The new expedition ship of Captain Cook Cruises Fiji offers a new perspective –sailing Caledonian Sky to the remote islands tourists rarely get to see.

Pastor Tua Fili is in full flight. The Methodist priest and caretaker of Makogai Island, part of the Lomaiviti Archipelago, is holding a well-thumbed Fijian Bible and explaining why there is only one way to heaven. We need redemption, he explains with a toothy smile. And there is only one way to get it. 

A dozen children from the local school sing hymns and dance. They are dressed in vivid Sunday-best colours and their dazzling white smiles soon have everyone grinning. Most of the island’s population of about 100 has turned out to see us, and their reception is effusive.

Pastor’s church promises redemption

The pastor’s church is a local research station. And it is promising redemption of sorts. It is conducting research into how giant clams can help heal coral reefs. Two 30-year-old Australian giants are in a tank outside, and dozens of plastic containers hold spawn that will soon turn into young clams spread over the bay.

Results have been positive. Coral replanting is now a major industry in Fiji. Our host, Captain Cook Cruises Fiji, has a private island called Tivua, and marine biologists working for the company have discovered that seeding coral which has survived a bleaching attack can create colonies that are more resilient – possibly even immune. Their DNA seems to contain an antidote. 

A little redemption, indeed, for what we’ve done to the planet.

Great Scot

Caledonian Sky Cabins featuring lots of timber  on Captain Cook Cruises Fiji
The Caledonian Sky features interiors fitouts from its former days in Scotland.

We are on board Fiji’s first luxury expedition ship. Caledonian Sky is a 33-year-old classic that has sailed in Asia, Scotland and our own Kimberley, when she was owned by APT. While in Scotland, she was refitted in the style of a country hotel, and a lot of that remains today. 

Her suites rejoice in names like Brodick Castle and Clan Elliott. She has beautiful wood-veneered corridors. The suites are rather grand, with dark wood and comfy, coloured chairs. Her main restaurant and bars could easily grace a Hebridean hotel. She even has a fireplace!

There is room for up to 100 guests and a crew of about 70 – a great ratio for luxury travel. There are 10 expedition staff running lectures, helming the Zodiacs and ensuring visits to remote tribal villages go well. In this remote area of Fiji, respect and tradition are important.

Today, Caledonian Sky is our expedition base for an exploration of a Fiji that few ever see, a world away from the “Bula” welcome of branded resorts.

Pastor Tua Fili at the former leper colony on a tour with  Captain Cook Cruises Fiji
Pastor Tua Fili at the former leper colony.

Stunning snorkelling and dive spots

Our Zodiacs and guides lead us to stunning snorkelling and dive locations, villages that rarely see anything but the monthly supply boat, beaches where nimble young men shin up trees to serve us fresh coconut water. It’s quite a revelation – the more so since Fiji is some four hours from Sydney and Brisbane. 

The ship is now operated by Captain Cook Cruises Fiji, which swapped her for the Reef Endeavour, a vessel it sailed in Fiji for decades. With the change comes a determined move upmarket – and another noble if brave decision: to make sailings an almost totally Fijian experience.

There are plans to reflag the vessel in Fiji. Most of the 70-strong crew are local. They are unswervingly loyal and proud of their new ship and its pedigree, and they work hard to give guests a five-star experience, even though they have only been sailing Caledonian Sky for a few short months. 

Passengers taking a Zodiac tour with a Captain Cook Cruises Fiji
Passengers taking a Zodiac tour with a Captain Cook Cruises Fiji.

There are ambitious plans for a dry-dock refit in 2025. And a top Fijian chef is being sought to lead a galley already working on Fijian delights. 

Our fellow guests have come from as far afield as Canada, America, Germany, the UK and Mexico to see a Fiji not many get to experience. In this, our seven-night Lau Islands cruise doesn’t disappoint.

Pacific position is prime

Fiji’s islands have little power or supplies – which is why China’s gift of solar panels has been so popular. The local schools crave crayons and exercise books rather than money (we’ve bought a big supply from Dymocks). Perhaps it’s no wonder we draw a crowd.

This is the Pacific’s front line in a battle for influence. We all know illegal Chinese fishing vessels are just over the horizon, and that the little we do is important to win over hearts and minds. 

Fiji is famous for the genuine friendliness and joy that seems to permeate people’s lives. It’s infectious and uplifting. Family is a huge part of Fijian life, and to be welcomed as family to an authentic Fijian village is something very special.

On every island, there is a well-drilled choir of children and adults. Their warmth and hospitality are completely authentic. We are shown through homes, offered food, drink and copious bowls of kava, that brown liquid revered by all Fijians and made from the root of a plant.

Captain Cook Cruises a village choir edited
Village visitors draw and crowd, and a choir.

