Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Fiji's Coral Coast

The Coral Coast is resort central for Viti Levu, Fiji's largest and most Westernly-developed island.

If you hadn't been to one of the smaller, more pristine islands as I had, CC would seem like a lot of heaven - palm trees arched over blue water-lapped beaches, exotically landscaped resorts with all-inclusive or a la carte arrangements that are filled with jolly Aussies and Kiwis, a city with ATMs and shopping (Sigatoka), and excursions - jet boat trips to inland villages, rafts to cannibal caves, jaunts to waterfalls and pottery villages.

You can walk the beach, loll around the pool (this one's at Hideaway) where smiling servers will bring you food and beverages or knock yourself out on activities and physical challenges.  What's not to like?

Tip: Well, if you are a Leveler, many of those resorts come with lots of stairs and not all activities are worth the effort.

Resort Reviews
I visited five - Shangri-La's Fijian Resort & Spa, Outrigger on the Lagoon Resort, Fiji Hideaway Resort & Spa, Naviti Resort and Warwick Fiji. Stayed at one, Hideaway, and compared notes with guests at all the others.

Naviti received universal thumbs down from its guests despite its sophisticated landscaping and appearance. Management intransigence and inadequate supplies of basics such as towels and soap seemed to be the major problems. Good number of stairs here, too.

Shangri-La has everything which is a problem - there's too much of it; part of the joy of visiting Fiji is the feeling of intimacy. However, its convention facilities are excellent... once you reach them. Lots of walking but it does have outstanding cuisine and a "camp" of huge, flying fox bats.

Outrigger has stairs everywhere. Although there is a very slow elevator, it will only eliminate stairs in the main building. The resort does have an ATM, great "Bula!" greetings and a very friendly staff. This is where the firewalkers perform.

The Warwick has almost as many stairs but a good beach and a most unusual way of serving a festive buffet breakfast: they set up tables on the beach and float the food on kayaks. Guests wade out to serve themselves. Again, a signature of Fiji, friendly staff.

The Hideaway is the most Fijian in spirit and despite its proximity to the highway it is the one I recommend. Accommodations are in bure-like duplexes that face the ocean and come with indoor and outdoor showers, a porch and sitting hammock. When chef gets back to his Indian roots, the cuisine is hard to beat. Best of all, steps, just a few, not stairs, although you will have a set of stairs down to the beach.
Tip: This is the best choice for Levelers, but get a room midway between the often noisy poolside bar and the end of the line of duplexes, which is a hike from the center of activity.

Tip2: If you don't want to be deluged by children and teens, avoid the dates of New Zealand and Australia school spring breaks. Personally, I found the older ones fun; it was the crying babies that got tiresome. 

Excursion Reviews
Sigatoka (SING-a-TOE-kah) River Safari. Basically, you pack into jet boats and hurtle up and down the Sigatoka River before stopping at one of nine participating villages for the traditional kava drinking and greeting ceremony, the mekes singing and dancing and, depending on the time and village, lunch. On the way back there's an opportunity to do 360-degree spins.
Warning: Getting from riverbank into the boat isn't bad but depending on which village you visit getting out, up the bank and then back down can be a challenge, although villagers and guides team to get even the haltest and lamest there. Still, it can be a bit scary. Watch where you step and ask for help before you need it.

The singing and dancing is great fun and our lunch was excellent (it helps not to be a picky eater). You'll fall in love with the people. All in all, a fun experience.

Cannibal Cave. Levelers, in a word, DON'T. The tour group, Adventures in Paradise, is great but you will drive seemingly forever along a rough stretch of road, cross the Sigatoka River in rickety rafts, scramble up a bank, hike along a stream crossing its rocky and slippery bottom four times then head up a hillside.

When you reach the cave its opening is tiny and you have to wade through water to enter. There are rougher stretches inside - or so they told me. One look at the opening and claustrophobia took over.  There was a "cannibal oven" more like a simple sacrificial spot, but other than that, not much. The tour crew can get you up to, through then back out again and even bring lights. The countryside is beautiful but if it has rained lately, getting back into the rafts can be treacherous. Best part: beer at the end.
Tip: Better to take the same company's waterfall tour.

Pottery Village. It requires no physical dexterity to visit one of two area villages where residents make pottery as it has been done for thousands of years by their ancestors as well as in North Africa. Rosie Holidays provided the tour and guide Rony was excellent, filling us in on Fiji and the area's background, life and village etiquette - Don't touch the top of a Fijian's head, ladies keep your knees and shoulders covered and how to accept, drink and give thanks for a bowl of kava, the ubiquitous, muddy looking, mildly narcotic, non-alcoholic beverage from the roots of the pepper tree.

The women of the village - this is a farming community and most of the men will be out in the fields - will perform the singing and dancing meke, a gay potter will conduct the kava ceremony and then the ladies hope you buy some of their pottery. No, you don't have to but you'll feel like a heel if you don't.
Tip: Keep your purchases small; this pottery chips easily and doesn't ship well, even wrapped in dirty clothes in a suitcase.
There will be a short stop for shopping in Sigatoka. This is a pleasant way to spend a morning or afternoon, especially with a guide as affable and informational as Rony.

Kula Eco Park was a hit, especially with photographers.

Not worth it was the consensus on the salt making, red train and Robinson Crusoe Island tours.

Tourism Fiji


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