Category Archives: cruising

Wandering through the streets of Suva

One of the most cosmopolitan and bustling cities in Oceania, Suva, the capital of Fiji, with its vibrant and colourful farmer’s market and stately buildings, dating back to colonial times, greeted us as we entered Suva Bay in the early morning.

With a population of over 86,000, Suva is home to half of Fiji’s urban population. As we wandered through the streets of Suva we passed the magnificent Houses of Parliament and a few luxury hotels overlooking the harbour. We didn’t feel under any threat, despite the warnings that petty crime has become a problem in the city. The influx of country dwellers and the city’s lack of infrastructure has triggered an increasing number of tin shelters being built on the outskirts of the city as well as the amount of people living in poverty.

After an easy, fifteen-minute walk from the port, we found ourselves at the quaint Fiji Museum, set within the once stately and magnificent Victorian-era Thurston Gardens. The museum contained examples of traditional Fijian canoes and other fascinating artefacts reflecting Fiji’s Chinese, Indian and Colonial history. Another interesting building and one of the most prominent landmarks within the city is the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a large catholic church dating back to 1902. Entry is free and you’ll be delighted when you step inside and see it’s beautiful, original stained-glass windows.

Our last stop for the day before boarding the ship and bidding farewell to our final port, was a visit to the vibrantly coloured fresh food market. Beetle nuts, unfamiliar tropical fruit and root vegetables lay spread out on the tables and the local vendors were happy to entertain us with the names and information about the fresh produce that lay before them.

Suva had a certain charm about it. It reminded me of a seaside city I used to visit when I was young. It too was multicultural, full of colonial history with its once magnificent water features and gardens, the sweet smell of Indian food cooking away in the distance and a harbour dotted with fishing boats and cargo ships.

Do you ever feel that travel has the ability to transport you back in time? Something as little as a smell from your childhood, bringing back to life a cherished memory from the past. It happens to me all the time….

 

Virtually untouched Dravuni

Accessible only by boat, Dravuni Island is situated at the northern end of Fiji’s Kadavu Group, bounded by the Great Astrolabe Reef and renowned for being a diver’s paradise. The reef was named after the French explorer Dumont d’Urville’s ship, the “Astrolabe”, which struck the reef in the 1820’s. There is not much on the island that would suggest we are living in the 21st century. It is one of the Pacific’s most unspoilt destinations and one of the least populated islands in the Fijian island group, with less than 200 inhabitants.

A walk along the unspoilt, palm-lined beach leads you to the inland peak, the highest point on the island. The climb is steep at times but well worth the effort, for what awaits you is a panoramic and breathtaking view of the island and its surrounding reef. We fell in love with a local dog that joined us for the long walk to the top and then again later for a swim on the beach. Our walk up the hill took us past some quaint little houses and a few pig pens which were the highlight for our kids. As we wandered through the village we found out why Fijians have earned a reputation for being friendly, welcoming and hospitable.

A little school catering for Kindergarten to Year-4 aged children overlooks the white sandy beach, the principal happily gave us a tour of the two tiny classrooms and explained that from year 5, students travel to a neighbouring island, where they board for the rest of their schooling. A nearby field station has also been set up here and is used by universities to study the local marine life and surrounding coral reefs. As we visited on a Sunday, all the island’s residents congregated together under a large, thatched roof hut for the weekly church service, led by the school’s principal.  No trading was allowed on this day, which made our time there even more special. Only a collection was taken for a neighbouring islands children’s hospital. Once again, it was evident that family, community and faith remained at the centre of their day to day existence.

We couldn’t leave the island without exploring the beautiful reefs offshore.  After an afternoon of snorkelling around one of the island’s rocky points, while the kids built homes for their hermit crabs, our fun-filled day on the island came to an end and it was once again time to head back to our ship.

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As we left Dravuni Island we were reminded that there are still places in the world that remain relatively untouched, you just have to be willing to explore a little further off the beaten track.

