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March 2014    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 29, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sau Bay Fiji Retreat, Fiji

from the March, 2014 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Dear Fellow Diver:

Drifting across the face of the gently sloping reef known as The Fish Factory in the Somo Somo Straits between the Fijian islands of Taveuni and Vanua Levu, I noticed my dive buddy looking up at the surface. I followed her gaze and saw the unmistakable silhouette of an undulating krait -- a banded sea snake -- 50 feet away, resting on the surface to breathe. I haven't had many encounters with them in my 30 years of diving, but as I looked back at my buddy to check her position and then up again, the snake had disappeared. We continued our drift along the reef, as I marveled as always at the colorful abundance of fish and corals. Then minutes later, I caught sight of a four-foot-long krait not 10 feet from me, poking its head into crevices looking to corner and consume a hapless fish.

Kraits pack a lethal venomous punch, so I was startled when our dive guide, Sau Bay resort owner Nigel Douglas, reached down, clasped two fingers just behind its head and slowly lifted it up from the reef. He held it for about 10 seconds and then let go. I watched it casually swim off to resume its hunt. After the dive, I asked Nigel about the risk of handling kraits. Having been born in Fiji and dived there for decades, Nighel replied that he had no reservations about gently handling them, explaining that the kraits' venomous fangs are set well back in their small mouths, so they are unable to inject venom into people-size objects wearing wetsuits. Still, I kept my distance on the off chance that a krait might think one of my fingers looked edible.

Just another day underwater in Fiji. I went in December for my third dive trip there, and my first visit to Sau Bay Fiji Retreat, on the southeast corner of Vanua Levu, Fiji's second-largest island. Nigel and his Australian wife Carol opened it in late 2012. Nigel is the son of Noel Douglas, the owner of Matangi Private Island Resort. Nigel and Carol took over a failing backpacker- on-a-budget operation in Sau Bay and transformed it with new construction while renovating the existing cottages, all elevated and just a few feet from the beach.

A Cottage at Sau Bay Fiji Retreat

The setting is truly South Seas idyllic: a small sheltered bay with a gently sloping beach and three enormous "Rain Trees" at the high-tide line. The kitchen and dining building has a large deck, where I sat for drinks and good conversation, while listening to the wind and water (insect repellent is highly advised at dusk). The dining area is spacious, with only a few tables because the resort is small; I doubt you will see more than eight other guests at a time.

Chef Danny did remarkable things with local ingredients. One night featured a traditional and delicious Fijian Lovo meal, while another night offered a wonderful Indian dinner. There was never a lack of delicious food no matter what the hour. If we got back late from the morning dives, it was no problem to have lunch at 2 p.m. This is an advantage of a small resort with personalized service as compared to a larger operation with more guests, where they have a more regimented meal schedule.

The comfortable cottages have corrugated steel roofs, and front and side walls with floor-to-ceiling louvered windows (and curtains for privacy, of course). There is an A/C unit over the bed, but sea breezes through the louvers kept me comfortable. The bathrooms have dual sinks, a separate area for the toilet, a shower, and a heavenly private outdoor shower on the side of the cottage. A two-bedroom unit under construction is an "African safari tent" style accommodation, which will have its own private pool.

Sau Bay Fiji Retreat, FijiBeing but 30 minutes by boat from the Somo Somo Straits, Saue Bay offers a host of top-notch dive sites. On Annie's Bommie, during a rising tide, extended soft corals in a multitude of colors were awash with fish. I spotted multiple nudibranchs and a tiny yellow-striped conch on a sea fan. At Rainbow's End, I dropped down through a dense school of fusiliers surrounding four threadfin trevallys, then spotted a three-foot Napoleon wrasse meander across the reef. A mature white-tip reef shark lazily approached me, then reversed course when I exhaled bubbles. Drifting with the current, I rounded the corner of the reef and saw a sixfoot manta ray winging over the top of the reef, feeding on the plankton that had bloomed in November's warming 82-degree water. While visibility was less than 50 feet, it did not adversely affect my enjoyment of this incredible dive site.

Perhaps the peak diving experience in the Straits is the Great White Wall. It starts at 40 feet but the preferred way to experience this site is to enter a steeply sloping tunnel through the reef (keep an eye out for dwarf lionfish as you drop down) through which you quickly see the exit point at 80 feet. Then just "hang a left," and if your guide has timed it right, a current will take you for a drift along a solid wall of white soft coral extending many feet above and below you. After maybe 10 minutes, it's time to slowly work your way up the wall, where you can appreciate brilliant areas of purple, red, and yellow soft coral as well. At the top of the wall, I enjoyed watching an octopus tease us with an extended display of its camouflage capabilities.

While I was there, Nigel was using a boat on loan from Matangi Island, awaiting delivery of a new 27-foot aluminum dive boat, which should now be in service. The dive operation runs smoothly, with assistants transporting your gear and tanks -- aluminum 80s filled to 3000 psi -- from the beach out to the boat and setting it up, if you desire. While they now use an inflatable to make that connection through the long, shallow bay to the dive boat, Nigel plans to dredge a shallow channel to the dive building beside the dining hall so he can dock his new dive boat there.

Sau Bay Fiji Retreat, FijiWhile Nigel was my only guide during my four-day visit, he sometimes hires guides from nearby operations on Taveuni. He was adept at pointing out anything of interest during the dive and let my buddy and I keep to our preferred speed underwater: slow. We often spent nearly an hour per dive at 60 feet or so. At the start of each dive, Nigel would sometime drop below us for a bit but I could tell he was keeping an eye on us.

It was difficult to find much fault in paradise. Oh, the internet access was painfully slow and often unusable; however, a follow-up communication from Carol says that they now offer "highspeed" access for a fee. There was no towel rack in the bathroom, so in the humid tropical climate, my bath towel didn't fully dry when I draped it over the shower wall. Well, life is tough in Fiji, isn't it? Seriously, the cottages, food, service and diving were all outstanding. Fiji has a number of good, small resorts that Undercurrent has reviewed over the years, and while it's not a dive-focused resort, Sau Bay offers terrific diving with luxurious accommodations in a stunningly beautiful tropical environment. If you're a casual diver, what more do you want?

-- L.E.

Sau Bay Fiji Retreat, FijiDivers Compass: I paid $2,670, double occupancy, for four nights in a studio cottage, three two-tank dive days, all meals, the taxi from Matei airport on Tavenui to the boat pickup point, and round-trip transfers for the 45-minute boat ride to Sau Bay and back . . . There are twice-daily flights, early morning and late afternoon, from Fiji's main airport in Nadi to Taveuni, but those flights can change at a moment's notice; if the plane is full, don't assume your luggage will get on board with you, so grill the gate agent about whether your bags are being loaded onto your flight or the next one . . . Water temperatures in December hovered between 80 and 82 degrees; I wore a full-length 3mm torso/2mm extremities suit and usually added a 3mm vest for the second dive, but I typically "dive cold" (I also wear a neoprene hood) . . . Air temperatures were consistently in the high 80s by the afternoon, rain was infrequent, but you'll probably get a few showers over a one-week period; T-shirts, shorts and a rain jacket are all the clothes most people need . . . Tipping is not expected or necessary . . . Website: Sau Bay Retreat Fiji - http://www.saubayfiji.com

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