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Smile: you're in Fiji

Friendly island nation instantly endearing

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Almost every travel story about Fiji seems to begin the same way: with a glowing description of Fijians' fabled friendliness.

Alliterative appeal aside, this seemed like a load of hooey. The writers, I thought, were clearly being greeted the way any tourist would in a setting that thrives on visitors' dollars -- with a fake wide smile and a welcoming demeanour.

My perception was set straight almost as soon as my sister and I arrived at the airport in Nadi (pronounced Nandi) and sat down for a coffee while waiting for our connection. A Fijian girl at the next table immediately introduced herself and welcomed us to the country. Half an hour later, she passed us in the lounge, beamed at us, waved and called, "Have a nice stay, Jill and Jesse!"

And the smiles just kept on coming, no matter how far-flung the locale or unlikely the tourist attraction. Strolling the street in Savusavu, solemn schoolchildren in their blue uniforms looked up shyly, but then immediately grinned and called out "bula," the all-purpose Fijian greeting. Strangers in shops greeted us like friends.

To a person from a culture where avoiding eye contact is de rigueur, it's a little overwhelming, but it ultimately leaves you with a goofy warm glow.

Nowhere is this attitude more prevalent than on Ovalau. The small island off the east coast of Viti Levu is likely not first on most tourists' list of destinations. This mountainous island is not home to white sand beaches or particularly blue water; it has no fabulous resorts.

What it does have is a tumultuous, fascinating history, loads of living links to the past and a welcoming vibe.

Levuka has a storied history. At one time, it was one of the busiest ports in the South Seas, a whaling capital so rowdy it was said sailors found their way there by following a bobbing trail of gin bottles. There were more than 50 public houses lining the main street.

Installed as Fiji's capital city during British colonization in 1874, it was the seat of bureaucratic power and bustling with commerce. But the decision in 1877 to move the capital to Suva, on Viti Levu, reversed Levuka's fortunes. Now it teeters on the verge of decay. The main business is the PAFCO fish cannery, which employs more than 1,000 people and lends its distinctive odour to the town, but there are worries it will close.

Along picturesque Beach Street, the hand-painted storefront signs ("Gulabdas and Sons"; "R.K. Singh Store: R.K. The Price Fighter") are peeling and the wooden buildings' bright colours are faded, but it still looks like something out of a book and the sidewalks are full of people.

On the ocean side of Beach Street, women line up to sell their wares in a makeshift market, bundles of taro root and other produce on display.

Levuka is home to many Fiji firsts: the first school, the first town hall, the first bank, the first hospital. Most of these buildings, now designated heritage spots, still stand. Some, like the school, are still in use. Others sit vacant, protected but unmaintained.

The town is applying for world heritage designation, and it would be wonderful to see these historical buildings restored and a boom in tourist trade that Levuka needs to thrive.

But part of what makes the town so charming is its utter lack of tourist kitsch. In Deadwood, S.D., they capitalize on their Wild West heritage with tacky casinos and piles of souvenirs. In Levuka, there's no prettification or "old-fashioned" façades -- even the postcards for sale in the tiny museum are yellowed and ancient. Everything's genuinely old, and that's vastly more appealing.

The Royal Hotel is a perfect example of that genuineness. It's the oldest continuously operating hotel in the South Seas and it's got colonial atmosphere out the wazoo.

The Royal has been in operation since the 1860s (and as my sister grumpily observed, "They're still using the same pillows.") It's not a luxury accommodation, it's true -- single rooms can be had for as little as $11 FJD, making it popular with backpackers -- but what it lacks in swankiness, it makes up for in ambience (and it has made concessions to modernity with a swimming pool, gym, Internet lounge and movie night).

The vast main floor is filled with relics of the town's whaling past, with a rustic bar offering "nips" of liquor. The whole thing calls up images of British gentlemen in linen suits, whiling away the hot afternoons playing whist in the sitting room while fans turn lazily overhead, or engaging in a game of snooker in the billiards room.

Townspeople gather to watch regular rugby matches -- "the wetter the better" -- on the field behind the hotel.

