Friday, November 16, 2012

Day 305 - 308: Viva Las Vegas!

After a half hour wait to get off the plane and another half hour wait for our luggage (it was a double-decker aircraft and the sheer amount of cargo meant that a number of people missed their connecting flights whilst waiting), we finally got a shuttle to the rental company, Alamo. Having paid up-front for the car, we were then landed with another $300 bill for a one-way fee I'd forgot about, plus $5 a day for breakdown cover, plus taxes and fees on top. So, a quick way of burning through $500 then. Unfortunately, one-way fees are unavoidable if you are dropping off vehicles in other states. The receptionist tried to convince us to pay another $280 to upgrade our "Economy" vehicle (1.2L) to a "Compact" with larger engine. We declined and luckily so, as there weren't actually any Economy cars at the depot so we ended up getting a Compact for free. The cynic would suggest that the desk jockey was perfectly aware of this, and tried to sell us something she knew we'd get for free anyway...

Loading up our gear into a new Toyota Corolla, we set off for Vegas. A couple of hours later we were getting peckish. For our first meal in the USA, there really wasn't any competition:


When in Rome, I guess.

I've been to the States on 4 separate occasions but never driven here (it was Gilly's first visit). Being handed an automatic wasn't a problem, but driving on the other side of the road took a little getting used to. An easier change to adapt to was cruise control: pick a speed, press a button, take your foot off the pedal and let the car drive itself. It's the closest thing you can get to driving K.I.T.T without installing a sarcastic computer or belting out trashy Eurotunes to the delight of the German population.

Where should backpackers on a limited budget go on a round the world trip? Why, Vegas of course! Just before 10pm we arrived in Sin City. I'd not been to Vegas since a work conference back in 2006, and I was interested to see how much it had changed (or stayed the same). I had been severely jetlagged back then, and hadn't really been able to appreciate the utter insanity of the place.

We checked into Bill's Gamblin' Hall and Saloon; I'd booked this a few weeks beforehand, as it had the benefit of being right on the strip, but without the crazy price tag to match.


Last time I came, I stayed at The Mirage on the company dollar since the convention I came to was in the Mirage itself. Whilst the room at Bill's doesn't quite match the suite I got at the Mirage, there was absolutely nothing to complain about:


Huge king-size bed, massive TV, and all the space two people could need. There was even a great view of the strip from our window:


Thanks to the time difference we weren't as tired as we should have been at 10:30pm, so went exploring on the strip. I was expecting the heat, but it was a new experience for Gilly. Even late at night, the dry desert wind hits you in the face; it's a little like having a fan heater following you down the road, blasting hot air at you from about 5 metres away. Obviously everything indoors is air-conditioned: casinos, shops, shopping malls, etc. so you find yourself jumping into these from time to time for respite. A number of the bigger casinos are linked to shopping malls so you can walk through these instead and still head in the right direction.

Casino games are split into tables and slots. Tables have the usual games you'd expect to find, such as blackjack, craps and roulette, but also a number of other lesser-known games such as three-card poker and Let it Ride. Slot machines are everywhere. They start off at 1 cent for a single line spin and can go up to crazy amounts, such as $100 for a single spin in the high stakes areas. The thought and attention that goes into the slot machines is simply absurd. The idea is to keep you playing and spending, so the main rules they employ are:

- Give you enough wins to keep your credits up, whilst not actually paying you more than you put in (unless you're lucky).

- When you are about to run out of credits, give you a small win which means you either have to put more money in to top up the won credit to allow you to play, or cash out a stupidly small amount (e.g. 15 cents). The majority of people will choose the former.

- Most importantly, hook the player with a variety of bonuses, features, "choices" and so on. For the most part, the slots aren't so much old-fashioned fruit machines as they are fully-developed video games with a gambling element. It's easy to see why people get hooked.

We wandered through The Cosmopolitan and spent the best part of $20 on some slot machines. It lasted us about fifteen minutes. The heat had made us thirsty but we'd neglected to bring water out (rookie mistake), so instead splurged on some tiramisu gelato and berry sorbet, both of which tasted great.

The iconic Bellagio had a fountain show on to the tune of "All That Jazz", so we stayed to watch the end of it. They have a number of different songs that the fountains are programmed to, and the fountains go off every fifteen minutes in the evening.


Wandering down the strip is an event in itself. You're almost guaranteed to see something new every night, with street performers out in force. One guy was on stilts and dressed as a tree; it was so well done that people would walk past oblivious and then scream as he moved or reached out to them.


