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FANTASY ISLANDS.

IF your experience of nature's bounty is limited to shrinkwrapped tropical fruit and exotic shower gels, the wondrous reality of Fiji will take some getting used to. Mangoes and coconuts fall at your feet on this glistening archipelago in the South Pacific, while flame-red hibiscus and fragrant frangipani bloom all around you.

It's about as close to paradise as you can get. With more than 800 islands - fewer than 200 are inhabited - it really is picture-postcard perfect: languid sandy beaches, turquoise water, palm trees bending lazily in the breeze, thick rainforest and those truly epic skies.

My first sight of a magnificent Fijian dawn was almost deafening due to the sheer volume of colour and beauty.

Perhaps this natural abundance explains why Fijians, despite their relative poverty, radiate a rare and solid warmth and greet visitors with a high-spirited "Bula" (hello) like long-lost members of one large extended family. They are famous for their generosity of spirit.

It took almost 30 hours and three plane rides to reach our first destination, the Namale resort in the north of Vanua Levu, one of the two main islands. No wonder it is popular with the Hollywood jet-set - Meg Ryan is a regular - and wealthy newlyweds from Australia and America.

My room for a couple of magical nights was the honeymoon suite or "bure" (pronounced boor-eh), the name given to the traditional thatched-hut-like dwellings that are everywhere in Fiji.

Perched on top of a large volcanic rock, this one has a hot tub big enough for two, a private balcony and an electric blue infinity pool overlooking the ocean. On the secluded beach below hangs another double bed, which swings to the rhythm of the waves.

Although Namale is described as "affordable luxury", the cheapest bure at around pounds 610 per night makes this an exclusive place.

. koreanair.stopover Having said that, there are tempting deals for group bookings. You could actually get married in Namale to treat your closest friends and family to the trip of a lifetime for less than the average cost of a UK wedding. . bridgeandwickers.nights' Spa from Air New to Taveuni, and Manchester Another ideal spot for honeymooners - we counted at least six such couples at breakfast - is a resort called Qamea, located on a tiny islet of the same name. Here the bures are closer knit than in Namale and as a result the atmosphere is a little livelier.

2518, with 6555, seven Resort & with Sun Qamea Staff mix easily with the guests, and in the evenings everyone comes together in the bar to drink cold beer or kava - the relaxing, intoxicating brew that Fijians drink like tea - and to listen to the musicians, better known as Band Boys.

One of the best things about Qamea is the Jungle Ex-extra Spa. A warm seashell massage in one of the treatment bures during a heavy downpour was a unique experience, especially the part where, wrapped only in a towel, I had to find my way back to the reception area in the dark, dodging raindrops the size of apples and an army of belching toads hopping around my feet. What an amazing feeling.

Of course, it is all too easy to cocoon yourself in the lush surrounds of resorts like these, but there is a lot to do besides sipping cocktails under the stars.

Adventurous backpackers en route Down Under (Fiji is just a couple of hours' flight from New Zealand) might fancy zip-lining in the jungle or shark diving in Pacific Harbour. Surrounded by miles of soft coral reef, the island offers unparalleled snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities.

If you have time and money for just one organised activity, though, I suggest the Sigatoka River Safari, an awardwinning tour operation devised by a young American called Jay Whyte.

He first saw Fiji in 1991 when he was 13, and loved it so much he returned to live there 15 years later with the dream of taking visitors deep into the interior, to remote villages where indigenous culture thrives and the hospitality is legendary. This was an experience he had as a young boy and never forgot.

His safari avoids being the touristy affair it could so easily be, and has been set up in co-operation with the villages, taking care not to encroach on the local way of life. The tour visits a different village every day.

Travelling by purpose-built jet boat, we sped and spun 10 miles down Fiji's longest river, which runs like an artery through a fertile area known as the Salad Bowl.

We passed villagers going about their business as they have done for centuries: washing clothes by the riverside, crossing it on horseback and floating along on rafts or sometimes an old rubber tyre to get from village to village. At each one we passed, we would wave and shout "Bula!" (the habit is catching).

When we arrived at the host village we were shown around with a lot of enthusiasm, and later met the entire community for food (locally-grown cassava and taro, fresh fish, pineapple and spinach), kava, music and dancing. It was an unforgettable day, a real eyeopener and a lot of fun.

Ultimately Fiji's spectacular scenery and its people make this a special place to visit. Just set your watch to Fiji time, drink some kava and you can let life happen, just as nature intended.

beach below which waves. TRAVEL INFORMATION as atmosphere Staff mix and in comes drink that and . Korean Airlines (0800 652 2518, koreanair.com) returns to Fiji, with stopover in Seoul, from pounds 790.86. Bridge & Wickers (0208 483 6555, bridgeandwickers.co.uk) offers seven nights' all-inclusive at Qamea Resort & Spa from pounds 2,708, incl return flights with Air New Zealand, flights with Pacific Sun to Taveuni, launch transfers to Qamea and deluxe beachfront bungalow.

Band Ex-Manchester from around pounds 90 extra. Destination info from Tourism Fiji UK (0800 652 2158, fijime.com) at least is a resort about Spa. massage treatment downpour experience, where, wrapped

CAPTION(S):

Life's a beach... Fiji's stunning coast is littered with golden sands (main picture). Resorts at Qamea (left) and Namale (right)
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 2, 2010
Words:1026
Previous Article:5-star Edinburgh.
Next Article:Country Living; JOANNE ROBERTS FINDS AN ELEGANT AND CHARMING RURAL HOME.


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