Trip Recap: Best of, Worst of …

Well, we’ve been back about three weeks now and the Round the World trip is fading into memory … What a fabulous journey. I feel so fortunate to have been able to do this trip – it was amazing. Even the (few) parts that weren’t so great were great (if you know what I mean). Time to recap the highlights and lowlights:

Best (non-urban) Beach

Hong Island, Krabi, West Coast of Thailand

Hong Island, the largest of the group of islands in Than Bok Thoranee Marine National Park, is beautiful: powder white sand, glorious green vegetation, turquoise-green water, and towering orange-tinged limestone cliffs. Two small bays are separated by smaller limestone clifflets, through a gap in which we could see boats come and go. See my original post here.

Best Beach (urban)

This is a toss-up between three very different beaches: Jomtien, Pattaya, Thailand, Cancun, Mexico, and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Jomtien, because the beach is decent, with great restaurants, a lively vibe, great people-watching, and very cheap transportation around the area.

Cancun, because the beach is long and wide, twenty six kilometers of sand. Playa Gaviota Azul, in Cancun’s Hotel Zone, was a favourite spot for us. The large, wide beach was often full of local families, with kids large and small enjoying the day. Because this area of the beach has a sand bar not too far offshore, a shallow pool of ocean water untouched by the big surf is created so it’s perfect for small children. Read more here.

Los Muertos beach in Puerto Vallarta, because it’s sandy, has big waves and great beach restaurants, and the weather was amazing. Read more here and here.

Best Accomodation (apartment/condo)

Our fully-equipped, nicely decorated 4th floor apartment 1/2 block off Los Muertos Beach in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, an incredible deal at Easter for $45 a night.

See my post here for more on Puerto Vallarta’s South Side.

Best Accommodation (hotel, B&B, hostel)

This is a tricky one – in the running, are: Merthayasa Bungalows in Ubud, Bali; Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali; Sabai Mansion in Ao Nang, Thailand; and Hotelito Swiss Oasis in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. Each of these was great in its own way. We loved the pool at the Merthayasa and the price was right at 180,000 IDR ($19) a night.

The Blue Star, right on the beach at Jemeluk Bay, had wonderful staff, great snorkelling and swimming, and a pleasant enough room for 200,000 IDR a night ($21.50 – a special price because we didn’t use the air con).

Sabai Mansion was well-located 500 meters from the beach, with a great pool, a restaurant, and nice staff for 855 bht a night ($27.50).

And we also loved the Hotelito Swiss Oasis, 1/2 block from Playa Zicatela in Puerto Escondido, with a pool and small communal kitchen, for 450 pesos night ($34.50).

The Pool and Palm villa in Siem Reap had the best pool, large, beautiful, and clean, very refreshing in the heat of central Cambodia.

Best Recreational Activity (Land-based)

Bali Eco Cycling, a cycle trip beginning at a volcano, then riding downhill through a coffee plantation, village homes and temples, and rice fields, finishing with a Balinese food feast. Read all about it here.

Runner up: Cycling the North Head, in Manly, Australia: wildlife, artillery, ecological projects, golden chariot, cemeteries. Read more here.

Best Recreational Activity (Water-based)

Our private longtail boat trip to the Hong Islands, Krabi, Thailand, a great day out on the water visiting several different beaches, lagoons, and islands in the Andaman Sea. Read my post here.

Best Temple(s) Ancient

This one is no contest – Angkor Wat/Thom in Siem Reap, Cambodia is an epic, once-in-a-lifetime Must See for all you temple and archeological site lovers. Incredibly beautiful architecture and sculpture in a huge and beautiful park setting. See my posts here, here, and here.

Runner up: Uxmal and the Puuc route south of Merida in the Yucatan.

Wanting to see some of the less well-known Mayan ruins in the Yucatan while in Merida, but not wanting to drive ourselves, Ty and I decided to do a day trip with a driver from Yucatan Connect to the Lol Tun Caves and the sites along the Puuc Route, south and south east of Merida. Highly recommended – read more here.

Best Temple (Modern)

Bang Rieng, Krabi, Thailand, a mountain-top temple about an hour and a half’s driving north of Ao Nang along the road to Phuket. It sits atop Khao Lan or One Million Mountain, overlooking the Thaput countryside. The temple and grounds are spectacular, as is the view from the top; green hills and tended fields spread out in a vast panorama below the temple precincts, looking very much like central Italy. Read more here.

Best visual art scene

This category is a tie between Ubud, Bali and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Ubud has lots of great contemporary art galleries, as well as a couple of excellent art museums focusing on modern Balinese and Indonesian art. Read more here and here.

