Isles of smiles

17:00, Apr 05 2012
Yasawa Islands, Fiji
CLASS ACTS: There's more to Fijian cruising than food and drink, even when you're joined by a MasterChef.

The mission statement at Ratu Namasi Memorial school reads "Learn to love, love to learn".

Here, on Yasawa Island in Fiji's famous Blue Lagoon, we're welcomed by a performance by the school choir and a speech by the principal before a markedly handsome 9-year-old boy named Alfred takes the package of story books and stationery we've brought with us and gives my son and I a tour of the school.

Ratu Namasi Memorial is one of several schools sponsored by the Captain Cook cruise company, which makes you wonder how little you'd find at the schools that aren't so lucky to have a benefactor.

But there is only pride in Alfred's eyes as he shows us around. You can't miss what you don't know.

Alfred is most keen for us to see the school's two computers and its small, well-worn and clearly well-used library. It will quite possibly be the only one he will ever know as the island's remoteness from Nadi and Suva make his chances - and those of his classmates - of attending secondary school really small.

When we visit it is just a few weeks after the Rugby World Cup and invariably the conversation turns to rugby. Dan Carter is Alfred's favourite, followed by Ma'a Nonu.

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"But what about Richie?" asks my McCaw- worshipping 6-year-old son. "Oh he's good too."

Then they're off, charging around in a scramble of rugby, league, touch and football on what must be one of the world's most picturesque rugby fields.

This is the second to last day of our Captain Cook cruise through Fiji's Yasawa Islands, a scattering of the 360-plus islands in Fiji - enough to visit a different one every day of the year.

The Yasawas, a volcanic archipelago of six main islands and dozens of smaller ones, stretch 80 kilometres to Fiji's northwest and until the late 1980s were largely closed off to land-based tourists.

Their first sighting by Europeans came somewhat earlier, however, when the infamous British seaman William Bligh passed by them in 1789, after the mutiny on the HMS Bounty.

On our ship, Reef Endeavour, the passenger list of about 100 is a pretty easy-going collection of Kiwis, Aussies, English and a smattering of Europeans.

There is also our own MasterChef NZ star Simon Gault, who over three days runs a series of cooking classes, recounts his really quite extraordinary career, converts me to mangos and presides over two rounds of Reef Endeavour 2011 MasterChef.

Do I feel bad that in claiming one of these titles, I have to overcome the best efforts of my own son, whose kitchen skills had, until then, extended to buttering a slice of toast? Just a little.

Gault, with his executive chef Eugene Hamilton alongside, presents, as you'd expect, some suitably delicious dishes. He'd intended to make a tuna tartare but after finding no yellow fin available in Nadi's market, he makes do with crayfish instead.

There are no complaints. The tartare is dressed with a great vinaigrette spiced with wasabi (see recipe on opposite page) and is dusted with edible gold leaf from Spain that sells for $100 a jar.

A fresh and zesty green mango salad is wrapped in rice paper and then Gault puts a Pacific spin on the classic Scottish dessert cranachan. Traditionally a mix of whipped cream, whisky, honey, oatmeal and fresh raspberries, he substitutes mango for the berries. It's sensational.

Another favourite is an upmarket take on the Samoan staple palusami, where he uses Spanish serrano ham in place of corned beef. Taste it to believe it.

We leave port at Denarau Island on Tuesday afternoon.

Our stateroom, with two single beds, a wardrobe and small but functional bathroom, is small on creature comforts but that's really no bother. It opens out on to the walkway running along the side of the ship; upstairs are larger suites and on the lower deck cabins open on to an interior corridor.

Within minutes, my son is on best-friends-forever status with the crew, who unfailingly remember his name for the rest of our five days onboard.

They fuss him, muss his beautiful blonde locks, watch over him on his fifth, eighth, 11th, 17th swim in the onboard pool while his mother once again loses herself in her book, and they come looking for him when it's time for the children's dinner and movie sessions.

I have heard countless times about the friendliness and warmth of the Fijian people - military leadership aside - so I'm not really surprised by this; I'm just so incredibly touched.

Our trip comes at the end of a fast and frenetic year that's left me feeling I can hardly spell "relaxation" let alone try to experience it. It's probably not helped by the fact I'm also far from being the world's best sailor. This all changes about a day into our voyage.

As my sea legs appear from nowhere, the gentle sway of the ship mirrors the easy rhythm of life onboard: wake up, eat breakfast; no cooking or dishes to think about/take care of; take a tender to a beautiful island, swim, snorkel and play; return for lunch, no cooking or dishes to think about/take care of; rest, read, relax then take another tender to another perfect island; swim, snorkel, play; return for dinner, no cooking or dishes to think about/ take care of. Sleep.

We punctuate our routine with Gault's genuinely entertaining cooking classes, a lecture on marine life and, on day two, an evening visit to Gunu village on Naviti Island.

They've put on a market - shells, beautifully fragrant leis, tapa, knick-knacks - where we rip through our Fijian dollars in no time and meet the brother and sister team of Alice, who is all smiles, and Jonathan, shy and serious. We buy a square of the tapa they're selling, then a lei, then a shell and not once does Jonathan smile.

Can you visit Fiji and not witness a kava ceremony? Here it is part of the sevusevu ceremony, a formal meet and greet of visitors to the village.

A group of about a dozen men sit on the mat before us, the broad planes of their faces suspended from high, angular cheekbones. They have the bearing of warriors and the voices of angels. There are songs, speeches and guitars played and some of the crew and passengers present themselves before the kava bowl for a taste.

While the men perform, the women of the village are laying out the lovo.

There is sweet and tender suckling pig, chicken, taro, palusami, fish, a memorably zingy fresh pineapple salad with flashes of chilli and from the ship, chilli bins full of soft drink and Fijian beer. Then we're steered towards the hall for the meke, a performance of songs and dance.

I'd thought I'd seen enough of these concerts on various Pacific holidays to last me a lifetime but no, once again I'm won over; this is stirring and joyous with no sense of the tired and touristy. Inevitably, however, the villagers move into the audience to pull passengers on to their feet to dance but for once, no one resists. Not even me.

FACT FILE

Where to stay: Sofitel Denarau, Denarau Island: About a 20-minute drive from Nadi International Airport, this five-star beachfront hotel was the perfect introduction to Fiji. Kids stay free and there's a massive lagoon-style pool, complete with waterslide, to wile the hours away. Blissful. sofitel.com

What to do: Captain Cook Cruises will run another four-night master class cruise with Simon Gault, departing August 14 onboard the MV Reef Endeavour.

Prices for the four-day Celebrity Chef Cruise start from $1529 per person, twin share, including all onboard accommodation, meals, cruise activities and cooking classes. See captaincook.com.fj.

How to get there: Air Pacific, Fiji's international airline has been connecting the world with the South Pacific for 60 years. The airline flies daily from Auckland to Nadi (from $781pp return incl taxes) and once a week from Christchurch to Nadi (from $963pp return incl taxes).

For more information or to book your flight, ph 0800 800 178 or visit airpacific.com.

- Angela Walker was a guest of Captain Cook Cruises and flew to Fiji with Air Pacific.

Sunday Star Times