SAVUSAVU, Fiji -- All eyes in the room were on me, as I held a cup filled with a murky brown liquid that smelled a bit like dirt.
Everyone was waiting for me to take a sip.
I was seated cross-legged on a woven tapestry in the north of Fiji at my first "grog" session. A few local villagers sang and played music while a man stirred the concoction in a wooden bowl. It was Kava, considered Fijis national drink, and a black cup that had been passed around a circle of people had just made its way to me.
I was hesitant to try it as the root derivative is a known sedative banned in some areas, including Canada.
Some say it can make you hallucinate. Others say it just helps you relax.
Either way, it doesnt smell that appealing. I stared down at the earthy substance and cringed as it slid down my throat.
Within seconds, my tongue went numb.
Here, in the north of Fiji, was my first -- and quite literal -- taste of island life.
My first stop in the South Pacific archipelago of 333 islands was Savusavu, which literally translates into "hidden paradise." Its no wonder, considering its nestled inside oceanfront bays and surrounded on all sides by lush, dense rainforest. Here, many of the boutique resorts cater to couples and honeymooners, and private villas are tucked away with garden or oceanfront views. Most accommodate only a few dozen guests at one time, so its safe to say you run a slim chance of ever bumping into a fellow Winnipegger.
While you can still laze around in the pool or get a massage, the two resorts I visited -- Koro Sun and Namale Fiji -- offer a glimpse of what really makes the country so charming: the people and the lifestyle.
Some describe Fiji as the Hawaii of 50 years ago, not spoiled by overdevelopment and commercial interests.
The town of Savusavu consists of one main drag, dotted with wee shops and marketplaces that are great for bargain-hunters vying for some cold-pressed coconut oil. The major business in town is J. Hunters black pearl farm, where you can take a glass-bottom boat and see how a local Fijian parlayed chocolate-coloured gems into a global entity. Since I couldnt pony up a few grand for a strand of designer pearls, I munched on a few green barnacles called "sea grapes" that grow on the pearl oysters in the ocean instead.
Time moves slowly in Savusavu, so dont expect the bustle of a typical resort town. When you arrive, youre on "Fiji time," and everything from meals to excursions is at a leisurely pace.
Area villagers still have a deep connection to their heritage and the land, which they express through song and dance. Stories about tribal war, fishing and family are told through movement and chanting. Most resort staffers are locals and perform traditional meke a few nights a week. I was fortunate enough to see two performances. Both times, a large group of villagers, young and old, sang together, before the men and women performed their own group routines. The men danced with spears and re-enacted their tribes historic battles with sharp movements and massive leaps.
The areas rainforest is so untouched, it reminded me of an enchanted forest.
Pumpkin patches, bananas and mangoes grow wild, and thick, green canopies hang over ancient-looking trees. A green trail through the forest is covered with sensitive plants -- a shrinking little leaf closes and withers as soon as you touch it. It reopens a few minutes later.
My goal was simple: take a four-hour hike up to the tallest area peak and become a green thumb along the way.
Hudson Mitchell, sales director for Namale and a local Fijian, explained locals still use the rainforest as a natural pharmacy. As our group walked, Mitchell plucked items that could be used in a medicine cabinet -- soursop leaves for insomnia, the stalk of the hibiscus tree for a makeshift toothbrush, the liquid from squashed mile-a-minute leaves as an antiseptic.
The nearby village of Vunidogoloa is noted for its bone healers, he said, and one area resort owner took his son there after he broke his pelvis.
It seems every part of the country has its own folklore. Members of the Sawau tribes can walk on fire, and villagers who live beside shark-infested waters dont get bitten.
Not surprisingly, the view from the peak was worth braving the sweaty humidity.
On the trek down, we cooled off by taking a dip in a natural hillside waterfall. We picked leaves from a lemon tree and rushed back to plop them in hot water and infuse fresh herbal tea.
Many Fijians are devoutly religious. Theyre also known for their stunning singing voices, and I went to check out the music one Sunday morning at the church in Vivila, a small village nestled on a hillside overlooking the ocean.
Church is a formal affair and despite the heat, women wear sarongs or dresses that cover their knees and shoulders, and men wear shirts and ties, sometimes with sarongs, too. The chorus sang with no accompaniment, save for a man in a pew who kept the beat by pounding his palm on a worn, leather-bound Bible. Their powerful voices filled the tiny chapel, decorated simply with birds of paradise.
Our guide Lai took us for a walk through the area, where I saw kava root drying on metal sheets in the sun. I told him about my hunt for the real Fiji experience, and he explained quite simply the soul of the country is in its people.
"This," he said, holding his hand atop his heart, "is the real Fiji."
All about the coconut
Coconut is a staple in Fiji, and not just to eat. Heres a few ways I enjoyed the coconut while on the island:
-- Shaved coconut: as a scrub for legs and feet.
-- Coconut oil: used as massage oil and moisturizer.
-- Roasted coconut: delicious with spicy chili sauce.
-- Hollowed-out coconut: just as delicious when filled with rum.
-- Coconut water: healthy and refreshing.
-- Raw coconut meat: a bit slippery in texture but rich and satisfying nonetheless.
-- Extra-virgin coconut oil: some locals take a spoonful every morning, which they say is good for the body.
IF YOU GO:
How to get there:
Air Pacific runs overnight flights to Nadi, Fiji, from Los Angeles.
From Nadi, Air Pacific runs regional flights to Savusavu.
-- Bug spray is a must. While you run a slim chance of bumping into a fellow Winnipegger in this exotic locale, the mosquitoes can still find you.
-- Take an underwater camera. Savusavu is known for its dive sites, where you can see schools of hammerhead sharks and barracudas.
-- Prepare for the heat. Drink water, pack sunscreen and gear up to be hot. Even on cloudy days, the Fijian heat is humid and sweaty.