Paradise in the South Pacific

Anna Selby returns to the South Seas and finds a paradise, much the same as it was on her first visit 25 years ago.

The South Pacific is about as far as you can get from the UK before you start coming back again. As a result, you can travel either west or east to get there – via Singapore or Los Angeles. Many people add it on to a trip to New Zealand or Australia. However it deserves so much more than a just few days. Ideally you’ll need a minimum of three weeks (given the length of the flights and the jetlag!) so we’re definitely in ‘trip of a lifetime’ territory here.

First stop… Fiji

Air New Zealand used to have a ‘Coral Route’. This was the way I got round the region when I first visited a quarter of a century ago. It island hopped from Tahiti to the Cook Islands, Fiji to Samoa. Sadly, this is long gone but recently Fiji Airways has tried to fill some of the gaps by not only adding long haul flights (both Singapore and Los Angeles to its hub at Nadi) but also inter-island flights.

Fiji then was where I began – and after two eleven-hour flights with a layover in LA, I was in need of a little R&R. This came in the form of a cruise, but not a typical one in any way. Captain Cook Cruises have recently bought the Caledonia Sky from Noble Caledonia and I was quite surprised to see it. The last time I’d been on board this ship had been in icy waters during a circumnavigation of Iceland. The tropical Fijian sun was a bit of a change then!

Cruising Fiji’s pristine waters

Caledonia Sky takes just over 100 passengers to two of Fiji’s loveliest archipelagos, the Yasawas and the Mamanucas, strung like pearls in a dark blue ocean. You’ll find a way of life here that’s been largely unchanged since Captain Cook himself found his way here in 1774. One of the highlights of the cruise – aside from plenty of days idly swimming, snorkelling or lounging on white coral beaches – was visiting a village on one of the Yasawas. This entailed an entertainment given by local school children, a lovo feast (the food is cooked in an underground earth oven with heated volcanic stones) and a taste of yaqona, also known as kava – and nothing like the deliciously fizzy Spanish version of Champagne.

No, this is made from the powdered root of a pepper plant, mixed with water in a huge wooden bowl and served in a single cup to everyone in strict order of importance (chief first, honoured guest second). There’s a ceremony that comes with it – you clap once, take the cup, drain in one go and clap again. Just remember as you drink what looks (and indeed tastes) like dirty dish water that this is considered a great honour!

Second stop… Samoa

In Fiji, you’ll find plenty of gorgeous resorts with fantastic food, facilities and entertainment, particularly around Lautoka where you’ll find not just a marina but a perfectly manicured golf course. If you’re looking, though, for something a little more laid back and peaceful, it’s just a two-hour flight from Nadi to Apia, capital of Samoa (once called Western Samoa to differentiate it from American Samoa).

Apia is the capital but to British eyes, it’s a small town with a population of just 35,000. It is, though, where you’ll find the Cultural Village, a place that gives you a clue about the fa’a Samoa – literally the Samoan Way, a culture that’s lasted 3,000 years. Samoans are very much village people. Mostly, they stay living in the village where they were born and, even if they leave for work, they will generally return there. It is, as they will tell you, the place that they belong.

Perhaps as a result of this, Samoans take immense pride in their villages. You will never see litter or graffiti. Instead, there are colourfully painted houses, neatly trimmed grass and hedges of colourful plants and flowers running around the boundary. Central will be the church (or, more often, churches) because this is a very religious society. Churches – even in villages – are usually the size of a cathedral and everyone goes on Sundays for services where four-part harmonies ring out.

A unique insight to Samoan culture and cuisine

Back in the Cultural Village, you’ll discover how to weave a plate from leaves, be entertained by singers, musicians and dancers (men in Samoa have a quite extraordinary fire dance), and discover the traditional tatau. Now ubiquitous even in the UK, tattoos originated in Polynesia as a rite of passage (originally they were made with a shark’s tooth and octopus ink).

You won’t find any hotel chains in Samoa – this is a very laidback place and entertainment features mostly dinner and the occasional local dance troupe. The dinners, though, are superb. Samoan fish – usually tuna and snapper – is delicious, fresh and often served cooked in coconut cream. This is utterly irresistible, and you can never truly replicate it due to the freshness of all the ingredients here – tuna, coconut and lime juice.

On the second island of Savai’I, it’s all about natural wonders. There are blowholes that force thousands of litres of seawater skywards with a great roar. The eruption of Mr Matavanus in 1905 resulted in a lava field that engulfed five villages and left a roofless church still standing, the black lava surging through and around it.

A Brit in Samoa

One of the most unexpected places in Samoa is Vailima, the home and final resting place of Robert Louis Stevenson. The author of Jekyll and Hyde and Treasure Island arrived here in December 1889 and immediately decided to put down roots. He said he liked the people, it was not too civilized and had a regular mail service to his publishers. His house, Vailima is still a lovely place to visit with its wide shady verandas, lofty ceilings and a couple of fireplaces (never lit due to the tropical conditions but undoubtedly reminded him of home).

Vailima is now a museum dedicated to the writer and you can visit his grave at the top of Mt Vaea – a spot he chose so he could look down on his house. He was buried wearing his boots. It was, he explained, in order to show he’d stopped travelling and had found his home. Samoa.

Next steps

To plan and book your holiday to Fiji, Samoa or elsewhere in the South Pacific, call Silver Travel Advisor on 0800 412 5678. We can make recommendations on your flights, accommodation and things to do while you’re on holiday.

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Anna Selby

Travel writer & author

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