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Departing Lautoka, Fiji aboard the Paul Gauguin

November 10, 2012 – Saturday – First Landing Resort, then board the Paul Gauguin in Lautoka, Fiji

I fell asleep at the computer last night while composing my first JoeTourist blog entry, so I finish that entry this morning, finalize the photos for a new Lautoka album on my JoeTourist photo hosting service, and then log into the Internet service to use my allotted one hour connect time before I leave. Of course, once I upload all the photos and do the other online work, there is only a bit of time remaining to browse facebook, and send a couple of emails. Internet aboard the ship will be low speed and expensive, so I’m glad to take advantage of the shore-side connections this morning.

Main restaurant patio area at First Landing Resort
Main restaurant patio area at First Landing Resort

I will board the Paul Gauguin this afternoon in Lautoka, so I pack up this morning, and my porter Koso comes at 11AM to pick up my big bag, which he will store until I leave for the ship at 2PM. I have arranged with the front desk to take their shuttle for FJ$20. In the meantime, I find a table between the bar and restaurant under the shade trees, and settle in for a while. I have a Coca Cola to start, and then later have a delicious roasted chicken salad for lunch. It is garnished with strips of something preserved in soy sauce, which gives it a nice flavour. That takes me to 1PM, while I work on my travel journal off and on.

I talk with a group of Road Scholars who just disembarked the ship this morning. They are being shown around the area, doing village visits, and having lunch at the resort. Some of them stop to chat with me, and they seem to know all about the solar eclipse group boarding the ship this afternoon.

It is soon time for me to leave, so Koso pulls my bag from storage and I take the First Landing Resort shuttle to the Lautoka wharf. The driver is Indian, and once he knows I am going on a cruise to see a Total Solar Eclipse, he tells me Indian women who are pregnant have to stay indoors that day, and can’t watch the event. I’ve heard of this before in other cultures, most notably the Arabs. It is a bit inconvenient when we arrive at the gates to the wharf, since security won’t let any vehicles through without a clearance sticker. So I have to walk through the gate and pass security with my cruise ticket and passport, rolling my bag behind me. Once they check me off the list, I’m good to go. It is a short walk to the gangway, but I have no luggage tags once I get there, so a porter helps me lug my big bag up the gangway to the main lobby area. I’m about a half hour early, so they are still getting organized for boarding passengers. The cruise director ushers us into Le Grand Salon, where they are all setup to check in guests and take security photos. They also take our passports – to be returned when we disembark.

My cabin is very nicely appointed, despite being on one of the lower decks. The ship was refurbished a few months ago, so all the fittings look fresh and new. It is certainly a smaller ship than the Holland America ships I was on previously, and the decor is not as opulent as the HAL ships. The pool is tiny, but there is lots of space on the top two decks, so observing the eclipse should be no problem. The Promenade Deck below the lifeboats doesn’t go all the way around the ship, and isn’t used much. In fact, there aren’t any deck chairs on this deck, which is kind of odd.

We are serenaded by a group of Fijian men with traditional songs on the dock as the ship leaves, but it isn’t announced on board the ship, and I’m disappointed that so very few passengers go out on deck to enjoy the beautiful sendoff.

I go for dinner to L’Etoile, the main dining room this evening, and I request to be seated at a large table. Since I’m traveling alone, this is a good way for me to socialize with people I might not otherwise meet. As it turns out, I know a couple seated at the same table this evening from a few years back when we both were on one of TravelQuest’s Costa Rican Southern Sky Fiesta tours.

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First Landing Resort, Lautoka, Fiji

November 8, 2012 – Thursday – First Landing Resort, Lautoka, Fiji

First Landing Resort is located quite close to where I will embark the Paul Gauguin in a couple of days. In the mean time, it is nice to have time to get that much-needed sleep in a seaside bure (cottage), and adjust to the time difference. My taxi driver assures me that First Landing is known for good food, and he is correct. All the meals I have at the resort are first rate, and all the staff are very friendly and helpful.

JoeTourist: Lautoka & Nadi &emdash; Restaurant patio area

I arrive a bit after Noon, and my bure isn’t ready, because check-in is normally after 1PM, so I need to kill some time. They serve me my welcome drink at the bar, which appears to be nothing more than some fruit juice and bar flavourings over ice. I also have some lunch in the restaurant: grilled Walu, which is a tasty white-fleshed fish served in a wonderful coconut crème sauce. At lunch I talk with several people who are also going on the Paul Gauguin Solar Eclipse cruise. They arrived early this morning (5AM), and are just now moving into their bures after having a temporary room assigned to them for most of the day.

