Escaping Montana to the Tropical Wonderland of Fiji

Posted on 10 March 2009

 fiji island

Castaway Island, Fiji (Photo by Dave Reese)

By Dave Reese

Suddenly Montana seemed so very far away.

Suspended under 70 feet of water on a coral reef near Castaway Island, Fiji, I watched schools of colorful fish dart quickly past me. A black and white sea snake slithered through the water nearby, and a reef shark swam cautiously past me. The warm saltwater embraced me and although this was my first time scuba diving in tropical waters, I felt totally comfortable.

Of course, I'd been well prepared. 

A three-week scuba course at Bighorn Divers in Kalispell had gotten me ready for my journey into scuba diving. Now, I've joined countless other Montanans who, when the cold weather arrives, flee to warmer climes to experience the thrill of underwater exploration. 

I'd gone to Fiji to do just that; flee the state and its cold grey winter, to a place warm and inviting. A place where the culture above the ground was as exciting as the wildlife under the water. With the help of the Fiji Visitor's Burea, I was able to participate in a vacation experience of a lifetime. As I was exploring the coral reef off of Castaway Island, I thought back to my initiation into scuba in Flathead Lake, just a few weeks earlier. That experience gave me my first taste of scuba, but  in much different environment. My class and I, after our swimming pool lessons at Bighorn Divers, endured 36-degree water in Flathead Lake to complete our open-water certification.

The bone-chilling water of Flathead Lake, though, was nothing like the saltwater environment I was now experiencing. The sea teemed with wildlife; I saw things I'd never seen before, like colorful lionfish, anemones and barracuda.

I remembered back to my classroom instruction, where scuba teacher Wes Wilkinson mentioned this: "You'll see more wildlife in a half  hour of diving than in a day walking around the woods of Montana."

How true.

child fiji

A child watches boats off the coast of Castaway Island, Fiji (Photo by Dave Reese)

Scuba diving has opened up a whole new world of exploration, and Montana has several top-notch facilities to help with our new world of adventure.

Bighorn Divers two years ago opened a state of the art training facility and retail shop, complete with classrooms and pool, making the scuba training experience a one-stop-shop.

Despite Montana's relative remoteness, winter scuba travel has become more and more popular, especially among Montana's part-time residents, who tend to opt for warmer climes in the winter. Bighorn co-owner Steve Golleher says with good airline connections into Montana, scuba travel now accounts for a large portion of his business. The flight to Fiji, for instance, isn't as long as you might think. Air Pacific makes daily flights out of Los Angeles International Airport to Fiji. Flight time is about nine hours nonstop from LAX.

Not everyone leaves the state to dive, however. Montana does offer some of the world's best freshwater diving.

fiji couple

A couple strolls the beach at Castaway Island, Fiji (Photo by Dave Reese)

With Montana's crystal clear  - and cold - freshwater, our scuba diving is spectacular. Throughout the year, divers in northwest Montana participate in a weekly dives to keep their skills honed. One week last summer we explored an underwater forest in Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, where dozens of tall trees stand suspended, leftovers from a drought 200 years ago that brought the lake down. On another dive, we captured hundreds of crayfish out of McGregor Lake for Bighorn Divers' annual crawdad feed.

Scuba opens up not just international exploration, but a new camaraderie of friends within our own state's borders.

No matter where you go in the world, you can make instant friends when scuba diving.   

I found this out on my first dive near Castaway Island. (Where the movie Castaway, with Tom Hanks, was filmed). As we queued up to board our dive boat, I chatted with the other divers, who had arrived from around the world to experience Fiji's pristine waters. 

There were people from Australia and New Zealand, and I joined a man from Germany while exploring soft-coral reefs near Taveuni Island.
fjii singers
Music is every where on the Fijian Islands. Here, a group of singers serenades us we depart Castaway Island, Fiji (Photo by Dave Reese)

The time you spend actually scuba diving is relatively short, compared to the time spent above water. On an average day, depending on your fitness, you might get in two dives a day, lasting from 30 to 50 minutes each. So what do you do the rest of the time?

