The native chief invites me to sit before him, claps his giant hands three times slowly and passes me a bowl of what looks like muddy water.
Unfortunately, the concoction also tastes like muddy water, but refusal is seen as an insult, and I swallow the mixture as quickly as possible.
Within minutes, my tongue and lips are numb, before a feeling of relaxation and well-being takes over my entire being. Such are the effects of kava, traditional drink of the people of the Fiji islands for over a thousand years.
We are in a remote village in the Yasawa Island group, a couple of hours sailing from the city of Nadi in the Fiji Islands. The arrival of our small cruise ship, the Reef Escape, creates great interest in the village.
These free-spirited people have been untouched by modern civilization, with the weekly visits by the ship their only contact with the 21st century.
There are no televisions, no plumbing or electricity, with most of the natives sleeping on the bare floor of open huts.
This is the real Fiji, with the natives living the same simple, yet happy lives of their grandfathers and great grandfathers.
While most Western tourists only see Fiji’s majestic resorts and picture-postcard beaches, the Reef Escape cruise enables visitors to see a another fascinating side of this native paradise.
A small, well-appointed ship that holds only 120 guests, the Reef Escape offers three, four or seven night voyages through some of the most spectacular waters on the planet.
Meeting the natives and sharing a meal and a dance by the sunset is a highlight. The occasion is not ‘put on’ for the tourists as is often the case with tribal cultures – you see how the people really live – and have for thousands of years, warts and all.
For the stressed-out Westerner looking for a break in a warm climate, it doesn’t get any better than Fiji.
A nine-hour flight from Los Angeles, this group of hundreds of islands dotted throughout the Pacific is like another world.
The Reef Escape, run by Australian-bases Captain Cook Cruises, gives visitors a tantalizing variety of activities throughout the islands.
Tourists can snorkel or scuba dive among spectacularly colorful coral and fish in beautifully clear, warm waters.
A highlight is exploring the famed Blue Lagoon, site of the 1980 movie of the same name starring Brook Shields.
As a lasting memorial to the movie, the hut in which the then 16-year-old Shields did her make-up and wardrobe has been preserved on the shore of the pristine beach.
Tourists also visit a local school and church, gaining further insights into the unique Fijian culture.
“We believe we offer the best taste of the real Fiji,” a Captain Cook spokesman says.
“This is one of the last places on earth where people live untouched by the modern world and it’s something that fascinates the tourists.”
The Reef Escape is a charmingly small cruise ship with comfortable rooms that open straight onto the decks. Floor to ceiling windows enable travellers to wake up each morning to the spectacular Fijian sunrise.
Fiji is a mixture of native and Indian cultures and this is reflected in the ship’s cuisine, which is varied, plentiful and high quality.
The Fijian crew put on shows most nights and give tourists a further insight into this idyllic culture.
As with most of this relaxed culture, the boat operates on ‘Fiji time’ – nothing is ever done in a hurry.
Far removed from the stresses and strains of the modern world, Fiji operates on its own schedule – run by the whims and feelings of the locals rather than the clock.
A few days on the mainland are also highly recommended, with the Denarau Hotels, only a short 20-minute drive from Nadi’s international airport, the pick of the bunch.
The group, which includes the Westin, Sofitel and Sheraton Hotels, are all top class and feature superb tennis, golf and swimming facilities.
Tony Adams is a sport and travel writer based in Sydney.
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