The last thing I wanted to be was Florien's lobster.
"There's always one on every cruise," the young officer warned us. "Last time, I thought we had gotten through the cruise without one, but at the final dinner, there she was. The lobster."
"Singa na lenga," as the Fijian's say – no problem. Even though the Fijian sun is strong, I managed to avoid the lobster sobriquet. (A German woman claimed it.) I was nicely brown except for one stripe on my back that I missed with the sunscreen, but the sun found while I was snorkelling. Luckily it was easy to cover up, because on a ship this small, it's difficult to hide.
The Reef Endeavor carries a maximum of 168 passengers in 75 cabins. It is one of the ships in the Captain Cook Cruise Line that takes its passengers on a journey through the remote islands of Fiji, showing them what life is like, introducing them to local culture and ecosystems.
The Endeavor left the port of Lautoka, bypassing the Mamanuca Islands. Those are the ones that come to mind when most people think of Fiji: It's there you'll find the island of Monu-riki, where Tom Hanks filmed Cast Away. Mel Gibson hides away on his own Mago Island, Pink and Paris Hilton holiday on private isles, and several islands are home to five-star resorts. I had already spent four days in one of the most elegant resorts in the South Pacific, Likuliku Lagoon on Malolo Island, complete with WiFi, French champagne and award-winning dining.
That's one Fiji, but it's not the full story. The Fiji that the Endeavor explores is not to be found in these movie-star escapes.
Our destination was the Yasawa Islands, farther out and north of the Mamanucas. The Yasawas are in postcard-pretty territory, but there are no postcards here. These are islands touched only lightly by tourism, where the other ships you encounter are small fishing boats, where the locals live much as they have for generations. They invite you to share their customs – but to tread lightly on their islands.
Bula, they say, welcome, but respect our ways.
One of our first stops was an uninhabited island with a reef and a wide natural beach, small enough to circumnavigate in 20 minutes. Except for a few casual buildings for visitors, there's nothing here but nature. And you can visit only with permission – this is a sacred island, belonging to the Fijian chiefs with whom the cruise line has an agreement. We spent a few hours here, snorkelling, swimming and sunbathing, then returned to the ship for a chilly Fiji Gold, the local beer, and appetizers by the pool before dinner.
In the following days, we visited different islands in the Yasawa Island chain. At Oyster Bay, we snorkelled through crystal water, overwhelmed by the colours of coral and the exotic fish. We lingered on a beach bordered by jungle and flowers, under that huge Fijian sky that is a photographer's dream. There were crested Fijian iguanas, blue herons and red-breasted musk parrots to be seen by the eagle-eyed.
One afternoon, we visited Namara Village School on Waya Sewa Island. Earlier, we had taken up a collection to donate to the school. The children sang traditional songs, performed ceremonial dances and generally charmed us. I gave away pens and pencils, and found it sobering to realize that something as simple as a pen is a special gift.
At a handicraft market on the island, there were many examples of Fijian artistry. I bought shell bracelets and a piece of handmade paper incised with the intricate traditional Fijian designs. (It's now framed and hanging over my desk.) The Fijians are seemingly natural artists, preserving ancient designs and motifs on paper, carvings and textiles.
One evening after dinner, we boated over to Yalobi Village to take part in a church service. In this simple Methodist church, the whole island came together to give thanks. The pastor gave a rather long-winded sermon, but it was satisfying just to sit with the villagers and share their worship with the evening sun coming through the window.
On another evening, we were welcomed on Waya Island with the traditional Kava ceremony. Kava, made from pounded roots, is mildly tranquillizing drink used in welcome ceremonies and to mark important events. There is a definite protocol to drinking kava –clap your hands once, take the cup and drink in a single draft before returning the cup. It has a bitter taste and leaves the tongue feeling a bit numb, but the tranquillizing effects are negligible, at least in this tourist version. The evening continued with a lovo feast, for which pork, chicken, beef, fish and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves are cooked on heated stones in an underground pit oven. Afterward, we sat with the villagers in the moonlight and enjoyed a meke – a celebration of traditional dancing and song.
In the middle of this remote part of the world, it's a pleasure at the end of the day to return to the Reef Endeavor's comforts. Cabins are compact but not crowded. There's a small spa, the dining room is spacious and the food– bursting with such local ingredients as mahi-mahi, kiwis, jackfruit, coconut, papaya and even duruka (an asparagus-like vegetable that is available only during April and May and is a Fijian favourite) –is surprisingly elegant.
When we left the ship in Port Denarau on the big island of Viti Levu, staff gathered to sing Isa Lei, a lovely song of farewell. Fijians greet you with song and say goodbye the same way. It seemed that every Fijian I met could sing or play an instrument and music is central to their lives. For the insight into real Fijian culture, for the crested iguanas and herons and tropical fish, I told them Vinaka vaka-levu – thank you very much, Fiji.
Special to The Globe and Mail