Cruising in tropical waters means squeezing as much as possible into a short amount of time before we have to get out of the cyclone belt for six months to wait out the dangerous season. Fiji’s weather has been quite challenging, forcing us to wait here and there for the opportunity to move to our next destination, and often causing us to change our plans based on where we can reasonably get to and how much time is left. We were lucky to get to Vanua Balavu in the northern Lau Group but as the time ticked away we abandoned our plan to get all the way to Fulaga in the southern Lau Group. It was a huge disappointment but as we keep telling ourselves, we can’t go everywhere. “You could spend a lifetime exploring (fill-in-the-blank)” is an often-heard phrase among cruisers referring to nearly every place on earth, from the Chesapeake Bay to the Caribbean to any given area of the South Pacific. And many people do. We’ve met cruisers who are on their fourth or fifth or sixth season in Fiji, and even some who’ve settled here permanently. It’s that nice. But for us, we’re just trying to maximize our experience and still allow time for Vanuatu and New Caledonia before we have to seek refuge again for cyclone season.
So no Fulaga for us. The problem, of course, is weather. Once again we had to settle for less than ideal conditions and leave Vanua Balavu for what we knew would be an uncomfortable overnight passage across the Koro Sea. The windlass up button repair only set us back about 45 minutes so we left just a little behind schedule, which turned out to be a good thing. The wind wasn’t bad but the seastate, ever the bugaboo, made it a lumpy stomach churner. We reduced sail from the beginning and still sailed so fast that we were afraid we’d arrive at the reef pass to the island of Ovalau before dawn. But as we got closer to our destination, the old capital city of Levuka, the seas slammed us so hard that we were often stopped in our tracks and struggled to make the last few miles against the waves.
Finally we could see the pass but the charted range markers eluded us and we had to rely on the acuracy of the charts, Google Earth and our eyes. The pass is wide and we made it safely through and anchored behind a monohull rolling with sickening frequency in the swell.
We chose this destination at the last minute for several reasons. First and foremost, Levuka has recently been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for being “a rare example of a late colonial port town that was influenced in its development by the indigenous community which continued to outnumber the European settlers.” Unfortunately, what we saw once we dinghied ashore in the chop and tied up to the Customs dock bore little resemblance to the charming village depicted in the photos on the UNESCO site. The town, like much of Fiji, was badly damaged by cyclone Winston in February 2016 and despite obvious rebuilding work being done, rubble, trash and blue tarps dominate the landscape. The people seem less cheerful and friendly here than we’ve experienced elsewhere in Fiji, and we can’t blame them if they’re disheartened by what happened to their town.
We visited the tiny museum housing a few artifacts recovered from shipwrecks and some fascinating historical photos, then strolled the town in search of the other reason we came, fresh food to restock our dwindling supply. There’s no farmers market in Levuka and there were few vegetables and no fresh fruits available except a couple of sad and expensive apples imported from New Zealand.
The wind picked up and the sun never showed its face but we walked the length of the town and climbed the hill for the postcard view.
Back in town we peeked in the Royal Hotel, the oldest hotel in the South Pacific still operating. You can almost imagine Somerset Maugham or Mark Twain enjoying a tipple in the lobby. They didn’t, but it’s still a lovely window into another time.
We hoped for a people-watching perch at a sidewalk table of a cozy bar but settled for giant passionfruit ice cream cones before the wind chased us back to Escape Velocity in time to beat a rain shower. We spent a rolly night glad we came but sad for Levuka and hoping they get some help in rebuilding and restoring the town.