"...the Prince of Wales took part in a grand burau (kava-drinking ceremony) at the village of Viseisei. He seemed suitably sedated after his 90-minute session, and in his thank-you speech got all his dates mixed up"
Kava - isn't that the Spanish sparkling wine beloved by students and Champagne cheapskates?
No, that's cava with a ''c''. We're talking about kava - the mild narcotic drink made from the pulverised root of a pepper plant. It's popular throughout the South Sea Islands and, after recently trying a few bowls, I can see why. It's a natural tranquilliser that mellows the body while leaving the mind clear enough for a good-humoured chat.
Tranquillising narcotics aren't my usual tipple. Are you sure it's safe?
Don't worry. Apart from a touch of tongue-numbing and the odd floppy limb, there are no real side-effects. Admittedly, if you habitually drank gallons of the stuff, your skin would dry up and you'd become very Mr Lazybones.
That's what normally happens to me anyway on a beach holiday.
In fact, taken in moderation, it's supposed to be good for you. It's said to steady your heart rate, ease aches and pains, and cure headaches - even migraines. It's also good for insomnia and, best of all, after an evening of serious kava drinking, you'll wake from a deep, restorative sleep feeling totally refreshed.
A local brew without a mind-splitting hangover attached? What's the catch?
Well, to be honest, kava looks and tastes like muddy puddle water laced with aspirin. But don't let that put you off - this is an ancient symbolic drink that promotes peace and the mystical meeting of minds. Visiting the South Seas and not trying it would be like refusing a martini in Manhattan - and besides, what's a bit of muddy cloudiness between new-found friends?
So where exactly should I try the cloudy brew?
The best place is on the tropical islands of Fiji in the South Pacific, where the islanders have adopted kava as their national drink.
Perhaps that explains why they are so fearless in their rugby.
Yes, and so laid-back and welcoming to visitors. They see yoquana (the local name for kava) as sacred and have developed a drinking tradition around it that is as elaborate and ritualised as the tea ceremony of Japan. Earlier this year the Prince of Wales took part in a grand burau (kava-drinking ceremony) at the village of Viseisei, near Nadi. He seemed suitably sedated after his 90-minute session, and in his thank-you speech got all his dates mixed up. The generous Fijians put it down to jetlag rather than kava abuse.
So how can I get an invitation to a ceremony?
Without blue blood, or a tribe in tow, it's not easy. The full ritual is usually reserved for visiting dignitaries or chiefs, although many hotels and villages will put together a simplified version for tourists and guests.
Sounds a little contrived?
No, they are conducted in a good spirit and provide a friendly way to try the drink. If you want a more informal experience, ask the hotel staff if you can join them for a few off-duty cups of kava in the evening. Chatting around the kava bowl (tanoa) is a great way to get to know the Fijians and a less formal way than the burau: the only etiquette you need is an occasional handclap or an enthusiastic shout of "maca" ("the cup is empty").
But how many should I drink?
The kava is served in a small coconut bowl, and you should knock it back in one. Ten of these shots are about the safe maximum for a novice drinker. Some of the seasoned quaffers get through between 30 and 50 bowls a night, so if you want to stay up late remember to pace yourself. There's no shame in skipping a round or three.
And does it really taste like puddle water?
One visitor described it as a "cocktail of dirty washing water garnished with old socks". I wouldn't be that harsh - if you stick with it, the tongue-numbing kicks in and the taste becomes less of an issue. Anyway, count yourself lucky that it is just a little earthy: not too long ago the root was first chewed by unmarried girls of the village before being spat out and strained through hibiscus fibres. Nowadays the Fijians forego the virginal saliva and filter the pre-ground yoquana through muslin.
Yes. It still looks dreadful, though, so just concentrate on the brilliant star-filled Fijian sky or the happy faces of your fellow drinkers while you're knocking it back.
It all sounds very exotic, but surely it's an old tribal tradition that's dying out?
Far from it. If you go to the main market in Nadi or the capital, Suva, you'll see that the section selling kava takes up at least half of the marketplace. Most of the male Fijians (including the Indian population) and many of the women partake of a few social cups in the evening, and a recent local newspaper reported that the average Fijian kava drinker gets through 100,000 cups in a lifetime.
Goodness, do they bottle it?
No, the preparation of the drink is an integral part the custom. Kava has to be freshly mixed each time you start a session. You can buy small sachets of the powder in the market for about 70p a kilo, so stock up with a few bags while you're there.
To take with you on your travels around the country. Kava is the currency of friendship in Fiji, and it is customary to present a bag to any homes or villages you visit. Five kilos is a good amount to share with your hosts if you are staying or joining them for a ceremony.
And a perfect gift to bring back home?
Not a good idea. Imagine trying to explain to a humourless border guard that the small packet of white powder he has pulled out of your suitcase is an innocent present - just a harmless narcotic tranquilliser, occasionally enjoyed by a prominent member of the Royal Family.
I see what you mean. So what should I bring back?
The hand-carved kaona - the kava mixing-bowl - is a much better bet. They come in all shapes and shades of wood and vary in size from the diameter of a side plate to whoppers as wide as tractor tyres. The medium-sized models make excellent fruit bowls - perhaps not as exciting as the ingredients for your own kava party, but they're longer lasting and certainly a lot easier to bring through customs.
Getting to the party: