“Hello” from the remote islands of Fiji, where Capt. Carol Dunlop has spent three decades preparing for your charter.
Story and Photography by Kim Kavin — October 2004
A dark-skinned man in a Polynesian shirt wrings a yellow cloth with his calloused hands. Gray liquid—pounded kava root mixed with water—drips from between his fingers into a large bowl before him. He puts down the mangled rag and picks up what appears to be half of a coconut shell. He scoops a healthy serving of kava from the large bowl and into this bilo, which he then offers to me.
The older men sitting cross-legged around us on grass mats under the palm trees tune their guitars, but the younger men watch with anticipation. I look to Capt. Carol Dunlop of the charter yacht Surprise. She nods confidently. She’s taught me what to do.
I clap once—a hearty smash of my palms—signaling my willingness to drink, and take the bilo in both hands. I tip it over my bottom lip and gulp down the kava. A few drops stray from the corners of my mouth. It tastes like a mixture of Jagermeister, Robitussen, and dirt.
Aware of my audience, I smile broadly and hand the bilo back, then clap three times to say thanks. The man fills the bilo again and offers it to the person next to me, making his way around the circle. As I watch the others imbibe, my lips begin to go numb. I lick them and realize the back of my tongue feels fuzzy. The sensation pricks down into my throat as I swallow, and within seconds, I feel calm. Not drunk, not high, not at a loss for a single faculty, just simply, purely, utterly content.
Surprise’s captain smiles and picks up her ukulele, and the men begin to strum and sing. Dunlop is the lone woman among them, as she has been here in the villages of Fiji for quite some time, paving the way for all of us Westerners who want to experience real culture in the South Pacific.
Fiji has long been an exotic dream destination. It has two main islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, which are ringed by more than 300 smaller islands, many of them uninhabited. The waters and reefs are pristine, the palm trees are plentiful, and the white beaches carry no footprints. Fiji is, in many ways, what the Caribbean was a generation or two ago: a paradise of sun, sand, and friendly natives just beginning to be explored by vacationing boaters.
On the western side of the chain, the resorts’ proximity to the airport in Nadi keeps tourists away from the distant archipelagos—that is, except for those who make the quick taxi ride from the airport to board Surprise. The 115-foot McMullen & Wing is the only luxury charter yacht that calls Fiji its permanent home. Dunlop, a British expat who understands five-star service and has been cruising in these waters for 30 years, joined Surprise after the boat’s 2001 launch. She has since trained a crew of her favorite local boaters and strengthened her personal ties to the elders in remote villages where she wants to bring her guests.
This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.