Thursday, 17 January 2013

Surely there are better ways of spending your money?

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine

Venice, Italy
 There really is no way of getting around the fact that travel doesn’t come cheap.  For the price of 12 hours sitting cramped and uncomfortable on a plane, you could instead buy household items that bring you at least 12 months of comfort.  So I guess when people give me those little looks (and yes, I do get those looks… sometimes even comments) about how my family choose to spend their money, I try to be at least a little bit understanding of their opinions.

If we didn’t holiday at least once a year, my life would probably look quite different to what it does now. The mortgage would be smaller for a start.  My wardrobe would include items I bought because I ‘wanted’ them rather than ‘needed’ them, my hair would probably be styled, I’d own more than one handbag and a few more pairs of shoes, and I certainly wouldn’t work the long, tiring hours that I do at present.  Heck, I might even drink more occasionally. 

But would I be happier? 

The benefits to travel: meeting beautiful people...  (Tour guide, Yangtse River, China)

...and visiting beautiful places (Mykonos, Greece)

Oia, Santorini, Greece

For me, travelling is like a drug; the new sights, sounds, smells and tastes all reminding me just how wonderful this world is and how lucky I am to be part of it.

There is an African proverb which states “To see once is worth more than hearing a hundred times.”   The world’s best history books can’t ever truly describe that feeling of awe and wonderment you get when standing in front of Xian’s Terracotta Army.  Nor can the world’s best photographers properly capture that essence of beauty which is Oia Village in Greece.  It is not until you stand in such a place, with eyes wide open, that you begin to fully comprehend what all the fuss is about.

Terracotta Army (Xian, China)
When I travel, I am alive.  I am positive.  I am hopeful.  I am passionate about life.  It is a side of my personality that I want the world to see more often.  It is a side of my personality that I want my husband and son to see more often.   

Who knows what is awaiting me around the corner?  I want to do things that make my family happy while we’re fortunate enough to be in the position to do so.

Just as importantly, travel gives me a whole new appreciation for this country that I call home.  Of course travel can be done in one’s own country and this is something my family and I do often.  However, it wasn’t until I left New Zealand for a while that I truly realised just how lucky I am to have a country like this to return home to. 

Us with our catch from prawn fishing.  (Huka Prawn Park, Taupo, NZ)
Milford Sound, NZ

So in answer to my rhetorical question above about whether I’d be happier spending the money on things closer to home.  Not likely.   Besides, a cocktail never tastes as good as it does when you’re on holiday.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Make Mine A Mojito

 “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain

December 2011

A few years ago, if people had told me they would be spending their precious holiday time lounging around on a South Pacific beach, I would have sniggered behind their back.  Thoughts of boredom, sunburn, and sand lodged uncomfortably up the back of my swimsuit, instantly would have come to mind.  Also, with a whole world of rich cultural experiences to select from, why would someone choose to pay a whole heap of money to lounge around doing nothing?

So, when in 2011 my Mother in Law suggested spending Christmas at Fiji, it's fair to say that I was less than enthusiastic.  We'd initially booked to spend Christmas on a South Pacific Cruise, but poor reviews of the ship had given us cold feet.  Not content to go from pre-holiday excitement to no holiday at all, I started to look into alternatives.

When deciding to spend a Christmas away from home, I had a strict set of criteria:
No cooking.
No cleaning.
No traveling in a car.
 I reluctantly had to admit that my Mother in Law's suggestion would tick off all of these criteria quite nicely.
Blue Water.  Tick.  White Sand. Tick.

Also, I felt like I had just been handed a challenge.  I am Karina: Travel Planner Extraordinaire.  Beach holiday or not, I was not one to back away from the test of organising a great family getaway.

So, with that, the hours of research into Fijian resorts began and with it came a new set of criteria.  Besides the obvious issue of budget, I had a long list of wishes: White sand, blue water, calm beaches for Oskar, great snorkeling, enough activities on offer that we wouldn't be bored, and the ability to lounge around in my swimsuit without hundreds of people around to see me.  This last wish proved to be the biggest challenge.

While I take my hat off to all the proud exhibitionists amongst you, let's just say that swimwear and I are not friends.  We all have our little insecurities, and lounging around in public with minimal clothing is mine.

Plenty of Privacy.  Tick.
Scott put in just one request.  He wanted a resort with a hobie cat.  Not sure why really - he never stepped foot in a hobie cat the whole stay.  But he is so agreeable and makes so few requests - what husband wants, husband gets.

Well-resourced activities shed, including much-desired, but never-used, hobie cat.  Tick.

A process of elimination ensued at at the end I was left with one option - Navini Island Resort.

Enjoying Navini from a distance.
Doing research into Navini, the first thing you will discover is how tiny it is.  The Lonely Planet Guide Fiji (2009) describes Navini in the following way: "From a distance Navini looks like a round wafer biscuit topped with thick pesto.  Up close , this small island is just as delicious." *  I love this analogy.  Delicious is the perfect word to describe Navini - exciting, yet comforting, all at the same time.

