Taveuni, Fiji – Part 1

March 2, 2008 at 11:11 pm | Posted in Travel, Travelogues | Leave a comment

I was invited as a guest of my friend Scott Maijala and his Uncle John to join them on a Scuba diving trip to Fiji. We try to go on one Scuba trip a year. This was the first year we went that I wasn’t the one planning the trip, which was sort of nice to not have to worry about all the details. We are going with group organized by a dive shop in Boise Idaho. The person organizing the trip is married to one of John’s cousins, which is how they found out about it. It is an all inclusive package including airfare, lodging, two boat dives a day, unlimited shore dives, and three meals. The only thing you pay for is beverages.

Closer to the trip I decided to find out a little more about where I was going. The island is the third largest island in Fiji call Taveuni, which they call “The Garden Island” because it is the most lush, sort of like Kauai is the Garden Isle in Hawaii. It is approximately 26 miles long by 7 milrs wide with a population of about 12,000. There is one paved road which didn’t exist 15 years ago I hear.  The resorts operate on generator power. The resort we are staying at is called the Garden Island Resort, it is the largest resort on the island. It consistently ranks as one of the top dive resorts in the world and was ranked #1 in the 2002 Sucba Magazine survey. The area is famous for having the healthiest reefs in the world, while many other places due to climate change causing water temperature changes are having problems with the coral dying.

So I arrived around 3:30 PM at LAX to meet Scott and John. The wanted to get there early, even though the flight to Fiji wasn’t until 10:30 at night because they were afraid Denver may have delays due to snow storms and that would also give us enough time to leave the airport and have dinner with my friend Lenny who lives in LA. Unfortunately Lenny wasn’t able to make it and it wouldn’t have worked out anyway. The Air Pacific counter didn’t open until 5:30, we waited in the bar until 6:30 for the line to die down and by the time we had checked our luggage, it was 7:30.

We ate at “Encounter,” that spaceship looking structure in the middle of the LAX terminal which when you go inside looks like something from The Jetsons. The food was decent, nothing to get all excited about, and the prices of course will overpriced, but it was something to try and better than sitting in the terminal the whole time.

Supposedly when we asked to change seats we were “upgraded” to the second floor of the 747 which Scott’s Dad A.J. said was business class. When we tried to look up the seating chart on the Internet to confirm, Air Pacific was one of the only airlines not listed to we figured it would be similar to Air New Zealand which showed the upper floor as having those seats that flattened out. Unfortunately we come to find out Air Pacific as far as these types of international flights go is pretty no-frills and as far as we could tell the upstairs seats were the same as the economy downstairs. It appears they did not have a business class at all, just first class but I didn’t check the back of the plane.  We had footrests so maybe it was business ?The flight was a little under 11 hours. It was okay, we all slept around 6-7 hours of the flight. However apparently some people downstairs complained it was too cold (which it wasn’t) and they turned up the heat. I used my watch to measure the cabin temperature. 84 degrees. I was going nuts all told them it was WAY to hot. Had to sit through it trying to go back to sleep for a couple hours until finally when they served breakfast another attendant came upstairs to help the one guy who served us normally and noticed it was stifling and turned down the thermometer so that now it was almost normal temperature!

We arrived in Nadi the capital of Fiji and had to wait in line about 30 min. for immigration of course which went smoothly. It took another 30-40 min. or so to get our bags. Then we had to wait another 20-30 min. in a line for our bag to be scanned to make sure there was no food or animals in our bags. So totaling processing time was close to 2 hours. I couldn’t imagine doing this with kids in tow and coincidentally there I can’t even remember seeing any small children on the flight or at the baggage claim. Wireless Internet access was available in the airport by buying a card from the gift shop and scratching off to reveal a code. It was about as fast as a dial-up modem.

The exchange rate by the way is about 65% – $0.65 US = $1 Fiji. Supposedly even just a few months ago it was 50%. The prices for food and drink in the airport were about normal for an airport.

