Cruising the Mamanucas

It has been nearly six weeks since Moonshadow made landfall in Fiji. I have been a bit remiss on tapping out any sort of an update, but there has been no shortage of things to do. Between post rally festivities, yacht maintenance, guest visits, working on my Dive master’s certification, and a bit of fun here and there, life has seemed to maintain that first-world pace even though we are supposed to be on “Fiji Time.”

I’ve been based out of the Musket Cove Yacht Club on Malolo Lailai Island, about eight miles west of the mainland island of Viti Levu. Musket Cove is an excellent “home base” for cruisers wishing to casually visit some of the lovely islands and anchorages in the Mamanucas group of islands. More on this great little cruiser hangout later.

The Mamanucas are a group of 20 small islands lying to the west, or in the lee of Viti Levu island which is Mainland Fiji. Many of the islands are volcanic in nature, giving them dramatic topography, and most have a bit of beautiful white or yellow sand beach. They are protected from the west, south and east by barrier reefs or islands and generally receive less wind and rain than the other island groups. If you come here on vacation, odds are that the weather will be good. The sailing is easy, but the area is pocked with coral reefs and sand shoals, so movement can only be undertaken when the weather is settled and the sun is high (about 10 am to 2 pm). Only a handful of the islands offer good overnight anchorages, but in settled weather, it is easy to make day visits to many of the islands, as the distances are relatively short.

A few days after our arrival, I was invited to spend a day aboard Peter Churchouse’s beautiful 65-foot Alan Warwick designed Moonblue II. We cruised about nine miles north to the island of Eluvuka and enjoyed a leisurely lunch at the beautiful Treasure Island Resort. This place is a nice quiet little getaway for couples and families who are happy to relax in one spot and are immune to “rock fever.” In addition to the usual island activities, they’ve squeezed in a pool, tennis court and play area for the kids.

Our first excursion aboard Moonshadow was during the post rally activities. This was a day trip to a tiny little island called Etui, situated about nine miles to the north of Musket Cove, next to Eluvuka. We took about a dozen visiting friends from the Ponsonby Cruising Club so it was more of a party cruise than a sailing adventure. We had lunch, a few beers in the beachfront bar, did some swimming and sunbathing on the beautiful beach before steaming back to Musket Cove for more festivities.

Etai is the home of Beachcomber Resort. This is sort of the Club Med of Fiji, targeting the younger and more active holidaymakers. Don’t come here looking for peace and quiet, because this island rocks! Accommodations range from a dormitory for backpackers to private bures (thatched bungalows) for the less budget conscience or those seeking some degree of privacy. Meals are all buffet style, and the quality is pretty good. The resort offers all the typical island activities like SCUBA diving, personal watercraft, water skiing, parasailing, snorkelling, volleyball etc. Every night, there is island entertainment, live music and dancing in the casual, sand-floored main lodge. This place pumps till well past midnight. If you are looking for a night of fun in the Mamanuthas, this is the place to go! If you come here, you don’t need much more than a bathing suit and a T-shirt. You can leave your hiking boots at home. To walk across the island takes less than two minutes. A circumnavigation walk on the beach takes about ten minutes. Beachcomber is about ten miles from mainland Fiji and a million miles from reality.

I took a single-handed cruise up to Mana Island, about nine miles to the north west of Musket Cove. Mana is a very scenic island with a native village, two backpacker’s resorts and an upscale resort. The beach on the north side is stunning, and belongs to the upscale resort. The only anchorage is in a small lagoon on the south side, near the backpacker’s resort and local village. I felt that the backpacker’s resort resembled a minimum-security prison. It was crowded, noisy, and dirty and the southern beach was covered in litter. While the lagoon offered good protection, one night was enough for me!

A few days later, I sailed over to Port Denerau to do some provisioning in Nadi and then picked up long-time cruising friends Cindy and Tim from Total Devotion, who popped into Fiji for a week’s visit. We spent a couple days in Musket Cove catching up and then visited a couple spots nearby.

We spent an evening anchored of the beautiful and dramatic little Qalito (pronounced Galito) Island and enjoyed swim and a dinner out at the Castaway Island Resort there. The next nite we spent anchored at a beautiful little bight on the northwest end of Malolo Island. The crescent-shaped bay is lined with palms and other trees, has a beautiful white-sand beach and is uninhabited. This lovely little getaway has no name on any chart or cruising guide that I have seen, but is easily the nicest and quietest little spot in the neighborhood. Maybe I’ll just call it “No Name Bay.”

We steamed over to Port Denerau again to pick up my lovely lady friend Gretchen from Auckland. She popped in to visit for the Queen’s Birthday Weekend and to escape some of the shocking winter weather New Zealand has been experiencing.

From Denerau, we made a beeline twenty-six miles northwest to Navadra (pronounced Navandra). This is a small cluster of rocky islands, two of which are connected by a stunning white sand spit. The island had just been vacated as the set for an Irish version of Survivor.

We enjoyed a walk (more of a climb) part way around the island and enjoyed a mostly relaxing few days on the hook. The only drama was being on awakened early Sunday morning to the sound of a Captain Cook cruise ship’s whistle signalling us to move clear so they could get to their massive mooring line. Unbeknownst to us, they moor there for a few hours each week as they cruise through the Mamanutha and Yasawa Island groups. The skipper and crew were most gracious, even sending over a bottle of champagne to thank us for our trouble. Now that’s class!

