Sport Diver (October 2008)

DEEP-BLUE INDULGENCE

Sport Diver (October 2008)

The Luxe Life in Fiji

By Kate Siber

Trying on the chain-mail glove stirs my stomach, and watching my divemaster cross himself as he pulls on his fins doesn't help. I am sitting on PADI Dive Resort Beqa Adventure Divers' custom-built catamaran speeding through Beqa Lagoon, south of Fiji's biggest island, as another divemaster — there are five onboard, one for each diver — explains the protocols of our dive: Stay together, descend to 100 feet, move as a group when the divemasters rap on their tanks and — most importantly — do not point or wave limbs unnecessarily. The milky-blue sky and serene, dark sea belie the dive's unusual purpose: breakfast with the apex predator.

The boat slows to a halt and the crew lobs a crate of tuna parts overboard, turning the sea into a boiling cauldron of snapping silver trevally. Rusi Balenagasau, the shark feeder and a 21-year veteran of the dive company, retrieves his chain-mail glove from me and dons it. The only shark-diving novice in the group, I smile weakly to conceal my jitters, flip-flop in my fins to the back of the boat and giant-stride into the drink.

At 100 feet, we perch ourselves on an amphitheaterlike curve in the seafloor as Rusi cracks open the tuna crate. Red bass, sergeant majors, yellowtail fusiliers and rainbow runners barrel in, sounding like the humph of an 18-wheeler going by in the rain. The bull sharks circle in the distance, revealing only their shadowy, mountainous silhouettes. At 30 feet, above the buttelike top of the reef, blacktip, whitetip and gray reef sharks zoom about as if in an undersea rush hour. But the big guys are keeping their distance.

On our second dive, two 10-foot-long bull sharks finally snake gracefully from the deep blue and onto our amphitheater's stage, each opening a giant maw to clamp down on the tuna head proffered by Rusi. I hardly notice that my jitters have been replaced by an unadulterated fascination: These sharks are not at all concerned with me. They are merely in their element — living relics of a prehistoric sea full of creatures strange and terrible and brilliant.

Just after a bull shark snaps up its chum and before we ascend again, Rusi points to me and beckons. With some trepidation, I drift down to him, and he motions for me to open my palm, in which he places a small gift from the last shark: a single thumb-size tooth.

LUXURY MEETS TRADITION

Beqa Adventure Divers might be one of the best-known dive operations in Fiji: It helped establish the Shark Reef Marine Reserve with two traditional owners and the Department of Fisheries in 2004. But there's no shortage of thrilling diving in Fiji, a South Pacific island nation at the crossroads of Melanesia and Polynesia, some 5,000 miles from Los Angeles.

The country has committed to establishing a network of Marine Protected Areas that will cover 30 percent of its territorial waters by 2020, ensuring that Fiji's marine-life currency will live on. At the same time, Fiji is developing high-end accommodations, and in only the past few years, a number of luxury hotels — such as the Sofitel, Hilton, Westin, Royal Davui and Likuliku — have opened, attracting more well-heeled travelers. I have come here to experience both the diving and Fiji's sybaritic side, and to spend two weeks in search of that potent-but-elusive elixir of thrill and indulgence.

My first stop, Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort on the country's second-largest island, Vanua Levu, is decidedly stylish, with an open thatched-roof main lodge with dark beams, soaring atrium ceilings, cozy banquettes and table settings as polished as a Manhattan bistro's. Heliconia and deep-red ixora burst like fireworks around the grounds, and I spend my first evening getting my jet lag rubbed away with a pineapple-infused oil massage in a breezy spa tent.

Despite the cosmopolitan nature of the resort, local traditions are welcome. Later that evening after dinner, the local staff invites me to take part in a kava ceremony. Kava is the pleasantly sedative Fijian beverage of choice: an earthy-tasting concoction made from a local root that numbs the tongue and relaxes the mind. A ritual — which begins with clapping once, then cupping the kava bowl with two hands and drinking the contents in one gulp before the finale of clapping three times — is a nonnegotiable custom, particularly for those Fijians who drink kava over business or daily with friends. After only one round, my head feels woozy and light.

