After three relaxing days on Maui, we’d be travelling with Fiji Airways on our journey to New Zealand, with an extended layover in Fiji thrown in there for good measure.
Before actually arriving in Fiji, though, the first item on the agenda was a rekindling of my fond memories from the United Island Hopper earlier this year with what I’ve dubbed the “Mini-Island Hopper”: Fiji Airways Flight 823, which flies from Honolulu to Kiritimati (or Christmas Island), Kiribati, before continuing onwards to Nadi.
Unlike the United Island Hopper, which makes temporary stops across five islands in the Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands over a span of 10 hours between Guam and Honolulu, Fiji Airways’s interpretation of jaunting across the Pacific Ocean only includes one intermediate stop, but in a very unique place: Kiritimati, a coral atoll in the Line Islands chain that represents the largest atoll within the Republic of Kiribati.
(The “ti” combination in the Kiribati language is pronounced as “s”, so Kiribati sounds like “Kiribass” and Kiritimati sounds like “Christmas” if you say it quickly; hence, the festive English name of the island.)
As someone who holds a longstanding fascination for the world’s most remote places, I found the Mini-Island Hopper and the opportunity to see a slice of Kiritimati, however briefly, to be a wonderful silver lining to the fact that I couldn’t find a more convenient routing option between Hawaii and New Zealand on these dates.
Meanwhile, Jessy doesn’t really feel quite as enthusiastic as I do about stepping foot on uncharted islands, so while we were both booked in economy class on this eight-hour journey at first, I decided to upgrade her to business class when a single award seat opened up. If she’s going to spend a day accompanying me on a roundabout island-hopping journey, she may as well do so in relative comfort.
We arrived at Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport at around 10am in the morning on a quick 30-minute flight on Hawaiian Airlines from Maui, and from there, we headed to the departures area to check in for our Fiji Airways flight.
The staff working the Fiji Airways counters were mostly Japan-based contract workers of Hawaiian Airlines, and they were left extremely confused by the issuing of our boarding passes and the checking of our luggage, given that we’d be flying on a one-stop flight to Nadi with one of us in economy and another in business, followed by a long layover, followed by both of us continuing to Auckland in business.
They must’ve spent 10 minutes chatting among themselves in Japanese to sort it out, before we were finally presented with our boarding passes and invited to the security queue. Fiji Airways doesn’t participate in TSA Pre-check, so it was only after 30 minutes that we were finally airside.
Fiji Airways invites their premium passengers to the Qantas Lounge Honolulu, and even though business class passengers aren’t usually entitled to a guest allowance, the lounge manager was full of the Aloha spirit on this morning and welcomed both of us into the lounge.
The lounge was little more than a decent place to kill some time, although it did have nice views of the airport’s unique outdoor cultural gardens, which are definitely my favourite part of flying through Honolulu.
Soon, the clock struck boarding hour, and we headed to the gate.
While Jessy took her seat comfortably in Seat 2A, I had to continue straight down the aisle into the economy cabin for my seat in 28F.
Fortunately, I had carefully chosen a window seat with direct views over the Boeing 737’s wings, but that also had no other people sitting beside me, so that I would have the entire row to myself.
I quickly absorbed my rather modest surroundings, before fixing my gaze on the outside views as we enjoyed a scenic takeoff from Honolulu.
Since I was looking to spend some quality time with Jessy on this trip, my goal during this nine-hour journey was to get as much work done as possible, so that I could spend less time working while I was on the ground in New Zealand. I took out my laptop as we climbed to cruising altitude in the Pacific sunshine, remarking to myself that I could think of very few office locations that I’d enjoy more than a window seat on an airplane overlooking the clouds.
The economy class meal service began very efficiently about 30 minutes after takeoff, and I chose the chicken dish, which was served in a creamy chilli sauce with rice on the side, and was altogether pretty appetizing. I had a cup of orange juice to go with it, followed by a black coffee after the meal.
The first segment from Honolulu to Christmas Island takes about three hours and fifteen minutes, and passed by mostly uneventfully. I did notice that they were playing Moana on the communal entertainment screens, which felt like the perfect flick to watch on an island-hopping journey through the Pacific.
Eventually, the captain announced our descent into Kiritimati, which was my cue to take another look out of the window… where I was treated to an absolutely spellbinding view of Kiritimati’s cerulean waters.
Seriously, I’ve never seen anything quite like this, even during my United Island Hopper trip in Micronesia earlier in the year. My eyes remained glued to the windows throughout our descent, the crystal-blue waters eventually morphing into a few piles of rocky ground as we approached the runways of Cassidy International Airport on Kiritimati.
Touchdown. And thus, the question of whether I was going to get off the plane to take a look around.
