Friday, July 22, 2011

Fiji feels like paradise - The Boston Globe

To travel 7,500 miles for a five-star, air-conditioned villa on the beach would have been to miss the heart of Fiji. That was not what I had in mind as I traveled with a 50-pound suitcase of medical supplies from the East Coast to Fiji’s Nadi International Airport and on to Kadavu.

Rising from the sea in a wall of densely forested mountains, Kadavu, the fourth largest of Fiji’s 333 islands, is surrounded by Great Astrolabe, the world’s fourth largest barrier reef. Eight years ago, after sailing through Fiji’s Yasawa archipelago, I came here on a whim and ended up pledging to provide medical supplies for one of the villages. Now I was returning to fulfill that promise and explore the closest place to paradise I had ever been.

Kadavu’s seduction is twofold: the seclusion of an almost uninhabited island and a culture so embracing that you do not feel alone. Divers come here to drift down the five Great Astrolabe reef passages. Snorkelers like me find opportunities to wriggle through soft coral gardens fringing bay after deeply indented bay.

For my 10-day stay the thunderous reef breaks and empty gold and white beaches seemed to belong to only a few visitors. Of course, they do not. Kadavu is home to 75 small villages where smartphones and tradition coexist to a surprising degree. Seemingly poor, they are rich with natural resources that still sustain them. A growing number of eco-resorts help preserve their environment and way of life.

When I met Adrian Watt, Richard Akhtar, and Jeanie Mailliard on my first trip, they had just left high-powered jobs to become the owners of Matava Resort on Kadavu’s southeast coast. Recently joined by co-owner Stuart Gow, they set a gold standard on the island for blending with the local ethos while building a full-service adventure outfit.

Almost invisible from the water, nine grass-and-wood “bures,’’ or bungalows, keep alive a natural construction method that Fijians are forsaking for concrete. Solar-powered hot showers and ocean breezes for air conditioning make guests feel virtuously green. One of Akhtar’s first acts on arriving was to negotiate a no-take agreement with his Kadavu Koro village neighbors who own the fishing rights in the area. The result is a flourishing marine preserve around little Waya Island, a short swim from the resort’s dock.

Mailliard’s first project was an organic garden that supplies her gourmet menu, considered the island’s best. Dinners under the tall, open-air “bure-levu,’’ communal meeting space, bring guests together at lantern-lighted tables where the highlight could be a coconut-infused curry, or Fijian “kakoda,’’ citrus-cooked raw fish, made with your own deep sea catch of the day.

As Matava’s guests, we were welcomed not only to Kadavu Koro’s waterfall, at 80 feet the island’s tallest, but also to the village.


Fiji feels like paradise - The Boston Globe

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