Friday, December 19, 2008

Worth Every Delayed Minute

What is it about the combination of sunshine, sand, saltwater and swimsuits that spells paradise? I may have missed my shuttle to the ferry in the morning (thanks to misdirection from the geniuses working reception at Grand Malenesian Hotel), but the moment my feet touched that warm beach all of my worries were washed away with the surf.

As my South Sea Cruise docked at various islands to drop off and pick up fellow travelers, I noticed that half of the passengers boarded half-dressed and without shoes. I immediately embraced their carefree attitude and showered adoration on the staff members who refused to let me lift a finger to move my luggage.

I was booked for one night on Beachcomber Island, one of the Mamanuca Islands. You can walk the perfectly manicured, white-sand circumference of this mini-mirage in about ten minutes. The only buildings scattered among the jungle wild life in the center are a huge lodge of 114 bunk beds, a few private villas, shared bathrooms, and a covered outdoor dining area and bar on the beach.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by cheers of Bula!, which means "welcome" or "hello" in Fijian. I checked in and left my valuables in the capable and methodically documented hands of the resort staff. They encourage guests to charge all purchases to their room or bunk number so that carrying cash becomes unnecessary.

I was excited to spend the afternoon with Alex and Nick, a waitress and chef who had worked at the Chateau and whose itinerary happened to overlap for one day in paradise. After exchanging stories of our last few weeks of travels, we took a dip in the crystal clear blue water just as the evening rain began to drizzle. This didn’t deter us at all and just cooled the top layer of the water, while everything from our waists down remained the temperature of a lukewarm bath.

On Beachcomber Island, the banging of a drum announces buffet-style meals served in the outdoor cafeteria- basically rows of picnic tables under a covered roof. You will never go hungry with breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner provided daily. There were always a variety of options from spaghetti or grilled fish to chicken curry and fresh fruit.

Apparently, it also has a reputation as the “party island”, which I discovered meant that every kid from the South Pacific who had recently graduated was here to celebrate before heading off to university. The drinking and dancing started early, including a performance of traditional dancers and fire shows.

From there it turned into an MTV Spring Break-vibe that somehow incorporated a theme of cross-dressing. The boys began raiding girl’s suitcases for bikini tops, sarongs and make-up and by the end of the night the smell of one-too-many-Sex-On-the-Beaches wafted out of every overgrown corner of plants. I retreated to my bunk bed, feeling little too old to join in on the Macarena-inspired “Bula dance”, recalling fond memories of my teenage days in Mexico. Let the kids live it up, and I’ll have the beach to myself in the morning while they sleep it off!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Fiji Fiasco

***Warning, written by a tired, grumpy traveler who may come off as slightly less than appreciative that she has just arrived on a tropical island...***

It was clear from the get-go that things in Fiji were not always going to go as planned. After dragging two huge suitcase, a laptop, and a carry-on through Rose Bay to the ferry and onto an airport shuttle (I know, I know, I brought it on myself, but c’mon- Six months! Multiple climates! And taxis are expensive!) I thought the hardest part was behind me. This was before I saw the line to check in snaking through what appeared to be half the terminal.

I joined the line and surrendered to an hour and a half of shifting weight from foot to flip-flopped foot, half-sitting on bags (see, large, heavy luggage is good for something!), and inching forward every time someone took the slightest step in order to maintain some sense of progress. After holding my breath during the baggage weigh-in (success!) the attendant robotically pointed to the time on my boarding pass that my plane would begin boarding. It had passed five minutes ago.

I still had customs and security to get through, with lines clogged full of the same passengers I had shared my afternoon rubbing shoulders with. By the time I made it into the duty free shopping area an attendant was bustling through calling for any final passengers to Fiji. I hustled to the gate and took my seat, cursing missing the more profitable side of currency exchange, and waited for another twenty minutes as the crew realized that the backlog had started hours ago.

After an uneventful flight on Air Pacific (except that I wasn’t impressed when they turned off the in-flight entertainment forty-five minutes before landing) I made it to Nadi International Airport in time to catch the end of a breathtaking sunset. Other than the cheerful band playing at the end of the exit corridor, the airport staff seemed overworked and tired. My immigration officer failed to mumble a single word while stamping my passport and the security screeners did nothing to facilitate bags getting stopped up through security screening.

I finally reached the exit, expecting the free shuttle from my pre-booked Grand Malenesian Hotel room to be waiting, but when I approached information the suggested hopping into a taxi, claiming it would be cheaper! I refused and moved down the line to an agent who called the hotel directly. I was stunned when she hung up the phone and confirmed that they had just told her to put me in a cab.

When I questioned reception upon arrival I was told that yes, they do have an airport shuttle van, but there was no one available to drive it today. Not in the mood for an argument, or to be labeled as a high-maintenance American, I shrugged and followed a porter carrying one of my bags. As he began climbing stairs to the second floor (no elevator!), I gave myself a mini-pep talk and refused to be disheartened.

My evening continued this way: Anywhere to grab a bite to eat? Shops in town are closed. Light bulb in the bathroom? Burnt out. Internet access? Yes, but I’m sorry, cards are sold out. I consoled myself with an early night in and the mini-blessing of an otherwise empty shared room and crossed my fingers that the shuttle scheduled to pick me up in the morning and whisk me away to Beachcomber’s Island Resort actually existed and came with a licensed driver.