22 Hours in Fiji
Gina amazed me.
I met her via a phone call in November 2010. When I called Pacific Island Sea Planes, she was the person who answered. I was calling from somewhere on the Sunshine Coast of Australia, and I was in a quandary.
The reason for the quandary was that less than two days from that moment, I had a 22 hour layover in Fiji, on the way back home to Tampa, Florida from a business trip in Australia. For the past 6 months I had been in a phase where Fiji was vividly ensconced in my head as the closest things to heaven on earth. Round-trip flights were currently $1300 or more, which was not in my budget at the time. So I thought visiting Fiji would remain a fantasy for some time to come… until the day I was looking for flights for that work trip to Australia and lo and behold, there appeared a Qantas flight with a 22 hour layover in Nadi, Fiji.
I could hardly believe my luck.
I booked that flight and promptly began scouring guidebooks to Fiji to find the absolute best way to make use of my precious 22 hours. Obviously I wanted to squeeze in as much as possible during that short time. The problem was that there was so much to do in Fiji, I couldn’t decide what to do. Further complicating the issue is that Fiji consists of 333 separate islands, each with their own charm and beauty. How was I supposed to pick just one or two? Overwhelmed by the pressure of the crucial decision, I procrastinated. That’s how I found myself in Australia, less than 48 hours before my scheduled arrival in Fiji, calling Pacific Island Sea Planes.
Although I still didn’t know where I wanted to go, I had at least determined that I wanted to visit at least one island other than the main one, and that sea plane would be the best way to get there.
Fortunately for me, Gina answered the phone. Within 5 minutes, not only had she answered my questions about the fares and schedules to various islands, she had also heard my Fiji dilemma story and become my new best friend.
After hearing the summary of my situation, she announced, “I haven’t had a vacation in a long time. I’m going to take a day off and come with you. I know people on Castaway Island. We can go there in the morning, spend a few hours there, and then come back to Nadi so you can see the mud baths and the orchid gardens.
With the foundation of the 5 minute rapport we had established,
this seemed perfectly natural and an excellent solution to my indecision.
Me: Okay, why not?!
Gina: Have you booked a hotel yet?
Me: No, but I was planning to stay at one near the airport.
Gina: Ok, good, don’t book it yourself, they would charge you double because you’re a foreigner. I’ll book it for you, it will be half price. (This turned out to be true.) And I’ll pick you up at the airport and take you there.
Me: Oh, but my flight is arriving after midnight, it will be so inconvenient for you, I’ll just take a cab.
Gina: No, it’s no problem, I’ll pick you up.
Gina wouldn’t take no for an answer, so I agreed. And she was as good as her word. When I got through customs and immigration at Nadi airport around 12:30am a day and a half after our conversation, she was there cheerfully waiting in the terminal. (Of everything that transpired within the next 22 hours, this is what impressed me the most; that this kind stranger would wait up for me at the airport, past midnight, just to welcome me personally.) She dropped me off at a quiet, hibiscus-filled hotel, and then we met again at the airport the following morning, by the Pacific Air check in counter.
We boarded a Pacific Island 6-seater sea plane
and flew over a glittering blue sea dotted with islands of green hills and white sands. We stopped at Malolo Island to drop off two passengers, and then continued to our destination of Castaway Island.
Gina’s friend was the manager at Castaway Island Resort, an idyllic place of lushly landscaped grounds dotted with luxurious villas known as bures, peaceful white beaches, hammocks and sea kayaks. They invited us to a delicious buffet breakfast featuring coconut French toast - a dish so delightful I later replicated it at home. After breakfast they gave us the use of one of the villas (bures) and the freedom to entertain ourselves as we wanted. I swam in the crystal clear water, paddled a kayak around the island, relaxed in a hammock and pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
After a few leisurely hours, we flew back to the main island to continue the adventure. We covered ourselves with therapeutic mud at Sabeto Hot Springs, wandered among an enchanting collection of orchids at the Garden of the Sleeping Giant and had dinner near the gorgeous Hindu temple crowning Nadi’s Main Street. And then it was time for me to head back to the airport.
I don’t know how my day would have gone if I hadn’t crossed paths with Gina,
but I can guarantee it would not have been anywhere near as fabulous. And it would have lacked the touch of magic she gave it.
When Gina and I said good-bye we told each other “See you next year!”
That was 7 years ago now. I made several more trips to Australia after that, but never again found a flight with a layover in Nadi. Just that one perfect, lucky time. I haven’t seen Gina again since, but the memory of her and the spontaneous beautiful day in paradise she gave me has always remained in a corner of my heart.
(Top left to bottom right): Serenaded by men in skirts upon arrival at Nadi airport; Malolo Island from the air; white sands of Castaway Island; Gina and me; one of the charming and luxurious "bures" of Castaway Island; friendly muddy strangers offer hugs at Sabeto Hot Springs & Mud Pool; the mud dries into camouflage; Hindu temple on Main St. in Nadi.