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware

– Martin Buber

Vava’u, Tonga

The Kingdom of Tonga is an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, directly south of Samoa and consists of over 170 islands, many of them uninhabited. Vava’u, with a population of around 15,000 inhabitants, is an island group consisting of one large island and 40 smaller ones.  As our tender approached the shore we could hear a youth brass band playing and a group of kindergarten aged children, singing and dancing to raise money for their schools.  Beautifully crafted goods were being sold by the locals, hoping to make the most of our short stop.

We drove through the main town and then headed over to the Tongan Beach Resort, around 20 minutes from the port.  The return taxi drive cost us 50 Tongan Pa’anga and entry to the resort (including a delicious barbeque lunch) 90 Tongan Pa’anga. We passed by little houses, some of them so small you could barely swing a cat in them. This was the poorest of all the islands we’ve visited so far. Pigs of all sizes run around freely and you need to keep your eye out for the odd lost cow wandering across the road.

Tongan Beach Resort is a peaceful, private and cosy retreat made up of rustic bungalows, a half-filled swimming pool and a very basic restaurant and bar.  Yet, it’s popular with visitors from all over the world because right off the jetty lies a spectacular lagoon, abundant with fish. As we lay under the trees, we watched as diver after diver returned from their daily adventures and it was clear that this was what travellers came here for. We spent the rest of the day swimming and snorkelling in the lagoon. The marine life was good here but there wasn’t much reef.  Watch out for sea urchins and stone fish, reef shoes are essential.  If you’ve ever wanted to swim with a humpback whale, this is the place to do it. Trip Advisor’s number 1 tour is run by ‘Tongan Expedition Dive and Whale Watching’ and offers a safe and truly unforgettable experience.

Our next stop was scheduled to be Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital. Unfortunately, the wind picked up the night before our expected arrival and our ship was unable to safely pass between the reef to enter the harbour, the captain made the decision to cancel this stop.  We ended up spending an extra day at sea but it wasn’t a big deal.  By now we were comfortable with being on the ship for longer periods of time and the kids had some home-schooling catch up to do.

Next stop: Dravuni Island, Fiji.

“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”  Anonymous

Fiji’s best kept secret

Lonely Planet’s “The Travel Book’ sits on my coffee table back home, along with “1000 places to see before you die, a traveller’s life list”. Not a week goes by where I don’t sit down with a cup of tea and indulge myself, even if only for a few minutes. It was on page 543 of the second book that I first read about SavuSavu. I now know why Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous explorer and oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, chose this place to build his resort. Writing this post has been harder than I’d imagined, I really want to give it the credit it deserves.

Surrounded by green hills and glimmering azure waters, sailing boats congregate together in the harbour, a popular stopover for sailors making their way across the Pacific. Located on the large volcanic island of Vanua Levu, north east of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, you will find this unspoilt paradise. When I asked my kids to describe the island to me in a few words, here’s what they had to say: exotic, tropical, a simple but efficient lifestyle, living sustainably, using only what they need and taking no more. I think that’s a perfect description and I was proud of their perspective but I’d like to add that the inhabitants are incredibly hospitable, a visit here will enliven the travelling spirited and you may never want to leave. A few of the cruise passengers we spoke to that evening told us they’d consider moving there with their families for a year.  They said they longed for a simpler, less complicated life.  They felt like their children would greatly benefit from this lifestyle, I had to agree, it was one where family, community, faith and nature were central to daily life.

With our limited time on the island, we’d worked out that the most popular things to do here included a swim in a waterfall, a visit to a local village and some snorkelling. We decided we’d do all three (on our own), so we headed out to the main road to find a taxi. The first guide we met wanted to charge us $140, so we kept walking until we met a wonderful man called Roheat who offered to take us wherever we wanted to go for $80.  Roheat was not a licensed taxi driver, just a local, looking to capitalise on the cruise passengers’ arrival in his home town. Impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit we decided to give him a go.