Pretty much everything in Vegas is designed for you to overindulge and spend, spend, spend. Do you like M&M's? You'll love the M&M's store with its 4 floors of plush toys, and branded merchandising. Oh, and chocolate too.


The hotels in the city are ridiculous. We were staying in a fairly low-key place by strip standards, but there are some wacky alternatives out there, and most are themed. For instance, Excalibur is built like a Disneyland castle.


And let's not forget Paris, with its half-scale replica of the Eiffel tower and replica Arc de Triomph:




Or Luxor, built in the shape of a pyramid and with huge statues of the pharaohs, sphinx, Anubis, Isis, and the rest throughout...



Or New York, with its replica of the Statue of Liberty:


The list goes on. Every casino has some sort of draw, whether its a free show (such as at the Bellagio, Mirage and Treasure Island) or free casino game lessons, or perhaps the world's largest indoor rollercoasters (New York, New York and Circus Circus). Everything takes a theme and runs with it, to wild excess. There is simply so much on display that it can become a sensory overload, and leave you with feelings ranging from admiration to disgust, from incredulity to overwhelming Western guilt; the amount of cash that has been poured into just one of the bas-reliefs or statue displays in Caesars Palace could have built a multitude of houses in Laos or Fiji. And of course, us being there was contributing to the slick corporate machine built on mob money. There really isn't anything you can do other than suck it up and accept Vegas for the monstrosity that it is, otherwise you simply won't enjoy it.

We walked along the strip to get to the MGM Grand to pick up tickets for a show the following day which I'd booked a few weeks earlier, but since it was pushing midnight the box office was closed so we turned back. On the way we stopped off at Panda Express for some late night/early morning noodles at 1am and had our fortunes told courtesy of some cookies:


It's good to know my words are charming. Now, if only they'd work their magic on the slot machines...

After a good night's sleep, it was time to learn craps in the morning. Bill's runs free half-hour lessons explaining the rules and the various bets you can make. Craps is one of the best games in a casino for letting you beat the house, but can get quite complicated when it comes to picking bets. We got given free $5 match play vouchers at the end, and decided to give the game a go later in the day.

It was almost noon and we were in the mood for lots of food for lunch, and where better to eat until you explode than one of the many, many all-you-can-eat buffets peppering the city? Almost every hotel has one, and prices are variable but generally great value at lunch. We opted for the Bellagio as I'd read good things about it, and for $20 per head including soft drinks it was a steal. I've not really been to many buffets. In the UK, the quality normally takes second place to the quantity, and places like Flavourz and Cosmo in Bristol are dire. The Bellagio was something else. Here are just two of the counters - salad and desserts:



You can get almost any kind of food here: freshly cooked ribs and steak; freshly made omelettes cooked to order; noodles and soups; house-made breads; burgers and pizzas; a variety of fishes; various types of pasta; 10 different types of potatoes; more sauces, condiments and sides than you can count; a staggering array of desserts; fresh fruits and vegetables, and much, much more. Even as someone who can't eat a whole lot of food these days, I managed to sample a fair amount:



There is a ticket available for $45 which lasts for 24 hours and lets you visit 6 different buffets around the strip. I have no idea who would want to buy that; after an hour at the Bellagio, I was ready to burst.

It was also show day in Vegas for us. In the morning I'd picked up some tickets to Nathan Burton's Comedy Magic show next door at the Flamingo for ten bucks apiece. You could actually get free tickets if you were willing to book ahead (the earliest availability for freebie seats was 9 days in the future), but we weren't going to begrudge a $10 show. I'd actually wanted to see Lance Burton (no relation to Nathan), who is a legendary magician and - to me, anyway - much better than David Copperfield. Unfortunately it doesn't look like he's performing in Vegas any more, so Nathan Burton was the substitute. He'd appeared on America's Got Talent and was clearly just starting out in Vegas which may explain the pricing, but he was actually a decent magician. Being a big magic fan, I'm familiar with a lot of the big stage tricks and how they work - Valentino's controversial "Breaking the Magician's Code" TV show may have helped shake things up in the arena somewhat - but there was a dazzling array of big prop tricks in Nathan's show which I'd be hard-pressed to explain. He was also joined by a guy doing some Stomp-style theatrics at the start, along with Jeff Civillico who was more of a juggler, and both were good. At an hour and a quarter, it's certainly better value than a couple of spins of a roulette wheel or throws of the dice.