Puerto Vallarta also has a great contemporary art scene, with lots of commercial galleries, artists studios and residencies, and two weekly art walks in the old town and centro areas. Read more here and here.

Most Intriguing Cultural Performance

The Balinese Classical Legong and Barong Dance at the Ubud Palace was fascinating and beautiful. See a video of part of the performance here. Read more about Ubud’s cultural scene here.

Best Local Experience

While staying at the Blue Star Bungalows in Amed, Bali, the owner Iluh, a lovely woman, invited me to join her at a village temple ceremony. She showed me how the offerings are made, gave me her temple clothes to wear, and drove me there and back on her motorcycle – an incredible experience.

Read about it here.

Runner up: Nox’ tours in Levuka, Ovalau, Fiji

We did two tours around Levuka with local guide Nox, one exploring all aspects of the town and the other up into the surrounding hills to visit local plantations. Really fascinating! Read more here and here.

Best Food

This category is also no contest – Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia has an amazing food scene and, remarkably, without even knowing it, we stayed in absolutely the best place for restaurants in KL, Bukit Bintang. Read my post here.

Best Nightlife

While Ty and I are not exactly nightlife junkies (and sometimes I can barely make it to 11 pm), we did enjoy the lively night scene in Ubud, Bali, particularly the great Spanish band at the Smiling Buddha and the jazz at Cafe Luna. Other nightlife options include Balinese dance, the Jazz Cafe, a gazillion great restaurants and bars …

Best transportation experience

The Pattaya/Jomtien baht bus, the song thaew pickups plying the roads in the area. Go anywhere for only 10 baht (30 cents).

And the tuk-tuks in Siem Reap, Cambodia: padded seats, beautiful fabrics, comfortable rides. Go anywhere around the town for $2.

Worst accommodation

None of the places we stayed were really terrible; some were just less good than the rest and a few were too expensive for what they offered. Sometimes the weather affected our view of a place – Fiji in the rain, for example. Janes Fales in Manase, Savaii, Samoa had a wonderful location right on a beautiful sandy beach, but the food was bad and we had a bad experience at their beach bar there that caused us to leave much sooner than we had planned. More info here.

Worst Food

Mostly, the food everywhere was good, if often not spicy enough for our liking. I guess the worst food I had was this terrible lunch at the Hornbill Restaurant in the Kuala Lumpur Bird Park – blecchhh. Read more about this day here.

Worst Beach

Surprisingly, particularly since the last time we were there it was lovely, the beach at Playa del Carmen was the worst we saw. Almost everywhere in the world erosion is a problem, as is high water and storm surges, all playing havoc with the beaches. One of the last days we were in Playa, after a rain storm, we could smell the sewage that had obviously overflowed the storm sewers and was just gushing out from pipes into the ocean, turning the turquoise water a dull dark brown in places.

Worst local experience

Nadi, Fiji. While in Nadi, we walked along the few rather decrepit blocks of the downtown area, asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were directed to a curry and seafood restaurant which, unfortunately, had bad food. The downtown area was pretty much deserted on a Friday night, which I found somewhat surprising, but the whole place seemed dreary, desperate, and depressing – we didn’t miss it when we left. Read more here and here.

Worst transportation experience

Wow – this is a tough category. Once again, it’s a tie, between the crazed maniacal minibus driver in Fiji, whose insane driving drove us out onto the road and into a school bus; the tweaking idiot in Bangkok whose meth-fuelled speed racer drive from Bangkok to Ayutthaya terrified me; and the overloaded and top heavy ferry boat back from Koh Laan to Pattaya, almost capsizing a couple of times along the way.

Most surprising place

Siem Reap, Cambodia, a lovely city with vibrant nightlife and proximity to the great Angkor temples and Samoa, a beautiful small country.

And Guanajuato, Mexico, a fabulous colourful hill-top town in the central highlands with loads of museums, haciendas, good restaurants, and a vibrant local scene.

For us one of the most surprising things was Semana Santa in Guanajuato – who knew that Easter would be so fabulous there?

Perhaps surprisingly, given how much we liked Bali, especially Amed, East Bali, our choice for retirement living in the sun when we’re old is, at the moment, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Why? Well, let me count the reasons:

1) It has a beautiful beach and a long malecon with sculpture and art.

2) It has a vibrant contemporary art scene, dancing, theatre, community centres with classes in language, art, yoga, tai chi, and the like. Lots of artists around the place.

3) It has great coffee shops and restaurants, especially in the Old Town.

4) Although there are lots of gringos, it’s still a Mexican town, especially a few blocks off the beach.

5) Great day trips to small towns and villages are easy by inexpensive local transport. For an example, see my report on Yelapa here.

