‘Well,’ says my husband Will in a laboured voice. ‘I think we’re done for. We’re going to have to decide who we kill and cook first, we don’t have another choice.’
‘Oh it’s Jess obviously,’ Elly responds instantly, wiping sweat off her brow. Pete, crammed in under the makeshift shelter by her side nods in agreement.
‘Yes she’s clearly the weakest link,’ Will agrees. All three heads turn towards me in hungry anticipation. I stare straight ahead, pushing aside the brittle palm fronds that are shading us from the sweltering midday sun so I can see the sea one last time. There, in the distance, is a boat. Relief washes over me; cannibalising each other can wait, we’re saved.
We had been stranded on the Sacred Island of Navadra, Fiji, not for the 4 years of Tom Hank’s character in the film Castaway but instead for a rather paltry 18 hours. Our Fijian crew had dropped us off by speedboat to spend the night sleeping out under the stars. We had danced wildly around the bonfire as it sunk in not for the first time this trip, how utterly and peacefully isolated we were in our very own tropical paradise.
My hubby Will and I, alongside another couple, are guests on a liveaboard FANTASEA; a 46 foot yacht built in England in 2000 and our home for 4 days. She had sailed twice around the world before she found her new home in Fiji. The Fantasea and the larger Gipsea are certified for private day-charters, sunset cruises or up to 8 guests for live-aboard charters which you can find out more about here, which we discovered as a popular listing on AirBnB. If you fancy island hopping Fiji, look no further.
Fantasea is one of my top 5 AirBnbs we’ve stayed at in 2018. Check out the rest of the list here.
Luc, the French owner of both boats, is careful to state to potential visitors ‘Do not expect a 5 star luxury yacht, she is a comfortable, rustic and purpose built charter yacht for tropical waters.’ After our experiences aboard Fantasea, I think Luc and I may have differing opinions on what constitutes luxury. A chance to experience affordable sailing in Fiji, privately cruising some of the most picturesque of the Mamanuca Islands and visiting secluded snorkelling spots to me is the epitome of luxury, our slow descent into cannibalistic delirium notwithstanding. Sure, the cabins are fairly intimate, the marine toilets basic and the single hull led to inevitable seasickness, but these shortcomings pale into insignificance when presented with another awe-inspiring Fijian sunset, best admired with only your chosen companions and a glass of champagne you picked up in duty free.
I loved reading Lonely Planet’s Fiji guidebook whilst sunbathing on deck, it really helped me to understand the culture and history of the beautiful islands we visited. Check in out on Amazon via the link below ( disclaimer, I get a small commission if you purchase at no extra cost to you).
We arrive fresh-faced and eager at Wailoloa Beach outside the Bamboo Travellers in Nadi. 5 or 6 Fijian men are loitering on the sand, talking and smoking, when suddenly, all trace of languidness disappears and we are swarmed. Each man grabs a piece of luggage and speeds down the beach towards a moored speedboat. One hoists my suitcase over his head with a greeting of ‘Bula’ and a smile that only slips slightly as he feels the weight of it. I can already see that a wheeled suitcase was a terrible idea. Slightly concerned at the speed by which we have been robbed of our luggage, we follow closely behind. It is only then that we are asked questions of ‘Fantasea? Fantasea?’, relieving us that these would-be thieves are somehow associated with our booking.
Whilst our bags are piled into the boat, Luc himself emerges from the melee. He instructs us to clamber into the boat alongside our luggage and 2 of our Fijian welcoming party, one of whom has a permanent cigarette attached to his mouth, and we set off the short distance to the anchored Fantasea. We pull up alongside the yacht, our Fijian crew speedily unloading our bags, and stagger aboard. The moment I set foot on our home for the next 4 days, it is immediately clear that this is not a Louboutin location. In fact, most of my carefully selected outfits are woefully inappropriate for this trip, leaving me eternally grateful Pete packed an extra pair of sweats. The boat is compact yet spacious, comfortable yet rustically vintage; there are large beanbags and loungers already arranged for sunbathing on the deck, a covered cushioned area ripe for lounging at the helm, stairs leading down into the hull which contains a small galley with cabins at either end.
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Luc joins us and welcomes us to our new home and to our crew; Poni our captain, Henri our chef and Roney our deckhand. With every softly spoken word, the hustle and bustle of our arrival melts away as we adjust ourselves to Fiji time. Luc explains that the crew will cater to our every need, chartering us to the pre-selected destinations (weather dependent) and providing us with all food. They’ve tailored our menu as one of us is Pescatarian, with opportunities to fish for our own dinner if we fancy. He advises that he will be just a phone call away and will check in regularly throughout the trip. As a former bush pilot, Luc continues to fly helicopters 5 days a week and says if we need anything from the mainland, he will get it to us, we need only ask. You can tell immediately that Luc loves what he does, the purchase of Gipsea and subsequently Fantasea the culmination of a lifelong dream. He is proud of his local crew, praising their experience and knowledge, staying with us but a short while before leaving us in their capable hands.
