Exploring the Lau Archipelago in Fiji From a Small Ship
Story and Photos by Chantae Reden

A travel writer living in Fiji who has been dreaming of an enchanted island chain that's like an archipelago of legends gets invited to go check them out—if she'll just agree to do it on a cruise ship.

Fiji Travel story

For years, I listened as friends told stories about how incredible the Fijian archipelago of Lau was. According to everyone who ventured there, Lau is where the water is clearer, the sky is starrier, and the sea turtles are bigger than anywhere else in the world. Lau took on a mystical reputation, and I'd daydream about its faraway islands while dodging taxis hell-bent on running me over on the streets of beach-barren Suva, Fiji's capital city where I was based. 

Unless you have your own yacht or want to board the once per month barge that supplies Fiji's outer islands, a small ship cruise is the only way to truly see Lau as a tourist.

I'd gotten a small taste of the region a few years ago when my friends and I chartered Lily G III, a 30-year-old fishing boat, and ventured to one of the closest islands in the Lau archipelago, Matuku. My friends and I slept eight to a room inside the boat while our captain and his crew slept up top. We spent our days freediving with reef sharks, surfing, and sipping coconuts at a village near our anchorage. Thinking back, the sea turtles of Matuku did seem pretty big.

Fulaga FijiWhen the chance arrived to embark on a seven-night cruise to Lau onboard MV Reef Endeavour, part of Captain Cook Cruises, I didn't need to think about it.

My partner wouldn't be able to come, but I knew my friend Clare would be keen. Like me, she'd been drawn to Lau's mystique for years. We'd traveled together before, and always bonded over the fact that neither of us enjoy relaxing when there were adventures to be had.

The weeks leading up to the trip, we fine-tuned our packing list.

"Should we bring our surfboards?" I asked. "We could cram them into a corner somewhere."

"No, I don't think we'll be allowed to go find waves on our own," Clare reasoned. "Let's bring our wetsuits and freediving fins, though."

We couldn't forget our matching straw hats.

Take me Away, MV Reef Endeavour

The crew welcomed us with a song as we boarded Reef Endeavour. Clare and I made our way to the front of the ship as it departed. This ship wasn't a floating city like many of the cruise ships that steam around the South Pacific, which added to its appeal. It was like the ship didn't expect me to spend all day onboard, and wouldn't be offended if I only used it as a hub to sleep, eat, and maybe read a book in the shade.

We cruised past our local surf spot and waved goodbye to our friends who looked microscopic sitting on their surfboards. A pod of dolphins swam alongside the ship. Despite surfing in the harbor tens of times, I'd never seen dolphins before. I took it as a good omen of what was to come.

Our room was surprisingly spacious for a cruise ship, especially considering the eight-person sleeping arrangement we'd gotten used to. Before the trip, I envisioned us sleeping on damp beds that'd been subjected to dripping bikinis and wetsuits strung around the room. Fortunately, there was enough space to hang our wet clothes out front.

Welcome to Qilaqila

Fiji FreedivingOn the first morning, our ship entered Qilaqila, the Bay of Islands. Dramatic, jagged, and unforgiving, this cluster of islands looked as though we'd stepped back into the Jurassic era. The ship's hospitality manager announced the trip's first snorkeling tour departure. Clare and I shuffled down to the glass bottom tender with our freediving gear in hand.

Beneath the limestone islets were bommies alive with hard corals and reef fish. Territorial clown fish darted in and out of their homes, protecting their young tucked deep in the anemone. We explored caves inhabited by bats, swam through cutouts in the reef, and I felt a sense of wonder of being able to immerse myself somewhere so remote.

During this first snorkeling excursion, Clare and I planted the seed of a bad habit that would stay with us throughout the trip. Whenever the snorkeling tour boat hollered for us to board, we'd swim as fast as we could away from the boat until we reached the back of the snorkeler pack. If I could stay in the ocean a little bit longer, maybe the magic of Lau would seep through my pores and I'd be able to take it home with me.

Fulaga, a Bouquet of Islands

Clare and I dangled our legs off the bow of the tender and peered into the water below. Shades of teal, turquoise, aqua, and cobalt passed beneath our toes. While I'd heard the Bay of Islands was beautiful, nobody ever told me about Fulaga—a cluster of islands connected by strips of white sand. The islands were shaped like bouquets, with limestone stems and palm treetops. These palm trees refused to grow in groves. Instead, they sprouted on unforgiving crags, craving life over the open water.

