Thankfully, I have no such reservations and enter the first cave in wide-eyed wonder. The beautiful turquoise water in this yawning space is lit by sunlight streaming down from an opening above, sending rippling shadows over limestone walls that have been worn smooth and shiny by years of running water. A second cave, accessed by diving underwater and following the beam of my guide’s flashlight, is similarly lit through a long chute. This cave is known locally as the Caretaker because it provides fresh water from above and food from below—namely eels and red snapper.
Back at the resort, there’s more to learn about Fijian food. I get talking to head chef Talala Tupou, who is busy preparing kokoda—a ceviche-like dish made from raw snapper marinated in lime juice and combined with fresh coconut, capsicum, and red onion. Traditional Fijian cuisine, he explains, was a diet mainly of fresh seafood and coconut cooked lovo style, that is, wrapped in banana leaves and cooked with root vegetables on hot rocks buried in the sand. Then, with the start of British colonial rule in the late 1870s, an influx of indentured Indians arrived in Fiji to work the sugarcane plantations. “Fijian food culture hasn’t been the same since, and that’s a good thing,” Tupou says. “The Indian population bought with it herbs and spices and oils and changed our cuisine forever.” Sure enough, my favorite Fijian meal becomes seafood curry, a tantalizing mix of fresh fish, coconut, and lime mixed with the familiar flavors of tikka, korma, or masala.
At the poolside bar, I get chatting to another staff member, Manasa, a tall and lean older man with a big camera-ready smile. He’s introduced to me as “basically the reason there is tourism in the Yasawas,” having tempted the resort’s original owner to invest in Fiji and, after establishing a business plan, going from village to village seeking permission to allow tourism on the island. The resort opened in 1991 and the relationship with the closest village, Bukama, where Manasa was born, has prospered largely by retaining village customs and traditions while giving local families an income.
A visit to Bukama gives an insight into the local culture you won’t get from a book. Yasawa’s remoteness makes the residents more traditional than Fijians from other parts of the country. We dress conservatively in long skirts and sleeves and take gifts of newspaper-wrapped kava roots to the village chief, who welcomes us into his house. Sitting on a woven grass mat surrounded by walls adorned in straw hats, shell beads, and faded photographs, Manasa translates facts about the village.
We learn that about 200 people live here, mostly farming families with four to five children. Villagers trade lobster, fish, and fruit from other villages in return for their produce. There are two religions, Methodist and Assembly of God, and Bukama is proudly the only village on the island to have a combined service, on Sundays at 10 a.m. The village’s only outside income is rent from the resort, which the chief says “pays for good houses that withstand cyclones and storms.”
At the nearby primary school, we are treated as special guests to a heart-warming rendition of local songs accompanied by clapping and foot stomping. The school’s simple breezeblock classrooms overlook a palm-lined rugby pitch with spectacular ocean views—prime real estate anywhere else in the world. But on Yasawa, it’s the perfect spot to be cast away, regardless of how you got here.
From Hong Kong, Fiji Airways flies directly to Nadi on the main island of Viti Levu three times a week. For travelers from Singapore, the fastest route is with Singapore Airlines, which offers a daily code-share flight with Virgin Australia via Brisbane. From Nadi, the daily air transfer operated by Yasawa Island Resort & Spa (doubles from US$825, including all meals and various activities) whisks guests to Yasawa Island in 25 minutes, at the cost of US$235 per person one way.
This article originally appeared in the June/July print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Far-flung in Fiji”)