We set sail for Honeymoon Island; the first of many beautiful white-sand beaches in the Mamanuca islands we will encounter on our trip. We crack open a bottle of Chandon, don our swimmers and novelty captains hats as Poni lets down the sails and we catch a steady wind. The Lonely Planet smash hit ‘I’m on a boat’ blasts out from the yacht’s sound system and we do indeed feel like celebrities, sailing out into blissfully empty ocean.
If sailing doesn’t float your boat (pun intended), check out this useful article on the best islands to stay on in Fiji
Upon mooring at our first snorkelling spot at this island, we eagerly plunge straight into the warm salty water, freely provided fins at the ready. The appeal of Fijian’s underwater world is well known; with over 1500 species of fish and 4000 square miles of coral reefs, this is a water baby’s dream. We lazily watch countless fish darting over and under intensely coloured reef before surfacing to a freshly cooked chickpea curry served on deck, a recipe Henri has inherited from his mother.
Things take a bit of a turn once I venture downstairs. I’m overcome with how stifling warm it is , the previously mouth-watering smell of lunch now pungent and oppressive as I battle with the clean yet basic marine toilet, the door of which keeps banging open with the rocking motion of the yacht. Seasickness hits hard and I scramble back up the ladder into fresh air, taking myself quietly off to one side to watch the horizon. I am pondering how on earth Will and I will sleep in the smaller of the two cabins as we arrive at our second snorkelling spot of Sandback Mana.
Sandbank Mana is a completely isolated mound of strikingly bright sand, typical of Fiji, fringed by reef and we jump straight back into the water, seasickness evaporating, making our way towards it. Depending on tides, the sandbank can be completely submerged, whereas we’re able to stand smack bang in the middle, surrounding in all directions by dark blue water and lush green islands just visible in the distance. We are once again, completely and utterly alone.
Some obligatory photos later, seasickness claims us again as we meander to the sheltered Likuliku Bay to spend the night abroad, so much so that a sizable amount of Henri’s carefully prepared stir-fry goes subtly overboard. The Fijian sunset is as spectacular as we expected, and also rapid, leaving us with just the guiding light of the helm. Roney and Henri set up fishing equipment, an activity included in the daily rate, and Elly and Pete take a hold of the line, the next night’s dinner under control. Will and I lie back on the comfortably cushioned helm, a bean bag for our pillow, the duvet retrieved from our cabin, and make the executive decision to sleep out under the stars, windbreakers secured against the slightly aggressive sea breeze. This is the usual sleeping spot for the crew, however they are more than accommodating to our needs and instead sprawl out downstairs in the galley. The guilt disappears when we wake up, rested, and with solid sea legs.
We wake with the sun, and strong coffee provided by the ever attentive Henri. Breakfast is an omelette whilst Poni navigates us out to Monuriki Island, the tiny uninhabited paradise chosen as the filming location for Robert Zemeckis’s 2000 film Cast Away. This filming location highlighted Fiji and it’s unique beauty to the wider population and therefore this is the first location where we encounter fellow tourists as the island is a popular day trip destination from the larger resorts located in the Mamanuca Islands. These day-trippers, forming an orderly queue to disembark for the allotted hour, stare at us and our luxurious Fantasea as we’re clearly mistaken yet again for celebrities. We can’t help but feel smug as we drop anchor and snorkel towards the beach, leaving our crew who will wait patiently for as long as we want. Luc’s is right yet again, this is indeed more unique than a resort-based holiday where you could be at any attractive beach in the southern hemisphere.
We reach the shoreline, the strong reef break where Tom Hanks made cinematic history screaming for Wilson, the water a vibrant turquoise in the shallows. Someone has ingeniously arranged some coconut shells to spell out ‘Help Me,’ so naturally we take some instagram-worthy jumping shots. Hermit crabs, cosily hidden in their shells, are scattered all over the beach, so as one would expect, we hold a hermit-crab race with some French backpackers. I win and continue to gloat for the rest of the day.
Upon returning to Fantasea, we set sail for our next destination, the volcanic island of Navadra which is part of the Narokorokoyawa Sacred Islands. These islands are regarded as the birthplace of Fijian culture and are guarded and protected by the villagers of Tavua. We’re silenced by the peacefulness of this uninhabited island, the waves gently lapping at the side of the yacht as we moor. The long stretch of sandy beach extends in a sweeping semi-circle in front of us, no other boats or people in sight as the sun sets. Poni instructs us to pack whatever we need for a night on the island, as Henri and Roni pack bean bags and loungers into the speed boat.
We find ourselves speeding across the water a short time later in pitch black, punctuated by the powerful torch Roni shines to light our way. Henri directs our attention to the slivers of silver we can see alongside us, explaining that they are a particular species of fish who create their own light. Some of these special little creatures jump out of the water, seeking the beam of the torch. The journey is both magical and full of adrenaline, the current unexpectedly thrusting the small boat forward on the shoreline, and dragging it back teasingly. Trying to keep it steady, our crew instruct us to grab whatever we can and jump out. Pete’s sweats are rolled up to my knees but of course as I get out they unravel and swirl around my legs, my companions laughing at my bad luck.