Speaking of which, as we had a couple of hours to kill before the next show, we decided to use the match play vouchers we'd got in the morning to try our luck at craps. We put down $20 and the voucher (which matches your bet up to $5), rolled a few times, lost, put down another $20, rolled a few more times, lost, and walked away bemused. The whole experience lasted approximately 2 minutes. It taught us a few things:

1.) If you want to bet on craps, you need to make use of the side bets or you won't get anywhere.

2.) If you want to bet on craps (or any table game), you need to have a decent bankroll as you will burn through cash like crazy.

3.) If you want to bet on craps, you need to be able to throw the dice. We crapped out on first throws at least three times. I was half tempted to start inspecting the dice.

A sharp lesson, which was probably better for us in the long run as it was a stark reminder of how dangerous table games can be; if we'd won a bit, we'd likely have been tempted to keep playing and possibly lost more.

Our second show of the day was my birthday present for Gilly - tickets to Cirque Du Soleil's KA. No, it's not a acrobatic show about a naff Ford motor, but a story of a brother and sister who are captured after their family are killed by an evil magician, and who have to find each other before saving the day. Honestly, don't worry about the plot - it's more than a little confusing. What you need to know is this - KA is one of the greatest stage shows I have ever seen. Everything about it is simply jaw-dropping, from the theatre itself, through to the acrobatics which are nigh on terrifying (near the climax there is a simply stunning piece of wire-free insanity where two guys on a rotating wheel over 50 feet high almost kill themselves by using a skipping rope whilst the wheel is turning...I've never seen anything like it). The real highlight is the stage. It is a feat of incredible engineering, and it transforms into everything from a sailing ship to a beach (complete with a ton of sand), to an ocean, to a vertical climbing wall with full multimedia projection. The hydraulics involved are breathtaking. I have no idea how they did it; I can only assume it's powered by pixie dust or
unicorn blood. One thing is certain, if we ever come back to Vegas, another Cirque du Soleil show (O or Mystere are supposed to be equally good) is an absolute must.

Here's a sneak peak of the show:

We weren't particularly hungry after the massive lunch, so decided to share an appetiser in the Hard Rock Cafe. This is where the US and UK differ so completely. In Blighty, an appetiser (or starter as us Brits prefer to call it) is a relatively small dish, designed to "start" a meal, or perhaps work up an "appetite". In the US, it seems that appetisers are as big as our mains, if not bigger. Here, Gilly demonstrates an appetiser of nachos with BBQ pork:


Now it may just be me, but is someone serves me an appetiser on a plate bigger than the circumference of my waist, it is possibly not an appetiser. It is a meal for two. The nachos were excellent though, and it made us realise fairly early on that however expensive the States was going to be, food costs would not be an issue.

After waking up from a food coma late the next day, we walked over to Caesars Palace. Its Roman theme was perpetuated throughout:





One of the highlights of Caesars on my last visit were the animated statues in one of the malls, but they weren't working on this occasion. The main reason for the visit was Joe's Seafood, Prime Rib and Stone Crab, which was highly regarded on the ever-reliable TripAdvisor. It didn't disappoint; Gilly ordered a plate of perfectly cooked scallops, whilst I went for the Fisherman's Platter (scallops, cod, prawns and calamari), along with sides of fries and garlic sauteed spinach. Other than the slightly flavourless cod - similar to the UK, then - it was all excellent.


We needed to walk it all off, so took a trip to the Mirage. It looks like Siegfried and Roy's white tigers which used to prowl behind glass at one of the entrances have since been moved elsewhere, possibly after one of them got a bit pissed off at being made a spectacle of every night and ripped out Roy's throat (he survived, and thankfully so did the tiger). They've still got the huge tropical fish tank behind the check-in desk, though.


Gilly is a roulette fan, so we gave that a go and after initially doing quite well we soon lost our stake. A familiar feeling, but it lasted around 40 minutes which is about 13 times longer than our dabble at craps so we didn't feel too cheated.

Whilst there's no pool at Bill's, guests are able to use the Flamingo's pools if they wish, so we spent a bit of time in the sun in the afternoon, and then went to the Mirage in the evening to watch the volcano show which "erupts" every evening on the hour.



No lava involved - it's a clever combination of fire, water and lighting. We also tried to get to the Treasure Island show "The Sirens of TI", but it was cancelled so, still stuffed from our huge lunch, we went to Paris for a slice of pizza at "La Pizza" and shared a fantastic chocolate and raspberry mousse cake from Cafe Belle Madeleine:


Our last full day in Vegas was spent shopping. We found a Wal-Mart and stocked up on some necessities (water being top priority - we had some serious driving ahead of us), and picked up a USA Lonely Planet from Barnes and Noble. Despite expecting the US electronics stores to stock anything and everything, we couldn't find a replacement x-mini speaker at either Target or Best Buy; portable speakers were either huge or expensive, and normally both. The hunt continues. We grabbed lunch at Krung Siam, where the only thing going for it was the $4.99 price tag, and then went back to the pool for the remainder of the day.