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Our journey began with a scenic drive into the hills. As we reached for the seatbelts we realised none of them worked, Roheat did his best to reassure us that they weren’t necessary in Fiji. My kids are not used to this level of unconventionality, so imagine their surprise when an Australian family of 6 raced past us on the back of a ute (that’s an Australian word for utility van, you know the ones that people load things on the back of?). Having grown up in Africa, I spent a fair bit of my childhood on the back of utes, not something I’m promoting but exhilarating none the less.

Roughly halfway to our first stop, a hard to ignore clunking sound started emanating from the rear left-hand side of the car. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard that sound before. My husband jumped out to have a look and noticed some of the wheel nuts were missing from the tyre, the ones that were there, were loose too. I remembered now……as a young child I’d heard a similar sound just before mum’s car lost her tyre, sending us skidding along the road on the back-wheel axle. I kept thinking, ‘well, you wanted to show the kids what third world country living was like and now you have it!’. He reassured us he would fix the tyre at the next stop, which he did, much to my relief.

Roheat made a left turn down a dirt road to the quaint Vuondomo village which consisted of just 15 houses, belonging to only 3 families (each house built different to the next). Upon arrival, we were met by one of the residents who gave us a walking tour of the area. Our guide’s mother was selling fresh coconuts for $2 each and these were simply too good to pass up, so we stopped for a refreshing drink in the shade while the curious village children came over to say hello. Through funds raised by a Canadian Rotary club and from visits like ours, the village was able to install a 10,000 litre rainwater tank and a basic bathroom in each house. The traditional Fijian Lali Drum lies next to the church, in the centre of the village. At 10am every Sunday morning, as the drum is beaten, the villagers make their way to church to worship together. 

The village owns the surrounding land and the nearby waterfall and for a small fee you’re able to visit and swim in it. A ten-minute walk, up a gently sloping hill and a few stairs, leads you to the spectacular waterfall and an idyllic swimming hole. The villagers have built an excellent pathway using large boulders which they’ve laid by hand and a handrail made from rope. Fruit trees line the way and the villagers said, ‘if you find a ripe banana, please feel free to pick it’.

The local children seemed excited by our presence. Our kids joined in as they played together for quite some time, racing bougainvillea flowers down the stream and jumping from rock to rock. It would have been fantastic to spend a few days here, at the very least.

We had hoped to have lunch at Cousteau’s Resort, opposite Split Rock, a popular snorkelling spot. Unfortunately, as it was high season, the resort was closed to cruise passengers. We ended up at a nearby resort which was more like a backpacker’s, but the views over the bay more than made up for it.

We made our way back to Split Rock for some snorkelling. The marine life here was abundant and the reef, vibrantly coloured. Unfortunately, I never ended up making it out to the best part of the reef about 30 metres offshore but was told it was something special. I had managed to slip and cut my feet on barnacles while rock hopping with my son. I had over a dozen small cuts on the bottom of my feet. I was amazed when I watched the locals walk over the barnacles without a problem. I joked that perhaps my first world feet needed a bit of toughening up.

Before leaving to head back to the ship, our driver invited us to his house to meet his family and have a cold drink. We were really touched by his generosity and happily accepted his offer. His house, although not big, sits high up on a hill and has magnificent views across the bay, over to all the islands. The driveway to get there would unnerve even the most experienced drivers and he reversed up it with ease! I had to close my eyes as I couldn’t watch. His family were as kind and gracious as he was and we felt privileged to have met them.    

Keeping in contact with people we meet on our travels is now much easier thanks to social media and I am so thankful for this. I made three new friends in SavuSavu. I look forward to sharing our different cultural experiences and catching up again on our next visit to this magical place, they are lucky enough to call home.

Bula! A warm Fijian hello.

Walking down the steep stairs from Deck 3, we boarded the orange life boat and were on our way.  This was our first tender on the cruise and an awesome experience for the kids.  As the boat drew nearer to Port I reminisced back to 10 years ago, when we first arrived at Denarau Island. I was pregnant with my son and mum to our then nearly two-year-old daughter, we had booked a last-minute trip to Fiji from Australia. It was a brilliant holiday and one we still talk about today.  It’s hard to believe a decade has passed and I found myself asking, what happened to the time? Our daughter is now, almost a teenager.

