There is only one "highway" through Savusavu. Southward from the middle of town it is known as the Hibiscus Highway (although there is no sign anywhere that says so!), and it leads over the hill to the airport and several villages and resorts beyond on the Tunuloa Peninsula. Northbound it is called the Transinsular Road, and I get that from the Lonely Planet Guidebook. In either direction it is two lanes of pavement, riddled with potholes! Our vehicle was a white, two-door, four-passenger Suzuki 4WD jeep, which was, of course, right-hand drive. As you may know, from our years in St. Thomas, we have plenty of practice driving on the left, but little in actual right-hand drive cars where shifting is done with the left hand. In the passenger seat on the left, it was all I could do to stop myself from adjusting the rearview mirror so I could see back. It just felt wrong!
Our route north led around the east end of Savusavu Bay, passing the hospital, the Fiji Gas Terminal, and the campus of a technical college, giving us our first view back across the water onto the village. The lowlands were thick with coconuts palms, and Fijian fishing rafts were moored along the shoreline. Then we started to climb.
From the anchorage, we have been admiring the serried ranks of steep mountains ranged along the spine of Vanua Levu. Now we were up in them! As the road climbed the palm trees gave way quickly to pines. Villages along the way were clean and tidy, with crews of men scything the grass along the shoulder. Boys rode horseback along the side of the road. Virtually every person smiled, waved, or called BULA as we passed!
Near the top we stopped at a scenic overlook just above the Waisali Rainforest Preserve. The little park with its 1.5 km groomed walk is the closest thing to a tourist offering we have seen on Vanua Levu. The man staffing it said it was put together by the Waisali community! Good on them. I was sorry we didn't have more time to stop and take the walk. Next time!
Coming down on the north side of Vanua Levu, the landscape changed again. The forest became drier and the earth redder. Further down the hills opened to grass and sugarcane or the ordered rows of lumber pines. Our "highway" came to a T with a bus stop. There were still no signs, but we used nautical know-how and turned east toward Labasa (pronounced Lambasa). The roads may not have signs, but they do have milemarkers, and just before the 14 miles from Labasa marker we turned left at Khan's General Store.
The road promptly went to dirt, and that's dirt with baseball sized gravel! We've noticed that the Fijians drivers don't slow down much for this stuff, but we sure did. We followed this for 3km, taking just long enough that we wished we'd marked the odometer, when finally we saw the diminutive sign for Palmlea Farms and a track going off to the right. This track wended its way through shoulder high grasses for another kilometer, with stunning views of the islands and reef offshore, before opening out in front of our friends' new farm.
Joe and Julie Smelser are a couple we met three years ago in the Marquesas. They had been around the world in their Beneteau 44, but were world travelers in their pre-cruising careers as well. Joe is retired from one of the most memorable careers I have ever heard of. He was a development architect for Pan American, researching, conceiving, negotiating, and designing signature resorts for the new and exotic destinations the pioneering airline sought to open around the world. Julie was retired from an equally interesting career as a start-up troubleshooting manager for casinos!
In the Marquesas they were still sailing aboard their boat Apogee, but even then their plan was to end the cruise in Fiji. Back then they talked retirement talk -- about a simple traditional Fijian home on leased property that would revert after their death to the original owners. But obviously, they were not really ready to sit still, because the actual project has become something completely different.
The main building, a lodge built in the Fijian style with high and steeply pitched roofs and an open front, sits above the road looking down a long slope of waving grasses to the mangrove-edged shoreline. Beyond the mangroves are approximately eight miles of lagoon and picturesque islets protected by the Fiji's Great Sea Reef, one of the major barrier reefs of the world. Behind the building the slope continues up steeply to a knoll, and their land is framed to the east and west by two thrusting ridges, one distinguished by its sleeping lion rock formation. Clustered on the main building's western flank are the first three bures of Joe and Julie's resort, which match the main lodge in style. Two of the bures are one-bedroom, each with a luxurious bath and sitting porch, and the third one, which was still under construction the day we visited, will be a two bedroom unit. Three more bures are planned.
The "Farms" in Palmlea Farms refers to the organic gardens that Joe and Julie have planted in three plots around the buildings to provide all the fresh produce the little resort will need. Bougainvillea plants ornament the front, and hibiscus in many colors decorate the bures. As we arrived they were in the midst of constructing a delightful trellised walkway between the lodge and the bures, part of which is an ingenious aqueduct for the rain catchment system from the lodge's roof to their cisterns.