Cousteau's PADI Five-Star Dive Center L'Aventure runs trips around its calm bay and reef, but the prime attraction is the day trip to Namena Barrier Reef, a 19-mile circuit of walls and bommies ringing Namena Island, where a small, rustic resort called Moody's Namena caters to divers and solitude seekers. The reef was designated a marine reserve in 2004, and with good reason: It features some 300 varieties of coral, plus a mind-boggling cornucopia of marine life, from microscopic to mammoth.

Nigel Simpson, a divemaster from Moody's Namena, personifies Fijian hospitality. With an oversize smile, he is laid-back and patient, and underwater, he takes my hand excitedly, while pointing out marvelous creatures. At a dive site called Chimneys, we descend quickly as brawny currents carry us past silo-like bommies. Schools of big-eyed trevally and barracuda sweep past us as black, white and yellow moorish idols hang suspended, ribbons trailing off their noggins, near reef outcroppings. Slim, foot-long coronet fish, domino damselfish and tiny blue-orange iridescent fish zigzag around the reef metropolis, while clouds of orange anthias billow around black crinoids and gorgonian fans.

FINDING YOUR ZEN

That night, I stay on Namena Island. Before a communal dinner in the main lodge — which is perched 100 vertical feet over the shore on a steep embankment — I watch a sea turtle bob to the surface, disappear, then reappear.

The island itself still feels a bit wild, as its first settlers, owners Tom and Joan Moody, arrived just 25 years ago. The six native-wood bures — Fijian cottages — are rustic, perhaps because the main attraction isn't so much the island but the sea itself.

In fact, Fiji — comprised of thousands of islands speckled over nearly 500,000 square miles of ocean — is less than 1.5 percent dry land. Of the 300-some islands large enough for human habitation, only about a third are populated. More than a quarter of the South Pacific's coral reefs are found here. And it follows that much of seeing Fiji is the traveling-in-between destinations.

A 90-minute boat ride, followed by a flight over aquamarine sea with tiny smudges of white sand and coral, and yet another boat ride sweep me all the way from Namena Island to Beqa Island, just south of Viti Levu. At Lalati Resort and Spa, a PADI Dive Resort, seven stately wooden bures sit in a tidy line next to the beach, their porches inviting sea-weary travelers with Adirondack chairs, pillow-decked hammocks and flower-strewn footbaths.

Jayne and Clint Carlson, an avid diving couple from Minnesota, bought the place in 2002 after one too many captivating vacations in Fiji. They transformed it from barely afloat to an impeccably appointed — yet hardly stuffy — resort, and established diving as paramount with the addition of a PADI Dive Center.

The shark experiences draw most divers to Beqa Lagoon, but I discover plenty of other curiosities on the nearby reefs, like a manta ray shaking off remoras and squirrelfish poking out of their hiding spots, wide-eyed and bewildered looking. Jayne still wades offshore nearly every day for a muck dive, and she takes me along for one. She is a jaguarlike observer and points out ghost pipefish, green frogfish and stonefish in the sandy oblivion. Floating silently above the muck, I realize that this is her escape — her own version of pure luxury.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE

While it's easy to feel pampered among the well-kept gardens and willpower-demolishing meals of Lalati, the beauty of the resort lies not so much with the amenities, but in the peaceful, carefree atmosphere.

One day I follow Martha, a local, back to Lalati Village during her lunch break. The village is a jumble of stone and concrete huts situated a 10-minute shoreline walk from the resort. Traditions are very much alive: Women sit outside preparing pandanis fronds by cutting off their barbed sides. Others weave the fronds into mats that line their homes. Loosely attended pots steam in houses, and older men gather around a tiny church, shooting the breeze.

That evening, I treat myself to another bit of sinful indulgence: a banana leaf Cool Down Wrap, during which the knowing hands of two trained village women rub me down with a cucumber-mint-dilo-tree concoction and blanket me in giant banana leaves and hibiscus blossoms, before a massage. Pudding-legged and bleary-eyed, I stumble from the spa. Luxury found.

ADIEU, CIVILIZATION

A few days later, I travel up the coast and hop on an eight-seat Britten-Norman Islander bound for Vatulele Island, which hangs off the southern coast of Viti Levu. Voices lifted in song for a Sunday-morning service waft from a nearby church as I board.