The Sirens of TI show was on in the evening, and despite it being technically impressive (a galleon ship actually sinks), the rest of it was pure titillation with the cheese factor ramped up to 11; certainly not something I'd take the kids to see, and not really worth a special trip unless you're in the area at the time.



Treasure Island was the only place we actually came away in profit (to the tune of almost $3.50) after a few goes on some slots. Yeah, we showed the house who was boss!

We drove to Firefly Tapas Kitchen for dinner, a place Gilly found in our newly purchased guidebook. Thankfully, the portions were actually tapas sized and all were superb: empanada; mushrooms stuffed with chorizo and chicken; apple and manchego salad; patatas bravas, and lobster tails in a garlic and parsley sauce - fantastic. I was driving, but Gilly confirmed the mango mojito was similarly excellent. For once, we left feeling comfortably full and not like our stomach was about to herniate.

No visit to Vegas is complete without seeing the Bellagio fountains in action at least once and after our first viewing was fairly short, we stayed for a full show. After a couple of cancellations due to "high wind" (I think one of the ducks on the pond was flapping its wings a bit too hard), we finally saw a complete performance at 10:30pm.


Pictures don't do it the justice only sound and motion can provide, but it really is one of the "must-see" free attractions in the city.

We lost ten bucks on slots in the Bellagio, but won it all back bar 45 cents on roulette, so counted our blessings and left. At some point during the night, I lost my Moleskine notebook which had been with me for the entire journey thus far. I was initially devastated as it had my notes on NZ in it (and I was well behind with my blogging so they would have come in very useful) but Gilly has a much better memory than me so was able to fill in the gaps, and it could have been worse - losing a camera or passports, for instance. It had my UK address in the front, so maybe some kind soul will take it upon themselves to send it home.

Thus ended our trip to Las Vegas. It's a city that can be described as many things but "dull" isn't one of them. After some indecision over whether we should visit the Grand Canyon (will the heat be too much? Will the drive be worth it?), we decided to bite the bullet and go. We weren't sure if we'd be out this far on future trips to the US, so it made sense to go whilst we were a reasonable (i.e. a 4.5 hour drive) distance away. That did mean a 7am start the following morning, but such is the price of travel in a huge country...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Day 302 - 304: Uprising, Tsulu, Suva and Beqa Shark Diving

Our itinerary had practically matched Paul and Fi's in Fiji. We had considered visiting some other islands but had discounted it in the end due to either a) cost or b) distance. Their recommendations had been excellent thus far, so when they told us we should do a shark dive and stay at Uprising there was no hesitation in booking.

The shark dive with Beqa gives you a two-tank dive plus a night's accommodation in Uprising for $320, plus another $30 for marine fees and fuel surcharge. I can say with confidence that the dive is absolutely worth doing.

The marine park is protected, and is the only one of such status in Fiji. Shark fins are still in ridiculous demand - especially in China - and the amount of fins shipped over there each year comes to millions of tons. It is a barbaric practice, and one that Beqa Shark Dive is trying to change by lobbying the government to alter its laws. They reason that the country could make more money from selling dives with sharks than they could by killing them, and more importantly the shark population would be protected.

We got kitted out with dive gear including brand new masks which isn't as great as it sounds; new dive masks are coated with silicone and the layer needs to be removed with toothpaste or some other abrasive chemical, otherwise it fogs up underwater and you can't see a thing. This is what happened to me on our first dive, but luckily one of the divemasters swapped masks with me underwater and all was well.

The dive itself is on three levels. We descended to 30m first of all and hovered behind a wall whilst a wheelie bin full of huge fish heads was brought down. The feeders then began holding up the heads; we were immediately surrounded by thousands of fish of all shapes and sizes, with Sergeant Majors being the most populous. It didn't take long for the bigger fish to catch the scent of the food though, and within a couple of minutes the first sharks arrived. Bull sharks are one of only three species of shark that will actively attack humans (tiger and great white being the others) but it seemed that they were quite happy to be given fish heads instead, and were happy to swim right up to the feeders and snatch the food from their hands before crunching it up and coming back for more. There must have been six or seven bull sharks circling the feeders, and they were less than five metres in front of us. It was a jaw-dropping sight. We were so transfixed that we almost missed the turtle swimming lazily behind us.

