"Take me to the April sun in Cuba"... and why not? As the temperatures plummeted and I anticipated another Wellington winter with layers of thermal tights and horizontal rain, my thoughts easily drifted towards the tropics for a dose of solar therapy.
While Cuba sounded wonderfully exotic, it was a little out of reach and despite current café chic I wasn't too fussed about all those cigars. A quick trawl through the travel brochures narrowed my search to Fiji- warm, close and within my budget. I'd never met anyone who had cycled there but the omens were promising... with the right mix of weather, light traffic, scenery and achievable biking distances.
After a few days working up a sweat on the beach, I set off from Suva on "Emosi's Bus and Shipping Service" to the island of Ovalau. The bus driver was happy to stash my bike down the aisle and stack the passengers around it. The second leg of the journey was by ship - although this proved to be a generous description for a craft only a little bigger than a runabout. My bike rode up front and wore a bit of salt as we smacked into the swell for a couple of hours.
Ovalau's only town is Levuka, Fiji's former colonial capital. Now it is a fishing port and home to the venerable Royal Hotel. Built in the 1850s - the Royal is a bit of a time warp. Set in a gracious tropical garden, its two storey structure reeks of character. I was more than half a century too late to meet Somerset Maugham, but he would have looked right at home in their parlour. Every morning fresh flowers were placed in the polished brass vases in the sitting room by a white-haired lady who probably did make his acquaintance. I called her Mrs Peacock, for her likeness to the Cluedo character. A full sized billiard table with pitted balls stands next to the house bar. The game is free but you have to put 20 cents in a slot to make the dim light work.
A visit to Levuka would not be complete without a drink at the Levuka Club. Although sign-posted "Members Only", the rule is waived for visitors to the Island. The sun has set on this corner of the Empire, but the traditions live on. Portraits of a young Queen Elizabeth and King George V are hung over the bar where the uniformed barman will serve you a Fiji Bitter or a nip of Bounty rum.
Biking in Ovalau is pretty simple. One unsealed road circles the island - a trip of 50km. It passes old French mission schools, coconut plantations and the island's fish cannery. Along the road I met Luketiri, who after 30 years working in the canneries of Suva had returned to his family farm. He was waiting in the shade for a bus to take him to the market to sell a bag of copra. We talked awhile and I asked to take his photo. He asked for my cap. A fair swap.
Back on the main island of Viti Levu I took the 188km Suva to Nadi highway - known as the Queen's Road. After the first 10km the traffic thinned and I cruised the sealed road for three days.
Drivers were well-behaved, the road surface was in good shape and there was plenty to see - Hindu temples, traditional Fijian farming and acres of sugar cane. You're never far from an Indian-run general store where the homesick can track down a Jellytip. The cool thing about cycle touring is that you travel at the pace of the culture. While pedalling along I would often catch up with the farm labourers as they strolled home, machetes resting on their shoulders. Nothing sinister though as I was greeted with a hearty "Bula!" and a cheery smile.
A sturdy touring bike would be fine for the sealed main roads, but a mountain bike is the preferred option for exploring Fiji's highlands. The mountains attract rain, so mud can be a problem even in the dry season. Commercial operators have started to offer combination 4WD/mountain bike trips to the highlands.
I chose to stay at budget hotels, but discreet camping is possible. My only encounter with the law was during my last evening in Fiji. As I sat on the beach watching the sunset over the coconut palms, four massive blokes in uniform approached. It transpired they were off-duty soldiers having a few quiets after work. They shared their seafood dinner with me... and their intrepidation at the prospect of being posted to Wairou for winter training. Somehow, winter seemed light years away.