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Denarau Island is man-made and built on reclaimed swampland.  Doesn’t sound too inviting does it?  But with it’s palm-lined beaches and out of this world swimming pools, they’ve done an amazing job turning it into a popular family holiday destination.  Here you’ll find some of the best five-star hotels in the Pacific, all lined up next to each other facing out towards the ocean. The marina has some lovely boutique shops and fantastic restaurants, including the famous Hard Rock Café.  From here you can take a charter boat to any of the spectacular outer islands.  Denarau is linked to the mainland by causeway and is about a 15 minute drive from Nadi, on the western side of the main island of Vitii Levu. Nadi is home to the unique Sri Siva Subramaniya temple, the largest Hindu temple in the Southern Hemisphere. Nadi is also the best place to do your souvenir shopping compared to the inflated prices found near the resorts.

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Denarau Island is well-known in the Pacific region for its golf course, situated directly opposite the resorts. You can walk the Island relatively easily or you can catch the famous Bula Bus which will cost you $8 per day for unlimited travel (kids under 12 travel free). The windowless bus has a delightful thatched roof and is a great experience for the whole family

There are no white sand beaches so if you’re after these you’ll need to visit one of the outer islands. If you’re very adventurous then Denarau will probably struggle to excite you but if you’re looking to relax and connect with your family then you’ve found the right place. Our days here comprised of swimming, reading, kayaking, playing games with the kids and taking many siestas!  By far, for us, the best time of the day was sunset, the beating of the Lali (a Fijian wooden drum), the lighting of the tiki torches around the pool and having a relaxing sunset drink whilst listening to the sweet tunes from the Fijian locals.

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Our day this time was no different. We spent it wandering from one resort to the next, a stop at the Radisson, a drink at the Westin and lunch at the Sofitel (which was a lot more affordable than the Sheraton, who wanted to charge us $33 for a burger, taxes not included). The Sofitel had a real Fijian authenticity to it, my feelings motivated by the welcoming hospitality of all the staff.

Our day trip ended with an afternoon swim at the Sofitel resort which boasts a great waterslide for the kids and a hammock lined beach. If you want to make use of all the resort’s facilities you will need to book a ‘day-room’ by contacting the hotel directly. This is expensive and not far off the nightly rate. As we were only here for 6 hours and August is peak season we opted not to do this.

We always manage to find ourselves on the last tender to the boat, soaking up as much of the time there as we can.  We watched the magnificent sunset over the ocean while we made our way back to the twinkling lights of the ship in the distance.

The locals on Denarau told us that our next stop, SavuSavu, is the real hidden gem of Fiji.

Vila Bliss

A place where nothing but treasured memories are made.  The capital and largest city of Vanuatu is situated on the south coast of the island of Efate. Our fourth visit to this small but flourishing city was once again, nothing short of spectacular and what we’d come to expect from Port Vila with it’s warm hospitality and friendly locals.

It’s been nearly six years since our last visit to this port so we expected a fair bit of change especially after the devastating Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015. Some of the cruise passengers headed off on tours of the island and others caught a taxi to the famous Cascade Waterfalls. We decided we’d walk into town and then head over to the pristine waters of Erakor Island Resort, about a five-minute taxi ride from town. Once we had disembarked the ship, we began our long walk into town. We could see new buildings in the distance and construction all over the place…though not on the same scale as we’re used to back home.

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Iririki Island, a short ferry ride from town, looked as beautiful as ever but we noticed a few boats and a rather large ferry that had been swept up onto shore during the cyclone. We asked a local if these would ever be removed and he, in true laid-back island style, commented that it would be too expensive, so for now, that’s where they’ll stay. The main road into town is getting an upgrade, though don’t be fooled, this road will only ever just, be wide enough for two vehicles. Pedestrians walk on the side of the road wherever they can find their footing. There seemed to be more taxis than people in this town so it’s never hard to find a ride.  There will be 20 ships docking in Port Vila this month, great for the locals, especially since only 2 will dock in Santo. 