If that wasn't enough, we then ascended to 15m and the next level of feeding began. These were grey reef sharks and whitetip reef sharks and the greys were significantly more aggressive with their feeding than the bulls had been. A number of divemasters had padded metal poles to ward off the sharks if they came too close or looked like they were going to be a nuisance; these sharks got crazily close to us - so much so, that at one point I could have lifted my hand and touched the belly of some of them as they swam over our head. Oddly, despite all of the activity and the amount of sharks in the area, I felt completely safe during the entire dive. It was staggering how close we were to these beasts, and put into perspective how over-hyped the danger of sharks is. Jaws didn't do the fish any favours at all.

The last level was at around 5m and coincided with our safety stop. There were more grey reef sharks there as well as nurse sharks, and at one point a bull shark came up to our level to have a nose about and was quickly chased away by the feeders, as Beqa are trying to ensure that the sharks learn to stay at their assigned levels for feeding.

After a surface interval with some tea and biscuits, we were back down for a second dive in a different area. This one only took in one shark feed at 25m. The bull sharks didn't seem particularly hungry and were happy to let the fish heads get eaten by the smaller inhabitants of the sea. We then had a swim at a fairly shallow depth and took in the various soft and hard corals in the area; Fiji was easily more colourful than the Great Barrier Reef, and had an abundance of interesting plants and creatures.

I wasn't sure what the shark dive would be like, but I can safely say that all expectations were surpassed. This was one of the highlights of our Fiji trip, and one of our best dives (only Malapascua's thresher sharks and the overall magnificence of Sipadan came close) and as potentially the last dive we'd be doing on our travels, certainly ended our underwater adventures on a high.

We returned to Uprising and had a late lunch - curry, very good - and set about getting some free wi-fi which Paul and Fi had raved about when they visited 4 weeks earlier. Alas, it seems that things can change for the worse in a month. The management had stopped the free wi-fi and replaced it with the dreaded Global Gossip service ($2.50 for 15 minutes, insane). Luckily for us, one of our dorm-mates had been told the password for Uprising's own network so we were able to get online without bankrupting ourselves, as long as we stayed in the lobby area. It wouldn't have been as disappointing if all of the literature and website information on the place didn't advertise it as a perk but I guess getting that updated on "Fiji time" may take a while, especially if it keeps bringing the punters in...

A trip to Pacific Harbour is ten minutes on foot. There are about eight shops, an ATM (tip for visitors - ANZ doesn't charge a transaction fee, the other one does), three or four restaurants and a supermarket. We considered doing some other activities whilst we were here, but the canyoning trip which we were most interested in didn't run on the days we had left. It may have been for the best, as the weather was appalling for the next couple of days.

We had a look around Uprising in the evening, which comprised a pool, bar, restaurant, and a large dorm.




This was the biggest dorm we'd been in, and all of the problems inherent with such dorms prevailed here. Snorers abounded - earplugs are an essential travel item - but the worst was the drunken English people coming back at 2am and deciding to have a loud conversation in the middle of the room. The American woman in the bed under me asked them to be quiet, as did I, and only after two attempts to get some peace did they finally shut up, but not before the sozzled English girl uttered the following: "Well if you wanted sleep, you shouldn't have stayed in a hostel." There's so much wrong with that statement that my mind short-circuits every time I try and parse it. I let it slide, and she was soon snoring with the rest of them. Irony abounds, it seems.

Uprising also does laundry for the extortionate price of $16 per bag. I'd suggest taking a 5 minute walk to Pacific Harbour for pretty much anything you are looking to buy in Uprising - laundry, internet, water, food; it's all considerably cheaper there.

The day after the shark dive we decided to go to Suva and watch The Dark Knight Rises. After getting an early local bus into the city and arriving at 10am, we found out that the receptionist had given us the wrong times for the film, and we wouldn't get to see Batman until 3:30pm. Deciding to make the most of the day, we instead went to see The Bourne Legacy in the morning which was surprisingly good. Cinema tickets in Suva are $6.50 (about £2.30) even for 3D shows so you won't be breaking the bank. After a Chinese lunch at Restaurant 88 in a food court, we braved the torrential rain to go looking around various electronics stores for a portable speaker, as our X-Mini's wires had frayed. The only candidates we could find were cheap Chinese knock-offs, so we decided to wait until we got to the US. After a muffin at Gloria Jean's, we finally got to see the caped crusader in a trilogy conclusion which featured surprisingly little Batman, a preponderance of gloom, a bad guy that sounded like Darth Vader channelling Daniel Day Lewis' character in There Will Be Blood, plot twists a-plenty, and a ticking bomb finale (which didn't really make much sense, but hey ho). All told, it was a decent ending to the series, but not as good as the superb middle film.