6) Inexpensive accommodation can be had a few blocks off the beach

7) Rentals are pet-friendly. We can easily bring Brubin and the cat with us when we visit.

8) Easily and cheaply accessible by direct flight in only a few hours.

9) I speak Spanish, albeit not yet fluently.

So long Fiji – leaving on a jet plane

Well – sayonara Fiji, hello Oz! We are off shortly to the Nadi airport for our afternoon flight to Sydney. Although we have mostly enoyed our time here in Fiji, the weather has not been great and, since we’re meant to be following the sun, and there’s no sun here at the moment, we’re happy to get on our steel horse and fly away. When we were researching this trip, the various articles we read online all said that Fiji’s rainy season doesn’t start until November. New Flash – it starts mid-September and goes until mid-April, according to the locals to whom we’ve spoken. The last couple of days have started out promising – with sunshine beckoning us at 6 am, but by noon the clouds have descended and the torrential rains come back.

Two days ago, we decided that we’d head out on the bus to check out Denarau, a “man-made” tourist island about 10 km outside of Nadi. This place has been carved out of the extensive mangrove fields and is home to a pier, with shopping, dining, a marina and boats to the off-shore islands, a golf course, several expensive resorts, and canals with large and expensive homes, complete with boat docks and boats out front. It represents a stark contrast to the down-scale Nadi town, from which all the workers take a bus out to their jobs. Denarau pier reminded us of Steveston, a similar kind of layout with fish restaurants and coffee and souvenir shops. This day the action was pretty quiet, since it was rainy.

Yesterday, in the morning sun, we grabbed the local Khan bus, whose driver was texting as he drove (aarrggh), and headed 6.5 km north of Raffles Gateway Hotel to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. Founded in 1977 by the 70s actor Raymond Burr, he of Ironsides and Perry Mason fame (remember them?), to house his own orchid collection, the garden has been expanded to contain Fiji’s largest collection of orchids and other exotic plant species. We meandered through the garden along scenic wooden walkways, past fish ponds with fish whose facial expressions reminded me of my cat Aran when he’s begging for food, and through a tropical forest, enjoying the sights and smells of the foliage. The “Sleeping Giant” refers to the profile of the mountain range that lies behind the Garden, although this can only be seen from a distance.

Since the bus only runs infrequently in this area, we walked back from the Garden to the main Queens Road and caught a bus down to the Smugglers Cove turnoff, hoping to spend a few hours in the sun on the beach. A man in a pickup took pity on us walking along in the heat and gave us a lift all the way down to Smugglers, where we enjoyed some sun until a thunderstorm chased us off the beach, into a taxi and back to the ranch.

See more pictures here.


Raffles Gateway Hotel, Nadi – waiting to fly

Nadi, Nadi, Nadi – not the nicest town, I’m afraid, but here we are in any case, for our last few days in Fiji. For the remainder of our time at the Beachouse, Ty and I walked for miles along the coast road looking for a change of scenery and finding it in  the Warwick Fiji resort five kilometers west of the Beachouse.

After a hot and sweaty walk, with no respite in sight, the “Approaching Hotel” sign was a beacon in the wilderness for Ty, dying of thirst.

Much more grand than our humble abode, the Warwick is huge, cavernous, and not unlike the gigantic hotels we wandered through in Waikiki. We made our way to the pool-view deck bar, sampled a couple of beverages, and then headed down along the beach to the souvenir stands run by the Korolevu villagers.

This day, being overcast and humid, the resort’s patrons were not interested in these goodies, preferring instead to consume vast quantities of chips and burgers (that quintessential Fijian dish) and the stands were bereft of customers. After perusing the jewellery and carvings, we strolled back through the village and were lucky enough to get a lift from one of the fishermen back to the ranch.

The last couple of days on the Coral Coast were rainy and we decided that we’d had enough of this particular venue, opting instead to jump in Hari’s van for a lift to Nadi, the site of Fiji’s international airport, and the Raffles Gateway hotel, conveniently located right across the street, literally, from the airport out of which we’ll fly to Sydney on Wednesday. Raffles has two pools, one quite large with a big slide, large enough to do some serious lap swimming which I proceeded to do.

The food, judging from our lunch, is decent and the place is pleasant enough; our room has a great shower with strong pressure and hot water, both of which we missed at the ol’ Beachouse. For dinner we headed into Nadi Town by local bus, about nine kilometers from the hotel. We walked along the few rather decrepit blocks of the downtown area, asked for a restaurant recommendation, and were directed to a curry and seafood restaurant which, unfortunately, had bad food. The downtown area was pretty much deserted on a Friday night, which I found somewhat surprising, but the whole place seems depressed, desperate, and depressing – we won’t miss it when we leave.