On arrival in town we found that the local market hadn’t changed at all. A feast for the senses.  A crowded and vibrant atmosphere where the locals come together to eat and buy their fresh fruit and vegetables for a fraction of the nearby supermarket’s prices. A mandarin will cost you a mere 6 cents. Beautiful flowers and fruit adorn the tables, live crabs tied together, spread out on the floor, the unique bags of potatoes, each individually hand-woven for you to carry home.  We meandered through the souvenir market before catching a taxi to another secret little hideway, Erakor Island. Our taxi drive cost us $10 but when we got there we realised we didn’t have any small notes. Our taxi driver suggested giving him the $20 note we had and vowed to return to pick us up later. He was there, 6 hours later, to take us back to the ship.  His kindness and honesty really impressed me.

The taxi will drop you off at the wooden ferry terminal, at the end of it you’ll find the little boat that takes you to and from the island. The daily entrance fee of $15 for adults and $10 for children is paid at the rather delightful bamboo hut on the right. The daily rate can be used as a credit in the restaurant or towards water activities at the resort. We were the only cruise passengers there all day so we’d successfully managed to escape the crowds and at times had the entire beach to ourselves. Three steps in to the crystal-clear water and you’re spoilt with different coloured starfish and sea cucumbers. As my daughter and I entered the water to snorkel, a black and white striped sea snake swam past, narrowly missing our legs. Some squealing and much laughter ensued for some time after that. We spent the day building sandcastles, watching the locals sailing by and enjoying some spectacular snorkelling. The marine life is fantastic here with a fair bit of reef located about 20 metres offshore. I was spoilt by the ocean again, lucky enough to spot a Moray Eel, almost in the same spot as last time. My husband missed it on our last visit so he headed back into the water for one last look before we had back to the ship. He saw 2! Having dived a fair bit in my past life I do get a bit excited when I see interesting and ‘not so easy to spot’ marine life.

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Whatever you do, don’t leave Port Vila until you’ve a spent a day at this astoundingly beautiful and family friendly island resort. If you do decide to stay longer, they’ve got magnificent villas spread out over the island with the waves lapping right outside your window. Henry and the other locals working on the island do an amazing job looking after you and the restaurant has a glorious view of the lagoon, perfect for a memorable family sunset dinner.

Our next stop will be Port Denarau, Fiji.  The last time I was here I was pregnant with my son and my daughter was nearly 2.  I feel so lucky to be going back to this part of the world with my family and making new memories.

“The greatest legacy we can leave our children is happy memories”  Og Mandino

Breathtaking Espiritu Santo

Halo from Vanuatu!

I got a bit excited on the first day of the cruise when they said you could buy unlimited premium internet access on the ship for just $99, little did I know they meant limited unlimited access. I’d love to have given you an update of our adventures before now but internet reception has been dismal. We’ve also been catching up on some much-needed sleep, I don’t think we’ve ever been so tired…The last week in our house was like a scene out of The Block. We were packing for the cruise, packing and organising the van and preparing the house for our much loved friends who are renting it for the next five months (you really don’t realise how many things need repairing until someone else is about to come and live in your house!).  Going from a 5 bedroom, 3 bathroom house to a 17 sqm cabin with just one bathroom has been interesting to say the least. I don’t know about your family but I always notice how out of sync we are the first few days of a trip.  It has been wonderful to reconnect with each other again though.

