Page 1 of 3
Bula! from the remote islands of Fiji, where Capt. Carol Dunlop has spent three decades preparing for your charter onboard the motoryacht Surprise.
By Kim Kavin
A dark-skinned man in a Polynesian shirt wrings a yellow cloth with his calloused hands. Gray liquid—pounded kava root mixed with water—drips from between his fingers into a large bowl before him. He puts down the mangled rag and picks up what appears to be half of a coconut shell. He scoops a healthy serving of kava from the large bowl and into this bilo, which he then offers to me.
The older men sitting cross-legged around us on grass mats under the palm trees tune their guitars, but the younger men watch with anticipation. I look to Capt. Carol Dunlop of the charter yacht Surprise. She nods confidently. She’s taught me what to do.
I clap once—a hearty smash of my palms—signaling my willingness to drink, and take the bilo in both hands. I tip it over my bottom lip and gulp down the kava. A few drops stray from the corners of my mouth. They taste like a mixture of Jagermeister, Robitussen, and dirt.
Aware of my audience, I smile broadly and hand the bilo back, then clap three times to say thanks. The man fills the bilo again and offers it to the person next to me, making his way around the circle. As I watch the others imbibe, my lips begin to go numb. I lick them and realize the back of my tongue feels fuzzy. The sensation pricks down into my throat as I swallow, and within seconds, I feel calm. Not drunk, not high, not at a loss for a single faculty, just simply, purely, utterly content.
Surprise’s captain smiles and picks up her ukulele, and the men begin to strum and sing. Dunlop is the lone woman among them, as she has been here in the villages of Fiji for quite some time, paving the way for all of us Westerners who want to experience real culture in the South Pacific.
Fiji has long been an exotic dream destination. It has two main islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, which are ringed by more than 300 smaller islands, many of them uninhabited. The waters and reefs are pristine, the palm trees are plentiful, and the white beaches carry no footprints. Fiji is, in many ways, what the Caribbean was a generation or two ago: a paradise of sun, sand, and friendly natives just beginning to be explored by vacationing boaters.
On the western side of the chain, the resorts’ proximity to the airport in Nadi keeps tourists away from the distant archipelagos—that is, except for those who make the quick taxi ride from the airport to board Surprise. The 115-foot McMullen & Wing motoryacht is the only luxury charter yacht that calls Fiji its permanent home. Dunlop, a British ex-pat who understands five-star service and has been cruising in these waters for 30 years, joined Surprise after the boat’s 2001 launch. She has since trained a crew of her favorite local boaters and strengthened her personal ties to the elders in remote villages where she wants to bring her guests. It’s an incredible combination (Surprise’s highly efficient steward, for instance, is the son of a tribal chief) that makes a charter aboard this yacht truly unlike any other: polished Western accommodations and service in the midst of local church services, feasts, and celebrations.
“The Fijian way of life is quite different, and it’s really mind-blowing,” Dunlop says. “People come here, and they’re tired from the long trip, they’re uptight from their busy life, and they really relax.”
That’s easy to do aboard a yacht with spacious staterooms and plush couches, especially after an evening of passing the bilo around the kava bowl on a quiet island in the Yasawa chain. I was happy with everything and everyone in the world when I stood up after my four or five helpings, and I had nary a concern as I walked toward the steaming hump of dirt that was covering my supper.
The kava ceremony was part of a lovo, a traditional style of cooking in which the locals dig a hole the diameter of a wading pool and build a fire within it. They stack rocks in rows above the flames and heat them like a grill, then place fish, chicken, and other food atop the rocks. Banana leaves (and their more modern variation, canvas bags) cover the food, and dirt is piled atop that. The whole thing is left to simmer underground for several hours until men with garden shovels reclaim the evening’s feast. White smoke pours onto their bare feet as they dig, and they take frequent breaks to wipe the sweat from their foreheads.
To be honest, some of the meat tasted like tree bark, but our charter party ate heartily nonetheless. We were starving after what had become our daily itinerary of shelling, snorkeling, and diving under the searing sun.
Huge, healthy reefs ring the shorelines of Fiji’s islands, just as they appear to in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, which was filmed in Fiji’s Mamanuca chain. Surprise must anchor fairly far out to avoid disturbing the coral around each island, so the crew members bring guests to the beaches and reefs in a tender, then stay to snorkel and dive with them, being especially attentive to beginners.
I’m no beginner at watersports, but my sunburn made me look like one after the crew dragged me away from the glorious cobalt-blue sea stars, giant clams, and “magic coral” that fades from purple to white, then back again, at the hint of movement nearby. There are parrotfish and Moorish idols, just as in other parts of the world, but there’s also a form of coral I’ve not seen elsewhere. It looks like trees—if branches were made of marshmallow clouds and tipped with exploding red, blue, and yellow fireworks.
The snorkeling in the Yasawa chain is almost as good as the diving, if you don’t count the panoramic coral walls, Volkswagen-size coral formations, and schools of fish that lurk about 70 feet below the surface. Our charter party included divers and non-divers alike, and everyone was pleased with the watersports options. Guests who preferred to stay dry watched from beneath the retractable awnings on Surprise’s top deck, where they were happily catered to with soothing music and midday cocktails.
Fun-filled days always seeped into culture-filled nights, even when we stayed aboard. Chef Manasa Heritage, a local man who has 37 years’ experience in the galley, introduced us to dishes including kasava (like starchy tapioca bread) and ika ni miti (fish in coconut milk), all the while offering more recognizable delights such as rack of lamb and vanilla cheesecake. The favorite meal during our charter was kokoda, known elsewhere as ceviche. Our party enjoyed it so much, Heritage cooked it again—in a demonstration for everyone to watch. “I think the best way for you to learn is for me to show you,” he explains. “You will not know if I simply tell you.”
The same is true of charter in Fiji. No one can understand it without experiencing it—something to keep in mind when booking a charter. Consider using a broker who has visited, who understands that arranging lovos and village visits can take weeks, even months of preparation. These are not your everyday tourist attractions, and thus require diplomacy and planning.
More than anything, trust in Dunlop. She has managed to create a multimillion-dollar megayacht experience in a place where some children still sleep in straw-roofed huts—all the while nurturing the kind of mutual respect that is so desperately lacking in other parts of the world today. Fully aware of what the Caribbean became after vacationing boaters discovered it—and mindful that tourism’s spread is inevitable, but in some cases controllable—Dunlop carefully introduces Surprise’s guests to Fiji at a pace the outer islands can handle, one boatload at a time. She fiercely protects the would-be cruise-ship mecca she has spent 30 years calling her home.
“The Fijians are so nice,” she says. “They’re wrapped up in their family and their homes. It’s just wonderful.”