The shapes beneath the surface of the sea acted like Rorschach tests, with some guests yelling "Manta!" or "Turtle" whenever we passed a dark form.

The tender parked at a beach shaded by a large mushroom-shaped island. Feet on the sand, we set off exploring. I with the drone and Clare with the stand-up paddleboard. Clare paddled to one of the other islands, far enough away to spur a crew member into corralling her back to the hub island. We both got into a kayak and pulled ourselves around the limestone clusters, quickly finding a beach all to ourselves. We sprinted across the sand and yelped like wild things, high from knowing there was a place like this left on earth. Clare and I kept asking each other, "How can we get back here?"

I boarded the cruise ship happy to know that I finally had an answer to the dreaded question of, "Where's the most beautiful place you've ever been?"

From then on, Fulaga would be my obvious answer.

Deep into Vuaqava

A coconut crab the size of my head scuttled across the beach of Vuaqava, the third stop on our Lau journey. As the name suggests, coconut crabs feast on coconuts, and they're considered a delicacy in the South Pacific.

Fiji coconut crab

We hiked into Vuaqava's interior, scanning the trees for more coconut crabs. One was spotted near the trail, and a crew member of the ship had to intercept a cruiser trying to knock the crab down with a stick. After forty minutes, we arrived at the island's saltwater lake.

Vuaqava was once an inhabited island, abandoned in the late 1860s due to a cholera outbreak. Those who were infected with the disease were placed in caves, and their skeletons can still be seen today—a reminder of mortality tucked in between the trees.

After the hike, we went into the water. In my experience, it's rare for the geography of a reef to be more interesting than the creatures living within the reef itself. This was not the case at Vuaqava, where a reef with sprawling crevices invited Clare and me to explore deeper than we planned. It felt as though I was flying over a gorge, and I loved the rush of warmth followed by the shock of cool water as I dove beneath the thermocline.

Rumors in Close Quarters

I was getting used to life onboard the ship. Breakfast was served at around 7:00 each morning, usually followed by a morning excursion. We'd be back onboard for lunch and have just enough time to prepare for the afternoon activity. Every activity was predated with a 15 minute until boarding announcement, given by the friendly hospitality manager over the ship's loudspeaker. By now, the tender boat knew not to bother picking me and Clare up until the other guests were already onboard, lest we swim, kayak, or paddle further away.

With little outside stimulation, people watching became the top tier activity whenever we were on the ship. Apparently, the others onboard had been doing some people watching of their own.

A rumor started about me and Clare that revolved around our freediving skills. One passenger claimed to have seen me hold my breath for 15 minutes, witnessing a new world record in freediving! Another person heard that Clare could dive to 15 meters, which is less exciting as a rumor because she can go to 30, easy. I enjoyed this unfounded fame, but knew it was just one Google search away from toppling. Fortunately, we were nowhere near phone reception and wouldn't have service for a few more days. I'd covet my world-champion freediver reputation until then.

For dinner, you could choose to sit with friends or have the cruise organizers arrange your seating for you. Clare and I opted for a mix-and-match, choosing our companions one night and allowing for Russian roulette seating the next.

On this night, we sat across from a man and woman we'd yet to talk to. A heavy silence filled the space between us.

When the appetizers came, I cracked.

"So, how did you two meet?" I asked the couple sitting across from me.

The woman looked at me and said, "He's my son."

Silence reintroduced itself back to our table.

"It's because you look so young," Clare said, redeeming the situation.

Village Living on Kabara Island

When I hear of cruise trips, I often imagine ports that resemble Disneyland's Toon Town, a place that is lively when tourists are around but turns into a ghost town as soon as the last cash cow steps off its premises. I've seen this in the Caribbean and wondered if this element of cruising would reveal itself as soon as we entered a village. But it's not lucrative or practical to create a Toon Town around a ship that only ventures to your island once or twice per year. In Fiji, it's customary to offer a sevusevu, typically a gift of kava, to a village whenever you enter. The visit to Kabara was no different, with crew members presenting yaqona, kava, to the elders of Kabara. Segregated by gender, we gathered under the community center and watched the kava ceremony take place before being welcomed to roam the grounds. The island is famous for carving tanoa, the bowl used to serve kava. Near the community center, some Kabara residents sold seashells and jewelry. Others sold hand carved tanoa for just a fraction of the price of what you'd find them for on the main islands.

