Story and photos by Pat Grubb
When it comes to island nations, with just around 300 islands, Fiji is low on the list. The country with the most islands, Sweden, has 221,800 islands. Hell, Canada has the fourth highest number with 52,455. Yet when it comes to lying on the beach for two weeks in February, Fiji is right at the top of everyone’s list.
Located about 1,300 miles northeast of New Zealand’s North Island, its closest neighbors are Vanatua and New Caledonia. While getting there is expensive, once you’re there you can live as extravagantly or as cheaply as you like. For about $15 a night, hostels, dormitories and homestays are the low cost options while over the top resorts such as Laucala Island, owned by Austrian billionaire and co-founder of Red Bull Dietrich Mateschitz, can cost $25,000 a night and more. There are, of course, plenty of middle of the road options – it just depends on the size of your bank account.
Once you’re in Fiji, traveling around the islands can be surprisingly inexpensive. Taxis and buses are your land options while seaplanes, ferries and big high-speed catamarans are some of your intra-island choices. The tourist infrastructure is well-developed, so you should have no worries on that score.
Fijians are very welcoming and friendly. The two main ethnic groups are the indigenous Fijians who represent 57 percent and Indian at 38 percent of the total population of approximately 900,000, respectively. Once you get a gander at some of the native Fijian males, you’ll understand why they are such a powerhouse on the world rugby stage. Man, some of these guys are big. Their arms will put your stick figure legs to shame. It’s a good thing they’re friendly.
And not just friendly, but Fijians are personable as well. I was continually being surprised by how staff at the various hotels and resorts would remember our names even after a momentary encounter days before. Speaking with an American resort general manager one day, she attributed it to the Fijian lifestyle. “It’s all interpersonal relationships with the Fijians,” she said. “They leave work to go back to their village where there may be at most one TV. Instead of watching that, they’ll visit each other and play instruments and sing.” Perhaps they’re the name-remembering versions of London cabdrivers whose need to memorize every street and lane in London in order to pass The Knowledge test has resulted in an increase in the size of the posterior hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in memory and spatial
Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Moon Travel all have travel books on Fiji and are good places to start your trip planning. Apart from these guides, be wary of top 10 lists and other recommendations by other media organizations. A list of the top 10 places to scuba dive in the world from an otherwise-trusted news organization might actually be an advertising venture that cost the participating resorts $50,000 to be listed.
Want an idea of how beautiful Fiji is? Stream movies such as Blue Lagoon (Brooke Shield), Return to Blue Lagoon (Milla Jovavich) or Castaway (Tom Hanks). The first Blue Lagoon is just a hoot to watch.
Language is not a concern – English is spoken everywhere. You had better like Australians – they’re the number one nationality visiting Fiji (42%), followed closely by Kiwis (23%) with Americans coming in third (10%). The currency is the Fijian dollar, currently worth $0.45 U.S.
The most popular destinations are Nadi (where the international airport is), the Coral Coast, the Mamanuca Islands and Denarau Island. The capital city, Suva, gets a bad rap for petty crime, which is a shame because it’s a pretty little town and worth the visit.
Coming up fast, tourist-wise, is the remote Yasawa Island chain. This chain stretches to the east from the north side of Viti Levu and includes the Blue Lagoon and Mantaray Island, among other places very much worth a visit. While the Yasawas are known as the backpacker route, there are plenty of medium and high end options. One of them, the Mantaray Island Resort, straddles all three categories and was our favorite place in Fiji. The resort has lodging options ranging from dormitory living for $25 U.S. per night to high end bures on the beach with prices around $250 U.S. per night depending on the season. Like most of the Yasawa resorts, there is a compulsory meal plan that travelers need to include in their budget. Here it costs $60 U.S. per day and includes breakfast, lunch and dinner. Most of the islands have no stores, restaurants or eating options other than the resort; hence, the compulsory meal plans.
Take your underwater light for night snorkeling – it’s another world after the sun goes down.
One of the big draws of this resort is, unsurprisingly, manta rays. These graceful and gentle creatures with wingspans often exceeding 20 feet frequent the water and channels just off the shore of the resort. During the manta ray season May through October, the resort offers daily trips allowing people to snorkel with these huge fish and cousins to the shark. The waters around the resort are nutrient-rich and the manta rays use the currents to vacuum up the plankton which comprises their sole source of food. Not only are they not dangerous to humans, they do not even eat other fish. Despite knowing that, when you dive down to meet the manta rays as they circle up near the surface, you will feel like you are about to be hoovered into their wide maws. The photo accompanying this article was taken with a wide-angle GoPro – the manta rays were much closer than they appear.
The boat staff will go through the resort calling out that a manta ray trip is about to set off – be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Go the first chance you get – they may not come back for a few days.
Snorkeling is great pretty much everywhere in Fiji but the waters in front of the resort’s beach were absolutely teeming with fish life. Turtles, small sharks, moray eels, pipefish, clownfish and more are just 30 feet from shore. Take your underwater light for night snorkeling – it’s another world after the sun goes down. The dive shop has a wide variety of dives for divers, regardless of experience – wreck dives, shark dives, night dives – and offers introductory dives to basic certification to open water certificates and higher. They also teach free-diving. Throughout Fiji, divers need to bring their diving certificate and should have travel insurance that includes scuba diving coverage. It’s a good idea to bring your log book to show that you have recent diving experience; some resorts will insist on a pool checkup and refresher course otherwise.
Other activities include champagne sunset inner tube floats, island and village tours, cooking classes, stand up paddle boarding and more. If you wander down the beach and around the corner over the volcanic stones, it won’t just be a beautiful, deserted beach you’ll see. Being on the windward side of the island, you’ll also see thousands of empty plastic water bottles that have been washed ashore. The resort has a program to collect this water-borne debris – do your part and pick some up. Resolve to purchase a reusable water bottle while you’re at it.
Getting from island to island in the Yasawas is surprisingly simple and easy. If you’re pressed for time, there are seaplanes that can deposit you on the beach of your choice, a fast but more expensive option. Most travelers use the high-speed catamaran ferries that run the length of the island chain. These leave from and return to Denarau Marina (close to the airport and Nadi) and stop at all of the Yasawa resorts daily. Offering open air deck and inside airconditioned seats, these boats zoom from island to island, making brief stops for the resort boats to pick up and drop off guests and luggage, and do so while keeping right on schedule. They’re a good way to view the range of resorts available.
If you’ve got the time and the finances, try to make it all the way to the end to the stunning Blue Lagoon. Most resorts in the area offer daytrips to swim in the limestone caves at Sawa-ilau. Watch out for the eel!
If so inclined, you can also do good while you’re in the Yasawas. The Vinaka Fiji Volunteer program aims to improve the provision of basic needs to villages in the island chain. Education, sustainable communities, and marine research and conservation are the prime focus of the organization. Participants in the week-long program stay on Barefoot Island Lodge and travel daily to the villages. The program’s costs vary depending upon the field of choice and include food and transportation. For more information, go to vinakafiji.org. This is just one of many volunteering opportunities in Fiji; check out volunteerworld.com and search for Fiji.
Expect to be sung on and off every resort you visit. Also expect to have tears in your eyes for every farewell.