Bulaaaaaaa! Crikey - how long have I been back from Fiji now? It feels like ages, probably because it has been, and what with Christmas and deadlines I have been running around like a headless chook since my return. I have actually already submitted two stories to other media, and they will be appearing in print soon - so I will endeavour not to repeat myself here, just in case you come across those too. I was absolutely hanging out for this trip, and when you scroll down through the pics, you will see why.
I was travelling with a team of three other New Zealand food writers and it all began (following our flight from Auckland to Fiji) with a 15 minute helicopter ride from the Nadi airport to the tropical paradise of Vomo Island
. I had (of course) googled it assiduously before leaving - but still wasn't quite prepared for the real deal. On a computer you can't feel the gorgeous heat seeping into your bones, feel the gentle sea breeze, see the sun glistening on the unbelievably clear turquoise sea, or feel it's gentle warmth. Forgive me - but if there is a time to wax lyrical, this is it. Having been met by a team of beaming, singing staff we were ushered into our totally jaw-dropping accomodation at The Palms, one of the island's four private residences - right on the beachfront, with a stunning pool, four bedrooms and 16-hour a day butler service (provided in our case by the beautifully motherly Vani), it's no surprise that we were squealing like fourteen year-old girls at a slumber party. First up, we headed for a stroll around to get our bearings - check out the pics below and you will understand why the call of the beach then pool was impossible to resist!
We felt completely indulged during our two-day stay, wining and dining on carefully crafted dishes and exquisite wines, with sunset cocktails and dinners by the pool, enjoying down-time paddling about in the sea and having the opportunity for a blissful facial at the Kui spa followed by cups of sensational, spicy ginger tea - bloody fabulous! There were a couple of stand out moments for me - the first was finding my way up the Mt Vomo running trail just before sunrise one morning. From the peak I could see a track in the distance leading out to a private yoga spot with unbelievably vast sea views and a specially built platform providing the most incredible 'sun salute' location imaginable. I had been told how to get there, so followed my instructions and arrived just at the perfect time to practice for 45 minutes as the sun rose. It was so magical I made sure to get back the following morning, this time with my camera - and even though I was cringing madly at the thought, I set the timer and snapped a pic so that you can see how amazing the surroundings are. (Cue lots of ridiculous sprinting from camera to yoga deck for sun-salute position, feeling like a complete and utter twat...). It really was an incredibly special place despite my mortifying selfie!
To read on, just click on the recipe link below :)
My other favourite experience was our Vomo snorkelling trip - I know it's crazy, but somehow I had never been snorkelling before, so this was a first for me. Our gorgeous guides took us about 20 minutes by boat to a small reef, and after a bit of hilarious readjusting (lovely Wise, in the pics below, took off my mask and snorkel, tightened up his own and fitted them to me so that I didn't just drink sea water), I was off. I had no idea how beautiful it would be - and even though I'm starting sound like some yoga looney, I actually found the breathing really easy as I kind of thought about my yoga breathing. Breathing sorted (!) I could concentrate on the marine life below - stunning, vibrant fish darted all around alien-like coral and in and about creviced surfaces so that I pretty much lost myself in this mesmerising new under-water world. Over the slow, regular whoosh of my own breathing I loved hearing the crickling noise of the coral being nibbled by it's inhabitants - such big thanks to the encouragement of my fellow foodies and the Vomo team for making it such a fabulous experience!
So having swum and yoga-d, snorkelled and feasted, we left feeling restored and rejuvenated, sun-warmed and relaxed, and totally nurtured by the incredibly gentle smiling staff. If I ever get the opportunity, I will definitely be back, but in the meantime we had more to do! Having been sung to and farewelled in classic Fijian style we wandered slowly, dragging our heels, to the beach to take our return flight - this time by sea plane, to Nadi. Our (decidedly hot) Canadian pilot was so relaxed, flying (like us) barefoot and within minutes we were arriving, disconcertingly from sea take-off to tarmac landing, back at the airport, excited for our adventures to continue...
We were all so well rested and relaxed the timing was perfect to get out and about, investigating the local food scene, starting with a trip to the Nadi Bay Herb Farm where bushes of spicy, pungent basil were being harvested for the New Zealand and Fijian markets. Appetites piqued we then feasted on an incredible lunch provided by Lee Acreman of Taste Fiji. Lee and his wife Louise are champions of local Fijian produce, so much so that they refuse to serve imported ingredients at their popular restaurant, instead using it as a show case for Fijian-grown food. They cleverly adapt and invent, taking twists on classic dishes presenting them in a lush tropical style - locally grown pork and fresh seafood feature heavily along with ota fern and creamy coconut milk.
Our adventure continued thanks to a programme run by Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort,
(where we were staying in Sigatoka) supporting the local community through fund-raising and volunteer projects. We were able to visit a nearby school and meet with some of the students - so deliciously individual - cheeky and sassy, solemn and studious, it was real treat to take a peek at their daily lessons. It was pretty humbling to see how guest contributions had allowed the school (and it's students) to flourish - a new meeting room, library and early-learning centre among the improvements that have been made in the last few years.
Obviously as foodies-on-tour we couldn't miss the opportunity for a trip to the local food markets! This was such a chilled out family-affair with grandparents and extended family minding babies and children while selling their piles of tropical produce. Bright red chillies, mounds of coconuts, lush pineapples, vibrant sea food, long green beans, okra, massive kumara and shiny, deep purple eggplant - it was fabulous to see so much locally grown food. Fijian food has (I think) been much maligned by tourists for a long while, chiefly because for tourists, most of the food on offer has not actually been Fijian.
Like the team at Taste Fiji, Sashi Kirin of FRIEND (Fiji for Rural Integrated Enterprises and Development), is a passionate advocate for the Fijian people and their local food. She spearheads the organisation which is busy with dozens of community projects, from demonstrating and encouraging small plot farming techniques, to health and education programmes, the employment and training of the disadvantaged both young and old, and over-seeing the production of a wide range of delicious chutneys and teas - the woman is a whirlwind of activity. It was gratifying to see how people like Sashi, Lee and Louise are changing the perception of local fare. I found the Fijian food with it's simple, strong flavours of chilli, lime and coconut, and use of freshly caught fish, coconuts and fruits such as intensely sweet mango, freshly prepared and lovingly presented - to be a joy. Combined with the Indian influence in cooking with richer, more complex, layered flavours and spices there is no shortage of great food to be found. My advice is to seek out those experiences - don't go for the American-style burger and fries...head for the kokoda (Fijian ceviche), Ota (fern) or seafood lolo (cooked in coconut milk), Prawn curry or roast suckling pig - there is where you will find the real flavours of Fiji.
So now here I am, tapping away at my computer at home on a Sunday afternoon. When I close my eyes I can hear lawn mowers in the distance and a few birds tweeting in the tree outside, but if I concentrate really hard, I can pretend for a moment that its not a lawnmower but a boat engine I hear and I imagine that if want to I can open my eyes and just wander down to the sandy white beach for a swim...