Jai finally drops me off at a jetty on the hilly northern coast near Vatu-i-Ra Passage. Dolphin Island caretaker Stanley Simpson arrives in a small outboard, tosses my luggage in the forepeak, and roars across to the 13-acre domain of Alex Van Heeren, who rents to weekly guests when absent at Huka Lodge, which he also owns, on the Waikato River, in New Zealand. Stanley's wife, Dawn, stands on the stone dock. A Fijian mother hen, she clucks at my exhaustion and wrinkled attire. We walk under cool frangipani and jacaranda trees to a tobacco-stained bungalow with a wraparound veranda, downy sofas, and a dining table. She brings out cold tea and says with a laugh, "Lots of ice! I know Americans like lots of ice." While she preps mud crab in fresh coconut-cream curry, I gratefully shower in the sleeping pavilion next door. A black-and-brown tapa (mulberry bark) mural hangs above the bed, where I collapse shortly after sunset.
The next morning, I paddle a kayak around the bay. When the tide turns, I hike across the island's steep side to a bluff above Bligh Water. A coconut-frond hut has a daybed and a sheet-metal fan that operates by pulley. This primitive camp becomes my favorite hangout until the mosquitoes discover me. Returning to the main bungalow, Dawn plays my Best of Al Green CD on the stereo while I watch her pat roti dough by hand. (She and Stanley were born on different islands but share a love of Indo-Fijian curries.) I depart for the mainland with her recipe and a jar of homemade mango marmalade tucked in my bag. Impulsive gestures of friendship are easy to find here.
The dusty town of Nadi has a main drag of tourist shops and an outdoor market, where vendors fan themselves behind piles of spices, breadfruit, and kava root. Since it's also the airport hub, I have to retrace my steps here to reach the outer islands. At a ticket counter for the country's sole seaplane charter operation, I get a headache from the Canadian-born bush pilot who wants a fortune to fly me to Vanua Levu. I balk until Jenny Leewai Bourke, owner of Nukubati, arrives with her luggage and her friend, Mitimiti Dreunimisimisi. "The air is different up there," says Jenny, when I ask why I should explore Fiji's second-largest island. "You won't regret it." Bourke grew up in Labasa, on Vanua Levu's northern coast, and married an Irish-Australian fashion designer. "My children are fruit salad," she says with a laugh, using local slang for multinationals. As the seaplane climbs over a mountain range, where the rain forest hides white-water rivers and tiny farming outposts, I adjust my internal slide rule to a new perception of far, far away. We glide to a stop in the lagoon next to Nukubati Island, where Jenny has built a seven-room resort on a 50-mile coastline unmarred by electricity or indoor plumbing. (Nukubati runs on solar power and generators; rainwater is captured in cisterns.) She barters diesel for fresh fish, grows papaya and yams, and hires women from nearby villages to weave floor mats for a plantation-style lodge filled with dog-eared books, rattan furniture, and Fijian art. My guest cottage has a thatched-roof porch and a fan-cooled bedroom. It faces west on a mocha beach where blue jellyfish occasionally get stranded and, in keeping with the island ethos, become compost for the vegetable garden.
After the hot and sticky plane ride, we sit down to lunch as Justin Hunter and his wife, Leanne, arrive, having driven an SUV for three hours on red-dirt roads from their pearl farm in Savusavu Bay. He opens a briefcase to show us precious golden, sea-green, and blue-black gumballs. A marine biologist with a degree from the University of Washington, Hunter worked at Natural Energy Labs in Hawaii before returning to his childhood home. Since the pearls are beyond my credit limit, he gives me two luminous oyster shells. After devouring freshly caught octopus cooked in coconut milk, we spend the late afternoon lolling on an anomalous sand spit that emerges inside the Great Sea Reef. In full dress, Jenny and Mitimiti wade into the lukewarm sea. Unlike the crystal lagoons surrounding the south coast of Vanua Levu, this bay is murkier with nutrients. Jenny feels around a coral head and pulls out a red-and-black sea cucumber, which looks strikingly like a penis. So this is what Benjamin and Mary Wallis crossed oceans to hunt?
As the sun disappears, our captain takes an unwise shortcut back to the island. The tide has been rising but we still hit a coral shelf. Above, the Milky Way is brighter. Suspended under this indigo sea of stars, I calmly scan for constellations invisible in the Northern Hemisphere (oh, look, there's the Southern Cross) while everyone else on board radios for help or attempts to push us off the razor-sharp coral with bare feet, an effort more likely to attract hungry sharks than to get us back in time for our own dinner. By now, I should have mentioned that Fijians have a banana-peel sense of humor. When a rescue dinghy approaches in the pitch black, we can hear staffers giggling at the panicked 18-year-old driving the boat.
Back at the lodge, Mitimiti walks in her bare feet across a ceremonial reed mat laid on the floor. "I feel like a queen," she says, grinning, head high. A granddaughter of the King of Tonga, she is also related to Cakobau, the high chief who ceded authority to Britain in 1874. (Fiji remains a member of the Commonwealth; Queen Elizabeth II has a cameo on the currency.) To my untrained eye, the straw she treads on resembles a Pier 1 bargain, but Jenny explains that handwoven mats are more prized than Justin Hunter's pearls. Normally reserved for weddings and funerals, few people use ceremonial kuta as throw rugs. It's a novelty to even step on one.