Sigatoka is noted for its craft shops, street vendors, open markets and inexpensive food. Half the Sigatoka Valley is required to grow taro, cassava, corn, tomatoes, lettuce and other vegetable or fruit crops, while the other half grows sugar cane.

Fiji: Bula!

Fijian friendliness is so contagious
that you'll be shouting "bula" (hello)
to everyone, just like the Fijians do

Kava ceremony leaves lasting impression

By Tim Ryan

"When I'm dreaming, please don't wake me, please don't make me open my eyes 'cause I'm dreaming dreams of Fiji, Pacific islands paradise."

Those are the lyrics to a Fijian song, and if you visit, you'll understand why they sing it.

My wife, Nancy, daughter Carly and I wanted to escape Hawaii's summer heat and head to New Zealand where it's now their winter. But Earl Loo, owner of Business & Leisure Holidays, suggested we visit Fiji since Air Pacific stops at Nadi Airport to and from kiwi land.

Fiji is gorgeous, uncrowded, cheap and has great surf. But living in Hawaii, we didn't think we needed more beautiful beaches. We were wrong.

We arrived at Nadi just before a rainbow sunrise. We headed to Hideaway Resort on the Coral Coast, two hours from the airport.

My first faux pas was trying to get in on the driver's side of the Toyota, which in Fiji is the right-hand side.

"No problem, sir," said Nirbhay, our Indian driver. "May I assist you in getting to the other side?"

There's nothing between Nadi and the Coral Coast but brush, hills of sugar cane, thin farm animals and modest homes. "The red flags next to houses indicate a Hindu family or temple," said Nirbhay, who seemed to have the answers to all our questions.

Railroad tracks run along one side of the road, and a small locomotive, used for transporting sugar cane, makes several trips a day. In some areas along both sides of Queen's Road are breadfruit trees, papaya, cassava and vesi (hardwood trees used for building).

We passed Sigatoka, a bustling river town of about 2,000 people, 90 miles east of the airport. The Sigatoka River, the second longest in Fiji, was calm, with dwellings on each side and a huge Indian mansion towering on the hillside.

Colorful pastries tempt passers-by at one of the many stalls in an open market in Sigatoka, a charming town of about 2,000.

"It belongs to an Indian guy who made his fortune importing potatoes," Nirbhay said.

When Fiji became a British colony in the late 1800s, the governor brought in laborers from India, which explains the population dynamic of 48 percent Fijians and 46 percent Fiji Indians, with a small percentage of Chinese and Europeans.

The Hideaway Resort sits along a mile-long Coral Coast lagoon. "Bures," Fijian cottages, sit atop a small bluff a few feet from a lagoon where daily half-mile tidal flows are common.

Our oceanfront bures weren't ready, so we headed to a buffet of fruit, fish, American fare and strong coffee.

The tide was low, and the tidal flats seemed to spread to the horizon. Workers were sweeping sand off the walkways in front of the bures, which have enclosed outdoor bathrooms and no television or radio to interrupt the calm.

"Bula," said a housekeeper from inside one of the bures.

The Fijian woman explained that "bula" is Fijian for "hello."

"Bala -- no, bila; no, bela," I say.

"Booooola," she says, forming her lips into a circle.

I make my mouth ridiculously round then blurt out "Bula!" It felt good.

The common language in Fiji is English, but Fijian is spoken everywhere; the Indians speak Hindi among themselves.

Nancy wants to wander the grounds. Carly is fascinated by the coral and shells. I lie in the deck's chaise lounge.

Soon, children parade down the beach en route to school. They wave and yell a chorus of "bulas." Then a Fijian man passes, leading tourists on horseback along the beach.

Fiji is a tropical archipelago comprising more than 300 islands -- 100 inhabited -- surrounding the Koro Sea. Its two main islands are Viti Levu, with the capital city of Suva, and Vanua Leva.

When Carly returns from the beach carrying shells, she finds me in a purple and blue sulu, or lava-lava. She's mortified.

"Does Mom know you're wearing that?"

"Not yet," I answer, smiling. "Bula, honey."