After the 7 hour layover in LAX we work looking forward to quickly hopping on our interisland flight. That wasn’t to be. Pacific Sun, the equivalent of Aloha Airlines in Hawaii, was the most hokey airlines I have ever encountered. Seating charts were done by hand on a piece of paper. No boarding passes. Didn’t check you ID. And get this, not only did you have to weigh your luggage, they made YOU get on the scale too. They were not well setup to handle the two dive groups, the Boise group being 22 people and there was a group from Minnesota with 12, so 34 people. They only flew I believe 1 or 2 planes each holding a maximum of 18 passengers. The flight was just under 1.5 hours to Taveuni. Due to all the heavy luggage because of the dive gear I believe they had to make at least 4 trips. We ended up being the last group and had another 6 hour layover in the Nadi airport. Only half our luggage came with us.

The Taveuini airport is a very short runway with basically a shack with some benches for a terminal. We had to wait another 20 min. or so for the ‘shuttle’ to arrive which was a small van that fit 11 people, which we crammed 14 into all the while the radiator was spewing steam. We were not sure if we were going to make the 20 min. drive to the hotel! (They drive on the left side of the road here.) After bottoming out several times and almost tipping over, we finally arrived at the hotel. Total travel time door-to-door, 12 PM Issaquah = 8 AM Fiji time (and I left home late, 65 minutes prior to my flight departure), arrival 2 PM Fiji time + 1 day = 6 hours + 24 hours = 30 hours total travel time! NOT FUN.  That’s 30 hours either in a plane or an airport (with exception of th 2 hour dinner we had at Encounter). If anyone ever complains to me now about their long flight or having to fly and drive some place, don’t expect to get any sympathy from me in the future until after you’ve done a trip like this.

The resort is very small despite being the largest resort on the island. It’s 2 floors, I’d estimate about 30 rooms. All the rooms are about 10 yards from the waters edge (or 10 meters – Fiji is metric) looking out across the straight at the other large island a couple miles away. The straight is remarkably calm (you can see in the photo from the plane.) The rooms are very basic, old, but clean with no bugs and beds are luckily not bad. No television. No wireless Internet. Everything is 220 volt. They have one computer you can use for a fee in the gift shop ($0.40 per minute = $0.26 min US) but it is a 8-year old computer running Windows 95 which was recently upgraded to Windows 98 with no UDB port for a memory card reader! I’d describe the resort as 3-star for these parts, as solid 3-star (which is what they rate themselves), but compared to U.S. resorts, it would be a weak 3-star resort. Think very old Howard Johnson hotel.

They said there was dial-up access but the number they gave me didn’t work, there was no answer. Before the trip I did a little research and bought an unlock code for my phone so at the Nadi airport I purchased a SIM card to give my phone a local Fiji number so incoming calls from anywhere in the world are free (the person calling you incurs the normal International LD charge for their home or cell phone) and calling the U.S. would be $1.50 a minute instead of the $3.50 a minute roaming charge AT&T would charge. The amazing thing is that my phone with my AT&T card in it worked exactly as normal as I tested voice and Internet when I got off the plane just to see if it worked. Also what is amazing is even though this is a remote island, it has an excellent cell phone signal! I finally discovered there is an “Internet Café” (if you can call it that) within walking distance and that’s where I am now, uploading this stuff for $6 Fiji an hour. It’s actual a crude mini-mart with a laptop connected to a cell phone in the backroom where I’m sitting with no A/C (just a fan).  The Internet Cafe is 30 min walk down the road – not for me in this heat, no thanks. 

There is no beach near the resort. In fact judging from what I saw on the plane, the Fiji islands have very little beaches as a percentage of shoreline. They do have some incredibly beautiful ones. I didn’t see any high rises anywhere on any of the islands. It sort of reminds me of St. John in the Caribbean – very unspoiled beaches with lots of lush rain forest and very little development. So far I’d almost say it feels like a cross between St. John (undeveloped and lush) and Kauai (but no where near as developed).

