What To Drink On A Pacific Island Paradise

Tuesday, 22 January, 2019
Graham Howe
What could you not live without, cast away on an island paradise - wine, cold beer, rum, good food, books, music or company? Graham Howe packs for his summer holidays in the South Pacific.

I prepared carefully for a twelve-day cruise I took late last year around some of the most remote islands in Fiji in the South Pacific, inhabited by remote communities which rarely receive visitors. Setting sail for the pristine islands in the Lau archipelago aboard the Reef Endeavour, the small yesteryear flagship of Captain Cook Cruises Fiji, I got out my snorkel, swim gear and tropical kit. When we splashed ashore on a wet landing, an uninhabited coral cay or one of the world’s biggest fringing reefs, I’d be ready. I practised tying my sarong, as the islanders don’t like naked knees.

We called at a different island daily while making our way across the Koro Sea from the Fiji mainland of Viti Levu to the Lau archipelago on the international dateline. When we landed, we were warmly welcomed by the local community, from village elders to mothers and schoolchildren, in a colourful ceremony known as a sevusevu. We joined in the joyous island dancing, ukulele and guitar music, and the kava ceremony – when kava (a pepper tree creeper) is pounded into an intoxicating drink quaffed all around the South Pacific. In a fair cultural exchange, the Reef Endeavour brought ashore gifts of bales of bright fabric, bras for the girls, rugby balls for the boys and school stationery.

Sharing in the kava drinking ceremony Kadavu island

On warm nights anchored off a dreamy palm-fringed island, I enjoyed exploring a wine-list which took our tastebuds travelling even further from Australia and New Zealand to Chile, Italy and France. I soon settled on the wine I’d want to sip by the chilled case if ever marooned on a desert island – Evans & Tate (a major wine producer in Australia’s Margaret River region) Butterball Chardonnay, a classic full-flavoured wine with lovely shortbread, brioche, ripe stonefruit, pear and melon flavours. It was a great partner for the tropical flavours in the dining-room in mouth-watering local dishes such as papaya soup, papaya ravioli, Kokoda (ceviche-style fish marinated in lime and coconut) and delicious Fijian dishes served in creamy coconut and mango sauces. Leave room for cassava cake.

Fijian rum was prominent in the classic cocktails mixed by the expert staff aboard the Reef Endeavour – especially Bounty Rum, a full-throttle 58% ABV spirit inspired by the mutiny against Captain Bligh depicted on the label, who left his mark on the Bligh Passage we sailed through on the cruise. With classic Taittinger, Louis Roederer and Mumm on the wine list – as well as Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand and alternate white varieties such as Leftfield Albarino (Gisborne/NZ), Miranda Riesling (Barossa, Australia) and Richland Pinot Grigio (NSW, Australia), we had a planet of wines to taste on balmy nights under the stars, chilling out on South Pacific time.

Craft rum is the hottest new spirit since craft gin, riding a new wave of popularity. Before boarding our good ship, the Reef Endeavour in Port Denarau on the mainland of Fiji, fellow passengers met up at the trendy Rhum-Ba at the yacht marina. Rum, a by-product of the sugar cane industry on Fiji and many other islands worldwide from Madagascar and Mauritius to Bermuda, Barbados, Cuba and Jamaica, is showcased on the Rhum-Ba list of over 100 (white, red, dark, golden, light, aged, estate, blended, small batch, pot still and flavour infused) rums from 30 countries – and many rum cocktails. Rum may be the spirit of 2019, wherever you are.  Pass the Pina colada and planter’s punch.

The red wines went well with the slow-cooked lamb and pork cooked ashore on Kabara Island in a traditional lovo(like a maorihangi) – where fish, meats, taro and pumpkin are wrapped in banana leaves, buried in a pit and slow-cooked in an earth oven on hot stones.  A meaty Argentinian Malbec or Jim Barry Lodge Hill Shiraz (Barossa, Australia) was a good match for the succulent lamb – while a Marlborough/NZ or Otago Pinot Noir (Misha’s Vineyard) was the perfect match for the succulent pork and chicken. The Antinori Chianti Classico on the wine list of the Reef Endeavour reminded me of the tasting I attended by Marquis Piero when he was guest speaker at the Nederburg Fine Wine Auction in 2002. How well wine travels, from Tuscany and Burgundy, floating all the way to Fiji.

We worked off all the good food and wine during the day, walking around coral atolls, swimming in turquoise waters with stingrays, turtles, reef sharks and a flotilla of tropical nemo fish, snorkeling over reefs embedded with giant clams and coral forests. We hiked through rain forests to swim in waterfalls and watch turtles lay eggs at an inland lake. I went to a remote palm island church on Sunday, drank kava at welcoming Bula! ceremonies and bought my own carved kava bowl and war club. I was amused to spot t-shirts bearing the legend, “We’d love to have you for dinner”, a witty reminder of the 1700s and 1800s when the old “cannibal islands” of Fiji developed an early appetite for missionaries like Reverend Baker. Only his chewed old shoes remain in the national library today.

To avoid a similar fate, I observed the strict etiquette of the God-fearing Methodist islands of Fiji. When coming ashore at remote villages, you should avoid wearing sunglasses or a hat on your head, always cover your shoulders and knees, and never pat anyone on the head, young or old.Graciously accept the generous cup of kava from your hosts – or ask for “a low tide” (half-measure) – and clap three times in thanks.Talk about coconut currency. The cost of a husked, halved coconut varied on every island we visited. Since coming home, whenever I wear one of the bright neon over-sized Bula shirts I bought in Fiji, I swear I can hear the crash of falling coconuts. But it could be the kava talking.

I’ll be back one of these days to visit some of the other 333 islands that make up the cultural tapestry of Fiji. Bula! (a traditional Fiji greeting which means hello, welcome, cheers and goodbye). 

*See www.captaincookcruisesfiji.com for small ship island cruises on fully inclusive 3, 4, 7 and 12 day cultural and swim/dive itineraries ideal for families. The Lau discovery cruise takes place in Mar and Nov only. The Fijian crew are warm, hospitable and attentive with excellent food, great service and good value. South Africans do not need visas to visit Fiji. Connecting flights from Australia and NZ.


Graham Howe

Graham Howe is a well-known gourmet travel writer based in Cape Town. One of South Africa's most experienced lifestyle journalists, he has contributed hundreds of food, wine and travel features to South African and British publications over the last 25 years.

He is wine and food contributor for Eat Out and WINE.CO.ZA, which is likely the longest continuous wine column in the world, having published over 400 articles on this extensive South African Wine Portal.

When not exploring the Cape winelands, this adventurous globetrotter reports on exotic destinations around the world as a travel correspondent for a wide variety of print media, online and radio.

Over the last decade, he has visited over seventy countries on travel assignments from the Aran Islands and the Arctic to Borneo and Tristan da Cunha - and entertained readers with his adventures through the winelands of the world from the Mosel to the Yarra.

Oneata Island Lau group Fiji
Oneata Island Lau group Fiji

Bounty Rum on the beach Fiji
Bounty Rum on the beach Fiji

Reef Endeavour Captain Cook Cruises Fiji
Reef Endeavour Captain Cook Cruises Fiji

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