Earlier during the flight, I had asked a crew member whether Nadi-bound passengers would be able to get off in Kiritimati, and was explicitly told “no” – we wouldn’t be allowed to deplane. And yet, upon landing, all the Kiritimati-bound passengers lined up in an orderly queue to get off the plane, with no checks of the boarding pass taking place, so I thought, “What the hell, why not?”
After all, I still had fresh memories from the United Island Hopper in my mind, where transiting passengers usually are allowed to deplane on the intermediate islands and soak in the atmosphere, although my particular Island Hopper flight had experienced a delay and we were therefore told to remain onboard in the interest of saving time.
Back then, I meekly followed instructions, missing out on the opportunity to breathe in the Marshall Islands air due to my hesitation. I wasn’t about to make the mistake again, and so decided it was better to ask for forgiveness than permission as I followed all the Kiritimati-bound passengers off the plane.
I stopped to take a few photos of the Fiji Airways 737 glistening in the sunlight as the other passengers lined up for the immigration queue. One of the reasons that island-hopping never gets old is the sheer novelty of seeing your plane sitting on an otherwise empty runway.
(Indeed, the once-weekly Fiji Airways service is the only commercially scheduled flight that this airport receives – a single flight per week. Even the flag carrier Air Kiribati, which is based out of Tarawa, the capital, doesn’t fly over here to Kiritimati in the Line Islands because of the vast distance from the more densely populated Gilbert Islands, which also goes to show the sheer maritime area across which the Republic of Kiribati is spread out.)
Anyway, for an airport that gets a smidgen of traffic once a week, Cassidy International Airport sure is decorated very nicely. Eventually, all of the Kiritimati-bound passengers had made their way through Kiribati immigration, leaving just me at the end of the queue.
“Can I go into Kiribati to take a look around even if I’m getting back on the plane to Nadi?”
“No, sir, you weren’t supposed to get off the plane!”
Of course, I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I acted like this was new information to me as the airport worker flagged down his colleague and had me escorted back to the plane.
What an unfortunate misunderstanding this all turned out to be. I wore that look on my face as the cabin manager stared daggers at me on my way back onboard.
There was still some time before the passengers who were joining us here on Kiritimati would board the plane, so I hung out in the business class cabin with Jessy, who was loving life at the moment in Seat 2A. After all, as one of only two passengers in business class, she was being pampered with snacks and beverages by the effusive Fiji Airways staff.
Pretty soon, it was time to take off for Nadi, so I returned to my humble quarters in the back of the plane, only to find that a newly-boarded passenger would be sitting in the same row as me during this leg of the journey. Thankfully, the middle seat remained open, so I’d still have my fair share of personal space.
The views upon departure from Kiritimati were more varied than upon arrival, but just as captivating. In one swift sequence, we witnessed the island’s rocky terrain, the shimmering deep waters, a cloud layer, a few natural pools in the atoll, and then the crystal-blue waters of the lagoon.
It may be ambitious, but I’d love to come back one day to properly explore Christmas Island and the rest of Kiritimati, giving it the time and attention it deserves.
Peace and tranquillity were restored upon once again reaching cruising altitude, with the occasional funky patterns of clouds passing by providing the only entertainment. I briefly resumed working on my laptop, although a lack of power outlets onboard this Fiji Airways 737 meant that my day at the office was forcibly cut short pretty soon.
The second meal of the flight was another saucy chicken dish, which was decidedly less appetizing than the first. It came with a Twix bar, some cookies, and some orange juice, and Jessy also came over to sneak me some of her business class snacks as well.
With no laptop for the rest of the flight, I dozed in and out of sleep for a while, opening my eyes every now and then to watch the sky transform into a deep shade of orange as we chased the sunset across the Pacific Ocean.
And as far as in-flight sunsets go, this was easily one of the most stunning in recent memory, since we arrived at the main island of Fiji just as the fireball was dipping below the horizon – an absolutely unreal sight.
At long last, we were treated to some views of Fiji during our approach, where I took note of numerous fires that seemed to be burning, which I’d later discover to be the burning of sugarcane fields prior to harvest season.
And with touchdown into Nadi International Airport – a decidedly more built-up facility than our stop in Kiritimati along the way – our nine-hour journey on the Fiji Airways Mini-Island Hopper came to a satisfying end, with a much-needed day of relaxation at the Marriott Resort Fiji Momi Bay beckoning.
Stitching together a trip across the islands of the Pacific Ocean is no easy feat, and when you’re faced with what might appear to be an inconvenient journey on the surface, there’s always pleasure to be found in the joys of island-hopping.
I’m glad I got to see a slice of the Republic of Kiribati with my own eyes as an added benefit of this trip to Hawaii and New Zealand, ticking off one of the more interesting routes in the aviation world and adding another notch to my list of remote places on Earth to check out.