We wandered to one of the few post offices in the region and sent postcards to family back home. As a ship only comes once per month to collect the post, we assumed our postcards wouldn't be beating any speed records. Surprisingly, the novelty of sending a piece of mail from one of the most remote places in Fiji was a highlight of the day.

The scuba dive center onboard, Viti Water Sports, gave us the green light to go scuba diving off Kabara. White sand stretched along the seabed like a desert landscape, broken up by clusters of huge coral bommies. Garden eels poked their heads above the sand, conning predators into thinking they're sea grass. A white tip reef shark slinked behind one of the bommies, likely startled by the crew of scuba divers and our noisy bubbles.

Back on the island, the cruise ship kayaks had been commandeered by the kids of Kabara. They spent the afternoon kayaking, swimming, and jumping off fishing boats—the last of which Clare also joined in on. All the while, the adults prepared for the evening's feast and dance performance.

Toyota beach

Come sunset, everyone gathered around Kabara's community center with a pile of meat and vegetables on their laps. Many of the dishes were prepared in a lovo, an underground oven made from a pit filled with hot coals. Food that is cooked inside of a lovo has a distinct smokey and earthy taste. I took a huge scoop of palusami—taro leaves cooked with coconut milk. After that scoop finished, I went back and got another.

Totoya, Island of Song and Dance

A line of little kids wearing grass skirts, anklets, and wrist bands squinted under the morning sun. They'd been preparing for this moment for months, the first chance to put on a song and dance performance for visitors since the last time MV Reef Endeavour visited Totoya—about a year ago. The song began and each kid went rogue with their dance moves until the chorus hit. At that point, they synced up and nailed the best bit of the song in unison. The older kids, of course, were more synchronized in their moves but there's no doubt the little ones will get there someday. It made sense that the ship's lead entertainer—a man who never played the same song twice—attended this school on Totoya.

Totoya is an island shaped like a horseshoe with a deep lagoon in its center. Its fringing reef is home to one of the liveliest I'd ever seen. Spiraling Christmas tree worms, pipe fish, anemones, giant clams, hard corals, and soft corals are all just a meter or two below the water: sea life served on a visual platter. A reef shark cruised alongside us, curious enough to stay close. For a while, we followed the reef's ledge until the snorkel guides hollered out their last boarding calls.

Fiji coral life

Totoya was our last stop in Lau, and we wanted to take in every moment of the island. With all possible activities accomplished, we relaxed on the beach with a beer in hand. Shadows from the palm trees stretched onto the sand, revealing a two-dimensional perspective of a destination that caters to all senses.

Kava time in Kadavu

Formally out of Lau, we spent the last day aboard MV Reef Endeavour anchored off Kadavu. The village welcomed us with flower necklaces, singing, and ushered us into their community center. On one side, men pounded kava. On the other, locals in bright clothing sang, danced, and clapped to the beat. It was the liveliest vibe of anywhere we'd been so far, and neither Clare nor I could turn down any kava that came our way. When I went back to the ship, Clare stayed behind in the village and danced until the last tender coaxed her and a few other party-loving passengers back onboard.

The problem with expectations is that they're often impossible to meet. I knew it was a dangerous game to go on this trip with so many preconceived notions about a place like Lau. What if I hated it? As some stories on the Perceptive Travel blog reveal, I'm someone who loves to hate things. But after seeing Lau for myself, it really was better than I ever hoped it would be.

Kadavu Fiji drone view


Captain Cook Cruises offers an 11-night Discovery Cruise of this part of Fiji just twice per year. Cruises depart from Port Denarau Marina, Nadi.

Chantae Raden retired her winter clothes in 2017 and moved to Fiji. She's a regular contributor to the Perceptive Travel Blog, runs The Salt Sirens and Chantae Was Here, and has contributed to publications like Vice, Matador, Surfgirl, and Surfd.com. She's the author of the Moon Bali and Lombok guidebook. See more at her portfolio site.

Related Features:
Tanna: The Isle of Curious Cults - Stephen M. Bland
A Marvelous Trance in the Highlands of Fiji - Bruce Northam
Finding the Secret Beaches of Panama and Costa Rica - Tim Leffel
A Technicolor Dream Cruise - Amy Rosen

See other South Pacific travel stories from the archives

Read this article online at: https://perceptivetravel.com/issues/0621/fiji.html

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