Children crowded the simple wooden benches on the right side of the church. Village elders and older children filled the benches facing in from the wings, while we sat with other local adults on the benches to the left of the aisle. Tapestries of the Good Shepherd and the Last Supper spread across the white wall above the pulpit, while a minister spoke in compassionate Fijian to the children.
After a pause a boy raised his hand and spoke, perhaps answering a question put to them. Mynah birds squawked outside as a quiet giggle rippled through the congregation, then the minister spoke on, smiling.
Sitting on the bench behind me, Al, my Fijian guide, tapped my shoulder and explained in a whisper what had just happened.
“The preacher was giving the children a lesson on the evils of alcohol. He explained that he put an earthworm in a bottle, then filled the bottle with alcohol, and the worm died. ‘Now what is the lesson here?’ he asked the children. The boy raised his hand and said, ‘You have to drink a lot of beer to kill the tapeworm inside.'”
The congregation broke into song, and it was a good thing because I couldn’t hold back my laughter and Al laughed along with me under the cover of the hymn that bounced off the simple white walls and flowed over the community and out to sea.That encounter in the community church at Vatudamu, just 30 minutes down the road from Savusavu on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, encapsulated my experience here. Vanua Levu offers everything you could want in a South Pacific islands escape: superb snorkeling and diving, luxurious resorts, every imaginable tropical fruit plucked straight off the tree, seafood pulled from the ocean only minutes before eating, boat journeys up jungle-covered rivers or out into Natewa Bay – the second largest bay in the South Pacific – even golf. But while I enjoyed all that, what I took away most was the graciousness of the people.
I was booked into La Dolce Vita, a little bit of Italy in the South Seas thanks to the efforts of Luigi (Lui) Giuliani, who emigrated from Abruzzo, Italy, to Melbourne, Australia, in 1955 when he was 15 years old. He played semipro soccer there until he was in his 30s and got his introduction to Fiji when touring with his club in the 1970s. It planted a seed that germinated over time, and after a career as a civil engineer and owner of his own high-rise construction business, he bought 43 acres of land on the island and began something of a Swiss Family Robinson project to improve on what nature had provided.
He did it all with local help and his own ingenuity, beginning in 2000 when he bought the property and built himself a house. Always looking for the next improvement, he hired a local named Joe who had minimal carpentry skills and trained him to build. Over time Joe became a master and helped build the five bungalows that form the core of the resort that can accommodate 14 guests.
In 2003, Lui met a local woman named Margaret Cornish, who was managing the Copra Shed, a small shopping center in Savusavu, after she’d worked 11 years for the Marshall Islands Embassy and eight years for Air Pacific. Soon they were a team and then they were married and their business took on a new energy.
Within a few years they’d added a 6-hole golf course that Lui built himself, hired a local man named Michelle to cook and helped him, through experimentation and reading books, become a superb chef (he now lives on site in his own bungalow), hired two local gardeners and a woodcarver to carve faces of traditional Fiji Island warriors to display around the property and, in a nod to Lui’s native Italy, two gladiators to flank the entrance to the lagoon.
The lagoon might be Lui’s most impressive project. All along he knew that his property was vulnerable to storm surges and he wanted to build a seawall and lagoon to protect it. A few hundred yards off the beach the reef ends and beyond the breaking surf the sea drops quickly to 100 feet or more. To do what he felt was necessary, he needed to lease the seafront. It took him two years to get the government to agree to a 99-year lease, but a few months before they closed the deal, a cyclone blew through and the storm surge trashed the place. Part of the front wall of the house blew out, the doors went, the swimming pool brimmed with rocks, sand filled the house, and they had a resort full of guests coming in 17 days.
“Before something like this happens you worry about it,” Lui said, “but after it happens, there’s nothing you can do but clean it up. If you keep your mind to it and don’t lose your spirit, you can get it done. I must have hauled twenty loads of sand out of here. We had people from the village working with us picking up everything and putting it back together. Well, we got it done in 14 days.”
I was a grateful beneficiary of Lui’s grand vision and hard work. Each meal I had could have challenged anything served in the top restaurants in my hometown of San Francisco (for instance, cabbage stuffed with shellfish, blackened walu, cassava fries that had to be tasted to be believed, homemade ice cream and meringue cakes).