Once ashore, survival skills set in; with the trusted light of an iPhone we gather as much dry kindling as we can carry for the bonfire which is soon raging. As our crew motor back to the yacht, we crack open the tequila, find a playlist and start dancing. It grows wild, tribal, ritualistic, until abruptly interrupted by the speed boat appearing out of the darkness, Henri precariously balancing what we guess to be our supper covered in tin foil. It is a delicious coconut cream fish curry, a Fijian speciality, this time prepared by Roney. Sitting on fallen logs, we devour it, before bedding down under the stars, the bonfire cracking gently as we fall into a deep sleep.
We wake up, jaded, covered in ants, blearily realising we’d slept underneath some rather precarious, low-hanging coconuts. Elly scrambles to her feet.
‘Don’t more people die from being hit in the head with a coconut than a shark attack?’ She demands.
I’m unaware of the statistics but before we can debate Poni and Henri arrive with a smorgasbord of banana-based breakfast goodies. Our crew then decides that after spending a night sleeping out in the open, we hadn’t had enough of island life, so they promptly deposit us on a beach on the opposite side of Navadra. Still dazed, we watch as they speed away back to Fantasea which is out of our immediate eyeline. Abandoned in the now relentless Fijian sun, we crowd into a small patch of shade offered by palm trees but it’s not enough; we’re becoming delirious. Foraging washed up metal poles, plastic string, palm fronds and shedding as much clothing as is acceptable in a civilised society, a makeshift fort is constructed. As it develops, with a solid infrastructure and development plan, we proudly name our civilisation. It is within its shady confines that the rest of our group make the decision to kill and eat me, the runt of the litter, first.
Our saviours arrive shortly, and satiate our desperate hunger and thirst, laughing at our feeble attempts to establish some semblance of order. We’re grateful to be back on Fantasea, despite the continued teasing of our struggles with 18 hours of island life. As our crew live aboard the boat, cruising these islands, for nearly the entire Fijian high season, they are somewhat hardier than us. They occasionally pitch up at Bamboo Backpackers in between bookings, the sight of our almost-mugging, it is at this establishment that Roney tells us that he’d met an American girlfriend,
‘When she comes back to Fiji to stay, I’m going to take her into the jungle and build a hut,’ Roney laughs, heavily implying his hut will be vastly superior to ours.
We smile in response, although I can’t help wondering what the girlfriend in question will think of the basicness of her new home if Roney is even remotely serious. He’s clearly committed to her nonetheless if the amount of selfies of him wearing Elly’s coconut bra and Pete’s sailor’s hat are anything to go by.
We moor up in Musket Cove Marina later that afternoon, home to the Annual Fiji Regatta week, located on Malolo Lailai in the Mamanuca Islands. This is the most touristy location we’ve visited yet, a sheltered yacht club and resort that hosts cruising and racing yachts and their inhabitants from all over the world, with associated civilised facilities. We take our first proper shower in 3 days, revealing patchy sunburn and content smiles. Henri and Poni meanwhile utilise the open plan BBQ and bar area, grilling up an assortment of meats and freshly caught fish before we all sit down for a communal dinner and beer.
Fantasea is significantly smaller than a large amount of the other classically luxurious and obviously expensive boats moored here, owned by typical sailing-types donning the uniform of floppy hair, boat shoes and rumpled Jack Wills button downs. Despite their shiny hulls and immaculate decks, Fantasea still wins hands down. Our personal floating haven is full of rustic character and we could not be more grateful as we bed down on deck for another night spent under the Fijian stars.
It’s with a heavy heart that we wake up on day 4, knowing it is our last day on Fantasea, as well as our last day in Fiji. We have breakfast as the early morning sun heats up, before some final snorkelling at Plantation Sandback, south of Musket Cove, which is full of even more coral gardens and exotic Fijian marine life. The fish are particularly friendly here, surrounding , nibbling and tickling us. It may have had something to do with the loaf of bread we’re enticing them with, but regardless, it’s incredible.
After our final lunch carefully prepared by Henri, we reluctantly set sail on the long journey back to Wailoaloa beach in Nadi. After some last minute sunbathing, we arrive at our final destination. We leave behind our novelty hats, sunglasses, coconut bras, offering them up to the crew as a small token of our appreciation. They are clearly touched, putting everything on immediately as we pose for some group photos. It is the least we can do for this fantastic, dedicated crew. Fantasea has been a private slice of paradise straight out of a holiday brochure, but Poni, Henri and Roni have given it personality and heart. They have been attentive, informative and accommodating. They have made Fiji and this yacht charter more than just sun, sea and sand; they have turned it into a unforgettable adventure. Luc is clearly onto something; the crew are passionate about showing the best of their country to guests, providing a unique and affordable sailing experience with relaxed Fijian hospitality.
We are emotional and a little wobbly from too many days at sea, waving goodbye from the beach. It is a surprisingly heart-wrenching feeling as we say farewell to new friends and our nautical home. I am grateful for the shower at the Backpackers, relieved that my companions are well fed and not eyeing me up for a snack, and excited to use a proper toilet, but as we board the plane at Nadi airport to take us back to reality, I know I’ll never forget our Fijian fantasy.
For more tropical island daydreaming, check out this useful list of 10 best tropical islands to visit and where to stay