Family getaways don’t get much easier than cruising, and as Anna King Shahab discovers, Fiji – close to New Zealand, well set-up for tourists and offering a mix of beach bliss and bustle – is the perfect place to sail to.
It’s not that I dislike airports – far from it: heading through the departure doors never fails to elicit a silent squeal of excitement – but the long queues and many security checks sure eat into the good vibes. Boarding the good ship Pacific Pearl, a P&O cruise liner, at Auckland’s Queens Wharf is nothing but pleasure. Pulling up in the taxi and unloading the kids and luggage while gazing up at the towering ship, tagging and dropping off that luggage just metres from the taxi, then grabbing the departure paperwork and taking it over the road to fill out with a coffee in hand, in the morning sun. Then a brief queue through customs and x-ray and we’re on – our bags already waiting for us outside our cabin door. Surely there’s no quicker way to start a holiday that doesn’t involve a private jet.
We set sail for Fiji, a destination I had admittedly overlooked as too obvious a holiday spot. The ship’s itinerary: stops in bustling Suva, resort-y Denarau and isolated Dravuni Island, sounded a promising glimpse into multi-faceted Fiji, as I’m not good at holing up in one resort: my feet get way too itchy and my obsession with street food intervenes. The cruise's Auckland to Suva leg took three nights, giving us time to settle into ship life. Our kids (aged 7 and 5) charged gung-ho into kids' club and started to make friends, while we pottered about with morning yoga classes, the sauna complex (complete with a mountain of ice to shock the senses), and plenty of reading up on deck as we glided across the Pacific, which kindly lived up to its moniker.
One of the nicest aspects of cruising is that arrival into port is timed for early morning. When you rise and peer outside, you’re always somewhere new and the sense of excitement kicks in once more. Alighting straight into downtown Suva on a Thursday morning, there was a great energy about the place: busloads of school kids in crisp uniforms heading to class, city workers breakfasting on fried fish while stallholders piled up taro in the open-air market, and scores of locals touting tours and hair-braiding – in the friendliest way you can imagine.
We jumped on a bus tour of Suva which made a big circle of the city and outer settlements. We called into Nausori Farmer’s Market with its ethnic mix of stallholders – Fijian, Indo-Fijian and Asian – proffering an array of produce: ripe mangoes and petite pineapples, fresh green okra pods, stacks of curly kava root, delicate pyramids of birds’ eye chillies, green bananas. We whizzed past Pak n Save, our guide warning us to never trust the hand-painted ‘specials’ signs, which might be years old. We realised the grave impact of weather cycles on this chain of islands, as our guide pointed out whole settlements of houses built on stilts to withstand regular flooding, and explained that his own village of more than 200 odd homes had been reduced to a mere handful of structures by the recent, devastating Cyclone Winston.
Friday brought us to Denarau, the shores of which are fringed with all the big-name resorts. I’ve never had much love for manufactured destinations but something about Denarau made me warm to it – the continuous cultural performances and kava sampling in the centre of the shopping area, the dollar bus that you can hop on to head out to the resorts. We caught up with friends at the resort they were coincidentally staying at and spent the afternoon floating in the pool and munching grilled banana prawns. It quickly became clear why Kiwis flock here: the tourism industry Fiji is just so good at its job.
The final stop in Fiji provided insight into the dual beauty and vulnerability of this nation and its people. Tiny Dravuni Island is home to a single village with fewer than 200 inhabitants. It wasn’t badly affected by Winston, but other small islands like it were, and cyclone season is a reality Fiji has to live with. Over a thousand passengers on a cruise liner being ferried to this little island in batches in the tender boats did feel rather surreal, and I couldn’t help think that not everything about these visits would be positive for the islanders, but the boost to the economy is huge.
For us, this was our chance to soak up the slow pace of the place, lounging on an utterly beautiful beach and, for the kids, to make friends with their village counterparts. Even snorkelling was too energetic for our pace that day, but the water here is perfect for it, with Dravuni surrounded, as if tied by a piece of ribbon, by the wondrous, coral-laced Great Astrolabe Reef.
After a day of glorious sloth, we felt like ramping up the pace on our remaining sea days journeying back to Auckland. All but the littlest of us tackled the onboard flying fox - climbing the tower to the platform was the scary bit; zipping down the line over the bustling deck and pool as the sun set was pure joy. We hit the gym each day to balance all the eating (I highly recommend booking a dinner at Salt Grill, and the Chef’s Table experience with matching wines is pretty special). We embraced things that would ordinarily repel us, like cocktail-fuelled karaoke, and dress-up parties. On this eight-night cruise there were three themed nights: black, white and Great Gatsby, and I’m pleased to report this shipload of New Zealanders scrubbed up real nice. Our gusto didn’t quite stretch to bingo quiz sessions - but there’s always next time.