Working our way back to Port Denerau, we made a one-night stopover again at Musket Cove. I dropped off my guests and returned back to “home base.”

Musket Cove not only possesses the physical features of a good anchorage, such as a good protection from the weather, good holding, room for lots of yachts and beautiful surroundings, but the Musket Cove Yacht Club and Resort go a long way toward attracting and supporting the cruising fleet.

Musket Cove derives its name from the original purchase price for this beautiful 6000-acre island-one musket, and was originally used as a coconut plantation. It was purchased by a yachtie named Dick Smith in 1964 for “many muskets.” He has developed the island into three resorts including one timeshare and added a golf course, marina, airstrip and a few private homes. The island is self-contained, making electricity from a diesel generator, getting water from rain catchment systems and underground springs, and even treating its own waste.

And of course there is the Musket Cove Yacht Club. The only prerequisite for membership is that you must have sailed into Musket Cove on a yacht from a foreign port. Lifetime membership is affordable, even to cruisers on a budget. Cost $1 Fijian (US 50 cents). For that you get a membership card, which entitles you to use of all the Yacht Club and Resort facilities on the island, your name and yacht name carved on a beam in the Yacht Club and hefty discounts on travel to the mainland via the Malolo Cat ferry.

And the facilities are excellent, particularly for this part of the world. The Yacht Club has a bar and big screen cable TV in case you want to have a beer and catch up on world news or the latest sporting event. Attached to the Yacht Club is a restaurant/bar/pool complex open to members.

Musket Cove is no five star mega resort, just a relaxed place where the not very rich and not at all famous from all over the world come to get away for a casual holiday. During the day it’s no shoes, no shirts, no worries. At night a shirt and shorts or a sulu are standard dress. If you come here, you can pack light and leave your designer gear behind.

The Musket Cove Marina has room for at least a dozen yachts med-moored (stern to the dock). The marina will cost you F$14 a day, F$85 a week or F$318 a month. Deep-water moorings are just over half that. The current exchange is about $2 Fijian to 1 $US. If that’s still too spendy for you, there is plenty of room to anchor out in the bay absolutely free.

A few steps from the marina at the Boatshed complex is a PADI Five Star dive facility, water toy rental as well as all the amenities that make a cruisers life easier. The shower/toilet facilities are clean and well maintained. There is Internet access, laundry, mail, phone, fax and trash disposal. Fuel, fresh water and LPG are available dockside. There are also some limited marine repair facilities on the island near the airstrip. If you wish to leave your yacht for the summer season, there is even an inner lagoon designated as a “hurricane hole.”

If that isn’t enough for you, there is also a very well stocked general store. At the Musket Cove Trader you can find everything from blue cheese to bilge pumps. Fresh bread, fruits and veggies arrive daily from the mainland. With the exception of off-sale adult bevies, the prices are very reasonable. When you need to load up the “fun locker” you can hop on the Malolo Cat ferry and hit one of the grog shops in Nadi.

A few steps from the seaward end of the marina dock is a small, palm-studded island with a thatched-roof kiosk-type bar surrounded by lots of picnic tables. The Island Bar has one price for all drinks-$3. Everyone here just calls it the “3 Dollar Bar.” In fact, it is pretty famous with yachties all over the world, who might know it as the $2 or $2.50 Bar from days past. This is the most popular spot for sundowners with a good view of both the beach and the lagoon to the east. Adjacent to the bar are some industrial-sized barbeques that seem to be fired up most every evening. You can bring in your own food and throw it on the barbie and keep your galley cool.

For a meal out, my favorite spot is Ananda’s next to the airstrip. The staff are very friendly, the food is tasty island style, the wine list reasonable and most evenings there is a string band playing a blend of island and pop music.

Wami, a dwarf who barely overstands his massive acoustical guitar, heads up the band and sings in a unique, near falsetto voice. Bill and George usually back him up on guitars and singing and a guy sitting on a tea crate plucks away on one string attached to a moveable stick, laying down the bass notes. The band sit and play around a large cocktail table on which sits a tanoa, a large wooden kava bowl. It is apparent that this bowl has seen lots of use as it is well seasoned and even has a little cast supporting one leg. Between songs the boys pass the bilo, a half coconut shell containing kava to any of the guests wishing to partake in the muddy looking (and tasting) local grog. There are always some good harmonies and a group of people gathered around having a good time-Fiji style.

For some real action you can head next door to the Plantation Island Resort for the weekly crab or frog races. A dozen or so hermit crabs or frogs are gathered from the beach or the island, marked with numbers, and auctioned to the highest bidders. The Fijian auctioneer does an excellent job of hyping up the event and some of the locals do a good job of bidding up prices for the livestock. After all the “thoroughbreds” are sold, they are placed under an upside-down bucket in middle of a large square drawn on the dance floor, and “the gate” is opened. The first frog or crab to walk, hop, crawl or otherwise travel out of the square is the winner. Owners of the animals that win, place or show split most of the takings from the auction, which can go into the hundreds of dollars. If you have any energy left after that, you can stay and dance the night away to some mostly cheesy disco music.

Musket Cove is generally a “cashless” society. Anything at the Resort or Yacht Club can be charged to your room or yacht and you can pay your bill once a month by credit card and when you depart. And Fiji is still in the “no tipping zone.”

It’s no wonder it is so easy to linger. Yea, maybe we will leave next week.

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