Magical Fiji

Photo: Red Bull

A bona fide paradise, Fiji looks fabulous, but it’s even better when seen as an active observer: get up close to snacking sharks, wander underwater through coral gardens, trip out on raging tides and share a kava glass or two with tradition

Steve White

Photo: Sonaisali Resort

Far out in the southeastern Pacific sits an island nation that, were it not for a dogleg of the dateline, would lie with one foot in today and the other in yesterday as it were. The image is relevant for this place marries modern infrastructure with all the expected comforts and opportunities for adventure, with indigenous cultures that are very much alive, functioning and a major part of the islands’ appeal.

The country is Fiji, a group of around 300 islands strewn across 1.3m sqkm of the Earth’s surface either side of the 180? line of longitude. Most of those islands are tiny, filling only 1.5% of that surface area. Two largish landmasses – Viti Levu and Vanua Levu – contribute the bulk of that area, with a galaxy of island groups flung out in arcs around them, as though the entire country had been set spinning anti-clockwise. Due south of the capital, Suva, is the Kadavu Group; stretching out from Nadi are first the Mamanucas and then the Yasawas; to the east and southeast of Vanua Levu are the loosely scattered Northern and Southern Lau.

Photo: Tui Tai

Fiji is where Melanesia and Polynesia meet, with people and traditions that betray both sets of origins, and Western, Indian and Chinese blood and influences mingled in too. Spun together, these strands make for an always colourful, occasionally volatile mix which you can readily enjoy on city streets and village greens alike. The villages are especially important as living examples of the predominant Melanesian roots and most tourists enjoy the experience of visiting them to mingle and share toasts of kava, the midly narcotic, national drink.

Other must-dos in Fiji take their lead from the country’s fabulous natural beauty. Rich greenery covers most of the atolls and islands, and hikers and bikers can chain together village visits with excursions into fields and forests, or among the volcanic peaks of the larger islands. Just take care not to take on board too much kava before starting out on anything too ambitious.

Around the islands are holiday brochure-blue seas that turn even the most disinterested swimmer into a snorkeller for a day. Divers have a lifetime of trips ahead of them to see all the worthy sites as the coral is some of the best on Earth.

Photo: Red Bull

Kayakers have every opportunity for a dip too of course, but on top of that they have a myriad of beaches, bays and coves to lose themselves in.

Surfers are spoilt for choice with the same reef passes that flush the coasts with clear ocean currents, also fuelling swells that break head-high and more with regularity. Kiters, windsurfers, paragliders – all can find sweet spots of their own too.

The beaten track is narrow even on Viti Levu and scarcely visible on many outlying islands. With a little effort, any visitor can carve out a trip encompassing tradition, adventure and secluded experiences amid astonishing scenery.

Viti Levu
Almost twice the size of Vanua Levu, the next biggest island, Viti Levu is home to fully 75% of the country’s entire population and is the commercial and administrative centre. The international airport is here, at Nadi, as well as the capital, Suva.

Despite the coastal development though, much of the interior remains wild. A range of hills running north-south – including the country’s tallest peak in the north – divides the island in two with the easternmost side wetter and therefore lusher.

Inland the population is much more sparsely spread, most of it concentrated in traditional Fijian villages that you can visit so long as you mind your etiquette, perhaps spending the night in a village hut or joining villagers in drinking yaqona, a traditional, mildly narcotic drink made from kava root (hence its more often-used name). These experiences should not be missed.

You’ll find four of the country’s six national parks on Viti Levu too. Koroyanitu National Park, not far from Nadi, is a hikers’ paradise with day and night trails that mix rainforest walks with sustainable village-based accommodation. Close by is Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park, a striking stretch of windswept dunes that are easily visited on a trip around the coast. A third park near Nadi encompasses the Nausori Highlands, an impressive area of volcanic peaks with lovely views of the Mamanuca and southern Yasawa Islands to the west. Finally Colo-i-Suva Forest Reserve, closer to Suva, includes the Naitasiri area, which together with neighbouring Namosi are the places to go to get a taste of how things used to be. Here you can experience authentic village life, though this is best done with a guide to avoid making embarrassing gaffes. They can also help you back home safely should the kava get the better of you!

Adrenaline-fuelled divers will not want to miss Beqa Lagoon off the south coast. The best coral in the country is found elsewhere, but here you’ll find shark dives with a difference [see accompanying story on page 42] and also a number of well-encrusted wrecks.

Lomaiviti Group
These widely scattered islands share little aside from a position off the east coast of Viti Levu that guarantees them relatively obscurity and therefore an almost horizontally relaxed feel. Ovalau is the focal point though not the largest of the group, with its charming main town Levuka being the administrative centre for the whole group. Once a lawless port, today it is genteel and sleepy. Another draw is the village of Lovoni on the trail of the same name, sat improbably in the middle of a ancient volcanic crater.

Kadavu  Group
The eastern end of this laidback island gets the most attention thanks to lush vegetation that makes it a favoured spot for watching exotically colourful birds, and to the fringing Astrolabe Reef which is famous for corals of similarly extravagant hues. Hop from the main island of the same name to one of the smaller dots within the lagoon for a still more tranquil feel.

Mamanuca Group
A collection of small islands popular with day-tripping tourists from Viti Levu. For surfers though, the small islet of Tavarua and its even tinier neighbour, Namotu, are meccas, known the world over and venue for many pro events. Breaks like Cloudbreak and Restaurants are not for the inexperienced, ranging from overhead to 3m or more on good days.

Yasawa Group
Popular as a venue for cruises and water-borne expeditions more than as a base in itself, the Yasawas are rugged and spectacular: a mix of volcanic peaks and crystalline lagoons. Hire a kayak or charter a sailboat and wend your way through the chain in carefree fashion. Pack the hiking boots for excursions to the overshadowing peaks.

Vanua Levu
The second largest island but one that receives a small fraction of the tourism of Viti Levu. The lack of tourist infrastructure is off-putting to most and therefore an opportunity for the more persevering. It lacks the stunning beaches of other islands but its tortuous coastline makes for great kayaking possibilities: Savusavu Bay in particular. Within, and to the north of, the Somosomo Strait, there are also top-notch dive spots famed for their coral gardens.

On land, you may need a 4WD to get the most out of the basic road system, with the Hibiscus Highway from the town of Savusavu along the Tunuloa Peninsula being the one drive/bus ride that many manage.

Taveuni
Often referred to as the ‘garden island’ due to it having suffered less deforestation than most of the rest of the country, this island is a big attraction for birders and nature buffs. The central ridge reaches over 1,000m and there are wonderful walks both among these hills and along the coasts.

Offshore it is still more exciting. World-class soft coral gardens make Tavenui a honeypot for divers, with Rainbow Reef rated especially highly. Note that many of the walls and passes suit intermediate divers and up thanks to the sometimes racing currents. There are dive-oriented resorts on the island itself as well as other upscale retreats on the outliers of Matagi, Qamea and Laucala.

Ringgold Isles
This is very much a place to hide away among almost totally uninhabited atolls. It is getting increasingly popular with divers accessing it from Taveuni and Vanua Levu though for the good viz and lovely coral-hung drop-offs. Kayakers too will love the solitude of gin-clear bays perfect for leisurely paddling.

Lau Group
In all, around 130 or so scattered islands of which only 30 are inhabited. Halfway to Tonga they combine elements of Fijian Melanesian culture with Polynesian influences. The passes between atolls make a good playground for adventurous surfers wanting to leave the crowds far, far behind them.