By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
If you like to vacation like I do — get away from it all, unplug (no phone service, no internet, no TV), be near the ocean, rest, relax, and rejuvenate your spirit — the island getaway I just returned from is your ticket.
Viwa Island Resort is on the westernmost part of Fiji and is part of the Yasawa Island group. I flew from Seattle to Nadi International Airport via San Francisco — it was almost an 11-hour flight from San Francisco (one hour shorter on the way back). I spent one day and one night on the mainland and explored Lautoka, which is the second largest city in Fiji. The next day, I took a seaplane (my first seaplane ride ever!) from Nadi Airport to Viwa Island, about a 30-minute flight. (You can also travel by boat and it takes about 4 hours.)
The scenery on the way was spectacular, especially as we neared the island and you could see the reefs through the clear blue-green water. During the flight, I was amused to see that the pilot was flying barefoot. I soon understood why he did this.
The seaplane landed just off the island, to my disappointment. I was hoping for a beach landing as I had seen photos of it, but I was told that happens only during high tide. Alas, my arrival was during low tide.
When the plane stopped, the pilot opened the door, and I could see a boat from the resort approaching. The pilot then jumped down onto the float (right above the water, hence why he was barefoot) and, with the help of the men in the boat, tied the boat and plane together before allowing me to disembark.
As the boat approached the shores of the resort, I could see a group of people standing on the beach, singing — this is how the staff welcomes all guests. The song was perfectly timed to end with a “Bula!” which means hello or welcome in Fijian, just as the boat hit the beach. Caroline was the first to greet me with a smile, a shell necklace, and an offer to carry my bag. My other luggage, I could see, was being carried off the boat and toward my bure (bungalow). All the other staff members greeted me as well and introduced themselves. I would soon find out that it is their mission to cater to each guest.
It is remote and quite a trek from the mainland. This is where you go for peace and quiet. Viwa Island Resort is an adults-only resort, and there is no noise from young children screaming and playing.
Viwa Island is also home to three villages: Naibalebale, Najia, and Yakani. Before the resort opened, the villagers’ main source of income came from fishing and selling the catch on the mainland.
I visited Naibalebale (a short walk from the resort) on my first day with my guide Bati, who works at the resort and lives in the village. The tour was free, though the village asks for a small landing fee of $5 FJD (a Fijian dollar is half a U.S. dollar) from each person. Female visitors are asked to cover their shoulders and knees, so I wore a t-shirt instead of a tank top, and tied a sarong over my shorts.
Bati showed me the first ndawa tree that was planted on the island and told me there were 52 homes in the village. The homes were simple, single-story, some with solar panels, some not. I saw a handful of homes destroyed by cyclone Winston in 2016 and never rebuilt. As I walked through the village, everyone who saw me called out, “Bula!” and I returned their greeting. I saw huge tanks used to collect rainwater sprinkled across the village. There’s even a desalination system donated by the government. The tour included a stop at the newly built kindergarten (opened in May 2018), which was funded by the staff, management, and guests of Viwa Island Resort.
The adorable children sang their nursery rhymes, showing off that they had learned their numbers and alphabet — both in English and Fijian. My village visit ended with a trip to the shell market, where women hawked their homemade, handcrafted wares.
Did I mention yet that this place is paradise? You can see and hear the ocean from almost anywhere. The water is crystal clear and has the stunning aquamarine shade you see in travel magazines, and the beach has white, soft sand.
Guests can stay at one of 11 traditional Fijian bures with thatched roofs on the beach.
When I first entered my bure, I smiled when I saw that the staff had spelled out “Welcome” on my bed with flowers and leaves. There were fresh flowers everywhere and they were changed daily. Much bigger than a standard hotel room, the bure had a living room area and an attached bathroom that gave you privacy but was not fully enclosed, allowing for natural light (and bugs!) to come in. Each bure also had its own private patio and a corresponding hut with deck chairs, closer to the water. I loved how there were small, shallow pools with water and fresh flowers outside every building so you could rinse the sand off your feet before entering.
The main building is where everyone gathered for meals. Every table is a great table with a magnificent view. The building also housed a rock garden, a mini-library, a bar, the reception desk, a pool table, and a lounge area. I enjoyed many hours in the open space, which provided shade and allowed for the ocean breeze to blow through. In front of the building was the infinity pool, and next to the building was the spa.
