Gail let out a little yelp as we stand ankle deep in crystal clear South Pacific water on Drawaqa Island. We look down and a frisky sand colored starfish has scooted over her right foot and tickled her. Kathy and I also get kissed by these fast moving little beauties. We are equally greeted with hugs and kisses by the incredibly friendly Fijian people.
How did I manage to convince my amigos to hop aboard a friendly Fiji Airways airbus 330, where the beautiful flower bedecked flight staff greeted us with “Bula! Welcome home”, as they showed visions of tropical waters on our individual screens?
Our pod was born for tropical adventures! The 10 hours and change from LAX to Nadi (pronounced nandi) flew by like a soft breeze. Arriving at 0500, we proceed to nearby Port Denarau and hop aboard the Yasawa Flyer-boat ride!
A breakfast of Fiji Gold shakes off any semblance of flight grogginess as we proceed on our literal three hour cruise, stopping at one idyllic little isle after another, as travelers hop on or off in this magical chain of the Yasawa Islands.
My hometown and lifelong pals Kathy and Gail have ventured to the British Virgin Islands for many years to sail aboard Moonshine, our sweet charter catamaran, and helped to celebrate the end of each season in May, and what a great final “charter”! Handpicked for their frivolity, go with the flow attitude and blending in with any local environment, these two define the gift of friendship.
This May, Fiji beckoned and we answered her call, along with the welcome addition of Kirk, Kathy’s husband, who previously earned most excellent crew status on a bareboat voyage in Belize.
Our lunchtime arrival to Barefoot Manta proved good timing, as one can only use beer as food for so long. A bevy of the multi-talented staff serenades us upon our beach landing with guitars, ukuleles and a sweet welcome song. We then dive into a buffet of fresh, local deliciousness.
There will be no napping on our watch! Us ocean loving creatures grab our snorkels, slip in from Sunrise Beach and we’re instantly in awe of the pristine reef and all the sea life here. The soft, silky warm sea allows us to stay underwater for as long as we have the energy to do so. This is why I’ve returned for my third time! Snorkeling, zen like, forced to breathe deeply, trying to memorize patterns and colors that defy reality, wanting to shout out about a cool coral or unusual fish, yet satisfied with capturing the moments in a brain photo, and sharing stories of them on land over a beverage.
Barefoot Manta doesn’t just throw out the term eco-Resort loosely, they live and breathe eco! Rob, the resident Marine Biologist is fueled with passion, gives fascinating talks and leads snorkel and dive tours, as well as educating about and preserving the protected marine habitat around these islands.
Our family bure (bungalow) couldn’t be more perfect for our well acquainted clan. Intimate yet spacious, funky yet functional. A large canvas tent with plenty of beds, an awesome outdoor shower and a coconut’s throw to the beach, we’ve truly arrived in Paradise. Set up hammock-check. Install portable clothesline-check. Send Kirk to procure cold beverages from the bar-check. Toes in the sand, gentle surf lapping the shore, a delightful relaxation enters our souls…we all nod in agreement as we survey our surroundings…why would we ever want to leave!
We float out into the warm sea with beverages in hand to celebrate the sun as she softly sinks into the horizon. We slowly tread water to equalize the intake of calories-beer aerobics! The only thing enticing us to depart such delightful bathtub-like conditions is hunger. We quickly rinse in the outdoor shower, throw on sarongs and stroll to he communal feeding grounds, in good company with travelers from many spots on the globe.
We’ve been assigned the nearest table to the beach bar, hmmmm, we’ve garnered a reputation already and it’s only day one! A spectacular variety of food greats us. We placed our diner order during lunch so the fantastic chefs can cater to most any dietary requirements and preferences. Kudos to this small island kitchen for bringing out lusciously presented works of galley art. Satisfied beyond words, our content quartet ambles home and sleep comes so easily in our new abode that feels so familiar so quickly.
0445 arrives and Gail, Kirk and I slip out the door to join the sunrise hike. Kathy, perhaps the wisest of us all, pretends to sleep, knowing once we leave, she’ll have the place to herself, preferring a solo beach walk to reflect and recharge from a hectic North American paced lifestyle.
Meanwhile our pace is equally hectic, trying to follow the staff member who leads the way with one flashlight. Having done this on a previous trip, I brought my headlamp and try to help shine on slippery rocks as we ascend the trail in pitch darkness. My light catches the bright red oozing on Kirk’s shin, he shrugs off his accidental tripping off our cabin’s deck and says if he’s not bleeding, it’s an unusual day. A few smartphones flicker and two young gals are chattering about the good fortune of finally acquiring enough precious bars of reception. Our smirking guide points out the island’s cell tower under which we are standing. This opens up the floodgate of phone usage, as one makes business calls rather loudly as the rest of us gaze out to Sea appreciating the serene environment as the eastern sky gets a hint of light.
It’s kind of amusing to start a hike with total strangers in darkness and the sunlight starts revealing who our new companions are as their personalities emerge. The girl who can’t keep off her phone turns out to be a very witty and savvy realtor named Cherry who explains that she has a “neurotic client” demanding of her vacation time. Her travel partner is Lisa, a jovial attorney, well versed in DUI cases, hopeful to never need her services, we still exchange contact info as these gals are just plain fun!
Upon arrival, we were briefed as to the drumbeats signaling manta rays in the channel. We sit down to breakfast and after only a few bites of buffet style goodness, there go the drums! We drop our forks and sprint to our bure. Gail and I are into our bathing suits faster than a triathlete, with snorkels in hand we hot foot it to the boat. Thinking Kirk and Kathy are immediately behind us, we jump onboard as the boat fills with manta lovers. Where are they! The boat driver heads to the channel and they crew dive in, searching for the lone manta they spotted earlier. No such luck and we return to meet the other half of our crew waiting on the beach. Our escapades are always filled with humor as Kirk explains how he sprinted halfway across the island to get to the boat, but it was the complete opposite way! We collapse in hysterics and have a morning beer, yes, we are on vacation.
