LAU GROUP, FIJI — Fiji fulfills a dream for many vacationers - the dream of a far-off place where palm trees replace telephone poles, salt breezes replace polluted air, and gentle, smiling people replace the hustle-bustle of big-city commuters.
And if that weren't enough, all this quiet splendor floats calmly in a turquoise sea, a chain of some 322 islands tossed into the South Pacific.
From the minute you step off the plane you begin to unwind. And the music helps. Fijians love their music, especially singing, which many do loudly, sometimes off-key, but always with great enthusiasm.
Life here is uncomplicated. Even the language doesn't seem to have any words with more than three simple syllables.
One delightful destination, the Loma Loma Resort, owned by the president of Fiji, rests on a small island in western Fiji. Guests stay in bures - cottages with thatched roofs and painted bark "wallpaper."
From here, visitors can enjoy deserted beaches, dive in the surrounding protected waters, and visit neighboring islands.
On Sunday, guests are invited to visit the local Tongan Methodist Church on the island of Vanua Levu. Wooden pews are packed to overflowing with villagers wearing their Sunday best. Church windows are thrown open to catch the sunny breeze.
Men wear wrap skirts made of the same fabric as their jackets. A wide straw belt, looking more like an apron, completes the outfit. Women wear similar straw belts but with more embellishments, over flowered dresses.
Following the service, resort guests attend a Sunday feast. Each week a different family in the church hosts the dinner.
Seated on the floor cross-legged in front of tablecloths laid out on the floor, guests dine on a virtual mountain of food consisting of pork, fish, salads, stews, even Jell-O. Families try to outdo each other in the lavishness of the feasts.
Women busy with last-minute food preparations sit outside the dining area beneath the trees on large cloths.
Children's games are interrupted occasionally as they are needed to transfer the food to the eating area or wave big leaves like fans over the food to keep the flies off.
Fiji has always existed in my mind as some far-off world, warm and exotic. It's the place I imagined visiting to escape the frenzied pace of Western life.
Having been there, my dreams are now filled with its textures and sounds, from the rough volcanic islands rising out of water, to the easy smiles of the people who live there.
Many visitors to Fiji come for relaxation, pristine beaches, and great scuba diving. Scuba diving is, of course, a draw for many visitors who choose Fiji as a vacation destination.
Fijian waters have it all, from six-foot sharks to blizzards of tiny fish and brilliant shelless snails known as nudibranches that move lightly across the corals.
But as outstanding as the diving, weather, and beaches are, it's the people that will likely leave the deepest impression.
The Fijians captured all our hearts with their quick smiles, and, yes, even their off-key songs.