After two and a half days at sea we woke up to the beautiful shores of Luganville, a major export centre on the island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu. I was really sea sick the day before and therefore SO ready to get off the ship.  Unlike other times we’d cruised, I had no idea what we’d be seeing on Santo. We are not ‘follow the crowd’, ‘shore excursion’ travellers so hadn’t booked anything. I cannot think of anything worse than queuing to get on a bus with heaps of other tourists only to take us somewhere that we can visit on our own, for half the price. We decided to take our chances, catch a taxi from the port and see what the day brings. We negotiated a flat rate for the day and probably paid more than we should have, but we figured $140 for the whole day was pretty good value as there were four of us and could take our time exploring. Our awesome driver John did not disappoint us. The people on the island were incredibly inviting, kind and just loved the tourists. The island’s inhabitants are very poor (in the money sense) but evidently rich in other ways. We passed three schools which were all extremely basic, some of the classrooms didn’t have windows. According to our driver, basic education isn’t subsidised after year 7 and parents need to pay for high school education which is very expensive, resulting in many kids not finishing their educational journey. This made me incredibly sad and I wondered how they could improve their future outcomes without this opportunity.

There are potholes in the roads, dogs roaming the streets, the sweet smell of smoke coming from fires in the little houses and the washing lines are simply ropes strung out from a roof to a nearby tree.  Coconut plantations abound and cattle in the fields inland, Santo is world famous for its beef.

The Riri Blue Hole

We’d never visited one of these before so didn’t really know what to expect. When we got to the end of the dirt road we found a few of the locals sitting in a little thatched hut, we paid our $5 per person entry fee and made our way down the man-made path through the forest. The first sight of the water almost took our breathe away. It was almost transparent and very inviting with water warmer than I had expected. There also weren’t swarms of tourists around so it made the whole experience so much more enjoyable. A giant rope swing hung in the distance and we couldn’t resist. This thing is so big you needed a 6m wooden pole to grab the rope from its resting place. My husband went first and made it look easy with his upper body strength! Our son was next but got the jitters. I decided to be a good role model and ‘have a go’, it was AWESOME! I felt like a child again. And…it worked! Our son went next and then five times more! We were late for our driver but it was totally worth it!

Lope Lope Lodge

Our next stop for lunch was recommended to us by our driver and we were so glad he did. As we drove through the gates of Lope Lope Lodge we caught a glimpse of the turquoise waters that lay ahead and we knew we were about to experience something wonderful. A rare little hideaway tucked away behind a high wall. A nearly 180 degree view of crystal clear blue water with the reef lying about 100m offshore.  The open-air restaurant sits right on the water’s edge and the live music and warm hospitality made us wish we could stay here longer. We vowed we would return one day and even checked out the accommodation while we were there (they have but four cosy little villas that sit on the water’s edge). A tiny little piece of heaven. After a snorkel and a bite to eat we headed off to the next stop.

The cultural village

Having visited many cultural villages around the world before, I found this one to be truly authentic and definitely worth a visit with only a $10 per adult and $5 per child entry fee. We got to step into the men’s hut where they make the famous drink, Kava. They pound the root of the Kava plant (which looks a bit like ginger) and mix it with a little bit of water. It’s pretty potent so they only give you a bit at a time to try. My husband agreed to be the dummy and have a taste, he said it tasted ‘earthy’ and made his tongue tingle and go numb. After some dancing and singing we headed over to the pool for a water music show with a difference. This involved the local women stepping into a half-filled pool and making the most amazing music using drums and the sound of the water as they hit it with their hands. A couple of the little kids from the village climbed in too and I couldn’t help but notice how happy they were. They seemed very connected to their families and their traditions.

Million Dollar Point

Our final stop in Santo was ‘Million Dollar Point’ which had a $5 per person entry fee. If you’re interested in history then this is a definite point of interest. During World War 2 the Island was used by Allied Forces as a military supply and support base. At the end of the war the American forces dumped most of their equipment here. Wrecks are strewn across the ocean floor from 1m to 15m below water level. The wind had picked up and the water was a bit choppy but we decided to snorkel it and see if we could spot anything. There was tons to see here and the marine life was abundant. The boys swam through what felt like a bait ball of fish and I was lucky enough to spot a Lion Fish.

We loved Santo and would really like to return to explore more of this unique island. It’s one of those places that transports you back to a time when life was a little simpler and more carefree.

Our next stop is Port Vila. It will be our fourth time there and we are keen to see how it’s all changed, it’s been nearly six years since our last visit.