We thought we'd have trouble getting a bus back to Pacific Harbour but we needn't have worried. Whilst the main buses from Suva stop at around 6pm, there are plenty of local buses. This one hung around until 7pm before setting off, but it gave me the chance to take in the local preaching shacks set up around the bus station. One such hub was here:


Now, does this mean that there is wi-fi in heaven? Can you give God a call and get some face time? There are so many questions that need answering here.

We left Uprising the next morning and moved to Tsulu. We could get a double room for a cheaper price than two dorm beds in Uprising so it made sense, and our decision was truly justified when they upgraded us for free to a double with en suite. Tsulu is a "luxury backpackers" but it's more like a budget hotel than a hostel, with towels, complimentary shampoos, etc. It has a decent pool too:


Since we were right in the centre of Pacific Harbour, the restaurants were on our doorstep. We ate at Baka Blues Bar for lunch (burger / chicken salad) and dinner (baby-back ribs and mash) and it was a decent feed with live jazz music in the evening and great surroundings.



Our flight to LA wasn't until 10pm the next day. We had to get to Nadi Airport on a bus which was a good 3 hour drive, so after an 11am checkout we grabbed a pizza at Perkins Pizza (around the corner from Baka Blues Bar) and hopped on a 2pm bus. Even though the flight left at 10pm, we arrived in LA at 1:30pm earlier that same day. I know that the international dateline seems like an obvious thing, but I still can't get over the feeling that I've stepped into a time machine. The flight wasn't the most comfortable, but we managed about 5 hours of sleep on and off, and were ready to hit the road in the 12th and penultimate country on our tour.

Friday, November 09, 2012

Day 294 -301: From Nadi to Barefoot Lodge, (Drawaqa Island, The Yasawas)

Mary at Bluewater Lodge took care of booking everything for the rest of our Fiji trip, including 8 nights in Barefoot Lodge on Drawaqa Island - our destination the following day - and a shark dive and accommodation in Pacific Harbour for the last 4 nights in Fiji. She even washed our clothes for free and gave us another night in BWL for the grand total of £1.80 each. I suspect this may be because she was making a stack of commission from the various places she was booking on our behalf, but due to the odd nature of commission in Fiji it didn't affect what we got ultimately got charged - a percentage of the final price goes to the hotel, but is taken directly from the total rather than being passed on from the company to the customer. It's a bit bizarre but we weren't complaining.

So we relaxed that day; I comprehensively beat Gilly at Monopoly courtesy of Park Lane and Mayfair, we watched Australia lose in the Olympics at beach volleyball to Austria (ha!), ate lunch at Bamboo - decent, if nothing spectacular - and had dinner at BWL. We had a new dorm-mate that night, the excellently named Alice Milton, who had in her possession a tin of Milton pastilles. There's simply no limit to the amount of Milton greatness that can be found around the world.


We spent an enjoyable evening playing cards and drinking bourbon. At one point we were asked to move to a table around the corner as it was hotel policy for customers not to drink their own drinks in the restaurant area; this was despite it being 10pm and us being the only people outside. I think the guy felt a little sheepish as he went through the process of setting up a new table for us, literally 10 metres away from our old table and still in line of sight to it. I love watching bureaucracy in action.

Our transfer to the Yasawa Flyer was at 7am the next day. We were not looking forward to the early start, especially not with a hangover. However, with surprisingly clear heads, after a shortish transfer to Port Denerau in the morning, we were soon onboard the ferry bound for the Yasawas. Three hours later, we'd arrived on Drawaqa (DRA-WANG-AH).

Sitting on an island, doing very little. That was my plan for Fiji, and Barefoot Lodge is probably the best place to do it on a backpacker budget. It had a reputation for being one of the nicest affordable options in the Yasawas, both through word of mouth and also online. For $105 a night (£37.50) you get accommodation in a 4-bed dorm and three meals. We once again got lucky and had the entire dorm to ourselves for the first 3 days, meaning we had space to spread out. Sadly, on the fourth day we acquired a Spanish roommate for a couple of nights which meant we had to pack everything away again. Unusually for bures at the lower end of the spectrum around the islands, ours came with an electrical outlet which was a real help for charging the laptop, cameras and phones.


