Australians have an ongoing love affair with Fiji. Okay, that romance may not always extend to the corridors of power, but the connection between the people will never be broken by political squabbles.

Ever since the first international flights began using Nadi as a refuelling and stopover point in the mid-1950s the potential for Fiji tourism has been unmistakable.

Since this writer made his first trip to the newly independent Fiji in 1971 aboard P&O’s Himalaya, tourists from Australia have continued to pour in. The first official tourism plan at that time set a modest target of 50,000 visitors. If trends continue, 2011 will see arrival numbers coming close to the 700,000 mark – more than half of them Australian – making tourism roughly 25 per cent of GDP and creating some 45,000 full-time jobs.

The sophistication of the Fiji tourism offerings may have lagged occasionally, but with the input of major accommodation chains, airlines and entrepreneurs, the standard has been consistently rising. The major multi-resort development of Denarau Island is a testament to Fiji’s ability to respond to market demands and excel. Additionally, the numerous private island resorts rank among the world’s best.

Yet as much as Fiji is known for these self-contained, so-called ‘integrated’ resorts, it’s still the fundamental tropical getaway that appeals to most visitors. While you can certainly have a great holiday at any of these lavish properties or enjoy an enriching shore excursion, it is the boutique small-ship cruises that reveal the true Fiji.

One firm fan of Fiji’s islands is Tom Hanks, who chose the island of Monuriki in the Mamanuca Group off the coast of Viti Levu on which to film Cast Away in 2000. Movie buffs can take a day cruise to Monuriki from Denarau.

You get another hint of the remote island experience with P&O Cruises’ stopover at Dravuni Island, but sharing it with 2,000 others sort of dulls the intimacy of the occasion. The three major operators to the ‘unseen’ Fiji are Captain Cook, Tui Tai and Blue Lagoon and each offer outstanding itineraries that take in such evocatively named locations as Taveuni, Rabi, Kioa, Yasawas and the charming old capital of Levuka.

Here you will encounter the kind of Fiji first seen by early traders and explorers. In sleepy villages almost devoid of tourist infrastructure you are met by the chief and invited in for a traditional yaqona (kava) ceremony. Reserved for honoured guests and performed with trademark solemnity according to a sacramental ritual, it marks births, marriages, deaths, official visits and the installation of new chiefs.

Regularly included as part of these special cruises is scuba diving, usually with an onboard divemaster, so novices can get a taste of the submarine beauty
of Fiji’s world-renowned reefs. Huge plate and fan corals, massive, sheer drop-offs and encounters with the wonderful manta rays are common around the waters off Vanua Levu.

Taveuni, locally known as the Garden Island, is everything you could imagine a mythical tropical island paradise to be. Sparsely populated, intensely green and dissected by streams of liquid silk, narrow paths guide you through the undergrowth to the next waterfall, and then the next. Every so often a cranky, bright-red land crab will throw up a challenge. If you allow time, trek all the way to the volcanic crater at 800 metres where Lake Tagimaucia nurtures its legendary namesake bloom.

Both Kioa and Rabi are curious little islands, known for their transplanted Polynesian and Micronesian populations. It’s delightfully incongruous to receive an energetic greeting in their respective native customs, carefully maintained despite the distance from their original homelands.

Of Fiji’s 300-something islands, just one-third are permanently inhabited, providing a seemingly endless scope for cruising and ultimate getaway possibilities.

Tui Tai expeditions

It’s hard to imagine a more complete Fijian experience than that aboard a Tui Tai cruise. Yes, there is a premium price-tag attached (from $550pp/day, twin share) but the inclusions are generous and the scope of the expedition astonishing. Diving is a big drawcard for Tui Tai and packages can also include full PADI certification courses in some of the best diving locations in the Pacific. Add to these snorkelling, light trekking, mountain biking, village visits and cultural displays all aboard the Tui Tai, a vessel that’s not much bigger than explorer Captain James Cook’s Endeavour.

Vessel: Tui Tai

Star Rating: not rated

Max. pax capacity: 25 in 12 cabins

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.

Blue Lagoon Cruises

Similar in operation to Captain Cook Cruises (offering regular 3-, 4- and 7-night cruises among the Yasawas), Blue Lagoon Cruises is set to create history this year with the first ever cruise to visit the remote Lau Group as part of their ‘Historical and Cultural’ cruise which ventures off the beaten track to the international dateline and the northeast tip of the Fiji Islands. Highlights of the Lau islands, first seen by Captain Cook in 1774, include Qilaqila Island, the jewel in the crown of the Lau group’s ‘Bay of Islands’.

Vessel: MV Mystique Princess

Star Rating: not rated

Max. pax capacity: 72 in 36 cabins

Total crew: not stated

Passenger decks: 5

GRT: 1,500 tons

Entered service: 1996

Facilities: laundry, dining room, lounge, Senikai spa, 2 cocktail bars, boutique, aft boarding platform, 3 sun decks, tenders.

Captain Cook Cruises

Apart from regular sailings among the glorious Yasawa group and Northern Fiji, the choice for adventurers is the recently revamped ‘Discovery Cultural Cruise’ aboard MV Reef Endeavour, the first ever Fiji cruise to circumnavigate Vana Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island. A trip to Kioa Island, the world’s third longest barrier reef, offers superior snorkelling and glass-bottom boating excursions. There are school and village visits including a sevusevu ceremony, meke and lovo feast. An older vessel, she was extensively refurbished in March 2011.

Vessel: MV Reef Endeavour

Star Rating: not rated

Max. pax capacity: 140 in 75 cabins

Total crew: not stated

Passenger decks: 5

GRT: 3,000 tons

Entered service: 1996; refurb 2011

Facilities: 2 spa pools, swimming pool, sun deck, sauna and gym, glass-bottomed boat, snorkelling and dive vessels, 2 bars, 2 lounges, single-sitting dining saloon, gift shop, library, guest laundry, satellite communications.