After lunch, I am taken to my nice clean bure overlooking the water, where I settle in and get cleaned up. I take a quick walk around the resort, seeing all the facilities offered: pool, sports activities, cultural activities, spa (I have a free coupon), Wifi (modest charge), and the Vuda Marina is right next-door. After my walk, I sleep most of the afternoon, and wake up refreshed to explore the resort a bit further.

Left Foot Island at First Landing Resort
Left Foot Island at First Landing Resort

There is this Left Foot Island, which you can see best from Google Earth if you search for First Landing Resort in Lautoka, Fiji. I’m not sure what the story is behind this large manmade water feature. The resort has a coral beach (typical for this side of Vanua Levu), which means it is not soft, white sand, so you need reef shoes to go walking and wading. The reef is very shallow and close to shore in this area, which means the modest one foot tide exposes the reef and sandy areas each day, limiting ocean swimming. Of course, the resort has a nice pool, so there is no problem finding a place to swim.

Sunset with palm trees from First Landing Resort
Sunset with palm trees from First Landing Resort

Before supper, I take some sunset photos from just outside my bure, and after supper, I take some wide-angle photos of the beautifully dark western sky. The whole of Scorpius is easily observed, and the Milky Way is surprisingly bright considering I am standing in a resort with their grounds lit up at night. Having a dark ocean westward makes the beautiful celestial show possible.

I identify some of the constellations found in the southern sky using Starmap Pro on my iPad 2. Once I tell the software where I am located, it works really well. I can see Cygnus flying up from the Northern horizon. Mars is flickering in the atmospheric muck at only 6 degrees above the horizon. Altair, Terazad (red star), Peacock and Toucan constellations are all visible, and a nice globular cluster NGC 6752 pops out. I observe all these treasures using my Canon IS 12×36 binoculars while sitting on a lounge chair on the beach – pure bliss!

After the night sky observing, I’m ready for more sleep, and I’m looking forward to enjoying a lazy day tomorrow in the tropics.

November 9, 2012 – Friday – First Landing Resort, Lautoka, Fiji

I am up fairly early in the morning, and take some time to have a couple of cups of coffee while looking out over the ocean at the soft colours of the morning. I’m finally ready for the Continental breakfast, which is part of the room tariff. The morning meal hits the spot with fresh Fijian fruit, homemade pastries, and other delights.

I stay at the resort today, with nothing more planned than to try out my solar eclipse photographic and observing gear while I am still on solid land. First though, there are fish to watch under the causeway, sailboats to spot through binoculars as they drift by on what seems the edge of the ocean, and I take time to contemplate the shadows of the palm trees as they caress the beach (see banner image above). This is a sublime place.

Hot Pot: Fish Curry in coconut sauce with rice
Hot Pot: Fish Curry in coconut sauce with rice

I walk over to Vuda Marina, where my friends Craig and Barbara moored their sailboat Sequoia on their trans-Pacific journey a few years ago. I was lucky enough to share passage with them when they sailed from Opua, New Zealand to Suva, Fiji in 2004. I also have my first Fiji Bitter beer today, which goes down well with a very tasty Fish Curry Hot Pot in coconut sauce with rice.

I get out my solar observing and photography gear this afternoon and have a trial run on the lawn in front of my bure. It is going to be a major challenge to keep the Sun in the field of view of my camera while on a ship’s deck. Achieving sharp focus is another issue when your observing platform is moving under your feet. I’m sure we will be given lots of advice about solar observing and photography by the enrichment speakers onboard the ship, but I can already see the challenge. In any case, I take some useable photos of the Sun, which is all I can do for now.

24 day old waning Crescent Moon
24 day old waning Crescent Moon

Turning my attention to the 24 day old waning Crescent Moon proves rewarding this afternoon. The Moon has a rendezvous with the Sun on the 14th (the Total Solar Eclipse), so it will soon disappear from daytime view and keep its celestial appointment while I stand under its shadow while aboard the Paul Gaugin, observing this apparition from the Coral Sea.

I have a Fiji Bitter beer and potato wedges (bar snack) for dinner, since I’m not interested in the beach BBQ and Meke show being staged by the resort staff this evening. There are too many clouds to try more astrophotography this evening, so I return to my bure. Time for more rest, since I board the cruise ship tomorrow afternoon.

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Flying to Fiji from Victoria, Canada

November 6, 2012 – My first flight leaves from Victoria (YYJ) at 11AM to Vancouver aboard an Air Canada Jazz Dash 8 turboprop aircraft. This is a standard aircraft used for these short haul flights, which typically take about 20 minutes. My next flight leaves Vancouver at 1PM to San Francisco, so I don’t have much time to find my gate. I get lost in this rat’s maze – I never would have found the tiny door everyone flying to the USA has to go through without some help from a policeman. I have a few minutes to grab a sandwich from Tim Horton’s for lunch, since there are no meals served or available on this fully booked United Airbus A319 – a small regional jet. We depart on time and arrive a few minutes early in San Francisco (SFO) at 3:30PM.

