The islands of Fiji are a slice of South Pacific paradise: a dramatic montage of lush volcanic isles fringed by palm-studded beaches; uninhabited sandy cays seemingly lost at sea; seeped-in-tradition villages; and sparkling blue lagoons teeming with colorful coral reefs.
A cruise delivers an effortless and cost-effective means of sampling some of the vast island nation's 300-plus diverse isles. The folks behind Australian-owned Captain Cook Cruises offer expertly crafted itineraries to the popular Yasawa Islands archipelago, set northwest of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu (site of the international airport at Nadi), where sailings embark from the Port Denarau Marina.
I recently hopped aboard the 130-passenger MV Reef Endeavor for a short-but-sweet 3-night sailing to the Mamanuca and Southern Yasawa Islands, with a jam-packed itinerary highlighting daily island stopovers (with fresh destinations each morning and afternoon), and excursions like snorkeling and glass-bottom boat tours, guided visits to local villages and schools, and a traditional island feast and kava ceremony.
Predictably, most of the activity centered on jumping into the crystal-clear waters and onto the beaches for some Fiji-style R & R. Guests were assigned snorkeling equipment for the duration of the cruise, and a marine biologist offered insight into the region's rich marine life via onboard reef talks and guided snorkeling excursions. The fish and coral on the pristine reefs brought major wow-factor: I encountered stingray, angelfish, clownfish, blue starfish, and colorful sea cucumbers on one outing alone.
Other water-bound diversions included glass-bottom boat tours and optional (for-a-fee) scuba dive outings. Beach bumming on secluded strips of sand also took top billing, which was best enjoyed on Nukui Mana Cay, a dreamy stretch of sandy cay that cruise guests commanded sole use of, and on Monuriki Island, setting for Tom Hanks' Castaway (an unscheduled but well-received stop).
The other core component of Captain Cook's voyages is cultural engagement, including visits to a local island school and a special Sunday choral mass. We exchanged a "bula" (a Fijian greeting) with the locals while touring villages, perused local handicrafts, attended a special sevusevu welcoming ceremony, joined a traditional kava ceremony (a root-sourced drink) and lovo feast (a Fijian dinner cooked in an earth oven), and took in a meke performance of traditional song and dance.
The small ship size allowed for personalized service, and regular passenger interaction. Apart from the itinerary, the cruise line's strongest asset was its crew, which came helmed by an efficient German cruise director, and general staff of friendly locals, who made a good attempt at service.
Passengers on our sailing were a laidback bunch, mostly in the 40-plus age bracket and hailing largely from Australia, with a sprinkling of New Zealanders, Europeans, and Americans in the mix. Our Easter week cruise counted about a dozen kids onboard, and the cruise line did prove family-friendly with its relaxed atmosphere, fun-in-the-sun activities, and complimentary babysitting services (for kids ages 5 to 10; younger children are not encouraged onboard).
Despite the cruise line's many redeeming qualities, the Reef Endeavor was in clear need of some updating, which is reportedly in the works. Granted, some soft refurbishments are already in place, and the ship is operating under a handicap after being pummeled by Cyclone Evan this winter, but I couldn't help but dub it "the ship that time forgot"—with dated room decor, a library of VHS tapes (!) in the Reef Room lounge, and a small and dusty gym. To its credit, the cruise line recently added new outdoor furnishings in the pool area and sundeck, and installed new carpeting and furnishings in the lounge. And for a nice value-add, free (though intermittent) WiFi was on offer in designated spots.
On our sailing in March, the main lounge area was temporarily doubling as the dining room, as cyclone-related repairs were ongoing the dining saloon (the new room will be unveiled in May). À la carte dinners and simple buffet breakfasts weren't all too memorable—the open-deck BBQ, Indian-themed lunch buffets, and the onshore lovo feast fared much better. Appropriately tropical and frothy cocktails were available at an extra charge.
Onboard atmosphere, in accordance with Fiji island mentality, was relaxed and informal. Guests spent most of the day in beachwear, swapping out swimsuits for "smart casual" duds for dinner and drinks. For village visits, modest dress was requested.
Snug, no-frills standard cabins came with AC, basic bathroom amenities, and a small vanity desk; rooms offered porthole windows looking out to the outside deck. Larger Tabua Suites were double the size and tacked on a dayroom area and second bathroom. Connecting family staterooms were also available, with some rooms equipped with bunk beds.
Captain Cook Cruises has been operating in Fiji for more than 20 years, and offers a year-round series of 3-, 4-, and 7-night itineraries to Northern Fiji and the Yasawa Islands. Early-booking fares for the 3-night sailings (departing every Saturday) start at $824/person (kids ages 5 to 17 from $164), including shore excursions and post-disembarkation ground transfers.
Modern-day explorer, perpetual seeker, and diligent travel scribe Elissa Richard has set out circumnavigating the globe on an ambitious 14-month adventure. Tag along on her travels through Europe, Asia, the South Pacific, and Latin America—and on the high seas in between—as she reports back to Fodors.com on captivating cruises, hot hotels, and timely travel trends.