Paradise Regained

Trip Start Mar 30, 2003
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Trip End Jan 30, 2004


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Flag of United States  , California
Saturday, January 3, 2004

Summary:

I am now in West Hollywood, LA, in the land of free refills and valet parking. In the last 2 weeks I have been in backpacker mode in simple Fijian accomodation, sometimes without electricity or running water, but then compensated by staying in a top resort in California. Due to flying to LA over the Date Line I managed to have Christmas Day in both Fiji and the USA. That does not seem to have resulted in double the number of presents, however.

[8 new pics also now attached to previous entry]

The simple life in Fiji:

Looking back at my previous entry I remember how frustrated I was with the weather and that Fiji was not living up to my tropical island ideal. Certainly Suva, the capital, was pretty uninspiring with a high crime rate and lots of rain.

I stayed at the appropriately-named Raintree Lodge, set in the rainforest a few miles out of the centre. The management had a disturbing tendency to want to show videos of old Carry On films in the lounge in the evening. However, they made up for this by serving excellent curries. When I tried to walk around the neighbouring Colo-i-Suva park I was stopped by the police who told me that I should not go in because of the danger of being mugged. After staying there one night, long enough to visit the Fiji Museum to learn about their history of cannibalism, it was time to move on.

I decided to go to Levuka, the capital of Fiji until the 1880s, on the smaller island of Ovalau. I flew there on a small plane from Suva - the view of the reefs through the turquoise waters was quite stunning , but one of my bags was not loaded on the plane and is currently still somewhere in the Air Fiji baggage department.

As soon as I arrived on Ovalau I felt I had discovered the real Fiji. On the 40 min ride from the airstrip (just a clearing in some trees) into Levuka, kids came out to wave and there was hardly any other traffic. In Levuka I stayed at the Royal Hotel, reputedly the oldest hotel in the South Pacific. It was certainly good value at 7 pounds a night for an en suite sea view room. It certainly appeared stuck in a time warp - the weatherboard building oozes colonial charm, fading pictures of 1950s cricket teams adorn the walls of the billiards room and floors slope mysteriously. Neither the building nor the elderly staff have seen much in the way of maintenance for the past few decades. It was an ideal spot for a G&T to contemplate the Somerset Maughan-ness of it all.

I had 2 nights there which was easily long enough to sit by the hotel pool (the weather was much better there) and take in Levuka's charms. These included lots of churches (it was Sunday so lots of singing could be heard around town), a tuna cannery, a bowling club, a street of old fashioned weatherboard shops and the burnt out remains of the Masonic Lodge. During the last coup (2000) local villagers urged on by a methodist preacher burnt the Lodge down because they believed there was a secret tunnel through Earth from the Lodge to Scotland, alleged global masonic HQ!

Unfortunately, Ovalau does not have any beaches, so I needed to move on to find my paradise island. I had in mind the films Castaway and Blue Lagoon which were made on Fijian islands. With a fellow Royal Hotel guest, Jennifer (from Canada) I therefore went to Caqelai (pronounced Thangalai) island, a 30 minute boat ride off Levuka. Nobody lives there and it is so small that it only takes about 15 minutes to walk around the island on the white sand beach at low tide. There is just one resort which has a 'BYO' alcohol policy as it is owned by the Methodists. I stayed in a traditional thatch bure hut right next to the beach, but conditions were very basic - the hut had just a bed on straw mats, a mosquito net and little else. There was no electricity, or running water and showers were taken in a corrugated iron shack by pouring rainwater over oneself.

It is not for those who believe that spending large amounts of money on a hotel chain resort is the only way to have a good holiday, but it was a very special experience. There were only 3 of us staying there on the first night and 5 on the second, so it was a perfect place just to chill out. In addition, there were about 12 staff living there, all from one extended family. One night I joined them for the traditional kava ceremony, which involved sitting cross-legged round a large wooden bowl full of a rather muddy looking drink and next to the headman who didn't talk to me. We each took it in turns to 'down in one' a cup of the drink, clapping before and after drinking. Kava has a number of properties, including reducing anxiety, helping you to sleep etc etc. Strangely, they also wanted me to sit with a garland of leaves around my neck and put talculm powder on my cheeks and in my hair (a Christmas tradition I was told). Looking like that I was then urged to provide entertainment for the Fijians by dancing with their women folk.

There was not a lot to do on Caqelai - eating, drinking, snorkelling, reading, lieing in hammocks strung between palm trees. Sometimes I multi-tasked by reading whilst lieing in a hammock. One day, at low tide, Jennifer and I walked out to nearby Snake Island and snorkelled off the wall of the coral reef. We also went scuba diving, using a dive operation based on a nearby island. Visibility was quite poor, though. That will probably be my last dive in tropical waters for a while. Oh well!

I had a flight from Nadi airport to LA at the end of Christmas Day, so on Christmas Eve, after only a short time on Caqelai, I was taken by boat to the airstrip on Ovalau, then flew back to Suva and then on to Nadi, where I spent Xmas Day on the beach at a hotel close to the international airport. Many local families came out to the beach to swim or play football and everyone was in good spirits and very friendly. By the end of my time in Fiji I had warmed to the place - compared to other countries on my trip at a similar level of development there are few hassles and scams to trap the unwary traveller. It passes the 'Do the taxi drivers use meters?' test. However, if I come again it wouldn't be in the rainy season.

Living it up in California:

Due to crossing the International Date Line my flight to LA landed at 1pm on the 25th, so I got to have a second Christmas Day! I met my friends Paul (from London), and Michael and Terrence (both from Dallas) and we set off to the St Regis Monarch Beach Resort and Spa (www.stregismb.com) for 4 nights of opulence - courtesy of Michael's accumulated Starwood points. Monarch Beach is close to the town of Laguna Beach, just over an hour south of LA. It has quite a few galleries, good restaurants and bars. It's also a popular spot for surfing. We had the hotel's cars and driver at our disposal and given that included a Bentley we certainly made use of the service to impress the local restaurants.

It all seemed a far cry from my simple bure on Caqelai (nightly rate: 13 pounds, including 3 meals per day) and my simple backpacker attire was deemed inappropriate for Californian socializing, so extensive visits to shopping malls with designer label stores were required. Is this sounding like Ab Fab yet?

Before the Dallas boys headed back home we had a day in LA. We went to see the recently opened Concert Hall designed by Frank Gehry (of Bilbao Guggenheim fame) in the downtown area and the hilarious Mel Brooks play 'the Producers' which was showing at the historic Pantages Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. Paul and I checked into the Millenium Biltmore hotel downtown and our friend Philippe joined us. The Museum of Contemporary Art had an interesting exhibition about Gehry's current projects, but in general the downtown area was pretty dead. We moved on to a hotel in West Hollywood.

Being in Hollywood a visit to the movies was a must, so we went to see the latest Ben Affleck release 'Paycheck' at Mann's Chinese Theatre, where many premieres are held. New Year's Eve (and indeed many of the other nights) were spent in nightclubs in the West Hollywood area.

Soon I will be through with the LA area and then I began my Great American roadtrip to the east coast. Stay tuned!
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