Rhythm and blue

Cast away ... "small, sparkling" Navini island in Fiji's Mamanuca archipelago.
Cast away ... "small, sparkling" Navini island in Fiji's Mamanuca archipelago. 

Sean Mooney runs away with his family to the near-deserted tropical island of Navini.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an island in possession of a tropical latitude must be in want of a volleyball.

This has been the case at least since 2000, when the movie Cast Away introduced the world to the red-faced and rotund character of Wilson. Despite being lost at sea, Tom Hanks's bouncy deserted-island besty lives on in countless South Pacific travel tales. See, even I'm doing it, despite vowing not to allow Wilson's bloody hand print to stain my story.

Kayaking around the island.
Kayaking around the island. 

But what do I find as I'm heading to my beachside bure on my first day on the tiny Fijian coral cay of Navini? A glistening white volleyball tangled up in some seagrass. It's not long before I discover that the volcanic island I can see from my beach lounge - "You can't miss it, it looks like a boot", "... like a car", "... like a ship with a single funnel" - is none other than Monuriki, where Cast Away was filmed. I sigh, scribble the W-word in my notes and vow to move on.

In truth, though, there's not that far you can move on this 2.5-hectare mound of sand, coconuts and flame trees off the west coast of the largest of the Fijian islands, Viti Levu. But my initial concerns about the diminutive size of Navini Island Resort soon dissolve like the aspirin I down on the first night after underestimating the strength of the tropical sun.

Navini is a small but sparkling link in a chain of 14 inhabited islands (containing 25 resorts) that spill out of Nadi Bay, among the more than 300 islands and atolls that compise Fiji. Navini can cater for 30 guests at most, so visitors are always outnumbered by 35 or so staff. Even better, there's not a themed buffet or kids' club in sight - just a low-key operation in which freshly prepared food is a given and the kids run wild with local children.

The island's size means you get to know everyone but you don't have to spend your days watching them rub coconut oil into their thighs or down mai tais by the pool. In fact, there is no pool - just the brilliant blue hues of the ocean.

I choose to swing in a hammock between our bure and the sea, watching the green peaks of nearby islands disappear behind curtains of rain. My wife humours me for a while as I point out each new cloud formation but the headphones soon come out. The children are naming captured hermit crabs - Red Eye, Nip and Tuck, Clawful - and trying to feed them the twitching tails of some unfortunate skinks. For families, it's heaven.

This is the beginning of a week governed by rhythm and saturated with blues. The rhythm is dictated by the weather and the tides; the beating of the island's lali drum that calls us to each meal; the thwacking of the sea against the resort's watercraft; brief but intense storms at dawn, distant thunder at dusk; the unwinding of unharried guests over unhurried days. All of it is infused with the infinite blues of the sea and sky, the schools of aquamarine chromis fish hiding in staghorn corals and, finally, that empty feeling when it's time to go home.

The resort's Australian owners, Arthur and Helen Reed, visited in the '70s and decided they wouldn't return home. Where others saw an uninhabited, waterless, almost treeless patch of sand clinging to a rock formation, the Reeds saw a potential new home and business. They negotiated a 60-year lease with Navini's owners (who live on nearby Malolo Island) and built their resort - tree by tree, hut by hut - eventually opening for business in 1980.

Arthur strolls most evenings along the island's garden-lined paths on his way to the communal dining area, resplendent in one of his colourful bula shirts and sulu skirt. He's a study in island chill as he greets everyone over cocktails (they make a mean, minty mojito here).

He and Helen usually eat dinner with guests seated at long tables in an open room that catches the sea breeze. They talk about the challenges of raising a family on an island, the pleasure of welcoming repeat guests (almost half have been before) and their long campaign to be self-sufficient for drinking water (about three-quarters of the potable water on the island is captured rainfall, the remainder coming from desalination and water purification). They are clearly passionate about the island and the Fijians they employ to maintain it, and this imbues Navini with a genuinely happy feel that is impossible to fake.

Fresh, fragrant dishes such as mango salad, reef fish with cassava and spiced pilau with coconut are prepared and served by an engaging crew of Fijian women. Visitors are also given the option of private beachside dining but most people choose the communal option, which makes each meal a social event. We meet Swedish folk singers, Alaskan animal researchers, Australian gallery curators and American long-distance runners (the latter lapping the island in swimwear and sneakers, much to the amusement of the Fijian kids).

Talk usually turns to the day's activities, often a boat trip to a nearby reef or another island in the Mamanuca archipelago. Groper, turtle and stingray sightings are reported. Navini's reef has been a sanctuary for almost two decades, so there are plenty of sea creatures with little fear of humans.

There are also sharks; we're talking harmless one-metre blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, although their predatory shape still gets the adrenalin pumping when they glide past your goggles. Most of the guests we meet are self-confessed "stalkellers" - all of us spotting and then tailing any shark we can find, just for the thrill of it. The Fijian children love showing their incredulous foreign counterparts how to chase the baby sharks that cruise the shallows. They splash and giggle as little fins circle their shins. It takes some getting used to but Navini is the kind of place where you can tell the kids to go play with the sharks.

I swim with a few mature reef sharks over the week but spot many more baby ones from the beach as they surf the wavelets breaking on the rock shelf below our bure. I'm told they sometimes hunt newly hatched baby turtles in these waters, headbutting them off mats of floating seaweed and into their junior jaws.