Today, while overcast, was not raining and the sky seemed lighter so we elected to head out to the beach by cab. The driver dropped us off at the “New Town” beach – no new town was in evidence, nor was any beach – but the Nadi Airport Golf Club, of which the great Vijay Singh was a member and the club’s sole claim to fame, was there so Ty had a beer while we contemplated Vijay’s name on the members’ board as directed by the proprietor.

From there we walked back along the road and noticed a path heading off towards the ocean through a muddy field. We followed the path and – voila – the beach, along which we found, after walking a bit, a few small resorts, including the Smuggler’s Cove, in front of which we plopped ourselves in plastic loungers. Eureka – Nadi paradise found.

The few people on the beach were staying at Smugglers; along with them, the resort boasts three mangy dogs and a guy riding a horse accompanied by a lively cantering foal. As we enjoyed our coronas with lime, we watched two separate speedboats from the small islands offshore come in to the beach and disgorge their passengers; to me, being paranoid, it looked as though they were overloaded, but what do I know …

See a few more pics here.

Sigatoka Sand Dunes (and crazy rides)

We’re back on Viti Levu at the Beachouse for a bit longer before heading off to Nadi for three days and our flight to Sydney. We dithered and dathered about whether to go to the Yasawa Islands but decided it was too expensive for us this trip. And the Beachouse suits us well – decent food, a nice beach and enough pleasant people to spend time with. This time around a Canadian family of six from Calgary, Wiebo and Ann Marie and their four kids (!), are here for a stop on their year-long round the world trip. In between swimming, lying on the beach, hiking and making shell necklaces, they also manage to get some home schooling done – I salute their initiative!

The weather has been better here than during our previous stay – fewer clouds and rain squalls and some nice clear days. Yesterday looked a bit iffy, so we decided to check out one of the local attractions, the Sigatoka Sand Dune National Park. We hopped on a minibus and chugged west to Sigatoka, stopping for a cappuccino at the upscale Fiji Market riverfront souvenir and attire barn, where a pair of flip-flops Ty tried on cost $90 (!). He didn’t purchase them, choosing instead to go next door to the “Pot Luck” store and get a pair not significantly different for $8. After an early lunch at the Blue Fiji riverfront restaurant (where we were the only people in the place), we waited for quite a long time at the bus stop for a bus that didn’t come, finally opting to take a taxi out of town in the direction of Kulu Kulu to the sand dunes.

The Sigatoka Sand Dunes are Fiji’s first national park, established in 1989, and they cover 650 beachfront hectares.  It’s an important archeological site and remains of Fiji’s first people, the Lapita originally from New Caledonia arrived in Fiji 2600 years ago, have been found here, including skeletons and pottery; SFU students were here in 1994 compiling and arranging the material for study.

We elected to do the medium length tour which took us up to the top of the grass covered dunes, from where we had a panoramic view across the rolling hills to the towns and sea beyond. Coming down again towards the ocean, the sand was very hot against my feet, it being a warm and muggy day.

Along the beach was strewn an abundance of driftwood, some pieces enormous. There is no reef in this area, so the waves here come straight in from the open ocean; they’re large and powerful, with a very strong undertow – no swimming here (a pity since it was so beautiful and we were really hot).

We spent quite a bit of time sitting on the beach watching the waves before heading back inland and through the mahogany forest to the Tree of Lost Soles, where we both added a couple of shoes to the collection already gathered in the tree there.

After we’d finished, Ty stuck his thumb out and a minibus stopped for us, dropping us back at the Sigitoka minibus station, where we got on another minibus bound for Suva. This vehicle, a bit newer than the others we’ve ridden in, was driven by a maniac – he booted it down the highway, screaming around corners at warp speed and passing everything in his way (the people here drive like maniacs, tailgating like mad, then passing at high speed on blind corners). When it started to rain, I’d had enough; with visions of fiery crashes dancing in my mind, I demanded to get off at the next stop and we were deposited at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere. Not long thereafter, we flagged down a Pacific Transport bus which disgorged a flock of about 50 school kids before letting us board. This bus, about 50 years old and not in good shape, couldn’t speed down the highway if Satan himself were chasing it.

Not an express, it stopped every fifty feet to let on and off more school children, and pulled in to one school to pick up such a load of kids that every possible seat and space in the bus was full of children laughing and screaming and even hanging out the front door. The bus driver was a miserable sod and kept telling them to “move back”, pulling away from the stop with about 5 people still clinging to the front door. From one crazy extreme to another …

See more pictures here.