Significantly, what isn't included in the price is water and this is treated like liquid gold. We bought a large bottle before we got on board the ferry thinking that, like Maqai, we'd either get water with meals or there'd be a filter on the taps to allow you to drink safe water. Nope, you have to pay through the nose for the stuff ($6.75 for 1.5 litres) and when you're getting through the best part of 3 litres a day on a hot day, it soon adds up. My tip for anyone going to the Yasawas - as by all accounts this is endemic across the islands - is to stock up on cheap water at the port. Take as much as you can carry; you'll definitely get through it.

There are three beaches on the island: Sunrise, Sunset and Manta Ray. The budget bures appear to be facing Sunrise, whilst the nicer accommodation is on Sunset. Sunrise tends to get most of the wind, which can either be nice (if it's a hot day and you want to sunbathe with a breeze) or a pain (if it's overcast and you want to sit out and read without getting cold). For the most part, the weather was average - after 3 days of sun, there was rain for most of the last 5 days.


There is a fairly decent set of activities to take part in whilst on the island. These include:

- Fiji History Talk given by Tue, who appeared to run pretty much every activity on the resort

- Volleyball

- Making coconut jewellery

- Hiking up the island

- Snorkelling and kayaking

One of the big draws of the island is the chance to go snorkelling with manta rays. They occupy a channel between two of the beaches and a boat usually goes out twice a day to allow people to swim with them. If a scout goes out and finds mantas, they come back to Barefoot, bang on a drum and a cry of "Mantas!" is heard around the resort. Then everyone who wants to go and swim with them rushes over to the dive shop, grabs a snorkel, mask and fins and jumps into the boat. We did this on the fourth day; after getting up at stupid o'clock to ensure we didn't miss it, we ended up going after breakfast. It was worth it though, we saw three manta rays playing in the channel, doing loops and swimming around us. They are elegant creatures, and all three had slightly different colouring; one was pure black, one had white speckles and one was a little more grey. They are also huge, and fearless - they had no issues swimming within 5 metres of us. I was so happy to actually get to see them, after failing to do so both in Bali and the Philippines.

The food at Barefoot was pretty good. Breakfast is usually a buffet of toast, fruit, cereal, porridge and either pancakes or scones depending on the day. Lunch is variable; one day it was tasty noodles with beef, on three separate occasions we had pasta with creamed spinach which was pretty bland and none of us looked forward to it. Dinner is three courses: soup to start (I hate soup so skipped this), followed by a decent main - lamb burger with potato rosti, chicken curry with bombay potato and rice, chicken and veg - and then a dessert which is usually a piece of cake and custard. Paul and Fi told us that this was the best food they'd eaten on the backpacker islands, and I can believe it.


There is a dog on the island called Seta who is something of a legend. He has a broken leg now (after a farmer got fed up with him killing chickens) which doesn't seem to bother him, but before that happened he swam over to a female on the neighbouring island (which is a fair distance doing doggy paddle!) and she became pregnant. After his injury he obviously couldn't swim, but somehow the female got pregnant again. Bearing in mind that these are the only two dogs in the region, it seems that she must have swum over to Barefoot... A true love story, I'm sure you'll agree.


The staff put on nightly events for us, including fire-dancing which was slightly more intense than the show on Maqai, so much so that they almost set fire to one of the dinner tables that the guests were sat watching from!



On another occasion we had hermit crab racing. A number of crabs had been caught and numbers painted on their shells; we had to choose one and then they were placed in the centre of a ring on the floor.


The first crab to leave the ring was the winner, and the top three winners had a showdown. I picked a plucky young chap which I obviously named "Milton", figuring him to be a worthy representative of the name and full of mettle.

Looking back, it seems more likely that he was full of metal, as he barely moved for the entire three races.


The final was between New Zealand, England and Germany. As is usually the case, Germany won, and didn't even need penalties to do so. Another disappointment for Blighty.

(No crabs were harmed during the writing of this blog. In fact, we spotted many of the crabs days later, wandering around on the beach with numbers still emblazoned on their backs).

We also tried our hand at volleyball. The last time I'd played was in the Dominican Republic about 3-4 years ago so I was more than a little rusty. For Gilly it had been even longer. Thankfully, the teams we were playing on were of mixed ability (including one English A-level graduate who simply stood and screamed or shouted "NO! NO!" whenever the ball came near her; possibly not the best game for her), so we acquitted ourselves quite well.

Fiji was a great place to get through some of the many books we'd been carting around for a while too.