I see many other things from my beach lounge: sandbanks shifting with the wind and changing currents; fossils embedded in cracked rocks exposed by the ebbing tide; scuttling crabs and bobbing coconuts.

When clouds like cling-wrapped mercury roll over the darkening sea, I retreat to our covered porch and watch the ocean become utterly becalmed for a few magical moments, before being hit by rain.

It rains often during our time on Navini but usually at night and never for long. I wake on the penultimate morning of our stay to the evocative sound of heavy rain on a corrugated-iron roof. A wild wind is soon whipping in off the sea and blowing through our bure's slatted windows, which we position each day to catch the prevailing sea breeze.

It's the only morning that ends up being a washout but those guests (mainly the kids) who don't fancy reading or snoozing are kept busy with basket-weaving, rounds of the staple Fijian game vidi vidi and the preparation (then swift consumption) of coconut toffee.

Our neighbours on the island, Alaskan couple Jason and Carrie, see out the storm by watching their collection of Fiji-themed movies on a laptop. There's The Blue Lagoon, Mutiny on the Bounty and, yes, Cast Away.

That evening over a couple of local Vonu beers, we decide that Tom Hanks probably didn't lose Wilson at all. More likely, Wilson ditched Tom when they floated past Navini.

At least, that's what any ball with half a brain would do.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air Pacific has a fare to Nadi from Sydney and Melbourne (about 6hr non-stop) for about $770 low-season return including tax; see airpacific.com. Transfer from Nadi airport to Navini Island via private car then a one-hour boat ride, which costs $75 one way for adults, $40 for children under 16, children under five ride free.

Staying there

Navini Island bures can accommodate from one to six people and cost from $340 a night. The meal plan includes a la carte breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, costing $70 a day for adults, $35 a day for children aged six to 12, $25 for children aged two to five and $13 for children under two. See www.navinifiji.com.fj.

Secret to Fiji's appeal

Backpackers, schoolies and adventure tourists are joining the established mix of couples and families, writes Sean Mooney.

FIJI remains a favourite destination for Australian holidaymakers, despite changing tastes and challenging times. In January, Air Pacific added an extra six flights a week from Sydney to Nadi, effectively doubling the airline's capacity on the route.

While Fiji has traditionally been a "romance and family destination", says Tourism Fiji's Sydney-based PR consultant Mike Parker Brown, the key to its continuing appeal is the expanding range of experiences for travellers.

"[Fiji] has always had the ability to cater to any budget but even more so now," he says. "It has become so much more multifaceted and multilayered as a destination."

He lists zip-lining and jet-boating as two of the newest additions to Fiji's tourism arsenal. Other recent soft-adventure start-ups include off-road safaris through cave systems and inland waterfall tours on four-wheel buggies.

The backpacker market has grown, with companies on the main island of Viti Levu and on the Yasawa and Mamanuca island groups tailoring their activities accordingly.

Sand-boarding and whitewater rafting have been added to the staples of diving and snorkelling on the backpacker menu. Yasawa's Legend Cruises, for example, has started a cruise program that transports backpackers around the Yasawa Islands in a boat that doubles as a floating restaurant and supermarket for islanders.

Fiji is fast becoming a schoolies destination, with several thousand school-leavers heading to resorts on Beachcomber, Plantation and Mana islands last year.

Surfers are being drawn to Fiji in larger numbers following the so-called "surfing decree" of 2010, which annulled all private leases held over surfing areas. Parker Brown says visitors can now surf wherever they like — "although you need to be fairly experienced," he warns. There are organisations offering "voluntouring" holidays for travellers who want to contribute to the communities they visit by working on building and education-based projects. Ecotourism experiences are also becoming more commonplace, with visitors participating in coral-regeneration and wildlife-protection programs such as fish-house building at Shangri-La's Fijian Resort and Spa on Yanuca Island.

It's when you start looking for big developments that things get complicated. One Fiji-based industry source says foreign investors are wary of sinking money into a country when there is such uncertainty about its future. "Fiji is not undergoing rapid development," he says. "It has slowed down since the army took over in 2006."

Fiji's third military coup in 20 years occurred in 2006, the start of a difficult period that reached its nadir in 2009 when Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth and expelled from the Pacific Islands Forum. Democratic elections are not expected until at least 2014.

Parker Brown acknowledges that few resorts have opened recently but points out that one of the largest tourism developments undertaken in Fiji is under way: a $500 million gated estate near Nadi Airport, overseen by Queensland entrepreneur Bob Lowres. This project on Naisoso Island also features a strata-titled resort complex, which will be managed by Peppers on completion in 2014.

Recent openings include the couples-only Tadrai Island Resort on Mana Island, while Castaway Island Fiji will reopen this month following extensive renovations.

Fiji's first exclusive gaming licence has been granted to a US-based company developing a $US290 million ($270 million) luxury casino resort on Denarau Island. What the interim government calls "a malleable fusion between the Western ideals of casino gaming with the strong cultural virtues of tribal and community life" is set to create more than 800 jobs. Several sources have indicated this project is not universally popular with Fijians.

Despite the political uncertainty and the collapse of development projects at Momi Bay and Denarau Island, tourism remains Fiji's largest foreign-exchange earner. The nation's Minister for Tourism, Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, says Fiji hosted 674,913 international visitors last year, a rise of 6.8 per cent on 2010 figures. Half of these travellers were Australians.

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