The cultural experience of Kava

Kava is at the heart of culture here. It’s a potent relaxant, and Fijians claim it has all the highs of alcohol without the aggression or the hangover. At every island stopover, the ship’s crew gave a gift of kava at what is called a sevusevu ceremony. It goes something like this: ship’s crewman to village chief – “We offer you this woefully inadequate gift of kava.” Chief – “Not at all, it looks great to me, let’s pound it in a huge mortar and pestle and have a drink.”

Soon, the men (usually not the women, as this is still a patriarchal society) are happily sharing bowls and smoking local tobacco. What’s it like? Let’s just say the Australian wine industry has nothing to worry about.

While we are taken to look at pottery, the schoolhouse and medical facilities, the sevusevu ceremony goes on. In the evening, we are served a lomu dinner cooked by the elders.

Generous, gregarious and fun loving

Chicken, lamb and even bully beef are placed in a pit on rocks, covered in leaves and soil, and allowed to cook for an hour. It’s delicious. To send us off, a women’s drum band (think plastic buckets with clubs, loads of energy and laughter) farewells us at the beach.

Fijians are generous, courteous, fun loving and gregarious. We stop to swim on a deserted beach. Within minutes three young men arrive to cut coconuts, shinning up the trees and offering us the coconut water. 

A father turns up with his children for a picnic. As he lands, he spots us and immediately walks over to shake our hands. He welcomes us before taking off with a spear gun to get the family’s lunch. At another beach, we are offered coconut crabs straight from the pot. Wood carvers also demonstrate their skills making turtle-shaped bowls.

A Kava ceremony
Get ready for a Kava ceremony cruising with Captain Cook Cruises Fiji.

Away from the main resorts, Fiji really is paradise. 

We snorkel among corals and scuba dive off reefs. White-tipped sharks swim past us without a second glance. Manta rays and turtles are accompanied by great clouds of colourful reef fish. The divemasters on Caledonian Sky are helpful and safety-conscious.

Back on board our ship, among the grand corridors and brass light fittings – she has already run Fiji out of the renowned British metal polish, Brasso – the walls are now adorned with Fijian pictures and artworks. There are seven suite types – all with walk-in wardrobes and some with baths. There are two huge owners’ suites featuring wraparound balconies. 

“On every island, there is a well-drilled choir of children and adults. Their warmth and hospitality are completely authentic.”

IN addition, there is is a marvellous library and bar on the top deck, which serves canapes and drinks at sunset while our entertainer, a genuine one-man band, sings the classics and plays the guitar. 

The ship’s main dining room on Deck 2 is a delightful sight, with more wood veneer and heavy drapes. Everyone eats here in the evenings, and there is plenty of choice. Wine and beer are included at mealtimes. There is a lounge on Deck 3 which doubles as the meeting place for shore excursions, and an open-air restaurant on Deck 5 for breakfast and lunch. There is a spa on Deck 4, and American passengers return time and again extolling both the experience and the amazing value of the treatments there.

A visiting-scientist program has been launched where marine experts join select cruises to lead citizen-science and conservation activities. The line-up of visiting-scientist guest lecturers includes experts in marine biology and reef conservation, providing a fascinating, firsthand discovery of the South Pacific’s submarine world. Confirmed in the program to date are Dr Alison Green, Dr Anne Hoggett, Dr Lyle Vail and Dr Penny Berents.

The funnel of Caledonian Sky the new ship for Captain Cook Cruises Fiji.
Captain Cook Cruises arrival of Caledonian Sky in Fiji has been welcomed.

The start of something new

Captain Cook Cruises Fiji is a family offshoot of the famous Sydney Harbour ferries and more than 50 years old. The arrival of Caledonian Sky in Fiji is filled with potential. Everyone is rooting for this experiment to propel the country into the luxury expedition space, alongside French Polynesia and Indonesia’s Raja Ampat. 

We took the seven-night Lau and Kadavu cruise, which included exploring the lagoons of Qilaqila, renowned for its mushroom-shaped islands, and the central lake on the uninhabited Vuaqava island.

Guests can choose from three-, seven- and 14-night itineraries to discover the unexplored Fiji and South Pacific, including a cruise through the Yasawa and Mamanuca Islands, expeditions to the Northern and Southern Lau archipelagoes, a discovery of the remote north region, and an ultimate cruise to Lau and Kadavu. 

The verdict

High: Location, location location – the Fijian islanders are among the warmest, most welcoming on Earth, and the destinations are genuinely unspoilt and very beautiful.

Low: The accommodation and main restaurant are brilliant on Caledonian Sky, but a few areas need work. And everyone agreed it would be great if the back deck was open for evening meals.

Who is it for: Adventure seekers who want to arrive on a desert island in style. 

Captain Cook Cruises island life