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Remote, deserted beaches, uninhabited islands, unspoilt coral reefs and vivid cultural encounters – discover a Fiji less travelled aboard Tui Tai. Words: Roderick Eime

Fiji was one of my earliest international travel experiences. Still in short pants, I remember the bustling wharves of Suva and Lautoka and the giant (to me) P&O Himalaya, stark white under the blazing tropical sun. There were the ubiquitous carved wooden swords, shell necklaces and model canoes touted by young kids not much older than me, all the way into town and back.
I still have the blessed things somewhere in a box.

This was the Fijian tourist experience of 1971, a blueprint that remained unchanged for decades. For many Australians, it is a typical memory of their travel to the Fiji Islands and even to this day, many still opt for the resort experience that Fiji does so well.

The relationship between the Fijian and Australian people is strong and easily resists the distracting political ructions at government level. The warm and genuine hospitality of Melanesian people is unmistakable and irresistible and the Fijian welcome is perhaps its best example.

Beyond the manicured lawns, swimming pools and cocktail bars of Denarau Island, there exists another Fiji; one of remote, deserted beaches, hundreds of uninhabited islands, unspoilt coral reefs and vivid cultural encounters. To voyage by small ship from a secret anchorage out into the tropical heaven is the sort of experience that is appearing on more and more ‘bucket lists’. Niche, intimate and enriching, travel by vessels carrying as few as a couple of dozen guests enjoying superior service, cuisine and activities in a sustainable and culturally respectful manner is more and more appealing.

One of the best examples of this type of experience is that of Savusavu-based Tui Tai Expeditions. Tui Tai’s delightful three-masted design and generous interior space made her an ideal conversion for boutique itineraries. She was acquired by current owners Tige and Morika Young in 2002 and refitted to carry just 24 guests in comfortable cabins. In 2006, Tui Tai was remodelled again with more luxurious refinements such as a massage/spa studio, private cabanas and deluxe staterooms. There’s plenty of space to flop and relax with a book or just snooze and guests are free to be as active or as lazy as they want.

“Grab your mask and fins,” says our guide Gemma as urgently as she can, her voice never really sounding frantic, “the mantas are here!”

We snatch our snorkelling kit, still wet from the morning’s dive, and trot promptly down to the tender already idling alongside. We sling on our fins while the motor guns us across the wide lagoon.

“The mantas come through here a couple of times a year when the current and tides are right,” says Gemma, “we’ll drop you ahead of them and just hang there while they go past.”

No sooner are we in the water than the great rays start gliding towards us, their massive mouths agape, scooping up the plankton driven along in the current. Two, three, five creatures weave in and out of formation, diving occasionally, then doubling back in a graceful arc to rejoin the team. It’s a mesmerising choreography that quickly has us spellbound, yet in no time they are past us and off on their quest with slow, effortless flaps of their wings. We try to keep pace, but the tide holds us back.

“How was that?” implores Gemma, but we are speechless and puffing and I can only manage a wheezy “wow!”

There’s something about the magical manta rays that sums up Fiji and the
Tui Tai experience. Huge and powerful, they only exert energy when it suits them, instead arranging themselves so the food source comes to them. Graceful and serene, these huge creatures, at least three metres across, simply caress the water as they make their oceanic odyssey.

Although not all guests are ready for the go-go-go, I’m giving it a shot. Next, the mountain bike trek along the coastal road of Rabi sounds arduous, but hardcore peddlers would scoff. The gently undulating dirt road passes through sleepy villages where we exchange greetings in the local language. “Mauri!” (hello!) and the locals are ready with a broad smile and a wave as I wobble through their little hamlets.

Scuba diving is one of Fiji’s great attractions and one of my passions, so I’m using every opportunity to get beneath the waves and there are plenty. The outer reefs attract magnificent rays, dolphins and giant pelagic fish – all against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful hard and soft corals anywhere. Divers of all experience can enjoy these waters and Sebastien, my new French friend is the proud recipient of his PADI Open Water certification obtained on board.

Beyond simply carrying well-heeled eco-travellers into delirious destinations, Tui Tai Expeditions also operates a charitable fund that supports numerous tiny and remote communities with medical, educational, logistic and infrastructure support. Driven by guests’ desire to give back to the communities visited, the project played a crucial role in delivery of relief supplies to cyclone-ravaged villages after last year’s devastating Cyclone Tomas.

Relaxing in one of voluminous lounges on the deck, the gentle flap of a sail in the breeze and a satisfying lunch on top of my morning exercise, I drift off into a carefree, fantasy slumber. Instead of little wooden swords and tacky shell jewellery, my new dreams of Fiji are filled with reefs of colourful fish, majestic manta rays and secluded atolls. “Excuse me Mr Rod, your beer.” Now that’s an interruption I can live with.

BOOKINGS

Tui Tai Expeditions offer 5- or 7-night all-inclusive itineraries ex-Savasavu. Fares begin at US$2,493 per person, twin share for five nights and $2,990 for seven. For bookings, go to www.tuitai.com.

Air Pacific flies daily from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne direct to Nadi with daily connections to Savusavu with Pacific Sun. Call 1800 230 150, or visit www.airpacific.com; www.pacificsun.com.fj.

FACT FILE

Vessel: Tui Tai

Star rating: not rated

Max passengers: 25

Total crew: 10

Passenger decks: 3

GRT: 550 tons

Entered service: 1980; refit: 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008

Facilities: spa, PADI scuba diving, 2 Zodiac tenders, mountain bikes, kayaks, indoor bar/lounge, outdoor dining and kitchen, private cabanas, sun deck.