Closer to the beach near the resort entrance, the gear for water-related activities (kayaking, paddleboarding, snorkeling, diving, fishing) is stored in or near an A-frame structure.The people
The best part of my stay was interacting with the people. As I walked around the resort on my first day and every day after that, all the staff members that saw me greeted me by name. After some time, some staff members Fiji-ized my name to Ruci (the c is pronounced with a “th” sound), so it sounded like Ruthy or Rudy if you weren’t listening carefully.
I got to know some staffers very well. They gave me a glimpse into their personal lives and their families, they were curious about me and where I was from.
I asked one of the resort managers if it was a requirement that all employees know how to sing, because they all do! I was serenaded at breakfast and dinner with Fijian and some English tunes. And it seemed as though everyone knew how to play the guitar and ukulele. I felt like they all waited on me, hand and foot. I imagine this is how a royal princess feels every day of her life.
What is there to do?
My goal was to relax and unwind so I wasn’t too concerned about having nothing to do. Still, it became my routine to kayak or paddleboard every morning just after sunrise. That was followed by a shower, and then breakfast in the main building.
Aside from the days I did village visits and a history hike, the rest of the mornings were spent reading while lying on the beach (I finished a total of six novels from the library during my stay) and sometimes dozing off. Lunch was at noon. More reading, suntanning, and swimming would follow lunch, or I would indulge in a beach-view massage or go snorkelling.
The staff took me out on the boat to various snorkelling sites. I saw a plethora of colorful coral and fish, as well as turtles, stingrays, and giant clams. On my first outing, I was so mesmerized by the wall of brilliant coral in front of me, I literally stayed in one spot for several minutes, treading water. My guide took my wrist and ushered me elsewhere, where there was even more to see and appreciate. Every outing was in a different place, something new to see.
The other activities that were available but I did not take part in included cooking lessons, basket-weaving, diving, and fishing.
Most of the fish served at the resort is caught in the waters off Viwa Island. So I opted for fish or seafood most of the time for lunch and dinner.
About a year ago, the resort started planting its own fruits and vegetables. Soon, it hopes to serve more island-grown produce in its meals as well.
I would have to say that the quality of the meals was inconsistent — sometimes it was excellent, sometimes the fish was overcooked, sometimes the flavor was bland.
The food highlight of my trip was one dinner where the chef created something he called Adi Viwa’s Affair. It consisted of lobster, prawns, scallops, mussels, and fish in lime, coconut cream, nama (sea grape), onions, tomatoes, and capsicum served in a coconut, on top of a palm hat. It was so beautiful, I almost didn’t want to eat it! But I did and it was divine! Flavorful and creamy, but not too rich. Dessert was papaya with cream, served with vanilla ice cream. I’ve never had papaya in that form before and it was delicious. Not too sweet and bursting with flavor.
I mentioned previously that fish and some produce is sourced from the island itself.
Water comes from rain, and the resort also has a desalination system. Solar panels power the resort during the day, and they switch to generator power at night if there isn’t enough solar energy stored.
The root of happiness
I was fortunate to witness and take part in a kava ceremony at the Naibalebale village on my last night, under a bright, starry sky. Sera (resort employee and village resident) escorted me and schooled me on proper kava ceremony etiquette. The ceremony is used to welcome new guests or say goodbye, or to start a celebration, such as a wedding.
Villagers pound the kava root and the pulp is placed into a cloth sack and mixed with water. The end result is a brownish-colored liquid, which is then strained and ready for drinking. It is first offered to the village elders before it is offered to everyone else.
The men drink first, then the women. You will be offered the option of “high tide” or “low tide” — high tide means you want a full cup, and you get half a cup if you ask for low tide.
I sat next to Sera and Caroline, and a man who introduced himself as “Barry… Black Barry because I’m Black,” he said with a laugh. I drank eight low tides and one high tide. Kava is a mild narcotic and has been known to cause tingling and numbness in your tongue, though I didn’t feel any of that. But I did feel happy and calm, and I had a deep appreciation for the warmth of the people around me, and for being included in this ceremony.
Fijians are among the happiest people on the planet, according to a WIN/Gallup International Association survey. Maybe it’s the kava, or the great weather, or the fact that they get to live every single day on an island paradise.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.