Fiji remakes its destination image as it taps into the global travel zeitgeist, reports Elizabeth Kerr.
Picture this: You're sitting on a high-speed ferry traveling from Denarau, just off Fiji's main island of Viti Levu. It's raining heavily and the seas are rolling. Some of the ferry tours in and around the harbor have been canceled, but your trip to Castaway Island - which predates the Tom Hanks movie by decades, for the record - is a go. Once on board, the boat rocks and rolls, beverages sitting on tables go tumbling, and waves crash violently against the window when the ferry smacks the swells.
But this is a seafaring nation; these people know how to handle some choppy water.
To keep nervous passengers' minds off the weather, one of the ferry's crew picks up a guitar and starts a unique rendition of "Hokey Pokey," throwing in some colorful lyrics for the fun of it. Welcome to Fiji.
The island nation in the South Pacific is experiencing something of a renaissance beyond the region, but where Hongkongers and Beijingers have Thailand and Hainan for long weekends, Australians and New Zealanders have been taking jaunts up to Fiji for years.
Visitor arrivals are up, major hotel brands are eyeing Fiji properties and the country's flag carrier, Air Pacific, just launched a major blitz detailing its new route to Hong Kong and is aggressively targeting the China market.
Fiji's stunning natural beauty and Maldives-level pristine beaches attract beach bunnies, wedding planners and honeymooners in droves.
Most major resorts are able to cater to families with a broad menu of activities and facilities and provide daycare. That said there are several adults-only resorts for those keen to avoid hyperactive toddlers.
Eco-travelers will be attracted to Fiji's relative underdevelopment and untapped wilderness, as will the health conscious.
For a variety of reasons, Fiji has no industrial farming and locals and visitors alike eat whatever fell off a tree or came from the ocean that day: it's organic farming by default.
And Air Pacific serves the region, making Fiji an ideal jumping off point for further exploration of Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga and beyond.
But more than just crystal-clear water and incredible food (you haven't eaten a papaya until you've had one in Fiji) it's the people that really make a travel experience memorable.
"Bula," or hello, is handed out liberally, and if you don't reply in kind, you'll feel like a fool. There is something incredibly genuine about Fijian hospitality, and it never feels forced.
A deeply religious nation in the purest sense of the word, Fijians are among the most tolerant and accepting people you will ever meet.
There are many ways to experience Fiji, and more than one trip could be required.
Distances seem close on a map, but winding roads, unpaved detours and island-hopping take time.
Most people go to Fiji to vacation - all-inclusive resort stays with activities at the doorstep and a lovely hammock to lounge in.
Fiji is home to many of the multinational brands and has a few of its own.
The two-year old InterContinental Golf Resort and Spa (www.ichotelsgroup.com) features an impeccably manicured golf course, fine dining at Navo, and swank cocktail lounges. If the hotel has a theme, it's bringing the outside in: Hotel suites spill onto terraces and the pool seems to touch to the ocean.
At the spa at The Westin Denarau Island Resort &Spa (www.starwoodhotels.com) a Fijian Bobo massage is done outdoors, so don't be surprised to find a banana tree growing up through the floor of your shower.
But for a taste of old-school accommodation the aforementioned Castaway (www.castawayfiji.com) opened its doors in the 1970s, making it the grand dame of Fijian resorts.
The majority of Castaway's staff have worked - and lived - at the hotel for five or 10 years, sometimes more, and that family atmosphere bleeds into its guests.
The rooms have no phones, no Wi-Fi, no televisions. If it's peace, romance and distraction-free time you want, that's precisely what you'll get.
Be prepared to leave your shoes in your room. Fijians hate shoes and take every opportunity to ditch them.
All the major resorts offer up a taste of Fijian culture (fire-walking is a favorite) on their premises but another option is a homestay.
Viti Eco Tours (www.fijiecotours.net) is an operator specializing in off-the-beaten path Fiji, whose aim is to showcase aspects of Fiji beyond snorkeling and tanning.
Tours also impact the communities, like Tau Village, directly. The residents of Tau, a tiny hamlet located on Viti Levu's west side, collectively decided it was time to share the local lore with visitors and get more involved in the tourism fire that Fiji has been stoking.
According to guide Jo Sevatarove, legend states the ancient limestone cave near the village, a 4,000-year-old settlement site, was the birthplace of the local culture.
Money earned from the cave visits also helps keep the local school up and running, the only one serving the larger region and where Jo doubles as a teacher - his actual profession.
The majority of Fiji's population still lives in its rural areas and it is in the village that you'll get a real taste of Fiji, literally and figuratively.
The cave tours include a stop for lunch at a local home where you can sample a traditional Fijian lovo meal - a ground-cooked feast similar to a Maori hangi, Jordanian zerb or Texan barbecue pit.
Don't miss having rourou on the side.
Eating in Fiji is like a humiliation-free detox program. To most people's desensitized buds, natural or organic foods don't taste any different from processed ones but a few days of noshing homegrown fare disproves that.
Fruits and vegetables at resort eateries are locally sourced and tend toward indigenous produce as well as seafood.
As Castaway's executive chef Lance Seeto notes, foreign foods are imported from Australia or New Zealand, countries with rigid food standards, and on the right day you could catch the resort's fisherman gathering dinner.
The Westin maintains its own farm. Ironically Fijians are increasingly adopting Western eating habits (bread was almost unheard of in Fiji until recently) and struggling with Western health issues.
Climbing the winding route up the hill to the old cave site is quite the trek, and Jo's assistant does it barefoot. Jo would prefer that too.
On the way down, a visitor mentions a fierce thirst and Jo, ever the host, stops the train, finds some rocks and proceeds to hoist them at a tree, which is healthily dotted with what looks like pomelo.
Jo calls them lemons, but whatever the name, once it falls from the tree and gets cracked open, it's clear this is like no pomelo found in a supermarket. Bula indeed.