|A beachfront bure at Mango Bay Resort.
Going to Fiji on a Monday and coming back on a Friday seemed like one of those half-baked, I-haven’t-had-enough-sleep ideas I was surely going to talk myself out of. And yet it progressively seemed less and less silly. There were soon-to-expire air-points to get me there, the cheap return flights to get me home, not to mention the promise of condensed adventures in a country I’d never before been. And all a quick three-hour flight from Auckland.
After several days of almost-clicking “pay now!” I finally whipped out the credit card and actioned my most last minute overseas jaunt to date: departure in eight days.
Knowing I was going to experience the time-warp of old-fashioned colonial luxury at the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva on my final night (Fiji’s oldest luxury hotel at 101 years old, former guests like the Queen, Somerset Maugham, James Michener etc), choosing where else to stay became a fun dilemma. If the GPH was Fiji’s oldest 5-star hotel and in a city, how about the contrast of one of Fiji’s newest “flashpacker”* beach resorts and near a village?
|The gardens at Mango Bay Resort.
Fitting that bill was the Mango Bay Resort – directly midway between Nadi and Suva on Viti Levu’s original tourist drawcard, the Coral Coast. While some of the offshore islands of Fiji may have more striking sand and snorkeling, few can reportedly match Mango Bay for the combination of good beach + authentic village life + fun times with your fellow travellers.
Run by an Australian (Danny) and Canadian (Danny’s wife Liz) who’ve lived in Fiji for several years, it’s impossible to overstate the warmth of the welcome at Mango Bay Resort. While checking in the staff seem genuinely thrilled to meet you and all the stories you’ve heard about Fijians being amongst the most hospitable people on the planet come true. “Bula!” quickly becomes a greeting that must always require an exclamation mark when written, far more than “hello” ever would.
Friendliness of staff aside, the other defining first-impression of Mango Bay Resort was of the gardens. My Kiwi neighbour in the adjoining villa had made a habit of sneaking into fancy resorts during his days and he assured me Mango Bay’s pristine gardens were superior to the nearby 5-star properties. Yes, the rooms were modest, but they were highly photogenic and in tune with their surroundings. They were also clean, comfortable, with hot water, without annoying room-mates and crucially, in possession of decks with scenic views.
|The pool, beach and sea of Mango Bay Resort.
With only two full days at Mango’s before bussing to Suva, Danny and Liz went out of their way to facilitate all the things I wanted to do in short space of time: exploring some jungle, seeing village life firsthand, going snorkeling and getting a bit of sun on the beach.
The jungle part was taken care of with a guided bush-walk to a waterfall preceded by a village kava ceremony. The ceremony sees you enter a community hall in a small village half way up a jungle-clad hill where you seek permission from the locals to visit their waterfall. You pay a fee, sit crossed legged on a mat, hear an explanation about protocols, get nervous you’ll forget how many “bulas!” to say and claps to give, and prepare for the numbing powers of kava.
All told those horror stories of a taste like muddy water and a mouth so numb it’s as if you’ve been to the dentist made me pleasantly surprised. Was it possible I even liked kava just a bit? Maybe! Though it was a small dish. I thanked the locals and set off on the 45 minute jungle walk (complete with nine river crossings) to the waterfall.
The waterfall and surrounding greenery was a nice deviation from the Fijian beach scene many travellers will only see. Having swum in the cool waters, I sat on a rock to take it all in. Only problem was, when I stood up I heard a giant tearing sound. The entire butt-crack region of my board-shorts was torn open. What a loser! I’d broken my jandals / flip-flops the day before too with an overly gallant stride out of my garden villa at Mango’s and now the shorts – what was going on?
|Jungle enroute to the waterfall.
With my guide laughing, I wrapped a towel around my waste and instead of returning to Mango’s we headed back to the car and in the opposite direction to the large town of Sigatoka. An unremarkable town in most respects, Sigatoka attracts tourists venturing out on river-based adventures as well as those in quick need of new swim and footwear.
Towel around the waste, I really needed to wear the new shorts out of the store like you do when you’re a kid and you’re so excited about your new clothes. No problem said the staff, but I had to go behind the checkout counter and lift my leg onto the desk to have the electronic tag removed. In a shop full of customers, not to mention my dodgy hamstrings, this was embarrassing though not entirely out of character.
