A small island in the seas beyond Viti Levu offers not just scenery and solitude, but also a glimpse at a proud culture and a taste of curry-scented Fijian cuisine.
By Penny Watson
Given the legacy of shipwreck tales that this part of the world has inspired, it feels a tad out of keeping to arrive by plane. Or maybe it’s just sensible. In any case, my 747 flight has landed in the Fijian transport hub of Nadi and now, in the spirit of getting away from it all—quickly —I’m bumping along on thermals in a nine-seat turboprop surrounded by brilliant blue sky.
As if Fiji’s main island, 3,000-plus kilometers northeast of Sydney, wasn’t remote enough, I’m heading farther still from mainstream civilization to the eponymous main island of the Yasawa Group, an archipelago of pristine reefs and turquoise seas. The flight takes all of 25 minutes, but the views from my window seat are mesmeric: beyond the yacht-dotted bays of Viti Levu’s coastline, myriad tiny islands—some of them low and sandy, others volcanic and mountainous—pass under the wing of the plane. Reefs gleam effulgently green like big opals just below the surface of the water. Speedboats, drawing chalky white wake lines across the ocean, look lost in the vastness. Up ahead, the horizon is indistinguishable between the blues of the sky and sea.
This dreamy tableau has given the Yasawas their reputation as an archetypal South Seas destination. When the wanderlusting mind defaults to sipping cocktails from coconuts on perfect white beaches, it likely ends up here, in a place that seems plucked from Robinson Crusoe or Treasure Island or, quite accurately, The Blue Lagoon, parts of which were filmed here in the late 1970s. At the very least it provokes an atavistic yearning to feel sand between our toes.
As we edge toward Yasawa, pockets of civilization—flat-roofed houses surrounding cross-topped churches—appear on its outlying islands. I spot a swimming pool and beach umbrellas. Soon after, the plane tilts its wings and lines itself up with a grassy and worryingly short runway. We descend, rocking briefly as the hills appear to rise on either side. Touching down, the plane roars its engine and dust billows behind us. Welcome to paradise.
Twenty kilometers long and rarely more than two kilometers wide, Yasawa is the farthest island in the group from Nadi and so attracts fewer visitors than its southern neighbors. It has six villages, approximately 1,200 residents, and just one resort, the Yasawa Island Resort & Spa, from whence floral-shirted resort staff greet me at the airstrip with a sweet-smelling frangipani garland and a fresh coconut, smiling all the while.
After a short jeep ride I’m settled into my thatched-roof beachfront bure. It’s big enough for a family and equipped with two of life’s great luxuries—an outdoor shower and a low-slung hammock. On the balcony I look out to oversize orange hibiscus flowers, coconut trees, and a lounge pavilion built for two, just beyond which lies a kilometer-long stretch of white sand.
Despite their abounding beauty, the Yasawas weren’t always a tourist destination. Cruise ships have long visited these waters, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that passengers were allowed to step off the boat. Land-based tourism didn’t catch on until the late ’80s when the Fijian government launched the Yasawa Flyer, a daily fast-cat service that arrives from the mainland via the Mamanuca Islands. Resorts and backpacker accommodation followed. But for the most part, the archipelago retains a castaway-island atmosphere that I find instantly seductive.
My resort offers romantic boat trips to a number of secluded beaches with names like Paradise and Lovers. Guests—couples, mostly—are dropped off armed with a picnic hamper and beach towels and picked up at the end of the day bronzed and beatific. No doubt it’s honeymoon heaven. But as I’m traveling solo, I opt instead for a 30-minute boat ride to Sawa-i-Lau, situated off the southern end of Yasawa. This magical limestone island is home to the enchanting underwater caves that featured in The Blue Lagoon. As we zip across the waves, I muse that this is much the same view Captain William Bligh would have had when he became the first European to sight the Yasawas in May 1789, little more than a week after mutineers on the HMS Bounty cast him and 18 loyalists adrift in the ship’s launch. The mariners didn’t make it ashore, however; having been recently attacked on the Tongan island of Tofua, and mindful of Fiji’s reputation for cannibalism, Bligh and his men rowed away (“with some anxiety,” he noted coolly in his log) after spotting a pair of Fijian war canoes.