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Fanning Island: Hawaii Detour like “Nowhere Else Atoll”

Avid Cruiser, Summer 2007
By Randy Johnson

If setting foot on all of the major islands of Aloha weren’t already enough of an adventure for one cruise, a select number of Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Hawaii cruises offer the unexpected—a detour to a truly South Pacific experience.

NCL’s 11-day sailings break away from Hawaii for a rousing blue water jaunt nearly 1,000 miles south to Fanning Island in the Republic of Kiribati. This isolated, undeveloped speck in the Line Island chain is equidistant from North America and Australia—3,300 miles from each. Talk about the middle of nowhere.

Though not really a “ South Pacific Island,” Fanning is a mere 228 miles, just 3 degrees, north of the Equator. It’s also a world away from Hawaii in one distinctly southern Hemisphere way. Fanning, called Tabuaeran in Kiribati, is an atoll, one of those idyllic, circular, reef-ringed islands so associated with the South Pacific. Indeed, Kiribati is part of the larger Gilbert Islands that stretch away south toward Australia and include such legendary locations as Tarawa and Truk.

You might have heard of Kiribati when the new millennium arrived—the country slid the International Dateline east and earned bragging rights as the first landmass to enter the new age. They’d ostensibly made the change to get all the islands on one time zone, but the former Caroline Island was renamed Millennium.

On Fanning Island, there are no Hawaii-like, vegetation-covered lava headlands. Nor is there anything else that says “standard” about this port of call. By the time you heave-to for tendering to an intensely scenic circle of palm shaded sand, you sense that this is special. For physical beauty, the atoll is a sight to behold, shimmering under a sun noticeably more intense than Hawaii’s.

And no air-conditioned shopping arcades greet you. This is a Third World island, where the locals have no electricity or running water. It’s island life at the very edge of the modern world. The NCL shore experience features everything you need for a great lunch and a pristine beach and water sports activities. But NCL’s approach to “development” is as low impact as the island scene is low key.

“Immigration” is a card table set up under a palm with two uniformed Kiribati constables stamping passports for those who want. Nearby, long shaded tables are a flea market of hand-crafted Kiribati souvenirs. Among the more interesting are fans, hats, and baskets made from coconut and pandanus leaves, colorful woven fabrics, and shark-tooth-lined, triangular-bladed knives.

After “shopping,” there’s a satisfying lunch and a rousing traditional dance demonstration. Robert Louis Stevenson said the dancing he saw on Kiribati was “the best” in the Pacific. “Gilbertese dance appeals to the soul,” he went on, and has the “essence of great art.” Then it’s a short tender trip across the atoll’s opening and an easy 10-minute stroll to the Na Pali beach water sports area. On the way around the closest curve of the atoll you pass scenic old thatched huts not unlike the very rustic structures that still shelter most Fanning Islanders.

For the travel wise, this’ll be more than a “flop in the sun” kind of spot. Walk the shore away from your fellow cruisers and it won’t be long before you’re alone in a place very different and far removed from the 50 th state where you’ve spent most of your time recently. Grab a kayak and venture out into the powder blue/green pastel of the lagoon—what island aficionado hasn’t fantasized about doing that. The milky water entices the eye to the other side of the island and makes you wonder about the people who live there, miles away, down the sandy road from NCL’s landing site.

One visitor in 2005 couldn’t contain her curiosity. When Arla Johnson went ashore in September, she skipped the lunch and island dance program to walk with the ship’s photographer a mile beyond Na Pali beach to huts occupied by a local family and a nearby primary school (sponsored by Norwegian Cruise Lines). Johnson was shocked at the primitive conditions. “I’ve heard of Third World, but is there such a thing as Fourth World,” she asks? Nevertheless, she couldn’t get over the dazzling smile of one little girl. Ironically, she also learned that infection from tooth decay was a perennial, potentially fatal problem on the island.

Johnson went home to the frozen north and by the following August—as close as Minnesota gets to Fanning’s equatorial temps—she’d decided to tap friends, family, local schools, and church community for the dental supplies needed to keep her young friend’s smile, and those of her neighbors, as bright as possible.

She accepted donations and by late fall had 50 pounds of toothbrushes and tooth paste ready to ship to a Norwegian Cruise Line employee on the island. Johnson paid the $220 UPS bill and NCL agreed to deliver the package free of charge. In late February 2007, she received her first photos of the Kiribati kids experimenting with First World dental hygiene practices.

By then she had a full-fledged movement on her hands. United Airlines Captain Denny Flannagan stepped forward to wrestle the red tape needed to clear Johnson’s subsequent shipments for free flights on United Airlines. “I owe him a lot,” Johnson says. “I couldn’t have afforded to send the next three shipments without his help.” To date she’s shipped 247 pounds of supplies to the island.

“Most people go on cruises to relax and escape from reality,” says Heidi Fehring, a reporter for the Quad Community Press in the Minneapolis suburb where Johnson makes her decidedly untropical home. Fehring, who frequently covered Johnson’s efforts in the local newspaper, says, “Instead, Arla spent the rest of her cruise thinking about how to help the people she met on Fanning Island.  It's always a reporter’s hope that stories like Arla's will inspire others in the community to reach out.”

“I’ve been on cruises,” says Johnson, “but nothing ever struck me like this before. The response to my effort grew much faster than expected.”

There’s a lot more than the expected about NCL’s Fanning Island itinerary. It’s perfect for the cruiser who may want some therapeutic time “at sea.” There’s something about savoring a globe-girdling expanse of ocean that perfectly complements the otherwise island-hopping Hawaii experience. Factor in a bike ride around a sandy side of an atoll in the middle of nowhere and this is a cruise that even the experienced sailor won’t soon forget.

Details—

NCL suspends service to Fanning Island from May through August. Starting in September 2007, Pride of Aloha will make one stop in Fanning Island every month. www.ncl.com

A not so flattering but hilarious look at Kiribati is the recent book Sex Lives of The Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost (Broadway Books, 2004). Publishers Weekly said of it, “Troost's chronicle of his sojourn in a forgotten world is a comic masterwork of travel writing and a revealing look at a culture clash.” His newest book is Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu (Broadway, 2006).

 

Randy Johnson is a magazine editor, author, and landlocked travel writer based in the North Carolina Mountains.

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