Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Cruise Weekly: Blue Lagoon Cruises to New Islands


"Warriors" perform a meke at Daliconi school (Roderick Eime)
Location: Lomaloma Village, Vanua Balavu, Northern Lau Group, Fiji Islands
17°17'32"S 178°59'12"W

It’s always an exciting time when an established adventure cruise operator announces something new. Established Fiji small ship line, Blue Lagoon Cruises, announced earlier this year they would conduct the first ever cruise visit to the Northern Lau Group, way out east of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island.

The usual small ship stops of Taveuni, Kioa, Rabi, Levuka and Qamea now includes the island of Vanua Balavu with village visits at Sawana, Lomaloma and Daliconi, places all but unheard of on the tourist map. More than 100 little islands and atolls are spread throughout the group, but less than one third are inhabited.

The little school at Daliconi has our 50 passengers and crew clapping wildly as the kids put on a performance of traditional dances that they’ve been rehearsing for weeks. When the formalities are done, carton after carton of donated books are hauled up to the school house while passengers hand out caps, t-shirts and toothbrushes.

Even for adventure cruises the experience is pretty raw, but the excitement of locals at the school and later at the Tongan village of Sawana is palpable, with the later turning on a lavish morning tea and mini Polynesian dance festival.

Polynesian maidens at Sawana, near Lomolomo, Vanua Balavu. (Roderick Eime)

The sparsely populated Lau Group is historically significant for several reasons. It is the birthplace of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara, the first prime minister of Fiji and founding father of modern Fiji. It also has a tradition of trade and ‘diplomacy’ between Melanesian Fiji and Polynesian Tonga. That ‘diplomacy’ includes several episodes of war and was the hideout for the famous Tongan chief and warlord Ma’afu in the mid-1850s.

Credit to Blue Lagoon Cruises (BLC) for quietly whittling away at a long-standing policy of non-engagement with the corrupting influences of tourism established early on by Kamisese Mara. I’d say that tourism as we know it will take a long time to establish in the Lau Group, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Currently just one or two modest guest houses and homestays are serviced by a single 18-seater aircraft weekly. The ferry? The word brings both bemusement and resignation. It apparently almost never calls.

Newly installed BLC CEO, Tim Stonhill, has picked up the cruise line and given it new vigour after drifting slightly off course a couple years ago. Immediately noticeable is the quality and consistency of the food and dining experience - a quantum leap from my 2009 experience.

Now on the longer voyages is the monohull MV Mystique Princess, a 1996-built, 57m vessel with 36 spacious twin cabins. She travels well at sea and is holding up despite her age yet Stonhill is keen to get a refit and refurb under way for the BLC glamour flagship as part of his fleet-wide upgrade plan.

MV Mystique Princess (Roderick Eime)
The Historical and Cultural Cruise runs again on 15 August and 14 November 2011. See www.bluelagooncruises.com

Getting to Fiji

Air Pacific, Fiji’s national airline has been connecting the world with the South Pacific for 60 years, awarded ‘Best Airline in the South Pacific’ by readers of Global Traveler Magazine for the third year running. Whether traveling in Tabua (Business) Class or Pacific Voyager (Economy) Class the natural island warmth of the cabin crew will ensure the journey to the destination begins with a smile. Air Pacific’s fleet of Boeing 747’s, 767 and 737’s fly from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to Nadi and beyond to Honolulu, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Auckland, Christchurch, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati. All flights allow a Fiji stopover and include complimentary meals, beverages, checked baggage and in-flight entertainment.

Air Pacific flies daily from Sydney to Nadi (from $468 AUD pp excl taxes return) and Brisbane (from $448 AUD pp excl taxes return) and four services per week from Melbourne (from $608 AUD pp excl taxes return).

For more information or to book your flight call 1800 230 150 or visit www.airpacific.com