By my third kava ceremony, I finally mastered the technique. Clap once, accept the bilo (half a coconut shell), say “Bula!” and drink its contents in a single gulp. Clap again and say “Maca,” meaning “empty.” Hand back the bilo and clap three times as everyone joins in.
My tongue also grew accustomed to the numbing quality of the kava, a traditional drink made from the pounded roots of a local pepper plant mixed with water, a concoction locally known as yaqona which serves as a mild sedative.
Our group was partaking in the ubiquitous sevusevu — the Fijian kava welcoming ritual. Seated across from our hosts in a community hall, we joined what seemed like the entire village of Mavua, one of about 15 villages on the main island of Viti Levu that Sigatoka River Safari tours on a rotating basis.
We came prepared with the gift of kava root, which our guide presented to the head of the village, seated in front of a large wooden bowl, or tanoa. He took the bundle, added water and strained the substance through a cloth. The muddy brown mixture then made its way around our side of the hall while the villagers sat across, monitoring our every move.
Long ago, young village girls prepared the yaqona by chewing the root into a pulpy mass to soften it before adding water. Fortunately for us, that tradition no longer exists, though villagers performed a more current ritual by garnishing us with leis and wiping baby powder on our faces, a symbol, I was told, they treat their guests with as much care as their babies.
Once we were christened with the kava, some of the men broke out acoustic guitars and ukuleles and joined in song. The rest of the villagers grabbed us as dancing partners, eventually morphing into a raucous conga line. Meanwhile, the women prepared our lunch, a sprawling spread of local foods such as taro, fruits from the village and chicken.
Before our kava ceremony, we got a glimpse of village life as our guide, Gus, led us on a tour, accompanied by uniformed schoolchildren who lined up along the banks for our arrival. Gus first helped us ladies affix sulus, the Fijian version of sarongs, for our village walk. As throughout Fiji, everyone we passed greeted us with a hearty “Bula!” welcome.
We peeked into a Methodist church where villagers attend up to three services on Sundays. Outside sat a lali drum — a hollowed log beaten to summon villagers to church or for special occasions.
Houses are modest here, only festooned with clothes drying outside on the line. After a devastating cyclone in the early 1980s, the villagers abandoned the old style of bamboo houses with thatched roofs in favor of sturdier materials like concrete, tin and wood.
According to Gus, many in the village are related, and families are large. “We used to have arranged marriages, but now we marry for love,” he explained. “The biggest family is 10 children, while five is average.”
We were visiting the Sigatoka Valley area, known as Fiji’s Salad Bowl, where the island’s fruits, spices and vegetables grow, as well as the all-important cassava. Sigatoka River, the longest on the island, runs from the hills of Navosa Province to the sand dunes in Kulukulu on the Coral Coast. The boat ride to the village was an adventure, reaching 45 miles per hour and throwing in a few 360-degree spins for thrill-seekers.
Fiji spans 333 islands, with more than 100 inhabited. Some of the most pristine beaches reside in the Mamanuca archipelago of about 20 islands, known for superb diving, snorkeling, kayaking and other water activities. Farther north, the comparatively quiet Yasawas beckon backpackers and flashpackers with more affordable beach options.
Viti Levu’s beaches along the Coral Coast, considered the birthplace of Fiji tourism, draw for their accessibility to the main town of Nadi and their numerous day-trip opportunities, many of which include visits to outlying villages, the highlight of any Fiji travel.
Aside from the river safari, I embarked on a half-day tour with the Coral Coast Railway, which runs a refurbished old sugar cane locomotive through sugar cane plantations. Stops included a kindergarten and a cave, but the ride itself entertained as village kids ran after us, nearly keeping up with our slow pace.
Destination World leads day tours to Biausevu Waterfall near the Biausevu village. Again, we presented the head of the village with kava. Our guide explained, “We believe Mother Nature has eyes and teeth, so we ask for permission to enter a village. He is doing the kava presentation on our behalf.”
We learned about traditional plant medicines en route to the falls, which drop 120 feet into a tranquil lagoon surrounded by wild red ginger, hanging vines and oversized ferns. We eased into the cool waters while our guides performed spectacular dives from the rocky cliff.