We satisfy our oceanic cravings in a flat calm sea and snorkel around the point from Sunrise beach to Manta beach. Time is on our side as we drift with the gentle current and explore nooks and crannies in the ever fascinating underwater garden that grows the most beautiful bouquets of color.
Having diagnosed myself with FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), I peruse the Daily activities on the “Bulatin” board. Today’s offerings include a village visit. We respectfully dress for the occasion, covering errant knees and shoulders. A short boat ride to Naviti Island and we offload onto a breathtakingly serene palm lined beach. We alight next to the brightly painted school boat. Kirk re-thinks his day job and sets his sights on becoming school boat Captain.
Our guide points out solar panels and rainwater catchment tanks, however no electricity exists in this most peaceful of settings, which otherwise would be a perfect place to spend a few days or months, if indeed there was a way to keep beer cold.
Fruitful and medicinal plants abound and we learn so much from a life lived from the land and sea. Modern world diseases and stress are unheard of here. Communal living, where taking care of each other is prioritized above all else, sending subliminal message for outsiders to ponder. What is important in our worlds? What do we need vs what do we want?
Had some First Worlders gotten their hands on this phenomenal piece of real estate, we’d be sipping $14 Piña Coladas, barely hearing the waves over amplified music…ah, but I digress, we are not in high-rise resort world, we are thankfully in an under-developed slice of nature, used sparingly, resourcefully and spiritually. On second thought, we’ll happily settle for a thatch hut and sip on an un-chilled Fiji Gold.
The school and church are simply yet substantially built, with a few tourist dollars earned from the sale of locally produced handicrafts and jewelry helping to fund some amenities such as flooring. Friendly greetings abound as kids and dogs chase each other playfully in a scene so enviable in it’s peacefulness.
Back at Barefoot Manta, our bure feels quite luxurious with electricity and hot water. We vow to simplify our lives. But wait, what time is it! No one has a watch, but the inevitable smartphone seems to accompany at least one of us for photo documentation. It’s time for the Sunset Booze Cruise! This event has our names all over it. We wisely let the young backpackers board first so we can strategically sit at the stern, closest to the cooler. Yup, older, wiser and awfully fun! We slowly motor offshore and come across a rust bucket of a mini cruise ship. So tempted to moon then, but we won’t add insult to their sad faces as they look down from their worn railing at our little boat of joy. Dance party, divers overboard, cold drinks a-flowing. We’re so happy we’re us! Until suddenly, our love boat arcs back to the beach and the sun has just barely been swallowed by the sea. Hmmmmm. We later find out one of the backpacker gals was feeling queasy and needed land. It sure wasn’t due to seasickness on the flatter than pancake conditions, oh those youth and their inexperience at perfecting the fine art of responsible adult beverage consumption.
Upon seating at our dinner table, a woman who looks to be of similar age, compliments us on our snorkeling prowess. Wow, we didn’t see that coming. She mentions that she and her husband snorkeled for about 20 minutes and got tired. She was astonished to see us emerge from a whole different beach much later, and the fact we weren’t even wearing fins was of super human qualities in her view. Well, Aquaman we are not, but as lovers of the ocean, it is indeed a monumental task to exit onto dry land.
We had many laughs about our fan club of one, and her adoration was exemplified after we circumnavigated Drawaqa in kayaks and also paddled to our neighbor island, Nanuya Balavu to enjoy beverages at Mantaray Island Resort. At dinner, she refers to us as the Bad Ass Crew and we cheerfully accept the compliment. Strolling back to our quarters we stargaze and are shined upon by the Southern Cross as we softly sing the anthem of long distance sailors.
After a leisurely breakfast (the mantas are shy again) we venture underwater and Gail lets out another yelp. She manages to sputter the word shark through her snorkel tube. I immediately swim towards her, so excited to say hello to one of my shark friends. Ah but the Blacktip Reef Shark was off to bluer pastures already and I mentioned to Gail what a fortunate sighting she had. She wasn’t immediately convinced, but got her heart rate back to normal and continued forth. It didn’t even occur to me to see if Kirk’s bloody shin has dried up. Awhile later from the beach by our bure, Gail spotted a baby Blacktip lazily meandering in the shallows. She is now officially known as “Shark Girl”. As timing would have it, Rob is giving his shark talk which we eagerly attend. The fascination of sharks comes with education; the more we know, the less we fear, and the more we appreciate the importance of everything in the sea. We also swim along for Rob’s underwater lecture as he points out coral planting projects, the protection of giant clams and interesting creatures only visible to a well trained eye, so familiar in his natural habitat.
Rob goes back to work, we continue our watery explorations. A huge school of Golden Trevally encircles us, oblivious to our humanoid gawking. Each of us finds our own aquatic rhythm, whether floating perfectly still while observing the antics of a Leaping Blenny or trying to keep up with a pod of iridescent squid, who always outrun us with their cephalopod jet propulsion, savoring our ocean time immensely. We all pop our heads up upon hearing a sputtering engine start, just in time to wave a farewell to Cherry and Lisa, as they board the float plane, looking none too happy to be departing.
Kirk claims a hammock and us girls habitually return to our sunset “bathtub” to float and tell stories. A few tourists are on the beach taking photos of the sunset, we are quite aways offshore and our mischievous selves can’t help it if our bathing suit tops happen to be liberated, giggling like the schoolgirls we once were together.
Warm islands, warm friendships, it’s all we need for now.