The South Pacific islands of Fiji are comprised of 333 lush, tropical islands with white sandy beaches and marvelous snorkeling and diving. Only 111 of these are inhabited and Fijians are warm and hospitable, making traveling here downright dreamy.
Travelers seeking to experience the truly remote islands of the Lau archipelago group in Fiji’s east and Kadavu in the south, along with some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving coupled with Fijian cultural immersion, are best served by embarking on a seven-night “Ultimate Lau and Kadavu” expedition journey with Captain Cook Cruises, on its recently acquired MS Caledonian Sky.
Built in Italy in the 1990s, Captain Cook took possession of the MS Caledonian Sky in November 2023 and is currently in its inaugural season. This 297-foot vessel was built to sail to remote outposts and spans five decks including the tender embarkation. Onboard earlier this month, there were 39 guests of a maximum 114, ranging from 26 to 68, mainly Australians, British, and six Americans. Seventy-two mainly Fijian crew onboard were enthusiastic, kind, and aimed to ensure guests enjoyed themselves.
Flights from the west coast arrive to Nadi early morning. So not far from Nadi International Airport, and en route to check-in at Port Denarau, I stopped at Nama Spa for a massage and promptly forgot about the 11-hour jaunt over the Pacific. Feeling simultaneously refreshed and peckish, the nearby Coffee Hub was perfect for artisanal coffee and delectable avocado toast with feta and pesto. At Denarau, following a 30-second rapid antigen test – since remote island natives have less acquired immunity – guests were transported 40-minutes to Lautoka for embarkation, that happily took less than 10-minutes.
Following the brief muster drill, guests settled in quickly into a pleasant routine. Days melded blissfuly into one another, filled with camaraderie, adventure, and acute awareness of good fortune to experience a remote, beautiful part of the world in comfort among knowledgeable guides and professional marine biologists.
Onboard lectures include all manner of marine life, sustainability, reef restoration, and island flora and fauna. Cultural specialists focused on Fijian history and navigation, while demonstrations including dancing, historic Fijian fashion show and hymnal music.
Castle Deck 2 houses the main restaurant for table service dinner, the physician-staffed medical office and zodiac embarkation platform. On Caledonian Deck 3 is Reception and Caledonian Lounge with a bar and coffee station. Here lectures, daily pre-caps and re-caps occurred. Promenade Deck 4 has a small gym and spa treatment room with two talented Fijian masseuses providing reasonably priced, excellent, traditional Fijian massages. There’s an additional spa suite on Deck 2 for couple massages. Opting for a spa package of three or five massages, at USD 130 or USD 250, respectively, may be the South Pacific’s best deal.
Bridge Deck 5 houses the Bridge – where the affable Captain Ian Davison offered guests scheduled visits – and outside, al fresco breakfast and lunch buffets. Deck 6’s Panorama Lounge has a lovely seating area with a bar, small library, and outdoor Observation Deck with comfortable loungers. There’s a good onboard collection of both mesmerizing, historic black-and-white cultural photographs and beautiful new ones of Fijian nature and marine life.
The Suite Life
There are 57 spacious, ocean view staterooms across four decks, ranging from 237 to 368 square feet, all with sitting areas, and almost half have balconies. Staying in Deluxe Balcony Suite 511 containing 265 square feet, it had a very comfortable king-sized bed with two nightstands, multiple USB port receptacle, and U.S. outlets. Also, an enormous granite corner desk, along with a small make-up table, 36-inch flat screen television, mini refrigerator, sitting area, a good-sized walk-in closet with eye-level mini-safe, robes and abundant drawer space.
The bathroom boasted a large bathtub-shower combination, granite counters, Pure Fiji and Molton Brown amenities and a heated towel rack. The small furnished balcony was perfect for admiring the intoxicating scenery. Internet was included for two devices and the signal was surprisingly strong throughout the voyage; indeed, the only app which didn’t load was Instagram. Stainless water bottles and waterproof pouches for cell phones and cameras were provided for use on excursions.
Breakfasts had fresh tropical fruits, cereals, house-made breads and pastries. Also, breakfast meats, French toast or pancakes, yogurts, cheeses, charcuterie and made-to-order eggs.