After a jostling two-and-a-half-mile ride to the 19-cottage Vatulele Island Resort, recently reopened under the management of Six Senses, I am welcomed with a glass of champagne and shown to my abode — a Mediterranean-inspired thatched-stucco affair with a platform canopy bed and six sets of double doors flung open to the breezes. Steps away, a pristine white-sand beach stretches more than half a mile.

Though Vatulele boasts of being Fiji's only five-star property with a PADI Five-Star dive facility, fewer than 10 percent of the guests come expressly to dive. Those who do tend to have the two resident instructors and 22 nearby sites to themselves. One can easily get spoiled.

At Gisela's Arch that afternoon, I swim through an underwater vault with an enormous sea fan surrounded by hundreds of fusiliers. I study an adorable fist-size black-and-white-polka-dot boxfish, which mouths: "Ooh! Ooh! Ooh!" and electric-blue anthias that pop out of the gray-blue ether. Vuli, who supports his wife and a brood of six kids off his divemaster income, points out a giant spiny lobster with 4-foot-long antennae, two black frogfish hanging underneath a rock, gray-and-yellow-spotted gobies and huge sea slugs vacuuming up algae on the seafloor. Before we ascend, a hawksbill turtle floats purposefully past us to the surface.

TASTING ABUNDANCE

During a surface interval one day, Vuli takes me to Bird Island, a football-field-size outcropping of dark, eroded limestone with a crescent of flawless white sand. I clamber up the jagged rocks barefoot to discover a mini Galapagos. Caterpillars squirm in the dozens by my feet, while butterflies swarm around me and boobies feed downy-white chicks, whose heads bob between the rocks.

But I am hardly roughing it like an explorer. All meals back at the resort are gourmet affairs with items like asparagus, goat cheese and truffle-oil pizza baked in an alfresco wood-fired oven and whole-meal ricotta pancakes with sautéed pears and homemade vanilla yogurt. In the bures, teas and cookies are always at hand.

I'm on track with my quest; it is hard to imagine a better intersection of diving and luxury, but my next stop — PADI Likuliku Lagoon Resort — is one of Fiji's newest luxury properties, located in the Mamanuca Islands west of Viti Levu, and a strong contender. The bures are decidedly modern, with sleek stainless-steel fixtures, outdoor showers, private plunge pools with jets, and outdoor daybeds overlooking the lagoon and the sunsets. The resort is a favorite among American honeymooners, and couples canoodle everywhere. A local dive operation, PADI Five-Star Resort Subsurface Fiji, picks me up the next day for two dives.

SLOWING TO PERFECTION

My last stop in Fiji is Wadigi Island, a private island only a hop away from Likuliku that hosts one party of up to six people at a time. Like many expatriates, Kiwis Jim and Tracey Johnston fell in love with Fiji while on holiday, before they leased Wadigi Island Resort and moved there to run it.

While the Johnstons presumably work hard to keep their elegant, white three-bedroom guesthouse with 360-degree views so inviting, one can hardly tell from their laid-back air. I almost forget about the concept of time altogether.

On my last full day in the country, we dive Pinnacle, a natural obelisk as wide in diameter as a city bus is long. After descending to the pinnacle's base at 100 feet, we slowly spiral upward, ogling a healthy population of lionfish, resplendent in their elaborate feathered costumes. At the top, we hang suspended at 30 feet, on the downstream side, watching parrotfish, clownfish and anthias nip up lunch in the current. Barely moving, loose in the ups and downs of the current, I'm warm and calm and content, surrounded by small fish so plentiful and colorful they look like confetti in a glorious bygone wartime parade.

After our dive, the sea shimmers as we speed back to Wadigi Island. Upon arrival, I feel as if I ought to take advantage of the many services and diversions the island has to offer: fishing, snorkeling, kayaking or windsurfing with the on-call boat and boatman.

Instead, what ensues is my own version of perfect luxury. I actually slow down — to a halt. After a massage from a smooth-skinned, muscle-bound masseuse named Vuni in a breezy room with views on three sides, I make a big pot of tea and eat every last cookie in the jar. I then lazily read a book in a reclining beach chair, occasionally looking out past my toes, past the infinity pool dropping over the horizon, past the reef and out over a looking-glass sea.

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