The sun is beating down on Port Denarau while 80 passengers board the Reef Endeavour. “Bula,” boom the staff as they hand out colourful cocktails.
I’d heard that bula is the only word you really need to know to communicate with the people of Fiji. And it certainly seems
Captain Cook Cruises’ Reef Endeavour is a beautiful small white ship catering for up to 130 guests, with 43 crew ranging from the bar staff to excursion leaders.
The passengers are a mix of Kiwis, Aussies and a solitary Swiss woman. There are families with young children, older couples and a multigenerational group with parents, children and grandparents.
People have come from far and wide to experience the magic of Fiji, with the option of a four- or seven-day itinerary to explore some of the more remote islands.
Reef Endeavour has three large sundecks and lounges where most of the guests spend time soaking up the Fijian sun. Before dinner, we congregate at the Yasawa Lounge for canapés and return later for a nightcap.
Below deck is the dining area where a buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. Breakfast is free seating and in the evenings, when passengers dine onboard, the hospitality manager will seat you with other guests so you get to know everyone.
The decor is retro chic – tropical-themed carpet, curtains and linen. The cabins range in size with the largest on the top deck. My Tabua Suite has a king bed, dresser and small bathroom filled with Pure Fiji products. It’s not spacious, but there is so much going on,
I don’t spend much time in my cabin.
Each day, the itinerary revolves around island hopping and scuba diving, snorkelling, paddleboarding, kayaking or just relaxing on the beach.
On the first afternoon, we are tendered to Tivua Island. The tiny island, operated by Captain Cook, has white sandy beaches, small huts and crystal clear waters where guests can snorkel before heading to the bar for some Fiji Gold beers. It is a scene straight out of a travel brochure.
As the sun starts to set, it’s back to the Reef Endeavour for the Captain’s Welcome Dinner. I’m seated with two couples from Australia and Clayton, the ship’s American diving instructor, who has been travelling the world for the past 11 years.
Denise and Peter from Canberra tell me it’s their first time on a cruise and, so far, the experience is getting rave reviews. “We’ve seen heaps of kids onboard so it would be a nice idea to bring our children and their children,” Peter says.
While we enjoy a three-course dinner with three options per course, our crew welcomes us with some traditional Fijian dances and songs. The crew is multitalented and can not only shake a cocktail, but also serenade the guests.
Day two and it’s another glorious morning. Unfortunately, for morning snoozers, breakfast is served early so guests can make the most of their day. It’s a hearty meal and the same every day: eggs cooked any way you want, with bacon, sausages, baked beans and potatoes, as well as fruit, cereal, pancakes, toast and Danish pastries.
After breakfast, Clayton hangs out in the Yasawa Lounge to tell guests what they can expect to see if they opt for a scuba diving adventure.
While everyone else is tendered to shore, I opt to stay aboard and head to the Senikai Spa for a full-body massage. The spa is small, about the size of my cabin, with two staff who do everything from couples’ massages to facial therapy. Aggie, my masseuse, hits all the right spots. The Senikai Spa uses its own brand of oils and products from Pure Fiji. Prices range from about $60 for a pedicure to $240 for the works – facial and massage.
After a relaxing massage, it’s time for some scuba diving instruction. Clayton teaches me and other first-time divers how to breathe and equalise our ears as we dive deeper. After half an hour, we’re ready. Dives are scheduled for the morning and the afternoon, depending on where the ship drops anchor and instructors take novices down to explore Fiji’s beautiful reef system.
It is a healthy ecosystem unlike many other reefs in the world that have been ravaged by tourism. Dives cost $180 and it is worth every cent if you’re game to try.
For those who prefer to stay on the surface, one the highlights of the cruise is
a visit to the Gunu village on Naviti Island, where the locals set up shell markets for guests to buy souvenirs.
The most charming part of the village is meeting the children who are thrilled to chat with foreigners. “Hello, what’s your name? Where are you from?” they chant as they show us around.
We are treated to a traditional kava ceremony and welcomed by the village elders. Kava is a local mildly intoxicating drink made from the root of a vegetable and used for ceremonial proceedings. After the ceremony, we are served a traditional Fijian dinner of palusami, a local specialty made with corned beef, coconut milk, spinach and tomatoes, cooked underground. It is surprisingly delicious. We also feast on roast pork, fish, potatoes, cassava and salads, and it’s an excellent chance to meet some of the locals. Captain Cook Cruises encourages guests to buy handicrafts or donate money to help villages develop infrastructure or buy supplies for the schools.
Day three and the Reef Endeavour has made its way to the Blue Lagoon, which the famous Brooke Shields movie was named after. The day’s highlight is a visit to the Ratu Namasi School, where the children’s choir performs traditional Fijian songs. Seven-year-old Elizabeth takes my hand and shows me around her classroom.
The school sits at the foot of Mount Tamasua and the views from the top are worth the climb. It’s the perfect place to get some snaps of the Blue Lagoon.
That evening, I’m seated with Captain Simon Estella, who has been at the helm of the Reef Endeavor for just a month. He tells me he has toured the world with shipping companies and was most recently stationed in Paraguay. He has also finished the Sydney to Hobart yacht race numerous times.
Captain Estella now spends half of his time with his family in Melbourne and the other half on the Reef Endeavour.
“This is a real family ship. I brought my family on board during my second week and my 14-year-old twin boys had an absolute ball. They loved all the water activities and the staff treat everyone like family,” he says.
The entertainment for the evening is a movie on the big screen under the stars.
Day four is sadly our last on the Reef Endeavour. We visit Yaqeta Island to swim and snorkel, while divers have one last chance to visit the reef. It’s a sad day for families whose children have made friends and will soon have to say goodbye. Two Kiwi girls who live three hours apart have already made vows of life-long friendship.
On our last night, we are treated to a Fijian barbecue and gambling local-style – hermit-crab racing. Bidding on the crabs can get into the hundreds. My group’s crab comes second (after a lot of heckling) and we donates the winnings to the villages Captain Cook visits.
The following morning, after some tearful good byes, numbers exchanged and more singing from the staff, we are tendered back to Port Denaru to go our separate ways.
Fiji is a magical destination and for the 80 passengers, it was an experience like none other.