That night, we enjoy a Fijian Lovo Feast in which food is wrapped in banana leaves, placed in palm-frond baskets and put into their version of the Hawaiian imu. Ovens lined with palm fronds are built into the ground with hot stones.

We feast on parrotfish, chicken, pork, vegetables, fruit and salad. Some Hideaway employees play Fijian music. We endure the Fijian version of a hula show and get onstage to shake our okoles.

Fijian men don skirts, ankle leis and warrior paint for a formal kava ceremony, at which a village elder presides.

A storm increases its intensity through the night with thunder and strong wind. The sound of 12-foot waves breaking on the reef is deafening.

The next morning, Hideaway's assistant manager, Michael Bannear, explains that Viti Levu gets a storm once a week during winter. "Sometimes it lasts six days," he says.

The sky is overcast but there is no rain. We take a van to Biauseva village for a traditional kava ceremony, then hike to Savu na Mate Laya waterfall in the middle of a rain forest.

The poor weather continues for two days. We talk, read, write letters and rest. When the rain relents, we walk along the beach, exploring tide pools, chatting with residents and listening to the wind and waves.

By the time we head to the Outrigger Reef Fiji on the Coral Coast and hook up with friend and general manager Robert McConnell, we are comfortable saying "bula" and "vinaka" (thank you).

We met Robert a year earlier at the Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort. He makes no apology for the weather.

"There are many things to do in Fiji that don't include the beach," he said, handing us a list of suggestions. "Fiji is as much about mingling with the people as getting a suntan."

The rain had stopped, so we walked across Queen's Road to Kula Eco Park, set in a rain forest. Visitors traverse streams on rope bridges and are able to handle iguanas and parrots.

The stream provides wonderful background sounds as guests wander past exhibits of barking pigeons, honey eaters, flying fox fruit bats, kula lorakeets, Kadavu musk parrots and a peregrine falcon.

"It's starting to rain," I complained to Carly halfway through the hike.

"It's a rain forest, Dad!"

We lunch in the hotel's open air Vale Ni Kana, where waiter Andy is holding an Australian boy. Fijians love children. Throughout the resort, Fijian workers are playing with kids or holding somebody's infant.

"Bula, Carly," Andy would yell across the restaurant whenever we arrived. "Come quick and give Andy a hug."

The next day, we take a hotel van to Sigatoka town so Nancy and Carly can shop for souvenirs while I wait on a bench by the river. An Indian boy sits on the end of the bench and uses his fingers to indicate he's 14, but he's so tiny, he looks like 9.

When I throw a stone at a log floating down river, he mimics me. We begin a barrage at the log. We don't speak each other's language, but we communicate.

Next, we head up Sigatoka Valley Road to Lawai village to watch a pottery demonstration. Afterward, we travel four miles to historic Tavuni Hill Fort.

We pass an area where stones are piled in rectangular shapes. They are graves, says Una, our escort. Coffins are buried and piled with stones. Larger cities have cemeteries, but not villages because of the cost, Una says.

The view from atop Tavuni is spectacular, up and down the Sigatoka River Valley.

The next morning, we head to Castaway Resort, on an island 30 miles west of Viti Levu. The 30-minute helicopter ride takes us along the Coral Coast. The clouds dissipate and the sun is shining. The ocean is turquoise. Castaway looms as a tiny jewel. In the distance are several other atolls, including the one where Tom Hanks made "Castaway."

We're led to a beachfront bure. There are only 66 bures on Castaway's 174 acres. The resort covers a third of the island; the remaining area is a village where employees live.

I climb into a hammock strung between palm trees while Nancy and Carly hike to the top of the small mountain.

A supply boat comes ashore a quarter-mile down the beach. A half-dozen workers unpack food and other supplies, chatting and singing. When they finish their shift, they gather on a beach to play soccer.

Nancy returns from the hike and slides beside me on the hammock.

"Fijian culture seems so simple, not only with respect to the lack of hurry and living simply, but the culture itself," I say.

"Maybe when the Christian missionaries and colonialists did away with all that black magic, cannibalism and witchcraft, there just wasn't a lot else left."

"You're here one week, and you have the culture all figured out, right?" Nancy says. "Talk about the ugly American."

"There's only one solution," I say. "I want to come back."

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