Read more about the Sigatoka Sand Dunes here.

Bye-bye Levuka

Last night as we were heading into town for dinner at, where else, the Whale’s Tale, we heard music emanating from Mary’s Lodge. I peeked my head in the door and we were invited in for kava and a sing-a-long. Four local folks, some teachers at the Methodist High School, were playing the guitar, ukelele, and singing four part harmony – wonderful! And after dinner, we attended a fundraising concert at the Town Hall, featuring local musicians, a great way to end our time on Ovalau.

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We’ve really enjoyed our time in Levuka; it’s an off-the-beaten path location that offers much to the visitor. The Levuka Homestay has been wonderful; the service here is excellent (much better than the 4 star hotel we stayed at in Lami Bay), the breakfasts huge and delicious, and the hosts John and Marilyn genial and warm. Nox’ tours were one of the highlights of our visit; we really enjoyed seeing and experiencing a bit of Fijian life in his company. He is a gracious and gentle man. Thanks to John, Marilyn, Nox, Matilda and La for making our visit so enjoyable.

Click here for a video that Ty made of our plantation walk with Nox.



Desert Island and Plantation Walk

A glowing golden orb woke us this morning – lo and below, the sun! We’d decided to take a boat trip should the day be good and, yes, it was good. After our usual great breakfast, Ty and I walked with our snorkelling gear to the wharf to wait for the boat to the small island of Caqalai, south west of Ovalua. This island is owned by the Methodist Church and the one budget accommodation here (can’t call it a resort – it’s very rough) is run by local villagers. (Ty told me to avoid the bathroom at all costs …)

While we were waiting for our boat, we watched a boatload of old village ladies row one man out to the reef to fish for the day. Our boat was an 18 foot aluminum deep water skiff with a large outboard motor onto which the captain brought several cans of gas. After we headed away from the dock, Ty made a joke about smoking around gas cans and, sure enough, our captain lit one up right next to many gallons of gasoline. Needless to say, I was unhappy about it, having visions of explosions and wondering whether I’d be able to jump overboard in time, should the boat blow up. It didn’t happen.

The boatman snaked his way through barely visible channels between coral outcroppings, heading for a break in the reef and deep water. Once we were out beyond the reef and into the open ocean deep swells rocked the boat as we jetted our way along. The first brief stop was Motoriki Island, where a woman came out of what looked to be uninhabited jungle to pick up a few bags of groceries from the boat. On our way we also passed Snake Island, a tiny mushroom shaped bit of land with one palm tree, the quintessential cartoon desert island.

We were deposited on the golden sand of Caqalai (pronounced something like Thungalai) where we snorkelled, walked the beach, swam, read, and had lunch with the two people currently in residence at the “resort”. While snorkelling, Ty was followed by a large fish with whom he swam for a bit (not a shark, although there are reef sharks here and tiger sharks somewhere in Fijian waters). As the afternoon progressed, dark clouds rolled in and on our way back again, the heavens opened and we were absolutely soaked with torrential (luckily warm) rain.

See more pics here.

Wed Sept 28

We’d decided that, if Wednesday was sunny, we’d go with Nox on his plantation tour; it did look good in the morning, so after breakfast, we headed out down the road towards the cemetery. Climbing the stairs to the top of the graveyard, we walked towards the mountain, passing a small plantation of cassava (tapioca) and corn on the way.

Each of these small planted areas belongs to a single person, and the produce from each plot is shared with the village and, sometimes, sold at the market in Levuka. On the far side of the cemetery a work gang of youth from the Methodist church were looking after a plantation; these folks come to town for a week and spend a day working on each of several plantations in the area. We could hear them laughing and singing across the grave stones.

We followed a small goat track up and up the mountain, passing small planted plots of cassava, cava, cabbage, tomatoes, taro, plantain and bananas, as well as gigantic mango, breadfruit and popo (papaya) trees laden with fruit.

Resting for a bit under a mango tree, we chatted with two men carrying machetes heading barefoot up to their own plantations higher in the hills. Nox explained that at age four boys begin to work on their own plantations and are given plots close to the village to make it easy for them and encourage them to work hard. They begin with small machetes and work up to the full size scythes carried by village men.

Along with food crops, Nox also pointed out medicinal herbs and plants; for example, a vine called mile-a-minute is used, when crushed, for diarrhea.

This vine, quite similar to morning glory, grows amazingly quickly and can be seen covering almost every tree and plant in the forest. We also came across wild pineapple and two different varieties of chilli, as well as a red-flowered plant whose small round seeds are used for children’s games.

