KAVA AND CUSTOM – A FIJI HOMECOMING
THE remote islands of Fiji's Lau group seemingly lie at the edge of the world, huddled crescent-shaped to the east of the main islands of that country and about halfway between there and Tonga.
So remote are they that these are places with no postcards, and just a third of their 100 volcanic dots are even inhabited.
Its this isolation that's prompted Captain Cook Cruises to add an 11-day Lau islands itinerary aboard it's Reef Endeavour to three-, four-, and seven-day cruises around Fiji's other captivating islands.
And interestingly around 70 per cent of Reef Endeavour's maximum 130 passengers on a recent early sailing to the Lau group were loyal former guests.
An ocean of coral reefs makes navigating the islands a challenge, but captain and crew bring the vessel within reach, by tender, of sandy, palm-fringed beaches lapped by warm tropical waters a spectacular 50 shades of blue.
Abundant coral and the great variety of fish make for ideal diving and snorkelling, and a Tongan influence is evident in the unique language, food, architecture and religion of these islands – and their most popular sport, cricket.
Life here is simple and all about family and community, smiles and laughter, with villagers living mostly on what they can grow or can harvest from the sea. Any meagre income comes from copra from small coconut plantations and fishing.
And for these happy souls, a bowl of kava, a wooden log – or a cardboard box – and a couple of drumming sticks make for an instant party.
Passengers from Reef Endeavour are greeted warmly, although the children keep their distance, watching-on shyly. Finally a traditional welcome follows at which gifts are given by passengers of yagona plants from which is made the social and ceremonial drink, kava, widely enjoyed in the Pacific islands.
There are speeches too, and a meke, or song and dance performance, and perhaps a lovo, a meal cooked underground, Fijian-Tongan style will follow.
Wailagilala Island that Reef Endeavour visits is Fiji's only true coral cay. Everybody's idea of a tropical island, this tiny atoll rises no more than three metres above the sea. Palm trees lean over the sand to hang above the green and blue water. On golden sand, visitors enjoy a solitude broken only by the cries of the seabirds that nest here.
Horseshoe-shaped Vanuabalavu, or Bay of Islands, offers 15 amazing limestone islets with caves to snorkel and explore.
Then it's on to Oneata Island at the eastern edge of the Lau group. It is Sunday and the village church is packed for the morning service, the villagers in their Sunday best of white for the women and black sulus and clean business shirts for the men. They 'raise the roof' with booming, unaccompanied hymn-singing, many visitors from the ship saying attendance at a church service always a highlight of their visit to Fiji.
The Fulaga Islands are next, a string of 100 islands and limestone rocks that enclose a lagoon, the islands themselves appearing to grow out of the lagoon into incredible mushroom shapes.
On Vuaqava island local stalls have been set up selling coconut crabs the size of footballs, some of which will finish up tonight in the ship's galley.
Then its onto Kabara Island with its four villages and a total population of around 500. The Tongan influence is reflected here in language and dance, villagers performing song and dance for their visitors who present them with traditional gifts of cloth – and there's more kava, of course.
Cricket is popular here and passengers have brought gifts including a cricket set and footballs.
Then finally it's the island of Kadavu. This is almost civilisation – it has an airstrip. A ritual turtle-calling ceremony is promised, but the turtles, the visitors are told, are sleeping and there are none today.
Perhaps they're simply as laidback as the Lau islanders themselves.
(Writer David Potts was a guest of Captain Cook Cruises.)
GETTING THERE: Captain Cook Cruises operates a three-night Yasawa Islands cruise from Port Denarau, Fiji, from AUD$996 ppts; four-night cruise of the Yasawa Islands from AUD$1,356 ppts; seven-night Northern Fiji Discovery and Culture cruises from AUD$2,132 ppts; and the next 11-night Lau group and Kadavu cruise departs on March 1from AUD$4,635 ppts. More details www.captaincookcruisesfiji.com
 CAPTAIN COOK CRUISES' Reef Endeavour now sails even further afield in Fiji with new voyages to the remote Lau Islands in the nation's far east.
 SNORKELLING and exploring the caves on Vanuabalavu Island in the Lau group.
 VILLAGERS welcome Reef Endeavour passengers with song and dance to their Kabara Island.
 THE strange mushroom-shaped limestone islets in the lagoon on Fulaga Island.
 A CREW member of Captain Cook Cruises' Reef Endeavour is given a traditional "Welcome Home" when the cruise ship visits Kabara Island in Fiji's Lau group where he was born.
(All images: David Potts)