From the moment we stepped off the plane, I knew we had made a good choice.  Henry, Navini's friendly shuttle driver, was waiting outside the arrival gate to meet us.  Within moments we were being whisked away to Lautoka,  location of Navini's marina.  On arrival our bags were quickly transfered onto Navini's boat and within just a few more minutes we were jetting across the ocean towards our tiny Island home for the next 8 nights.  The whole transfer, from airport to island, took only about an hour.

The first smell you notice is that of Frangipani
Asthe boat slowed down for arrival I was instantly enamoured by the lush green foliage and bright white sand that made up this tiny circular island.  Waiting on the sand were two Navini staff members, waving in our arrival as if welcoming new friends.  Surrounding the boat was a clear aquamarine ocean; so clear you could see right to the bottom. I knew we'd just arrived somewhere special.

What followed were the 8 most relaxing days of our lives and one of the best holidays we'd ever been on.

In Fiji a villa is called a bure and Navini has just 10.  The Resort's biggest bure sleeps up to 8 people and the smallest bures sleep up to 3.  At any one time there is no more than about 30 guests on the island.

Empty beach

The Island's bures are all beachfront and are all hidden amongst the Island's thick green foliage.  Each bure has it's own hammock and loungers and privacy is provided in bucket loads.  Even while out in the water, the small number of guests meant that there was rarely anyone around.  You will notice that my photos are mostly devoid of people in the background.  This wasn't intentional.  The beach was simply empty the majority of the time.  It really felt at times that we had booked a whole island to our ourselves - a luxury some resorts charge thousands of dollars a night for.

Despite being a group of just 4, we had booked the Island's Premier Villa that sleeps up to 8.  This was not by choice, but by necessity.  It was the only Bure left unbooked at about 10 months before Christmas.  It seems we were lucky.  By the time we had left Navini in 2011, they were already booked out for Christmas 2012.

Our modest accommodation 
When securing a holiday with Navini, you have to book direct with the resort.  Most travel agents have never even heard of Navini because, besides a website, they do not advertise.  They do not need to.  The hype surrounding Navini Island Resort on Trip Advisor, paired with a lot of repeat customers, means that this little Fijian gem books out year after year based purely on word of mouth.  I enjoyed this feeling of exclusivity.  It was like being included in this special little secret that few other people knew about.

Handline fishing.  No luck unfortunately.
As part of your room rate, Navini provides an optional excursion every morning that we almost always chose to participate in.  Such activities included island-hopping, snorkelling trips, village visits and fishing.   After lunch, we would alternate between snorkeling in the protected-reef surrounding the Island, making use of the resort's well-resourced water sports equipment shed, and lounging in our private hammock reading a book.  My fears of feeling bored were quickly dispersed.

Meal times were social, lively and communal - one of the few times of the day where all the guests would come together to chat.   The conversations with people from all corners of the world were relaxed and enjoyable, and it was great to share my love of travel with like-minded vacationers.  Questions always asked of new arrivals to the Island included, "How did you find out about Navini?" and "How many times have you been here?".  One group of Swedish travellers were on about their twelfth visit.   It seems they couldn't find anywhere closer to home that offered such great diving and such a wonderful atmosphere.

One night per week is lovo night.  Singing, dancing, kava and a traditional Fijian buffet.

Candlelit dinner on the beach
Of course, for the less sociable and the honeymooners, there were more private dining options.   Private romantic dinners on the beach or in your bure could be set up at no extra charge.   We thought briefly about trying a beach dinner but the draw of lively conversation was just too appealing.  We did take the time, however, to try a romantic moonlit dinner on a return visit during October last year.  Candlelight, moonlight, feet buried in sand, the sound of gentle lapping waves, and delicious cocktails all combine to make for one very intoxicating combination.  I could get used to this.

Fresh fruit each day at breakfast
Words that describe the meals are fresh, plentiful and comforting.   A word that does not describe the food is gourmet.  Just like the bures and service, the food does not represent 5-star luxury.  To me, it represented something better - a relaxed, homely environment where it felt like you were staying with friends or family.  I think that's why people land on Navini and don't want to leave.  You are made to feel welcome from the moment you arrive and there is nothing pretentious about the people or the atmosphere.  The owners will often join you at meals and chat openly about the high and lows of running this small Pacific Ocean oasis.  They are clearly proud of their biggest asset - their hard working staff - without whom, Navini would not be the special place it is.

While enjoying pre-dinner drinks, and chatting with new found friends, the hardest decision of the day comes into play:  pina colada or minty mojito?  Who am I kidding?  It's a no-brainer really.  Those mojitos are to die for.

Beautiful sunsets and sunrises
During our 8 nights on Navini, the highlight of our stay was Christmas.  About 5:30 in the morning I was awoken by the most glorious sound.  Outside, in the darkness, angels were singing, and their melodic voices were drifting all over the island.  I lay in bed joyful, loving that on this Christmas day it was not my alarm waking me up telling me it was time to start preparing salads and desserts, but rather the beautiful voices of Navini staff, declaring that today was one to be rejoiced.  According to Arthur, Navini's owner, his staff do this because they want to, not because they are paid to do it.  This made it all the more special.

