I first arrived Taveuni in 1980 as part of a University of the South Pacific student group, cobbled together to rebuild an earthquake-shattered village. We debarked from an ancient cargo boat at a spare pier, boarded a bus and bumped along the unpaved road. The bus passed tumbledown coconut plantations and muscular, barefoot men toting cane knives, en route to their garden plots.
Today the road is paved, but the island’s primal character endures. Comparable to Lanai in size and shape, Taveuni is thick with primeval rainforest and iridescent red-breasted parrots. The rich volcanic soil renders Taveuni fecund, dripping with breadfruit, coconuts, mangoes and papaya, free for the taking along the roadside.
They don’t call it the Garden Island of Fiji for nothing.
The airstrip has the same rough-hewn benches, where the distant drone of the Twin Otter prop plane informs passengers (mostly scuba divers) of arrival time.
Taveuni’s rich undersea life is what beckoned Big Island natives Roberta Davis and her husband, John Llanes. Davis was entranced by the pink, undulating soft coral which she had only seen in books. Llanes, a third-generation Hawaiian fisherman, was astounded by the abundance of yellowfin tuna, swordfish, mahi-mahi and marlin in the deep blue waters of the Somosomo Strait, just offshore.
The biggest draw in Taveuni however are the indigenous Fijians — warm people with enormous hearts and a ribald sense of humor. With their roots in Hawaii, Llanes and Davis felt an affinity with the Fijian culture. Taveuni reminded them of the Big Island in the 1960s — still undeveloped and authentic.
Off the grid & self-sufficient
Two miles down from the airstrip they acquired a 4-acre parcel of a former coconut plantation, running mauka to makai. Perched on a bluff above the sea, they constructed three stylish bungalows and named it Makaira, the scientific genus for marlin.
Makaira Resort’s most important attractions revolve around the ocean. Davis takes visitors snorkeling on a magnificent reef that fronts her property while Llanes goes deep-sea fishing in his 33-foot custom boat, tricked out with two 250-horsepower Yamaha outboard engines.
At Makaira, you’ll hear the soft thump of a generator — a ubiquitous sound on Taveuni, which is largely off the grid. To me, it’s the sound of self-reliance.
“Sustainability is key to survival,” says Davis who tends her own organic garden. Skipper Llanes, who’s fishing skills are legendary, generously shares his catch with villagers or it is transformed into sashimi at Rosie’s Sea View, the cozy in-house eatery on the property.
The Fijian couple who run it (Isoa and Rosie) serve up Indian and Thai curries, stir-fries and wonderful soups. The eatery’s intimacy made me feel as if I were in their kitchen — which I was. Isoa’s repertoire ranges from seafood pasta to lovo, the Fijian equivalent of a luau, which entails steamed fish, roro (spinach-like taro leaves in coconut cream) and uvi (yams) — all wrapped in banana leaves and steamed over heated stones.
In addition to the in-house dining, Makaira has a resident massage therapist, Mere (also the bookkeeper), who performs bobo, a traditional Fijian practice, passed down from mother to daughter. Mere has a magnificent smile and remarkably powerful hands. Using homemade coconut oil steeped in medicinal herbs, she probed every knot in my back. (A complementary mini massage is offered to all guests upon arrival.)
Makaira’s reef, which fronts the property, is not immune to the forces of climate change. A decade ago, after a pummeling by Cyclone Tomas, it was reduced to rubble. Davis grieved and, to revive it, experimented with coral gardening. She was the first in Fiji to do so.
Guests expressed interest in helping her with this endeavor and within a few years, the reef was back to its former splendor. Planting coral became a standard visitor’s activity and she often books guests with intention of coral gardening.
If you can hold your breath long enough to dive 10 feet or less and jam a stub of coral into the reef, you can call yourself a coral gardener. Davis feels so strongly about protecting the reef, she has petitioned the government to turn her reef into a marine reserve.
Although Llanes jokingly calls himself a “serial fish killer” his sense of humor belies his deep belief in malama, or stewardship. He implores local fishermen to release gamefish (marlin, sailfish, giant trevally) which take years to mature. Over the years he’s released thousands of fish.
His sharp eyes scour the ocean for baitfish (where schools of tuna feed), stranded vessels and foreign long-line fishing boats, which are notorious for poaching in the Somosomo Strait, deep within Fiji’s territorial waters.
“There’s still a bit of the Wild West in Taveuni,” says Llanes, “which keeps it interesting.”
Things to do on Taveuni
Taveuni has no shortage of attractions.
>> Visit Bouma Falls (all three of them) and Lavena nature reserves for a 2-mile coastal hike along the island’s best beach.
>> Spend an afternoon at Civa Fiji Pearls for a snorkel tour to observe how the pearls are grown.
>> Tour Bobby’s Farm, 100 acres of integrated organic farmland mixed with native rainforest in Vuna Village.
>> Experience the Gaiatree Sanctuary, an organic farm where you can savor herbal tonics, smoothies and a vegetarian meal.
>> Go birding to see the orange dove, collared lory, Vanikoro broadbill, black-naped tern, wattled honeyeater and the Fiji goshawk.
>> Check out the site of the former international date line and listen to the heavenly Wairiki Mission chorus at Sunday Mass.
Rob Kay is the author of the Lonely Planet Fiji guidebook and FijiGuide website. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.