’s educational as they’re absorbed in Fijian culture and marine life. And, bonus: between August and March 31 2017, kids also ‘eat, play and cruise for free’ on all Captain Cook Yasawa Island cruises. *
After our visit to the school, we nip over to a neighbouring island to visit the limestone caves of Sawa-i-lau. Duck your head through a narrow opening and there’s the big reveal: a towering cathedral-esque cavern with a natural skylight throwing shafts of sunlight into a gaping green swimming hole. The Fijians, fearless, leap off the cliff sides, dive bombing as the tourists watch in awe, paddling cautiously.
Back on board, dinner is a formal-ish affair. The kids eat at Kids Club with new friends and games. The grownups dress up (well, a step up from beach gear) and are directed to our tables. It forces you to mingle, all part of fostering cruise camaraderie along with trivia nights and obligatory crab races with a betting ring.
The Hospitality Manager gets on the mic after dinner to outline the next day’s activities (all optional). Day three and it’s a tender to Yaqweta Island, home to a small fishing village, the only trace of which are the giggling reams of children hauling in the menfolk’s wooden boat, as the women thread shell necklaces on the beach for the humble “shell market”. I can hardly believe the splendour, like a travelogue cliche: porcelain white sand and crystal water, framed by lush, volcanic mountains, the quintessential tropical island. They’re a dime-a-dozen around these parts. This one is ours for the morning, kayaks and an esky dropped off for our pleasure. Hang with the other cruisers, or pitch your own piece of beach up the way where oversized spiral shells like the ones in picture books, dot the shoreline. Better still, the kids get a turn of steering the tender back to the cruise ship!
There’s snorkelling later off Babylon (aptly named) where I discover my six year old can snorkel (while his little brother hangs with Barry from Kids Club, happily fossicking for crabs on the shore). We share a magic moment floating side by side taking in fluoro fish and bulging coral mounds within touching distance (which we don’t), popping our heads up to compare findings. “Mummy, I just saw Dory!”
Back on board, it’s a tour of the Captain’s Bridge where my boys are in their element with binoculars, radars and maps, and a very patient First Officer Serevi who explains the machinations of his vessel to Captain Curious.
I discover the other benefit of cruising in Fiji: sunsets. No matter where you stand on this ship, it’s impossible to miss the awesome sight of that golden orb taking its time to dip behind the silhouetted Yasawa islands, as we motor back through the night towards the mainland. Finding a quiet spot on the front deck, it’s as if I’m the only one here.
We wake the next morning back in Denarau where the cruise ship crew sing traditional Fijian farewell songs, some with tears in their eyes, hugging each passenger as they disembark. It seems a genuine lament.
Big Bula Waterpark:
With many international flights not leaving Nadi until the afternoon, here’s a tip for a day to kill in Denerau with kids: Big Bula Waterpark. It’s a series of giant inflatable water slides (varying in difficulty), with the Fijian staff only too happy to take the little ones down the slides and entertain them. I had to bribe my boys with an ice block to get them to leave. On the way home, after our magical stay at Castaway Island and a couple of days aboard the kids playground that is a Captain Cook Cruise, I ask them the favourite part of their holiday. “The water slide!” they shout in unison. But they can’t fool me.
Captain Cook Cruises Fiji runs three, four and seven night cruises through the Yasawa Islands.
Kids Club: The Captain Cook Kids’ Club (for children aged 5-10) is open from 9am to 9pm (with breaks for family time). And it’s free. Nanny hire is compulsory for children under 5 years and included in the infant price for 10 hours day and must be booked in advance,
There’s a range of family accommodation from family cabins that sleep four to inter-connecting family cabins. We had a double bed in one cabin with an inter-connecting door to a cabin with two single beds.
What To do
Chill out on board where there’s a plunge pool, outdoor spa, gym and ample deck chairs. Or go ashore to visit Fijian villages and schools and take part in a Fijian church service and traditional village Sevusevu ceremony. There’s also kayaking, snorkelling over coral reefs, swimming in crystal clear waters, roaming on white sandy beaches and trips in a glass bottom boat to view the rich, colourful marine life.
On the mainland:
With time to kill before our return flight: We had a day room at The Palms Apartments: www.thepalmsdenarau.com
And spent the morning at Big Bula Water Park www.bigbulawaterpark.com.fj
For further information and bookings: www.captaincookcruisesfiji.com
Jacinta Tynan travelled to Fiji courtesy of Fiji Airways and was a guest of Captain Cook Cruises. Her trip was arranged with the generous support of Tourism Fiji.
This story first appeared on TheCarousel.com