For a more morbid outing, Off-Road Cave Safari runs tours to the Naihehe Caves, aka Cannibal Caves, which long ago served as a stronghold of the last cannibal tribes in Fiji. On view are a priest chamber, a ritual platform and cannibal oven, as well as impressive stalactites and stalagmites.
On the remote east coast of Viti Levu, about a half-hour from the city of Suva, I decompressed for a few days at Natalei Eco Lodge, a locally run, community-based tourism project outside Nataleira village. A handful of private bures lining the black-sand beach offers views of the hills behind.
Visitors here enjoy a true immersion in village life along with excellent local cuisine. Several ladies cooked up massive meals, with dishes like pancakes, pudding and coconut for breakfast. The men from the lodge and the village entertained us with Fijian songs in the evenings and a fully costumed Fijian dance, or mele, on the beach for an audience of two.
Nataleira offers a surprising number of activities. One of the most colorful reef options on Viti Levu, Moon Reef, provides excellent snorkeling with sightings of everything from giant clams to clownfish, plus pods of spinner dolphins performing mid-air acrobatics on cue.
I also set off on a strenuous slog through tall, sharp grass and up muddy hillsides to Tova Peak, rewarded with postcard panoramas. Protocol calls for a hike to the top followed by a dip at a small waterfall and pool, but I did the opposite, jumping into the cool waters in front of the lodge to soothe my aching feet at the end of my trek.
I contrasted my Natalei stay with an excursion to the island of Taveuni, known for its dive resorts and lush hikes. From Viti Levu, our 20-seat plane landed on what looked like a makeshift runway at the island’s tiny airport. The third largest of Fiji’s islands and known as the “garden island,” Taveuni blooms with towering coconut trees and exotic flowers.
My resort, Paradise Taveuni, required an hour-long bumpy ride in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to the island’s southern tip, where fresh coconut water and a foot massage awaited. With no clocks or other electronics in the thatch-roofed bures, visitors rely on the free-range roosters for a wake-up call.
On the first excursion to nearby Vuna Village, our guide, Maikeli, pointed out the “sunburned” trunks of the palm trees along our short walk. At Wairiki Village, we stopped at the 19th-century Holy Cross Catholic Mission Church, built in the 1800s to reward a French missionary for helping locals defeat invading Tongans. As legend has it, the chief promised his people would become Catholics if they won the battle, but before they converted, the warriors cooked their dead enemies in a traditional lovo oven and ate them.
When we returned days later, on a Sunday, worshippers spilled out the doors. Though the Mass was in Fijian, the villagers’ universal language of song penetrated in beautiful harmonies. After church, we headed to the Bouma National Heritage Park rainforest for a hike to the Tavoro Waterfalls. Our guide stopped to pick up one of the many non-native baby cane toads along the way. Used in a scene from Return to the Blue Lagoon, the cascades consist of three parts, the first descending 600 feet into an inviting pool.
Many visitors stop here for a lengthy swim, but I followed my guide to the top, passing the second falls, where we waded across rocks, and onto the third tier by using a few rope holds to the other side of the river. We stopped to inspect blue crabs before heading back to the first pool to wash off rivers of sweat.
Though running short on daylight, we indulged in a mini afternoon adventure at the Waitavala natural waterslide where our guide, Big Ben, helped us up the slippery path. While some of my fellow travelers opted out, I took the plunge, an exhilarating run down a succession of smooth rocks.
On my final day in Taveuni, I snorkeled with a resort dive boat to Rainbow Reef, and though I didn’t see the world-renowned corals, tropical fish swarmed as I gawked from the surface. Our lunch spot, an idyllic white-sand islet, transcended every tropical beach stereotype.
My night back at the resort ended my travels much the way they began, with a kava ceremony, drinking and singing with the local villagers whose welcoming demeanor makes Fiji a true island paradise.
Fiji Info to Go
To get to Fiji from the United States, the best option is Fiji Airways, which codeshares with American Airlines and flies non-stop from Los Angeles International Airport to Nadi International Airport, about six miles from Nadi Town on Viti Levu. Regular flights connect Nadi to points throughout Fiji, while two companies — South Sea Cruises and Awesome Adventures Fiji — operate daily ferry service to resorts in the Mamanuca and Yasawa islands.
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