Fiji The final stop
I'm playing darts at the Yacht Club in Savusavu, Fiji. It's filled with expats from around the globe. Around me are ex-doctors, ex-bankers, ex-wanderers, a plumber, my divemaster and a bunch of other escape artists who have found their bliss on this South Pacific isle. They have great stories, all with one familiar narrative thread after traveling the world, Fiji stopped their feet or stilled their sails long enough to put down roots. I've never met as happy a bunch of souls in all my travels. And why shouldn't they be? As I explore the less populated of Fiji's two main islands, Vanua Levu, I meet probably the friendliest people on Earth, a culture that cherishes its family-centric roots. It's a natural wonderland that captivates at every turn especially at every fin kick.
When I ask about living in Fiji, I'm told one thing matters: freehold property. Most of Fiji's property remains owned by local villages, and that property is leasehold. With freehold, you own it. You can pass it down to family, generation after generation. And, yes, they tell me, "Even Americans can own property here." I come to learn that only about 7 to 9 percent of all of Fiji's land is freehold, but on an island nation as large as Fiji (an archipelago of 330 islands), that's still plenty.
On my way back to the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort where I'm staying, my head spins with the possibility of a life of Gilligan in a tropical Pacific garden. When I head out on the dive boat the next morning, my imagination settles upon every inch of coastline, every small isle, open patches in the rainforest, everything that looks like it might make a dream homesite.
The clincher comes, though, after the giant stride. We've traveled to Namena Island Namenalala in the local vernacular about 40 minutes from Savusavu. This private 110-acre island sits in the middle of a 30-mile-long coral barrier reef ring filled with some of Fiji's most pristine dive areas.
We descend through a huge aggregation of swirling barracuda onto Grand Central Station. The site's name must not have come with difficulty. Rush hour pervades the water column and the reefscape. A parade of pelagics trevally, jacks, dogtooth tuna fill the area with movement. We spy a large zebra shark napping on the sand under a bright-red, 10-foot sea fan. But our eyes stay mostly in the blue over the drop-off. Gray reefs, a big, king-of-the-world hammerhead and whitetip reef sharks constantly patrol as we dive. Even a lone manta swims by.
Our second dive, Chimneys, a trio of coral bommies makes Grand Central Station seem like the sleepy side of town. Here, the colorful compete with the weird, wild and wacky. Soft corals small thickets of red, yellow, orange and purple hide medieval-looking blue ribbon eels, banded pipefish, fat groupers and some of the 1,000 resident invertebrates. Gray and whitetip reef sharks meander throughout. I could stay all day atop the bommies immersed in the clouds of purple anthias, which look like leaves caught in a perpetual wind, and carpets of anemones and their resident namesake fish. And this is just the tip of the Namena adventure wand.
Although the week brings piles of great diving and adventures, my search for a perfect paradise is settled during the first two overwhelming hours spent underwater. During my last night at the Yacht Club, everyone gives advice. For them it boils down to a statement made by a Brit expat named Trevor, who sailed in and stayed. "Mate," he says, "it's about life, then, init? A good, simple, remarkable, 'appy and fulfilling life. Just gotta 'ave your priorities on straight then. Right?"
The words brought a round of cheers. And in that moment, I realize that life could be lived in a tropical dream of blue and green, of sand and breeze, of peace and poetic ease. And that such places exist in the world.
Decide which part of Fiji you want to travel to, then visit padi.com to find the closest PADI Dive Center (several dozen are scattered throughout Fiji). If Savusavu is it, check out Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands resort (fijiresort.com). Find more information through Fiji's official tourism site (www.bulafiji.com). Learn about residency, citizenship by investment and business opportunities by visiting Fiji Islands Real Estate (fijiislandsrealestate.com). Expat information can be found at escapeartist.com.