One memorable day we took a boat excursion up the Galogalo River to Salt Lake surrounded by imposing jungle-covered cliffs as if we were in the middle of a caldera; we had to wait until the tide was low enough to get under the bridge, then took a tide pooling walk to Lui’s Island, 20 minutes across the strait at low tide, where we saw deep blue sea stars and countless tentacled creatures poking out of the sand looking for nourishment. Little fish-like worm-like creatures zipped away from our clomping feet, and small crabs scuttled off to avoid us.
One of Lui’s next projects is a tree house on the island, and soon he’ll have a caretaker there to watch over his property. Another neighbor told us a “mad German” who lives in a mansion across the way rows across to the island and steals the sand from Lui’s beach, but Margaret just laughed when we mentioned it. “Nature always brings it back,” she said. “The tidal flow always changes things.”
One day we drove the dirt road along Vanua Levu’s narrowest point to a boat launch where we were greeted by several local people with an exuberant “Bula!” and a handshake, one after the other as if at a wedding reception. By then I had learned that for Fijians this was nothing special, they were just saying a genuine hello and making me feel welcome.
We were planning to look for spinner dolphins and snorkel on the reef in Natewa Bay. Lui’s carpenter, Joe, served as boatman and guide. Margaret said that nine times out of ten they see dolphins when they go out, and usually when they don’t spot them it’s because of the weather. “If you go out on a nice day and you don’t see them, you can expect a storm to come in the next day.”
Her assessment fit the pattern of my experience. The wind picked up as we headed out, and the calm sea turned choppy. An hour out Joe said we’d better turn back because the wind had shifted, so we swung around to a coral reef, a long patch of green in the limitless blue sea, observing a few flying fish along the way. Thick jungle hung off distant cliffs and banana and coconut trees dropped to mangroves at the water’s edge. We snorkeled in our tropical aquarium with small fish of every color, Joe diving deep to touch patches of coral that instantly changed from yellow to white. Back on the boat, he said he’s able to dive to depths beyond 100 feet because he’s been doing it so long. When we’d had our fill, we headed in to do what comes naturally in the tropics: read, nap and enjoy doing nothing.
Not long after we’d returned, the thunderheads formed, marching across the sky all around, dropping huge swaths of rain across the horizon. Here, at La Dolce Vita Retreat (“not Resort,” Lui said, “because it’s a retreat from the rat race rather than a place that offers every possible activity”), only the wind came up, the local mongoose came out, the flying foxes (giant fruit bats) lumbered across the sky like antediluvian spirits and the mynah birds kept up their incessant musical chatter.
Lui, meanwhile, enjoyed his peace and quiet. “I’m more Basil Fawlty than true host,” he said. “You know, ‘the only thing wrong with this hotel is the bloody guests!’ I always say the only thing missing from our place is a big No Vacancy sign.” He may say that all he wants, but he’s a superb storyteller and excellent host, and I’m sure he knows it.
That day at the church, after the ceremony where I’d been welcomed from the lectern by a tall man with a booming voice, I exchanged greetings with many of the people. One tall fellow with a friendly but dignified air wore a broad tie with an image of the bible woven into it and “The Bible” inscribed above the image. I thought it indicated a fine sense of humor so I asked if I could photograph it. Of course, he beamed, and afterward I learned that his name was Romulus, he was the brother of Wilson, the man with the booming voice, and Wilson was the husband of Leola, the exceedingly warm La Dolce Vita staff person who served our meals every day.
Of course it’s a small world in a village, but I was tickled nonetheless. Romulus and Wilson were as welcoming as could be, and elders of the community. They’re the fifth-generation owners of the local estate that measures more than 100 acres. Romulus’s house is visible just across the way from the church on the hill, a house that I’d photographed because I found it and its setting picturesque.
I’m not a churchgoer. I’m barely a believer. But that Sunday morning in Vatudamu, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands, I felt right at home and at peace with the world, just as I had at Lui’s La Dolce Vita. And isn’t that what a church service, and an island escape, are supposed to do for you?
Larry Habegger is executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, coauthor of World Travel Watch, editor-in-chief of Triporati.com and principal of The Prose Doctors.