We were both quite taken with Joe's designs for his buildings. The main building in particular, which has four dining tables across a totally open front, backed by a sitting area on one side and bar/kitchen area on the other, is really stunning. The floors are polished hardwood and the beams and rafters overhead are stained black with traditional Fijian woven palm matting mounted between them. Indeed the OUTSIDE walls of the building are lined with this traditional matting, varnished against the weather. Accents of colored walls and local art tie things together, and the overall effect is an airy and serene space totally focused on the awesome view.
After our tour around the facilities, Joe and Julie hosted us to a lovely luncheon in the main building. With their official opening only a few weeks away, Julie was happy to have us be guinea pigs as she trained her staff, a troupe of charming (if a bit shy) Fijian women from the nearby village. Joe presided in the kitchen, and we enjoyed a yummy meal of homemade torte (an Italian flatbread) with melted cheese and fresh rocket (arugula) from the garden, followed by teriyaki chicken. That and some very chilly Fiji beers really hit the spot.
As you might guess, the two captains brought with them their real estate itch, all primed and ready. Because you see, not only Joe and Julie have invested here, but two other couples that we cruised with from Mexico: Mike and Mary, formerly of Danseuse de la Mer, and Greg and Sujata, formerly of Majii Rey These six people were guests aboard Tackless II for a memorable potluck/book-swap that took place in Baie Anajo on the North Side of Nuvu Hiva (see www.thetwocaptains.com>From The Galley>#26.). so there have been several suggestions that it is preordained that we buys some land here.
Michael and Mary have purchased land at the very top of the hill above Palmlea Farms, while Greg and Sujata bough the plot on the ridge to the east. And of course there is at one more plot left with oceanfront access. So after lunch we all four climbed into the Suzuki and continued down the very overgrown track through Greg and Sujata's property, across a bridge-let made of logs, and then up a rise to the top of the lot.
The land – about 15 acres in all – like Joe and Julie's land slopes down to the mangrove-lined shore, but it is flatter and currently planted in sugar cane, just as all the lands around here have been at one time. The eastern boundary fronts a tidal river, an estuary that will empty at low tide, of course. Along the road is a small house (that can be included or removed!) as well as a few fruit trees. No one was sure where the uphill boundary ran. The view might even be better than Joe and Julie's, because the land wraps a bit around the hill so that the exposure is northeast across Labasa Bay where there is not only the town, but several small mountains and islets off shore.
So we'd be lying if we didn't confess that our imaginations have kicked into gear. To have a property, with very few, but known, neighbors, a spectacular view, a cash crop and access to the delights of the bay's protected waters and the great diving and fishing on the Great Sea Reef, all only 14 miles from a biggish town and with its own airport….well, it is tempting! However, we are not jumping to any conclusions here. We will just take Joe up on his suggestion and bring the boat up to anchor off his dock for awhile and explore the area for ourselves.
By the time we had done all this prospecting, the sun was starting to drop quickly toward the horizon. We were a little embarrassed to realize we had taken up the whole afternoon of these very busy people, who are pushing to be ready for their first group booking next week! Plus, we were also just a bit anxious that we were most likely going to be driving the hour and half back over the mountain in the dark! So without further ado, we said our good-byes and piled into the Suzuki to retrace our way home to Savusavu.
Interestingly, the route back did not seem quite as long as it had on the way over (although it still took the full time to drive it!) We stressed a little about finding the left turn at the bus stop, which did seem farther than we remembered it, but by now Don was such a pro at handling the Suzuki and dodging the potholes, (I won't mention the time he went to dim the lights for oncoming traffic only to shut them off entirely!) that we were back on the other side of the island in no time! We parked the car right in front of the Copra Shed and slipped home by dinghy for a light supper before bed.
Since we had the car officially until 1030, we rose early the next day and used up the time exploring eastward along the Hibiscus Highway, which you will remember went east out toward the Tunuloa Peninsula. The first 20km of the road is paved and in relatively good shape. Beyond the airport we found a couple of fancy luxury resorts, the Koro Sun Dive Shop (with its own resort), and several other attractive little bure resorts as well along the road as it hugged the shoreline. Off in the distance we could see Taveuni. The pavement petered out right at the throat of the peninsula, offering a choice of a dirt road along the south shore of the peninsula, or another dirt road along the northwest side of Natewa Bay, the big gulf between Vanua Levu proper and the Tunuloa peninsula. We rattled along the dirt road another 15 minutes, seeing copra and cattle farms as well as more enterprising homesteaders, before turning back to turn the car in. If the infrastructure of the area (roads and restaurants) ever gets beefed up, Vanua Levu, sometimes called "Fiji's best kept secret," won't stay remote for long.
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