Bula for you in Fiji

BULA. Try saying it without smiling and it's damned near impossible.

Bula, in case you don't know, is the word of greeting in Fiji - it's an example of just how powerful words can be.

When you Bula someone, it's usually accompanied by a handshake, a wave or a backslap. None of the pursed lips of “helew” or clipped indifference of “hi” or even “g'day”.

No, Bula means business - happy business.

And there's nothing happier in my book than taking a long weekend and flying into paradise for a few days to recharge the batteries.

At just under four hours flying time to Nadi from Brisbane, this is really an affordable exotic escape.

Arriving at the airport was a joy in itself.

The customs and quarantine people, while diligent, are also a study in how human behaviour can be applied to delight visitors even in the most official of circumstances.

Outside the main gate, I look for a Sofitel sign, but before I can focus properly a stunning Fijian woman runs up, enquires, “Missus Julie?” and chucks a flowered lei around my neck and an equally colourful cocktail in my hand.

She ushers me to a vehicle where the driver whisks me off to Denaru Island, the reclaimed stretch of tropical coastline about 20 minutes from the airport, where Sofitel, along with many other “big brand” hotel names, have their resorts.

Like all Fijians I am to find, my driver loves a good chinwag.

We start talking politics and he waves a dismissive hand.

“Do you see any trouble? We don't have trouble here. We just have a good time - and so will you. This is your home now. Enjoy it.”

Why then, I enquire upon entering Denaru's estate, are there so many security guards here?

“Huh? Oh, the guards.”

He breaks into fits of laughter.

“Well, they're here because the Americans who own many of these villas like to have them.

“They like them in uniforms, because they can find them easily when they need for someone to take them home at night after they've had a bit too much good beer and lost their way.”

I'm amused, but not convinced. Isn't this place supposed to be a battle zone?

Certainly not at the Sofitel. The closest I get to a war is someone jumping the queue ahead of me at the Mandara Day Spa.

I'm livid and ready to toss a grenade until my therapist arrives, calms my jangled nerves and leads me to a thatched hut where the heavenly scents of essential oils and flowers nearly put me to sleep on my feet.

What follows is an hour of the most blissful delight I've ever had.

A Fijian Bobo Massage is a blend of everything good that God intended - a bit of therapeutic, a bit of deep tissue, a touch of pressure point, a liberal dose of Kahuna, but with a magic “x-factor” that makes this a unique therapy.

Comfort personified

Sofitel is a great brand - you know you're not going to end up in a shoebox when you check in to any of their hotels around the world, but the wonderful thing about the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa is the local colour and generosity of spirit.

Rooms are large and comfortable; local artwork adorns the hallways and public spaces; Fijian staff are on the front desk and in all the restaurants and bars; people are laughing, singing (everyone sings, all the time), and generally having a good time - and that's the staff I'm talking about.

After a wonderful meal in the fine dining Latitude 17, we take a rain check on the party going on in the Breeze Bar upstairs and opt for an early night.

Good idea, as next morning chef Brendon Coffey is bright eyed at 8am to take us on a shopping excursion to the local Nadi markets.

This is an explosion of colour - from the tropical fruits and vegies all neatly lined up on ground mats, to the ubiquitous floral dresses so loved by the Fijian women: this place is a kaleidoscope.

We also get to see the infamous kava root, the source of the favourite Fijian drink (which tastes like mud sieved through an old sock) - there's a whole pavilion dedicated just to kava trading.

Take an adventure

Sofitel is situated right on the beach. There's a range of activities on offer - all kinds of water sports and other adventures (paragliding anyone?) but with short time, I opt to take a day trip to the nearby South Sea Island, a tiny dot of tropical greenery and white sand.

Singing, guitar-strumming staff greet us at the boat with lots of smiles, usher us to the “reception area” which is a large clearing of sand under a few coconut palms, toss a coldie in our hands and tell us the barbeque is fired up and lunch will be about 10 minutes.

Then the show starts - grass skirted men wielding spears put on a great impression of their cannibalistically inclined forefathers.

But then gorgeous women in long caftans come out singing and clapping, and the war dance turns into another party tune, with everyone on the island clapping, singing and cheering.

Giant delight

On our last day, we explore the hinterland, where the Garden of the Sleeping Giant is an unexpected delight.

The late actor Raymond Burr (he of Perry Mason and Ironside fame) escaped to Nadi with his long-time male companion to avoid the glare of publicity.

Raymond showed his appreciation to his adopted homeland by creating a stunning oasis of colour in the middle of the jungle - the Sleeping Giant is a sacred hill (shaped like, yes, a sleeping giant) which overlooks the 20ha of lovingly created parkland, featuring more than 2000 varieties of orchards.

Three days does not, admittedly, give anyone time to really explore the culture and nuances of a destination. But it does give you enough time to make impressions - and my impressions of Nadi have left me with a burning urge to return and discover the rest of the delights I just know are in store in this land of laughter and music.

Warning bells

The Department of Foreign Affairs and has posted strong warnings about visiting this island paradise.

We're lucky to have our government looking out for us with the www.smartraveller.gov.au website and, next time I'm off to the Middle East, Afghanistan or an African civil war zone, I'm absolutely going to do what the website tells me.

But I'm glad I chose to make my own decision regarding the advice on Fiji. The Fijians rely almost totally on tourism and, from what I could tell, Nadi is as safe as houses.

To be fair, the smartraveller website does concentrate their warnings on Suva, a good half day's drive from Nadi, and things could be a little hairy there.

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