The people are extremely friendly here as they are known for. Seems like the bar and restaurant staff has memorized everyone’s first name within the first day! They are also quite religious as we past no less then 10 churches on the short drive from the airport. Mostly Catholic I believe but supposedly the majority of the country is Hindu? The church across the street from our hotel is Jehovah Witness – go figure!

The food here at the resort is decent (3-star) and the drink prices are reasonable. It’s better (not by a whole lot) than the food Lisa and I experienced in the Cook Islands. I’m guessing the chef here is probably above average for similar Fiji resorts as no one has complained. Cuisine is not the Pacific Islander’s strong suit I suppose (unless it is a foreign owned upscale resort with foreign chef I imagine). It appears to be British influenced (they used to be a British Colony until recently – the Queen is still pictured on their currency) with your typical deep fried foods (fish and sorts), and also Indonesian inspired with dishes with coconut milk, sweet chili sauce, spring rolls, and that sort of thing. The fresh caught Snapper is excellent. And everyone said the beef dishes have been good.

It’s less expensive here than Hawaii but I think that’s mostly because we are in a remote, small 3-star resort, not the Marriott or Hilton. There is a fridge in the room so I’m going to stop at the store to get some pops and chips and beer although from the bar a large 20 oz bottle of Coke is $2 and a beer is $3 US ($2 during Happy Hour). And get this, a one hour massage is $65 Fiji, that’s $40 American. I had one massage and it was mediocre but the setting is awesome right by the ocean with a waterfall pond. The lady who did the massage is also one of the maids to give you an idea. It was worth the money though.

What about the weather? Mid-80’s in the day, low is about 78. Humidity is even more humid than Aruba was.  Must be aout 95%. Incredibly humid making it very uncomfortable (for us Northerners) to be outside for long periods of time without jumping in the modest pool or ocean. Humidity makes it feel about 10 degrees hotter, like mid 90’s. The sun here is INTENSE. More intense than any place I’ve ever been since it is close to the equater, and it is Summer here since it is in the southern hemisphere. Their summer is actually their rainy season. It has rained a little off and on so far, but in general they say we are having exceptionally good weather. The winter a just a few degrees cooler, but not as rainy.

One of the highlights of the day is the “Kava Mixer” every night from 6-10. They have a band (3 guys with guitars and one guy with bass guitar) and they mix up their Kava drink which is this very earthy tasting drink made from powder root of the Kava plant. It is sold as an herbal supplement in the drug store back home. It has a very mild relaxing effect, but is non-alcoholic and non-narcotic. All the locals drink it every night. They scoop it out of a big bowl into a small bowl. You are suppose to drink all that is given to you in one drink, then everyone claps their hand 3 times. You sleep very well and there is absolutely no kind of hangover effect in the morning. I would describe it as sort of coffee with an opposite effect – it’s a not so pleasant tasting drink that is drunk socially but instead of making you more alert/wired it makes more relaxed (someone who didn’t drink coffee ever would think that coffee tastes a little yucky too.) It’s definitely a better alternative to drinking beer/wine the night before going diving and its free. We look forward to talking with the locals and hanging out with them drinking Kava every night. They are very friendly, gracious and interested in what you have to say. Extremely laid back and fun to be around.

So what about the diving? Well I’ve done two dives so far. They visibility has been good, about 70 feet I’d say, but I was expecting a little better. However the condition of their reefs is exceptional. We dove the Rainbow Reef and I’ve never seen a more colorful reef in all my diving. The dive boat is well run. There is a full-service dive shop as part of the resort since the resort specializes in dive groups.

That’s all for now. More later, but probably only one maybe two more entries over the next 5 days since the connection is so slow here.

Taveuni Airstrip Taveuini Airport Garden Island Resort Remote Beach img_0661.jpg img_0660.jpg img_0667.jpg img_0676.jpg img_0668.jpg img_0681.jpg

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