Seeking to relieve the awkwardness as I thrust my tight leg onto the counter valiantly in aim of the tag remover, I heard myself mock-seductively say, “G’day,” to the some fellow tourists. Alarmed to see my leg lifted up next to their purchases, they laughed saying how funny we Australians were. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I was a Kiwi, but chortle I did before getting out of the shop as quickly as possible.
Back at Mango’s I went for a walk down the beach and round the headland to see some of the other bays. So beautiful, particularly with the tide in. And when it’s out, the rock pools were a great hark back to the joys of childhood exploring. Speaking of which, I’m sure Mum and Dad would’ve warned me not just about strangers, but strangers with machetes.
A local guy named Esa was chatting with another tourist, machete in hand. Should I have been worried? Sometimes we can get so paranoid at what strangers might do to us that we shut ourselves off from the wonderful, unexpected adventures that can also come our way if we stay cautiously open.
I had a good sense about Esa, a local fisherman / coconut gatherer / all-round good guy in his late 30s. A chat about my desire to go snorkeling quickly turned into Esa promising a more unique experience: snorkeling with a dash of spear-fishing. Perhaps as the years fade I’ll remember the next day’s story as me being the one doing the spear-fshing and catching our lunch. It will be a great yarn in a decade or so, but in the meantime I’m settling for the almost as cool reality which was me snorkeling while following Esa through the coral gardens. Esa would silently spot and then spear the fish with his underwater bow and arrow-like device while I watched on, trying to stay as still as possible in the water.
|Esa getting the coconut ready to marinade the fresh fish.
Then it was to Esa’s village where he lives with his wife (a police officer) and her parents (next door). A coconut was shaved, a papaya lopped off the tree, cassava mashed and the fresh fish perfectly cooked over an open fire. The family’s chickens, cat and dog all watched on as lunch was made, a rug with Jesus hanging on the wall and a large stereo the dominant possessions of a modest home. The in-laws’ house had a much larger kitchen and living room and I got the feeling much of the village probably frequently gathers in this room. Proud pictures of Esa’s father-in-law’s early years as a rep rugby player filled the walls.
Farewelling Esa, I thanked him for a snorkeling experience unlike any other I’d had, not to mention the taste of authentic Fijian village life. He’s an ambitious man with business plans and I wish him nothing but the best. Back round the headland and along the beach at Mango’s there was time to watch the sun go down as the tide came in over an increasingly mesmeric beach scene. This is a resort where games and activities are organised for the guests – everything from crab racing to cricket to beach-volleyball – but sometimes just watching the sunset with some music and a drink in hand is all you need.
Three nights at Mango Bay Resort flew by, but thanks to Liz, Danny and their sweet staff (“Bula Mr. Tim!”), I was able to do a sped-up version of everything I wanted**. Keep a lookout for a New Zealand Herald article about my time on the Coral Coast as well as what Suva’s Grand Pacific Hotel was like. For more, please visit mangobayresortfiji.com. And thanks to Liz and Danny for being so warm and accommodating! ‘Til next time.
Enjoy the photos, all are of Mango Bay Resort except where captioned.
|With the feast Esa cooked.
|With the soon to be ripped-open board shorts.
|Riverside on the way to the waterfall.
|Heading to the waterfall, the guide in the red.
|Just moments later these shorts will not join in the backside region any longer.
|Sigatoka may not be a wealthy town, but its almost complete lack of litter struck me.
|A friend of Esa’s who’d found a dead baby shark.
|Esa and the shark.
|Lopping off a papaya from the tree.
|Esa’s in-laws’ living room.
|The family cat helping get the fish ready.
|The village is modest, but all gardens perfectly maintained.
|Cooking the fish.
|Peeling the coconuts.
|Inside Esa’s living room / dining room.
|The wonderfully overgrown jungle behind the Mango Bay Resort. I couldn’t resist exploring.
Thanks so much for reading, hope you enjoyed the photos and do visit Liz and Danny’s Mango Bay Resort website if you’re thinking of a Fiji holiday: mangobayresortfiji.com.
*If the “flashpacker” classification has so far passed you by, a good flashpackers will have all the sociability of a backpackers, but with private rooms, a decent dose of comfort and still at a pretty competitive rack rate.
**Part of what I want on holiday is also good food. I was hugely – and pleasantly – surprised to discover excellent food at Mango’s. The dinners in particular were quite outstanding and several notches above what you’d normally get at a mid-range / flashpacker resort.