Taken by Surprise

Magic is an everyday occurrence in the Fiji Islands.

Fiji
Fiji.Dave Poore

I won't forget that moment: a Saturday afternoon on my first day in Fiji aboard the new 115-foot motoryacht Surprise. We were steaming north-northwest to the sunny Ra islands when my camera-the one I depended on for this story-suddenly, irrevocably died. Soon every store within 425,000 square miles would be closed until Tuesday, and I could kiss my assignment goodbye.

But by satellite phone, personal contacts and the private air service of Turtle Island Resort, Capt. Carol Dunlop found the only Canon camera body in all the islands, and on Sunday morning placed it in my hands. Magic, I discovered, is an everyday occurrence on charter with this 25-year veteran and her all-Fijian crew.

The happy collaboration of a Fijian-born owner, designer Ward Setzer and builder McMullen & Wing, Surprise was conceived for the Southern Ocean, where the only power, provision, communication and repair facilities may be hers. From Kiribati to Auckland, she ranges at 12 knots on a steel displacement hull and 475 hp Caterpillars, the only luxury yacht chartering these waters full-time.

Fiji is a blue bowl of 322 islands poised between the ages of stone and DVD. On a clear day its famous soft coral is visible 150 feet below the waterline, and the land is so rich you could plant a walking stick and it would grow. However, without the proper observance of sevusevu-the ritual by which Fijians establish understanding and trust-you may never come ashore. This meeting with village dignitaries can be as simple as a few words of welcome for a short visit. In our case, thanks to Dunlop's local knowledge, it granted unique privileges and hospitality.

Volcanic Vatuvulu towered like a god over Yalobi Bay, where Serenia, paramount of the Waya chiefs, received us with the full ceremony accorded honored guests. Respectfully in sulus with bare feet, bearing the gift of dried yanquona root from which kava is made, we sat on pandanus mats drinking by turns from the tanoa and applauding a beautifully performed meke, a traditional song and dance.

As she had for the Queen of England and Pope John Paul II, Fanny Doughty prepared a feast in our honor while we played bols under the rustling palms. She and her husband, Otto, preside royally over their portion of tiny Tavewa Island, owned by the descendants of Irish beachcombers, of which Fanny is one. The moon rose full and red as we dined by torchlight on whole Waloo, taro and stuffed pumpkin cooked underground in the lovo style. Dunlop, a classically trained guitarist who keeps a Tahitian ukulele strung with fishing line on board, serenaded us with the Fijian musicians and danced the courtly tra-la-la.

For who she is and all she's done-delivering yachts across the Pacific, chasing deep-sea snapper on a commercial fishing vessel, and running a liveaboard dive boat that surveyed new sites and searched for the remains of Amelia Earhart in the Phoenix Isles-Dunlop was part of the owner's plans from the start. Surprise's forward-sloping bridge and panoramic wheelhouse are her design.

Through my new camera, I spent a lot of time eyeballing the clean lines and classical flourishes of this yacht, so brilliantly executed by her yard. The three-deck living space is huge and light, finished in soothing earth tones, cane and woven textures, and steamed European beech. Absent the marble and glitz, the décor keys off the owner's priceless collection of South Pacific aquatints and maps.

I loved the retro-style doghouse and nautilus stairwells, the towel warmers that kept our swimsuits dry and the way, sitting or standing, our views were never blocked by a thoughtlessly placed rail. None of us lost sleep over the smallish but comfortable cabins (master, two doubles and twin with pullout bunks), the trade-off for more engine, stowage and common space.

Only six months into the charter learning curve, the crew grooved easily with us and one another, witty and charming to the last man. Gourmet Manasa Heritage, a psychologist of appetites at sea, produced a Caesar salad smothered in red prawns when we were lazy, and a New Zealand lamb and Penfolds Shiraz when we had played hard. A cloudy day occasioned his signature chocolate mousse tower.

"What's in it? I asked after a second helping, figuring 3,000 calories each.

"If you knew, I'd have to kill you, our purser, Chris Whippy, replied.

Just when I thought "this is the best day of the trip, there had come another.

"Are any of you with child? our guide asked before we entered the caves of Sawa-I-lau, the legendary hideout of a young chief and his beloved whose force Fijians believe can induce miscarriage. The moment was high drama as we splashed into the icy water and ducked under a crevice into passages leading god-knows-where through the limestone walls.

We picnicked and played in Narewo Bay, the most beautiful of Yasawa Island's 40 beaches, while the sand shaded from white and rose to lavender with each passing hour. Our toys started with screamers, wave runners, water skis and kayaks-child's play-and graduated to 10 tanks, two Bauer compressors, an underwater camera facility and game fishing gear with an afterdeck fighting chair, all supported by 230 hp jet tenders. This yacht knows how to have fun.

Once or twice a year, a cruise ship anchors off the village of Yasawa-i-rara. There it was when we arrived: 1,500 guests peeling out from the midsection toward a waterfront of 150 souls. The Yasawa women ran the mother of all shell markets that day, their modest wares supplemented with handcrafts from all over the islands. I bought a Tongan wedding dress of tapa, the cloth made from pounded mulberry bark and root dye.

Because I'd fallen for Melanesian voices on an earlier trip, Dunlop arranged for the village children to sing. Positioned in rows facing me, their audience of one, they produced ancestral folk tales, an African hymn and the hauntingly beautiful farewell, "Isa Lau, in polyphonic chorus.

"Vinaka! Vinaka! the market vendors clapped from the sidelines after each tune. A Scotswoman wandering by from the cruise ship paused to listen, discreetly moved to tears.

In the quiet moments of our return passage-and they were quiet, thanks to Surprise's lead lining and foam-three of us watched a video of the yacht's maiden voyage on the giant plasma screen and read the guest log aloud.

"From the bottom of my heart. Signed "with love, went the celebrity accolades, and the yacht's charter career has only begun.

I took up a pen and wrote, "A thousand words can't do you justice.

Let's hope the pictures will.

Contact: Allan Jouning, (011) 64 9302 0178; allanj@37south.co.nz; www.37south.co.nz, or any charter broker. Surprise charters for $50,000 per week, including food, liquor and fuel in most cases, for eight guests.