JoeTourist: To/from Canada & Fiji &emdash; Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400

I easily find the gate for my next flight this time. Now I wait three hours for the Air New Zealand Boeing 747-400 flight to Auckland to depart. There is free Internet available – way to go SFO…land of the geeks, so I feel right at home! The young man at the podium checks me in, and assures me they will be serving both dinner and breakfast, as well as a mid-flight snack, so I should be well-fed!

I can see the flight is going to be late departing as the huge waiting lounge fills up with passengers. This flight is mostly full, so there are over 300 passengers to deal with. There are seven groups for embarkation, and guess which group I’m in? The last one – #7. The flight departs almost an hour late. It seems to take forever to get people to sit down so the doors can be closed. Once that happens, there are yet more delays once we pull away from the gate. We sit there on the apron just off the gate before we finally start taxiing to the runway. It takes a full 20 minutes to reach the button before we takeoff. I’m relieved when we are in the air and on our way, although at the same time I’m dreading sitting in the same airline seat for some 13 hours.

I have a window seat, however since the flight is at night, this doesn’t do me much good. Air New Zealand provides very good service during the long flight: a lovely dinner after we are a couple of hours out of SFO complete with complimentary wine and drinks. There are well over 300 passengers with few seats for us to stretch out on this fairly full flight, so I don’t sleep much on the long flight. In the early hours I have a look outside to view the southern sky stars, and later on, the Milky Way comes into view straight up and down just off the wing tip. The flight grinds on. We are served breakfast about 3 hours before our arrival in Auckland (AKL). They leave the lights on at this stage. I suppose the crew want to encourage the passengers to get all their fussing about done before arrival, so the deplaning process will happen smoothly. To my great relief, the deplaning process does indeed proceed quickly.

November 8, 2012 – This is the same 24 hour period (“day”) but we have crossed the International Date Line, so Nov 7th is a lost day for me. When I make the return trip home in three week’s time, I will get to live the same day twice

I still have another two-hour flight to Fiji before my journey is complete. This is another Air New Zealand flight aboard an Airbus A320. Departure time is stated as 6:05AM, so needless to say I’m worried I won’t make the connection due to our late arrival from San Francisco at 5:30AM. After disembarking the aircraft quickly, finding the gate in short order, and after talking with the check-in clerk, I can relax. The flight crew only arrives at the stated departure time, and the flight leaves almost an hour late. I guess the crew are operating on “Fiji time”! Of course, it doesn’t matter to me if we arrive late in Nadi, since this is the last segment of my long journey, and I have nothing planned after arrival except getting some sleep as soon as possible.

JoeTourist: To/from Canada & Fiji &emdash; Nadi airport runway, terminal buildings and aircraft

The Air New Zealand 2-hour flight to Nadi is full, flying virtually due north of Auckland to Fiji. There is no time difference between Auckland and Fiji – both are in the first time zone on the other side of the International Date Line. Our landing at Nadi was “hard” in my books, although I doubt the pilots broke any undercarriage! It is a relief to get back on solid ground, and feel the warm tropical air hit my face as we leave the aircraft in Nadi and walk along the open-air ramps to the main terminal building. My checked bag arrives none the worse for wear; I clear Fijian customs and immigration in a few minutes; hit the bank machine for some Fijian Dollars; and I’m off in a taxi for the half hour drive to Lautoka and First Landing Beach Resort and Villas, arriving a bit after Noon.


Booking my flights

My flights to Fiji from my home on the west coast of Canada entailed an end to end duration of some 26 hours going to Fiji, so I will be ready for some down time upon my arrival in Nadi, Fiji. I have arranged to arrive a couple of days before the Solar Eclipse Cruise leaves, so I can relax at a resort nearby to Lautoka, the departure port for the Paul Gauguin cruise ship. The return trip home isn’t much better, with a duration of some 24 hours end to end. This is the price to pay for experiencing paradise – and a total solar eclipse observed from a luxury cruise ship sailing in warm South Pacific waters!

When I first booked my flights to Fiji about six months before departure, total elapsed time (from Canada to Fiji) was about 19 hours. After Skywest (United Express) cancelled my flight on the first leg of the journey from Victoria to San Francisco, I was automatically rebooked, and the elapsed time zoomed up to about 28 hours. I called my travel agent to complain, and they found another routing through Vancouver which reduced the flight time to 26 hours end to end, despite adding a stop. I spent many hours are spent in airport waiting lounges. The airlines obviously want fewer flights which are more fully-booked.