That's where experiencing the local culture comes in; Fiji is a nation of over 200 islands, some of which are barely inhabited. The nation's capital, Nadi, is a town of only about 30,000 people, and it is alive with colorful culture. Tight, narrow streets are crammed with cars and street vendors. At a large, open-air market in downtown Nadi, you can browse among tables of spices, bananas and other tropical goodies grown in the forests and fields nearby.

Just as American's love their espresso, Fijians are addicted to their kava. This bush grows abundantly throughout the country, and at about five years of age the shrubs are cut down. The roots are extracted and ground to a fine powder, which is then placed in a fine mesh bag and steeped in water. The muddy brown liquid is drank in large bowls, in ceremonies of varying degree. In some locations, such as one small apartment off of downtown Nadi, we drank kava with a group of local merchants. Certain customs dictate what you do during the ceremony, each one of them different according to local preference. (Beware: the drink is mildly intoxicating, and too much of this can easily lead to an afternoon hangover.)

kayaks fiji

Kayaking the Navua River by inflatable kayaks provided a memorable experience and insight into native Fijian culture. (Photo by Dave Reese)

Side trips can add to the excitement of your dive vacation. After we descended the Navua River on kayaks, we flew north, to Taveuni Island Resort. A five-star resort owned by a pair of New Zealand and Australian expatriates, Taveuni Island Resort is a haven of luxury. Our well-appointed bures (huts) overlooked the ocean, which crashed on the rocks below. In the evening we watched the sun, bright as a shiny copper penny, slip into the horizon.

The scuba diving here was fantastic.

We dived near the White Wall, a soft-coral reef that billowed and pulsed in the warm saltwater. 

Flying over Taveuni in a small plane, on our way back to the international airport at Nadi, I looked out the window and viewed the strait where I dived the previous day. The opalescent waters shimmered in various of blue and green; a small white boat bobbed on the reef, anchored out. I wondered if down below the boat was Andre, our scuba guide, a veteran diver with creased face and hands worn raw from a lifetime of diving these salty waters.


A group of barracudas seen while scuba diving near Castaway Island, Fiji (Photo by Waz Macpherson)

Now, as another winter lets go of its grip on Montana, I think back to Fiji and its warm embrace, made possible through scuba diving. It's nice to know it's only a 13-hour flight away.


Taveuni Island Resort

Consistently voted one of the top Fijian Resorts, Taveuni Island Resort & Spa is a small exclusive luxury resort that offers the ultimate tropical island experience. Set among 10 acres of lush gardens are 12 elegant luxury bures of unsurpassed style and comfort. Romantic and private, they boast panoramic views over the beach, ocean and surrounding islands. Taveuni Island is the jewel of the Pacific, a verdant paradise for nature lovers and lovers alike. Dense rain forests, over 100 waterfalls and rivers, white sand beaches, world famous dive sites, world class fishing and wonderful cultural experiences. Taveuni Island Resort features luxurious, private cabins and homes overlooking the ocean. Excellent food prepared nightly. The scuba diving is par excellence. 

On the Web:

Beqa Lagoon Resort: 

A short boat ride from Suva, Fiji's capital, takes you to Beqa Island, a sparsely inhabited island with a resort that offers weekly accommodations, diving and cultural activities. 

On the Web:

Pearl South Pacific: This luxury resort sits oceanside in Pacific Harbor and offers contemporary lodging and dining. Close to shopping and other cultural activities. The resort also features an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and can customize day trips, like kayaking and whitewater rafting. On the Web:

Castaway Island Resort

Fiji's most popular island resort has guests returning year after year to experience the magic that is "Castaway". The island's 174 acres are covered with lush tropical vegetation, surrounded by white sand beaches and encircled by vibrant coral reefs. Our spacious yet secluded bures and creative island cuisine along with the warmth and genuine hospitality of the Castaway family of staff combine to provide a unique holiday experience. Castaway is the heart and soul of the Fiji Islands. Castaway is a relaxed and informal island resort where bare feet and sulus are the norm throughout the day and evening.

On the Web:

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