Fiji by paddle

Kayaking among Fiji’s dreamy Yasawa Islands was a far more exhilarating workout than signing on at a sweaty city gym. Blisters, scratches, sore arms and aching shoulders were all part of the deal and I was wet and salty for much of the time, but with absolutely no complaints. Instead I felt fantastic!

_MG_0130The eight of us taking part in the guided paddling adventure had been lured to the Yasawas by the prospect of doing something challenging in splendid tropical surroundings. Few of us had paddled a sea kayak before.

Blue skies, warm weather, turquoise waters and sandy beaches would be the icing on the cake.

Our Fijian adventure afloat began long before we launched our kayaks off Tavewa Island. To get here from the main Fijian island of Viti Levu we sailed aboard the Yasawa Flyer as far north up the Yasawa chain as the daily catamaran service runs. This voyage from Denerau passes through the delightful Mamanuca Islands en route to the Yasawas. During its daily run, the Yasawa Flyer either drops off or collects guests from various holiday resorts sprinkled throughout the chain of islands.

From Tavewa  we paddled north to spend two nights camped at the village of Navotua on Nathula Island, from where we’d paddle further north to spend another two days and nights acting out Robinson Crusoe fantasies on a tiny deserted islet.

_MG_0073Falling under a spell cast by rhythmic strokes and the constant swaying motion of the waves, I often found myself adrift in pleasant reverie for minutes at a time, then snapped back to the present by a silvery fish abruptly leaping out of the sea. On one occasion a brightly striped sea snake wriggled alongside the kayak for a while.

Every day spent on the water expanded our sense of adventure and achievement. This satisfaction was balm for any resulting minor aches and, having pitched our tents by dusk, we clustered around the dinner table flexing tired limbs with pride.

While at Navotua we paddled across to Sawa-I-La, an island with sharp limestone peaks and deep subterranean caves. Descending into one cave we swam across a deep pool and then, taking a deep breath, dived through an underwater tunnel to reach an adjacent grotto. Exploring by torchlight was an eerie but unforgettable experience.

_MG_0159All this activity amid such splendid surroundings worked small wonders on both mind and body. Our last day was spent paddling all the way back to Tavewa.

By the end of our Yasawa “expedition” on water all of us felt fully justified in celebrating our last evening together in style – which we chose to do with a slap-up dinner at the Nanuya Lailai Island Resort, set beside the famous Blue Lagoon.

I kayaked in Fiji as a guest of  Southern Sea Ventures

Yasawa adventures depart monthly between May and October

Whales don’t have passports

JMC

Cousteau in his element. Photo: fabiencousteau.org

Two fathoms below me Jean-Michel Cousteau hovers above the sea floor pointing out a diaphanous creature with long spidery tendrils. He peers up to make sure I’ve seen. Inside his mask his eyes are wide and I can tell he’s saying “fantastic!”

As I hover weightless in Fiji’s Savusavu Bay I have a flight of fantasy, imagining Cousteau as part human, part amphibian. His flowing mane of silver-grey hair moves in the current like fronds of kelp and although he’s wearing dive gear I rather suspect he’s grown gills by now, making his air tank redundant. If ever I saw a man in his element, then this it.

I can’t believe my luck. I’m diving with a Cousteau, a name synonymous with ocean exploration. Jean-Michel’s famous father, Jacques, practically invented scuba diving or, to be precise, he helped invent the breathing regulator that makes it possible for me to be a fish for a while.

Now in his 70s, Jean-Michel lives in California and travels the world. Vanua Levu is one place he treasures and the eponymous luxury dive resort on Savusavu Bay is one of the world’s best. At the resort bar I’m poured a tequila margarita so generous in volume that I need a snorkel to plunge its depths. Cousteau’s resort involvement is the dive operation. “I’m no hotelier and I don’t want to be one,” he says adamantly.

While with Jean-Michel I learn that you can take a Cousteau from the sea but you can’t squeeze the ocean out of the man. Whether submerged or on dry land he breathes passion and concern for our fragile world. His message is simple: the planet as a single entity.

“Anything that affects the world’s water systems concerns me.” he says. “I would even include ski resorts for, ultimately, that snow melts and lands up in the ocean. Snow on the mountains comes from the ocean. It’s all connected, one water system.

“In another life I’d like to be in space, monitoring and managing the Earth’s oceans from up there,” he muses as we sit under a night sky filled with stars. “Whales don’t have passports. Unless you understand that you simply don’t get the big picture.”

Your chance to dive with Jean-Michel Cousteau

Find out more about Jean-Michel Cousteau Diving

Read all about the Ocean Futures Society

Best wines of the west

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Whenever I travel in wine-producing countries I find there’s no better way of getting “beneath the surface” of my surroundings than seeking out and sampling the finest wines I can afford. So while in Canada I make tracks for the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia to sample “the best of the west”.

From the air I get a good idea of why the Okanagan is special. As our flight from Vancouver descends into the valley’s hub city of Kelowna I have spectacular views of silver water twinkling in the sunshine. Okanagan Lake spreads for 135 kilometres through a glacier-scoured landscape. It’s an amazing 230 metres deep at one point and is one of five interconnected lakes within the valley.

The Okanagan countryside is fertile, productive and diverse. Around the town of Osoyoos in the valley’s south is Canada’s only true desert. It’s the northern wedge of the Sonora Desert that runs all the way up from Mexico. The north of the Okanagan Valley is lush country with fabulous golf courses with green fairways flanked by majestic firs. And in between the valley’s two extremes are stone fruit orchards and British Columbia’s finest vineyards.

The wineries are nearly all small production. And because top restaurants in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto snap up most of the finest wines, a valley visit is likely to be your only chance of tasting a range of styles – or even seeing some of the top drops. You can expect to pay $25 to $40 a bottle or a lot more for a particularly prized label.

The best-known Okanagan wine estates include Mission Hill, Cedar Creek and Burrowing Owl, But because two of these wineries are at opposite ends of the valley – a three-hour drive – it’s advisable to first decide which wineries you most want to visit and also, perhaps, stick to one region rather than try to see too much.

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Burrowing Owl

We stay a night at Burrowing Owl, in the valley’s south. In addition to truly superb wines enjoyed in the excellent restaurant, Burrowing Owl also has luxurious guest rooms beside a swimming pool. And while in the south, we also visit the nearby Nk’Mip Cellars, owned and operated by the Osoyoos Indian band.   

Some of the finest Okanagan wines are found along the Naramata Bench, in the central valley Penticton region near Kelowna. The Bench is a stretch of high ground above Okanagan Lake’s eastern shore on which prime rows of merlot and pinot gris soak up the maximum amount of afternoon sunshine. The Kettle Valley Trail from Penticton provides fantastic views of the Naramata vineyards.

Quail’s Gate

Mission Hill Family Estate in Kelowna is a no-expense-spared exercise in wine tourism. The estate is grand in every sense of the word. The bells in its iconic tower come from Annecy in France and first pealed over the Okanagan on the evening of December 10, 2000.

Mission Hill runs conducted tours, is on every tour bus schedule and hosts many special events. It’s probably the most commercial and tourist-oriented winery in the Okanagan.

I was soon seeking an antidote, something more intimate, and didn’t have to go very far to find it.

I heartily recommend nearby Quail’s Gate Winery as my top lunch choice in the central Okanagan. Not only does the restaurant have a spectacular view down the valley but the winery produces a truly outstanding pinot noir. It’s the essence of the Okanagan. What more could a wine lover want?