The kitchen serves very cheap breakfast fare in a dining room with a garden view. For lunch and dinner, we headed into town, which for a tiny place had some wonderful food, all in restaurants found on the main street.

Levuka Pizza, oddly, serves no pizza, but offers delicious sandwiches and Chinese food in a hip atmosphere at the edge of town.

Chinese food is a staple in Fiji, which is home to a large Chinese population. Kim's Paak Kum Loon, a plain but welcoming second-floor restaurant with a nice balcony on Levuka's main strip, dishes up a strange mishmash of cuisines, including sandwiches and Thai, but the Chinese is fabulous, including wonderful firm-fleshed walu fish (a Fijian staple) with black bean and garlic sauce.

Whale's Tale serves homey Fijian-style food in a quaint little room with bowls of chili salt, pepper and herb seasoning on the tables. A waloo steak in lemon butter and garlic with roast potatoes will set you back $9.50 FJD (about $6.50) and the wahu cooked in coconut milk with local spinach and deep-fried cassava isn't much more.

To get another side of Ovalau's history, a tour to Lovoni, a village in the centre of the island, is a must. Epi's Midland Tour, led by Epinari Bole, takes you on a bumpy bus ride (the "bus" is actually a flat-bed truck installed with facing benches and covered with a tarp) through incredibly lush forest up to the village, which sits in a volcanic crater.

At Epi's hillside home, which he shares with his British-born wife, Joanne, and three children, we are given a huge lunch of traditional Fijian fare, including baked taro root, wilted taro leaves with onion in coconut cream, breaded, deep-fried eggplant and a fragrant lemony tea made from the leaves of a plant that grows in the rainforest surrounding the house.

After lunch, Epi, a born storyteller, takes us out on the porch to tell us a tale. It's part apocrypha, about how Lovoni came to be. It's also a true tragic tale about how the chief of the tiny island of Bau tried to make himself the de facto king of Fiji. His greed and his need to appease the white settlers on Ovalau led him to capture, through trickery, the warrior people of Lovoni and sell them into slavery, after they had burned down Levuka three times.

This complicated matters for the chief on the world stage, where slavery was finally being eradicated, and he was forced to cede Fiji to Britain.

Epi also leads a trek through the rainforest surrounding Lovoni, pointing out plants and their medicinal uses. He then takes us through the village proper.

When visiting any village in Fiji, tourists must dress modestly. Knees and shoulders must be covered (we brought saris to wrap around our shorts), and shoes must be removed before entering a residence.

It is usual for guests to a village to visit the chief's house first (in ancient times, visitors who did not follow these rules were likely to be eaten, according to Epi). Fijians gave up cannibalism with their adoption of Christianity, but it's still rude not to bring the chief a gift; in our case, a bundle of kava. (A plant that's a member of the black pepper family, its roots are a mild opiate and are made into a beverage that has a both ceremonial and recreational function in Fijian culture.)

It's also important that the chief approves the visit because of the collective spirit of Fijian land ownership; the land belongs to the whole village. To walk through someone's yard uninvited is akin to walking through his living room.

On our way to the airstrip in Bureta to fly back to the main island, we stop for tea and talanoa (chat) with Bubu Kara, a grey-haired, smiling (of course) woman who lives in a cheerful home where the doorways are covered with brightly patterned fabric and the floors with woven mats.

Bubu means grandmother, and although Kara has no children of her own, she lives with her extended family, members of whom wander in and out as she tells us the story of how her village got its name, and how Fijians got their reputation as cannibals.

She serves us good, strong British-style tea from a beautiful silver tea service, with egg salad sandwiches and brownies. One of her beautiful grandchildren, Eta, stands by with a woven fan, vigilantly keeping the flies at bay.

It's this particular mix of colonial formality and relaxed charm that makes Ovalau such a special place to visit.

Jill Wilson is a Free Press copy editor. She travelled to Fiji courtesy of the Fiji Visitors Bureau. This is the first of three articles on her visit to the islands.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 17, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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