Exploring the South Pacific with Norwegian Cruise Line
With winter at its deepest, planning an escape to the balmy reaches of the South Pacific and its stunning island destinations may be just what the doctor ordered.
It's pre-dawn aboard Norwegian Spirit, and the creeping radiance of daybreak is just beginning to glow from behind the curve of the world. In the pre-light, island silhouettes are just visible in the near distance, after a night at sea travelling from Lautoka on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu.
As the sun rises and spills forth across the sky, its golden gleam limns the waters and brings today's destination to light, a small, volcanic island of the Kadavu Group some 70 kilometres south of Suva. If heaven were a place on earth, it might be called Dravuni.
It's day nine of Norwegian Cruise Lines' (NCL) maiden South Pacific itinerary aboard the newly refurbished Norwegian Spirit, a sprightly, gorgeously appointed vessel that is large enough to stretch your legs on the top exercise deck yet petite enough that everything feels just a short stroll away, including a comedy club, a jazz bar, and a generous selection of specialty restaurants. Indeed, it's a veritable 15 minute city on the water, with every amenity at your fingertips.
Already, travellers have taken in the delights of Tahiti, Bora Bora, the lush mountain peaks of Moreea, and the rainforest lagoons of Raiatea, home to French Polynesia's largest outdoor temple. From Pago Pago, American Samoa to Fiji, it's been an excursion of emerald seas studded with stunning island landscapes and exquisite shore excursions.
The waters of the South Pacific are a snorkerller's delight.
There's just something about Dravuni, however, that is so quintessentially the picture of Paradise that I can't help but dwell on this small jewel of the South Pacific. Following a breakfast at the buffet, we shuffle down to the tender boats at around 9am. The mercury is already just over 30°C, and the aquamarine waters couldn't look more inviting if they tried.
At just under a square kilometre in area, Dravuni is home to about 150 permanent residents. Disembarking to the sounds of young men strumming guitars on the tender jetty, white sands stretch to the left and right, while immediately ahead is the village itself.
A helpful map shows a number of sites of interest, the final resting place of the village founder, the warlord Ravuravu; the 40 metre summit of Nairikarikasavu at the island's southern reach, providing panoramic views of Dravuni and its neighbouring islands; and the remains of the old village site of Muanaliailai, abandoned in the early 1900s after a cholera outbreak caused by the wreck of the Argo upon a nearby reef, its crew bringing the illness to Dravuni's shores, by all accounts, a dark time in the island's history.
ISLAND TIME, ALL THE TIME
Today, however, Dravuni's community of kaidravuni Indigenous people born and bred on the island welcome travellers with the kind of generosity generally reserved for family. Children skip down sandy tracks between residences, singing to themselves, and locals deftly ascend trees to bring down plump, fresh coconuts for visitors, splitting them open for us to drink their delicious milk before they carve out the white flesh for us with well practiced hands and well worn machetes.
A Dravuni local prepares coconut flesh.
The stunning peaks of Bora Bora.
As we beach-comb along the eastern stretch of the island (called Yasa-i-cake by the kaidravuni), periodically dipping back in the temperate water to cool off, little speed boats navigated by locals whiz past as they take fellow cruise passengers to top snorkelling spots around the Great Astrolabe Reef that protects the island from all sides.
And then, all too soon, we are called to return to the final run of tender boats and board Norwegian Spirit once more, leaving with one last look up and down that gorgeous stretch of white sand as island time comes to a bittersweet close.
Back on board, we commence the last leg of the journey back to Sydney with three days at sea, a stop by New Caledonia was planned, but the Port Authority there had yet to open the island to visitors due to Covid-19. Thankfully, Norwegian Spirit has no shortage of amusements to occupy your time.
WAVES OF BLISS
A morning jog. Reading on the sundeck by the pool. Jumping in on a game of trivia, or perusing the onboard shops, then, at night, a French dinner at Le Bistro, perhaps followed by some live music, karaoke, or a magic show at the Stardust Theatre towards the stern. I'm not even scratching the surface of just how many activities are planned or available to enjoy each day, all part of NCL's philosophy of 'Cruise Your Way'.
Full disclosure: as guests of NCL, we were able to enjoy a night at the table of each of the restaurants, and the service at each was impeccable. From the main dining room of Windows to Onda by Scarpetti, Teppenyaki, Cagney's Steakhouse or the 24-hour service of the starboard-side diner, there are plates for every taste aboard the Spirit.
Next day, I decide on a haircut, gazing across the seemingly endless ocean expanse through floor-to-ceiling windows (special credit to the hairdresser for his mastery of scissors while cresting waves rolled ceaselessly beneath our feet). Then, a full body massage at Mandara Spa, where whatever cares I might have had about impending deadlines were kneaded away into blissful nothingness.
While three days at sea may seem a stretch, all too soon the arrival into Sydney was upon us. International travellers gathered on the decks, jostling for position with their smartphone cameras to get the best shots. Even for an Australian familiar with the Emerald City and its waters, passing through the heads of Sydney Harbour delivers a genuine buzz.
Passing under the iconic arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to dock at White Bay, our South Pacific sojourn had come to a close. But still, the taste of fresh coconut lingered, the smiles of the people we met traversing the South Pacific flashed to mind, and I stepped ashore with a renewed spirit, I guess you could say. It's the perfect word for it, after all.