After a walk of about two hours we came to Nox’ uncle’s camping cabin at the top of one hill, next to a peak called Gorilla Mountain. Here, rather than go back and forth to the plantation each day, family members camp out for a week at a time to get serious work done sowing and planting. This day seven members of Nox’ family were hanging out at the cabin while his cousin Mary prepared food for them over an open fire in the very rough cabin kitchen. After spending some time there sampling some of the produce, we headed back down the mountain and through Nox’ village back to the Homestay. On our way down the hill, cane toads and lizards hopped and slithered out of our path back into the bushes with every step.

As an aside, cane toads are an invasive species, first introduced into Australia to eat some kind of beetle in the sugar cane fields and then spread throughout the South Pacific. As is often the case with these well-meaning ideas, this one back-fired big time; cane toads can grow to enormous size, have poisonous glands on the backs of their necks, and are voracious consumers of all the small local fauna – big pests.

See more pictures here.

Touring the town with Nox

Monday Sept 26

Last night we sampled the food at Kim’s White Gold Dragon Wine and Dine upstairs on the main road, and found ourselves the only guests there for dinner. We ordered the Kim’s special chow mein, fried rice and chili chicken, all of which was good (although too much for us). The décor inside was an intriguing blend of Chinese watercolours, pencil drawings of Fijians in traditional garb, an old 70s silver disco ball, a large red and gold chandelier, and wooden tables from the 40s – quite surreal.

Today dawned nice, with a high overcast cloud cover, just perfect weather for an extended town walk with Nox, the Homestay’s gardener. Nox has lived in Levuka his entire life (and has not gone anywhere other than the capital Suva) and knows everyone in this town. To begin, we walked with him to the Cession Stone, the area commemorating the cession of Fiji to Great Britain in 1874 and Fiji’s independence in 1970. According to John, the Fijians love Britain’s Royal Family, attributing all the good things that have happened in the country in the last hundred years to the Queen.

Nearby the cession stone are government buildings, formerly for receiving visitors to the island, now the residences of managers and other dignitaries of the Bumble Bee tuna packing company. From there, we walked back through town with a stop at the Queen’s Wharf, the current home of the former Queen of Prince Rupert, where Fiji’s first post office is still in business.

Strolling past the shops, we headed up past the convent primary school, one of the secondary schools (Fiji’s first school dating from the late 1890s, I think), the police station, the court house (both in small wooden buildings), the Town Hall, the Ovalau Social Club, and the burnt-out hulk of the Masonic Lodge.

Apparently, some of the locals considered the Masons to be evil and fulminations against them were preached in the pulpits of the local churches. One day in 2000, when visitors from another village were displeased with activities at the wharf and wanted to cause trouble, instead of burning down the wharf (which would have sent them to jail), they set fire to the Lodge, causing a great conflagration watched by hundreds, and were allowed to get away with it.

We continued up the hill, climbing a long string of stone steps up one of the peaks ringing the town, past several corrugated tin homes

and a pig sty to a flat cleared dirt area at the top, now used by school kids for rugby games, with a panoramic view of the islands beyond.

Coming down the other side we passed through the Methodist boarding school and teachers’ residences, by the hospital, a 49 bed structure near the shoreline, and St James Anglican Church,

on our way through the village of Levuka in which the grand chief of the area lives. Each of us were required to remove our hats and sunglasses in deference to the chief. Past this small village is another area of houses along the water, many owned by foreigners; this section of town reminds me of Birch Bay with its beach side summer homes.

The last house on the strip is owned by Sandy, a New Zealand ship’s captain, who is fixing up what was thought to be a tear-down. We had a look around at what he’s done and then headed back, stopping for a glass of juice with Mike, a former North Vancouver bus driver now living in Fiji with a young wife from the local village and three sons.

Our final stop on the tour was the World War One Monument with its plaque commemorating the Fijian dead.

See more pictures here.

Other bits and pieces we have discovered:

The inmates at the prison here are responsible for looking after the cemetery (the jail can hold up to 20 people) and, after a mourning period of 100 days, the mounds of local people are “cemented”; a blank white box of cement is put over the entire mound. The cement pagoda which we presumed to be disused is actually the site for large funeral pyres.

Village life is very strong and continues much the same way it has for hundreds of years. The social and political structure of village life is hierarchical: each village has a chief who runs the show and in turn reports to a higher chief. Villagers have hereditary rights to land, even if they move to the city. In general, villagers do not work at outside jobs; as in Samoa, they grow their own food and fish for their dinner.

If a married couple is unable to have children, family members with children will give the couple one of their own so that they will have someone to look after them when they’re old. This practice is very accepted. There are no “old folks homes” here.