Lunches had daily changing delicious salads, kokodo – a local dish of delectable raw fish in coconut milk – grilled fish and roasted vegetables, and daily specials such as fried calamari, moussaka, and grilled shrimp, chicken, or beef skewers.
Four-course dinners were served at Deck 2’s main restaurant with a nightly changing menu. There were two appetizer choices, four entree options, and two dessert choices. Make sure and try the Banoffee pie. It was such a hit, the pastry chef was persuaded to make it again the last night. One evening, dinner choices included coconut prawn curry, stuffed pork cutlet, tender Helby beef filet, and for vegetarians, a delicious grilled vegetable stack with sweet potato mash. Decision making was tough, but fortunately table mates permitted my meandering fork. Dinners were consistently good with a wide variety of selections to meet all tastes. Wine, beer, and soda were included at lunches and dinners.
Excursions for the Curious
Caledonian Sky has 10 zodiacs and daily there were two to four scheduled guided excursions, with at least one daily dedicated snorkeling trip. For many, this was a highlight as the waters are warm and sparkling clean, with healthy reefs, and abundant fish. There was also coral planting, glass-bottom boat and kayak trips, SUPs, and opportunities for the all-important lazy beach time.
For early risers, 7am ocean swims beckoned. Though I thoroughly enjoyed all of the activities, unsurprisingly I never made the early swim. While I would’ve enjoyed those blissfully, balmy waters following sunrise, anyone who knows me, even marginally, knows that nothing comes between me and my BFF, morning Joe.
There are remote island village primary school visits with children eager to dance, sing, and practice English and Sunday church services, sevu sevu welcoming and kava rituals, nature hikes, cave swimming, and zodiac cruising through some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery. At additional charge, certified divers can partake in a scuba refresher course while newbies can obtain PADI-certification during the week.
On this voyage we anchored near, then took Zodiacs first to the private island of Tivua where juvenile reef sharks two feet offshore were encountered. Knowing they were well fed meant guests were happily boring to them. At Makogai island, with under 200 residents, a former leper colony staffed by Catholic nuns from 1911 to 1969, once had 4,500 patients from Fiji and other regional nations. The “kindly tyrant,” Mother Marie Agnes, ran the colony for 34 years, and is buried in the hilltop cemetery with 1,234 other souls. Now this area is used as a clam research station, bringing the once extinct clams back to fruition.
The waters around Vanua Balavu possess some of the world’s most spectacular vistas with islets resembling massive mushrooms, caves where rock formations served as seats and tribal chiefs once convened meetings, and massive trees with hanging bats. Fulaga island has three villages with under 400 inhabitants, is known for canoe building, and mind-bogglingly pristine beauty.
Charming Kabara has a 20-foot-long working post office that doubles as a sundry shop, a small clinic, and a primary school where children charmingly sang for us. That evening villagers invited guests to a traditional Fijian dinner where lamb, pork, and beef were cooked in a lovo – a traditional underground oven similar to a Hawaiian imu. It was delicious and wine flowed. Naturally, moonlit beach dancing ensued.
Stopping at Totoya’s Udu village, population 83, the smallest of its four villages, we enjoyed more snorkeling. Our last stop was Kadavu island’s southern coast. It’s Fiji’s fourth largest but least developed island, with 10,000 people in 75 villages. There are few roads, and the local economy is subsistence farming based. Here the Great Astrolabe Reef, one of the world’s largest, is a breeding ground for several large fish species, a snorkeling nirvana, and bird watcher’s paradise.
Fiji is Short for ‘Fiji is Just Incredible’
Soon after landing in Nadi, travelers realize they’ve arrived at a special place in the South Pacific. Captain Cook’s MS Caledonia permits a deeper dive into the more remote and stunningly beautiful areas of Fiji in comfort coupled with the warm hospitality for which the Fijians are famous. After sailing 745 nautical miles, the crew sang us the lovely Fijian farewell song, Isa lei, leaving onboard nary a dry eye. Vinaka Fiji, soto tale.
Julie L. Kessler is a journalist, attorney, and the author of the award-winning memoir: “Fifty-Fifty, The Clarity of Hindsight.” Her work has appeared in several major publications around the world, including The LA Times, The SF Examiner, The Asia Times, The Jerusalem Post, and The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, among many others. She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.
Written by Julie L. Kessler
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