On Rob's Bookshelf

Spectrum III: A Third Science Fiction Anthology (Kingsley Amis): This was a fifty-year-old paperback of short stories ranging from pretty awful to above average. The one that stood out for all the wrong reasons was "Killdozer!" by Theodore Sturgeon, about a possessed farming machine. No, I am not making that up. I've enjoyed Sturgeon's novels before but this was terrible. Any story that has an exclamation mark in the title should ring alarm bells from the offset, and unless you have an unhealthy interest in how bulldozers work, you'd find it very hard going and just not worth the effort.

The Seventh Galaxy Reader (Frederick Pohl): Another half-century old collection of sci-fi stories, which was much better than the previous book. The highlight was "The Big Pat Boom" by Damon Knight about aliens who travel to earth for souvenirs and decide that cowpats are the ideal gift, thus making an enterprising farmer millions. It's hilarious.

Letters From A Professional Nuisance (Michael A. Lee): A selection of letters sent by a Huddersfield man to various agencies, government organisations and retailers asking for implausible items (such as asking Nestle for a chocolate fireguard), complaining about ridiculous things ("Please can you rebuild Luxembourg?"), and applying for non-existent jobs (like the Beast of Bodmin Moor). Not all of them hit the mark, but most of the replies are fantastic - especially one from a jaded G.P. who takes the opportunity to berate the health system, the government and patients in general.

Matrix Man (William C. Dietz): A bland sci-fi thriller about a reporter who has one of his eyes replaced with a camera, and then stumbles upon a conspiracy by an African dictator to take over the world. The characters are one-dimensional, the pacing abysmal and the ending utterly ridiculous.

The Humbling (Phillip Roth): I'd never heard of this author, but he is apparently considered one of America's greatest living authors. This short tale about depression, suicide and mortality as seen through the eyes of a faded actor might not be everyone's cup of tea, but Roth writes vividly and the story shocks and moves in turn.

Starter for Ten (David Nicholls): Anyone who has ever been to university or lived through the 80s, or has even a passing interest in comedy should read this book. Told from the point of view of Brian Jackson, a first-year uni student who applies to go on the University Challenge team, it balances laugh-out-loud moments with scenes that will make you cringe in horror. An essential holiday read.


We went on a trek along the island after breakfast one morning, as it is only about 1.5km long, and it seemed the weather was generally better in the morning than the afternoon (it rained without fail every lunchtime!).




Many of the guests had come in groups but we made friends with Steve and Sarah, an English couple from Essex who arrived the day after us. They'd been to Wayalailai and said that it was pretty average with not enough food to go around, so Barefoot must have seemed like luxury in comparison. We ate with them at every meal and they kindly took on our soup rations (their metabolisms make mine look pathetic). Since we were heading to Vegas, we showed them how to play Texas Hold 'Em which Sarah soon picked up and fleeced us all out of cocktail sticks. We also played Uno but the less said about my performance in that game, the better.




One evening there was a quiz night and the four of us joined up with three Americans from the San Francisco area. The questions were Fijian general knowledge and a lot of the answers had been given in the various talks on the island; our team - the mighty Thunder Kittens - came first and won a free snorkelling trip for all players which was a decent prize. We weren't sure if we'd be able to use it as the weather had been miserable for the last few days on the island, but on the morning of the day we were leaving it cleared up. We took a boat out to the Pinnacles with a few divers and snorkelled for about 30 minutes. The mask I'd picked was much better and barely filled at all, so I was able to fully appreciate the reef which was awash with thousands of colourful fish.

We said goodbye to Steve and Sarah in the afternoon and ended on a decent lunch before getting a boat out to wait for the Flyer to pick us up as it passed. Unfortunately the boat was running on Fiji time and the heavens had opened so we were all getting soaked, even with the novel use of tarpaulin to protect us. Still, it was a welcome sight once it arrived 15 minutes later. We had been fretting about how we'd get to our next hostel - Uprising in Pacific Harbour - since the last bus left Nadi at 6:20 and we were never going to make it by that time due to the lateness of the pick-up. However, whilst waiting on the boat getting drenched we'd met Matt and Elaine who had been diving with us whilst we were snorkelling earlier in the day and who were driving to Suva once the Flyer arrived. They offered us a lift, which was exceptionally generous, and we got to Uprising at about 9:30pm. We picked up a bottle of water from a bar which made Barefoot's prices seem reasonable, and then hit the hay in our huge dorm room. We needed plenty of sleep, as we were going to be diving with sharks the following day!