Laid Back Levuka

After having stored our excess pounds of luggage at the Beachouse for later return, Ty and I were off on the local minibus (like a collectivo in Mexico or dolmus in Turkey) to the Novotel Lami Bay just outside the capital Suva for one night on our way to the former capital of Fiji, Levuka, on the island of Ovalau, just off the north-east coast of Viti Levu. Unfortunately, it was raining so our planned boat trip around Lami Bay didn’t materialise; but Saturday dawned sunny and clear (of course) for our 12 minute ride over to Ovalau on a tiny eight seater plane. We landed on the very short airstrip seemingly in the midst of the jungle where a taxi was there to whisk us away around the island to the Levuka Homestay.

This place is the home of John and Marilyn, Australians who have lived in Levuka for 12 years. They have four guest rooms but at the moment, it’s only us in residence, along with four cats and a beautiful parrot named Bula. Our room has a cathedral ceiling with ensuite bathroom and an outside seating area on the deck from which we can feast our eyes on the gorgeous greenery in the garden, including crab claw flowers, frangipani, red bananas, birds of paradise, lilies, and other tropical delights.

Breakfast is taken in the main house upstairs and was it ever good: many different kinds of butters and spreads, salsas, tropical fruit, banana and pineapple pancakes and French toast, as well as homemade muesli and bacon and eggs.

Yesterday we walked around town, checking out the main drag, Beach Street (but no beach to be seen), along which are a few blocks of colonial buildings from the eighteen hundreds when Levuka was the bustling capital of Fiji and a hub for shipping, including yachts and pirates, and a diverse company of persons, including “foreign traders, merchants, missionaries, shipwrights, vagabonds, shipwrecked sailors, respected businessmen and speculators”. The shops include a few supermarkets, a hair saloon, two pool halls, a couple of variety stores, and four restaurants, all of which are crying out for a coat of paint – no coffeeshops, no pubs, no cinemas.

The one entertainment centre seems to have shut down. Since we’d had almost nothing to eat, we stopped at the Whale’s Tale, the town’s best restaurant, for lunch (it was very good) and returned again for supper, which was excellent. The only restaurant open on Sunday is Kim’s White Dragon Chinese, so we’re saving that for tonight’s dinner!

Geographically, the setting is gorgeous but my first impressions of the town are that it’s very poor and in an economic slump at the moment, a downturn from which it may or may not emerge. It reminds us of places like Ocean Falls or Barkerville – the same sort of architecture and feel about the place. The main industry in town is the tuna canning plant and it has been shut down for the past 2 months because of a change in regulations originating elsewhere. Tourism is not really a factor here, especially now with the global economic situation, although a few people do make the effort to visit Levuka and there is one company which offers a couple of tours around Ovalau and to the nearby islands. The Levuka Homestay’s gardener Nox offers several walking tours, a couple of which we intend to take advantage of while we’re here for the week. The townspeople are very friendly and, since there are only three tourists in town, everyone knew that we’d arrived by plane that day.

After breakfast today we walked back along the one unpaved road out of town to the hillside cemetery to check out the graves, passing by the remains of a burned out Masonic Lodge in the process. Interestingly, although this ruin is right “downtown”, it has not been pulled down; given the strength of the Methodist Church in Fiji, perhaps its arson-destroyed shell is left standing as some kind of warning and reminder …

The cemetery occupies a beautiful hillside site with a wonderful view out across the ocean to the small islands beyond. Several different sections of the cemetery could be discerned from the style of grave. The topmost area holds the tombs of the early European settlers, including the Archdeacon of the Catholic Church in Fiji, whose grave occupies the prime spot on a promontory overlooking the ocean.

Further back, nearest the mountain, are the graves of the Chinese community while lower down, closer to the water are the graves of the indigenous Fijians. The most recent of these are quite different in style than the European ones, being mounds of dirt, surrounded by rocks, covered by fabric, and having canopies of cloth held in place with bamboo sticks. Around the hillside, bits of fabric from older canopies which had disintegrated with the elements dotted the grass. A small disused crematorium occupies one corner of the site, along with a run-down cement pagoda. Things wear down quickly in the tropics and this cemetery is no exception; most of the headstones, with their inscriptions, can no longer be read.

An interesting side note: The former BC Ferry the Queen of Prince Rupert, decommissioned in 2009, is now plying the waters of the Fijian Islands, with a home base in Levuka. Now renamed the Lomaiviti Princess, she has been operating here since Sept 15. We saw this advertising notice for her pasted onto one of the buildings downtown. Here’s more from Wkikpedia:

“M/V Queen of Prince Rupert was a RORO ferry operated by BC Ferries that provided the main surface transport link between the Queen Charlotte Islands and mainland British Columbia, connecting Skidegate with Prince Rupert across the Hecate Strait (thus linking two segments of Highway 16). The vessel also ran on the Prince Rupert-Port Hardy Inside Passage route during the low season.

