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A Chance to Escape in the South Pacific

You Can Island-Hop by Plane, Boat, Four-Wheel Drive--EVEn Swim-Fin. But Don't Be in a Hurry.

March 19, 2000|JOHN BALZAR | John Balzar, a roving national correspondent for The Times, is author of "Yukon Alone," published early this year

Wasn't I surprised. Until now, I had never been interviewed regarding my suitability as a guest. As long as my American Express card rang up "approved" and I stayed off Interpol's wanted list, what else mattered in securing accommodations? This world is not of my design, you understand, but I am accustomed to playing by its simple, mercenary rules.

The South Pacific archipelago of Fiji was my destination. I was going on assignment, though I intended to stay longer, play a little, and see what I could of the place. Fijians were said to be arrestingly friendly, and the scuba diving and snorkeling reportedly were first-rate. Fiji also held an irresistible promise: a place where you really could put distance between yourself and the onrush of what we choose, optimistically, to call civilization.

All this proved true and then some. During 12 unplugged days in the Tropics, I yielded to the sweet, coconut-and-breadfruit rhythms of two distinctly different resorts and looked in on others. I traveled by plane, boat, four-wheel drive and swim-fin, but never in a hurry. * In retrospect, the unexpected screening interview became a metaphor for understanding tourism in Fiji, a nation of 300-plus islands--more if you count the small ones.

The purpose of my trip was an assignment to profile one of the South Pacific's most notable part-time residents, Jean-Michel Cousteau, heir to the underwater legend of his father, Jacques. Naturally, I would be staying at the resort that bears Jean-Michel's name.

But I also was looking for a personal getaway, with the emphasis on away. So I called Lynette Wilson in Santa Barbara, the U.S. agent for several Fiji resorts. I awaited a sales pitch. It came in the form of interrogation: I wouldn't happen to be a bore who travels alone, would I? I was leaving the children home, correct? I had at least five days so I could get into the swing of relaxing, didn't I? I wasn't the antsy sort who might need TV, slot machines, floor shows, modem-jacks, a singles scene, shopping arcade, asphalt jogging track or round-the-clock taxi service along with my remote getaway, was I? And, she asked, I wouldn't mind a little shallow reef-walking to reach the boat that would take me to the resort if, by chance, I arrived during low tide?

Based on my answers, Wilson judged me suitable for a place I had never heard of: the Nukubati Island Resort. She said it would meet my needs and I would meet Nukubati's--on all points except the matter of traveling companions. Circumstances left me journeying alone this time. Nukubati (New-come-BAH-tee) is for lovers more than loners.

Considering the direct connection from Los Angeles, Fiji is one of the most convenient full-fledged South Pacific escapes possible. The flight to Nadi airport on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu, is 101/2 hours--about twice as long as the trip to Hawaii. In island atmosphere, the difference is many times greater. Old-time wanderers of the Pacific say Fiji is what Hawaii used to be--fewer crowds, a slower clock.

Fiji, unlike so many small nations, never had to forfeit its land or its political culture to invaders. Missionaries successfully Christianized the islands, yes, but under British colonial rule, the authority of Fiji's village and regional chiefs was maintained. Farsighted administrators locked away 83% of the islands in perpetual trust ownership for Fijians. As a result, their way of life has not been threatened. No wonder they are so relaxed about visitors, and why they seem so sincere when they ring out the greeting "Bula!" at every encounter.

Not to say that the place is free of frictions. East Indians, brought to the islands as indentured laborers during British rule, still work much of the land but cannot own it. The British left in 1970, but sparks between Indian immigrants and Fijians continue to shape island politics and even gave rise to a short-term military coup in 1987. I found that the subject of racial politics was sure to throw a damper over conversation, or at least force everyone to speak at a whisper.

First Nukubati: Getaways require some getting to, so going to Nadi is only the first step. After landing, I rested overnight at a hotel and returned to the airport the next day for a one-hour flight north to Fiji's second-largest island, Vanua Levu. My destination was Labasa, though I also could have chosen to fly to Savusavu on the same island.

I was met by a driver and a four-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Pajero. With fresh-scrubbed trade winds in our faces and a moody tropical sky overhead, we ventured into a countryside of flowers, waterfalls and mountain vistas. As often occurs in these latitudes, the sun feels roasting hot while the sea breeze offers a spritz of cool. A ridgeline separated the rain forest and coconut plantations of the island's southeast from the semi-arid sugar cane fields of the northwest. The driver aimed toward the northern edge of the island, and the ride took about an hour and a half.

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