Reindeer hoof prints
After the morning serenade,  everyone went back to sleep for a while longer except for me.  I had some scheming to do.

The day prior, Scott and Oskar had built a big sandcastle outside our bure.  This was to let Santa know that we were in Fiji and not home in New Zealand.  I busied myself on Christmas morning making sure Oskar knew he hadn't been forgotten.  A hollowed out piece of coconut made great reindeer hoof impressions in the sand.  A couple of dug-out straight lines looked a lot like a pair of sleigh blade indents.  A quick 'Merry Christmas Oskar' message etched into the sand, and a present left swinging in the hammock, my charade was complete.  Oskar, of course, was both fooled and delighted.  Success!

In all respects, Navini was a wonderful place to take a young child.  Between playing in the sheltered waters, taking rides on the tandem kayaks, building sandcastles, and giving names to many of the Island's resident crabs, Oskar was in beach heaven.  The staff seemed to love kids and would fuss over him a lot at every meal.  This paired with the special treatment he always gets when his grandmother is around, he certainly wasn't deficient in attention.

Blue Starfish
During the times when Scott and I wanted a few child-free moments, we would leave Oskar with my lovely Mother in Law, and then take to the water to do some snorkelling.  The underwater sanctuary surrounding the Island is teeming with life.  The kaleidoscope of ocean life includes everything from exotic lionfish, blue-spotted rays, and my chosen favourite: the Picasso Triggerfish.  Some lucky resort guests even saw a turtle or two.  Floating on top of the water, admiring what extraordinary beauties lay below, I was in my new-found 'happy-place'.
Harmless locals

Even outside of the water, its possible to stand at the shore's edge and watch as schools of small sharks skirt around in the shallows trying to herd in their next meal.  The sight is joyful and the sharks harmless.  Even Oskar got brave enough to approach them as the week moved on.

 "What did you do with your 4 year old son this holidays?"
 "I let him play with sharks."

Anenome Fish
Of course, it's rare to discover a paradise where there doesn't lurk at least one enemy.  At Navini, these enemies came by the name of 'sea lice'.  Not exactly lice, as the name suggests, but rather a microscopic, larval form of jellyfish.  While out swimming, it is not uncommon to swim through a patch of these little critters - the proof of which comes from the stinging sensation you feel against your skin.  Probably the best way to describe the feeling is like dozens of teeny tiny electric shocks.  Uncomfortable? Yes.  Frightening?  Perhaps the first time.  Scary enough to keep me out of the water?  Absolutely not!  No number of catch-ups with these cantankerous creatures was enough to scare me out of my new-found happy place.

The thing about sea lice is that they don't sting you intentionally.  They get trapped between your skin and what you're wearing, and this causes them to trigger their stingers (for lack of the proper scientific word).  This is where a love of bikinis really would have come in handy.  The less clothing you have on, the less places they have to get trapped.   I learnt from experience that swimming ahead to a lice-free patch, then pulling my togs and snorkel away from my skin was usually enough to wash them away.  It was only when I got straight out of the water, that I ended up with a resulting itch, albeit short lasting.

Eventually the week came to an end and it was time to leave.  Admittedly I was missing a few home comforts - TV, internet and the daily news being a few of them.  But given the choice, I would love to have stayed on for a week or two more.  As the boat back to the mainland pulled away from Navini, and the waving staff became a dot in the horizon, I knew that we'd have to return one day.  

Just 9 months later, late September 2012, Scott and I did return for a romantic, child-free visit.  We loved Navini so much over Christmas that we booked a return visit within a month of getting home.  This is practically unheard of for us.  I tend to have a 'been there, done that' attitude towards travel and once I've ticked a destination of our bucket list, it's time to look forward to the next one.  Yet it seems there is only one cure for the Navini-withdrawals, and that seems to be a booking to visit again.  No wonder their repeat custom is so high.

I should mention at this late stage of the blog, that all of these photos of Navini were taken during both trips. I don't want to write a lot about our second visit. It would be much of the same glowing remarks.  Yet the combined photos of both trips help to capture so much of what we loved about our time on the Island.

My Holiday Highlights.  
Really too many to list.  However, off the top of my head:

Christmas Day
A Traditional Christmas Roast Dinner


Parrotfish.  My Camera was unable to do the colours justice.
The Day Trip to the Sand Cay

Evening Cocktails
No pics of the mojitos unfortunately

Friendly staff
Farewell.  We will be back.

Quality time with my family

Scott's Holiday Highlights

Relaxing with a beer.  Stress?  What is that?

How effortless the holiday was.  Picked up from the airport, dropped off at the airport.  We prepaid almost everything and there were no hidden costs.

Oskar's Holiday Highlight

His pet hermit crab, Mr Crabbie Pattie.

* Starnes, D., Luckham, N. 2009.  Fiji. 8th Edition, Lonely Planet Publications.