Built in 1966, the Queen of Prince Rupert was decommissioned on April 20, 2009 following the launch of the Northern Expedition and was replaced by the Northern Adventure on the Prince Rupert-Skidegate Route.

On May 4, 2011 the official registration of the Queen of Prince Rupert was closed. The vessel was sold to Goundar Shipping Company of Fiji and renamed the M.V. Lomaiviti Princess. The vessel departed B.C. waters bound for Fiji on August 5, 2011.”

More information about the Levuka Homestay here.

More pictures here.

George of the Jungle Trek

With Kuta, native of Navola Village, the Swiss family, Norman, Sabine, Julia and Till, plus Veronica, Ty and myself, headed literally for the hills on a jungle trek to the Navola waterfall.

We made our way uphill through the dense forest next to the Beachouse, down the road past the village, into the Methodist Church School compound, and from there off-roading into the jungle.

We passed Kuta’s niece’s small bamboo hut on a cleared patch of jungle before heading up and up through the trees along a red, muddy, clay path that took us to the stream along which we’d travel to reach the Navola waterfall.

Because Veronica has a disability which makes walking difficult, Kuta kept an eye on her and helped her navigate the tougher patches, including retrieving her cane’s rubber tip from the deep mud when it became dislodged, and hoisting her up when necessary.

The Swiss kids managed well, although the boy Till became a bit tired towards the end of the trek. I, too, was glad to see the waterfall after about two and a half hours of walking, since I’ve had a bit of a headache and queasy stomach since arriving in Fiji.

Snaky tree ropes, jungle fruit, ferns, coconut palms, and other foliage hugged the streambed through which we travelled, picking our way carefully over large roots, rocks, and through deep muddy patches. Thankfully, there were not too many biting beasts; I did stop several times for Deep Woods application since I was being attacked by large, slow-moving mosquitoes. Finally reaching the waterfall, we rested for a bit on the rocks at the stream mouth while the kids, Sabine, and Veronica had a swim in the crisp, cold water.

Picking our way back again through the forest to Kuta’s niece’s house we paused for a bit for a roti and tuna curry wrap which she’d prepared in her jungle hut. After negotiating our way back to the village again we arrived tired at the Beachouse at 4, just in time for afternoon tea – eight miles in six hours later.

Later that night, Kuta performed a kava ceremony, a traditional way of welcoming new comers to the village. This involved powdered kava root, a large wooden bowl of water, several incantations, clapping and chugging down bowls full of a slightly narcotic liquid, welcoming us just as we’re about to leave – Fiji time!

See more pictures here.

Grooving at the Beachouse

Thursday, Sept 22

Of the days that we’ve spent here, two of them have been pissing rain – blecccchhh! On one of them we spent the morning snorkelling off the reef one village over. Napoleon and Nick, captain and divemaster, took five of us out in an aluminum runabout and we floated back along with a very strong current (I couldn’t have swum against it) towards Navua.

For the first little bit the coral was only about five feet beneath us, but then we reached a drop off that Nick said was about 15 meters deep, although the water was so clear it didn’t seem anything like that deep. We saw an enormous spotted cowrie shell, a gorgeous lion fish, many blue starfish and a myriad of parrotfish, pufferfish and clown fish (Nemos). Since the day was dark, the colours underwater were not as brilliant as they might have been but it was still really great.

At dinner we were joined by Veronica and a lovely Irish couple Mel and Anthony who are also on a trip around the world for a year.

Yesterday, the day dawned bright with white fluffy cumulous clouds floating across the heavens. As usual, the pack of insanely chattering mynah birds overhead woke us at 6 am; these flying beasts hang around on a line outside our room and climb all over our water heater emitting very loud songs and shrieks. In our bathroom we watched a tiny male spider inch carefully and slowly towards a very large female, hopeful of a quick shag before being eaten alive. After a minimalist breakfast of toast and a banana, and copious cups of strong brewed coffee (yay!), Ty and I headed out down the beach west past the next two villages along. We saw several villagers fishing with hand lines in the very shallow water, five village children fooling around on the beach, and quite a few largish spotted crabs, as well as what looked like a small sea cucumber.

Back at the Beachouse, we spent the afternoon lounging in hammocks, reading, shell collecting, and taking afternoon tea and scones before a four pm volleyball game with a cast of thousands (well, seven people a side anyway). As the sun set, we watched the horseback riders return along the beach from their trek and the resident dogs frolic and attempt to catch fish in the water.