TRAVEL: Cruising the tropical island paradise of Fiji
FOR me, the highlight of the Rio Olympics was Fiji's gold medal in the rugby 7s, and the joyous, yet dignified, celebration by the Fijians after that amazing victory.
Who will forget the emotion within that ring of Fiji players immediately after the final siren, arm in arm, spontaneously singing their hymn, those astonishing voices ringing out in praise of their Lord?
In the week leading up to that extraordinary evening I'd been in Fiji, most of the time on and around the outlying islands, and I am convinced that every Fijian - man, woman and child - is blessed from birth with the ability to sing beautifully.
I was a passenger aboard Captain Cook Cruises' Reef Endeavour, which trawled through the sparkling waters for a week, stopping at least once a day at one of the country's 355 islands, where Fijians live in much the same way as their ancestors did centuries ago.
Three things were consistent wherever we went - kava would be drunk, locals would talk incessantly about rugby, and there would be singing.
Nowhere was it more sublime than in a community hall at Yalobi Village, a small community on Waya island in the Yasawa group, where we had stopped for the day.
The hall doubles as the village church, and we were greeted on this Sunday morning by the sound of angels. In truth, they were the children of the village, boys and girls dressed in their Sunday finest, belting out hymn after hymn, in voices as pure as the streams that flow down from the hills.
Later they were joined by their parents, aunts and uncles for a church service that none of us will ever forget, a service interspersed with songs where the only accompaniment was those glorious voices themselves, and where you can sense the joy that singing brings to these noble people.
Yalobi is one of four villages on Waya and is home to 250 people. One of the youngest is Solo, a four-year-old who quite naturally clasped my wife's and my hand as his aunt escorted us through her village.
The guide, Mary, pointed out a small herd of dairy cows grazing on the edge of the trees behind the village. "My family owns those five cows," she said, with obvious pride.
"Do you sell the milk?" my wife asked. "Oh, no," said Mary. "We share it with everybody."
And everybody else shares what they have. That's how life is on these remote Fijian islands, where many of the inhabitants are born, live and will die without ever leaving their shores.
They live on what they grow and farm from the sea. And if there's anything left over they will take their produce to Nadi on the mainland island of Viti Levu, or sell it to a tourist resort recently built on the opposite side of Waya.
Many visitors to Fiji make a beeline to one of the luxury resorts around Viti Levu or on the islands. And no wonder. You can sit by the pool, snorkel in the warm water, eat delicious food, sip a cocktail and bask in the warmth of Fijian hospitality.
You can do all that on a Captain Cook cruise, too. But the unique thing about the Reef Endeavour is that you get to visit islands that nobody else sees; to meet Fijians in their natural homes, living simple, happy lifestyles; to explore beaches and diving spots that remain pristine.
The Reef Endeavour can accommodate more than 100 passengers, but only about 60 shared the cruise with us.
The crew - a delightful group of friendly, funny, happy-go-lucky men and women, who unfailingly remember your name - were all Fijians, while the officers were Australian, the captain hailing from Maroochydore and the chief engineer from Bundaberg.
The seas are protected by the islands and numerous reefs, so there is nothing but a gentle sway as the Reef Endeavour makes its way from anchorage to anchorage. On average we cruised for only a few hours a day, as the point of it all is to visit the islands, experience island life, swim in the deserted beaches, and snorkel among the reefs.
Social life aboard ship centres around the Yasawa Lounge, where you find the bar and piano, and where canapes are served each evening before dinner.
As so often happens on cruises, meal time can tend to dominate one's existence, so it's a good idea to make the shore excursions, where you can walk and swim and keep moderately active. There's also a gymnasium, spa and sauna on the sun deck, and you can book for massages and facials.
The Fiji economy is doing it tough, and the average Fiji worker earns only about $2 an hour - but you'd never know it. There's a calmness about the place; it invites you to take it easy, smile and relax; to let the worries of the world pass you by.
We left Fiji the day before the gold medal game of rugby. That's something I'll always regret because I reckon Fiji that day would have been just about the happiest place on earth.
The writer was guest of Captain Cook Cruises.