The Complete Guide To Fiji

Though traditionally seen as somewhere for a short stopover between the UK and New Zealand, travellers are waking up to the fact that exotic Fiji is a superb holiday destination in its own right. David Orkin and Simon Calder go exploring
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The Independent Travel

A SOUTH PACIFIC PARADISE?

A SOUTH PACIFIC PARADISE?

Pretty much. Fiji offers an array of superb beaches surrounded by turquoise seas, plenty of sporting activities and dramatic vistas. Its stunning coastal scenery has been used as the backdrop for such films as Castaway and The Blue Lagoon. This tropical archipelago is much more substantial than most South Pacific island destinations and offers plenty of diversity, both cultural and geographic. Fiji has reasonable infrastructure, good food and - for those looking to get away from it all - many small private island resorts.

Roasted with a little oil and a sprinkling of herbs: that was the fate of some of the first European visitors to Fiji. For example a missionary, the Reverend Thomas Baker, was eaten in 1867: his shoe - which was presumably too chewy - is exhibited in the Fiji Museum. Cannibalism was a tradition for a while, but these days Fijians don't eat tourists, they greet them.

The country's people are a fascinating blend of Melanesian, Polynesian, Micronesian, Indian, Chinese and European influences. Fijians are welcoming and friendly and are rarely without a smile (and even more rarely in a hurry). You'll constantly hear people saying "bula", the traditional greeting, and "vinaka", which means "thank you". So many Fijians wear flowers in their hair that you might think you're in San Francisco during the Summer of Love.

WHERE EXACTLY IS IT?

The Republic of Fiji comprises more than 320 islands (of which only about 100 are inhabited) and is flanked along its western coast by the world's fourth-longest barrier reef. The main island is Viti Levu, which (using the standard measure of area) is exactly half the size of Wales. The second-biggest island (about 30 per cent of Wales) is Vanua Levu, to the north. Taveuni and Kadavu are also a fair size, but the rest of the country is made up of small islands divided into the Lomaiviti, Lau, Moala, Yasawa, Mamanuca and Rotuma groups.

All Fiji's islands are in the mid-South Pacific, just north of the Tropic of Capricorn and almost astride the International Date Line. Indeed, on Taveuni Island (00 679 888 0441; www.taveuniislandresort.com) in the north-east of the archipelago, you can stand with one foot in two different days. You do not need to be Mercator to work out that this puts Fiji a very long way from Greenwich. Most people visit the islands as part of a round-the-world itinerary, or as a stopover between the UK and New Zealand. They arrive at Fiji's Nadi (pronounced Nandi) international airport on the western edge of Viti Levu, which from the air looks like a story-book island with its wooded valleys and sun-seared hills, clustered villages and straggly lanes, patchwork meadows and a horizon strewn with brooding mountains.

The Fijian $5 bill (FJ$), which is worth around £1.50, has the airport on one side and, as one of the more enthusiastic members of the Commonwealth, the Queen's portrait on the other. Some people just fly in, flop on the beach and fry for a fortnight, but there's far more to the islands than that. If you have only a couple of days in Fiji, there are some excellent places to stay relatively close to the airport such as First Landing Resort (00 679 666 6171; www.firstlandingfiji.com). The town of Nadi isn't exactly picturesque, but it has a fine mountainous backdrop and is a good place from which to organise activities. The town's market (next to the bus station) and the southern hemisphere's largest Hindu temple, Sri Siva Subramaniya, at the southern end of town, are both worth a visit.

WHERE ELSE ON THE MAIN ISLAND?

Appropriately enough given Fiji's national sport, Viti Levu is in the shape of a rugby ball resting on its side. The international airport is at its western end, the capital Suva at the other. In between is the 200km-long King's Road, which runs close to the northern shore, and the much better Queen's Road, along the south. Many people choose to do a complete circuit, though the King's Road in the north-east quadrant is pretty rough.

Almost everyone passes through Suva at some point. Although much of what you see is modern and unappealing, there are some fine colonial buildings. Spend time getting to know the islands' history at the Fiji Museum (00 679 331 5944; www.fijimuseum.org.fj) in the Suva Botanical Gardens. It opens 9.30am-4pm daily except Sunday (Friday to 3.30pm), and admission is FJ$5.50 (£1.75). Despite its lovely historic buildings, Suva has very few characterful accommodation possibilities: your best bet would be Homestay Suva (00 679 337 0395) up on Tamavua ridge.

Viti Levu is home to the country's highest peak, the 1,323m Mount Tomanivi. The mountain is frequently wrapped in clouds but can be climbed with the help of a local guide. Visit to the website www.fijibure.com/nadrau/activity.htm for details.

On the island, the prevailing south-easterly trade winds have created two distinct environments. As the moisture-laden trades strike the windward coast they're forced up, resulting in heavy rainfall on the leeward (eastern) side. Here you'll find lush rainforests, while to the west are fields of sugar cane and grassy hills. Coconut palms are common in most coastal areas, but mangrove swamps are widespread only on the eastern coast. It is easy to get off the beaten track and find picturesque traditional villages such as Navala and Bukuta in the Nausori Highlands.

Village life is central to Fijian culture, so try to visit at least one. There is an etiquette to follow: hats should not be worn in a village as this can give offence to the chief, and shoes should not be worn inside a person's house. When visiting a village it is customary to present a gift of pounded kava (see box). Try to pay a visit to a local meke dance, which brings to life stories and legends of Fiji's culture. Whatever your faith, when attending a service in one of the islands' delightful churches you'll be moved by the quality and enthusiasm of the singing. For something different, explore the huge sand dunes near Sigatoka on Viti Levu's southern coast. This area is also home to dozens of archaeological sites, including the Tavuni Hill Fort, a series of 18th-century defensive earthworks.

AND THE OTHER ISLANDS?

Your travels beyond Viti Levu will depend on what you are looking for - and, crucially, how much you want to spend. The cost of a transfer to the Mamanucas (and to a lesser degree the Yasawas) is relatively low as the islands are close to Nadi; in the former, party-animal backpackers should head for Beachcomber Island (00 679 666 1500; www.beachcomberfiji.com). The best low-budget options in the Yasawas are available through Awesome Adventures (00 679 675 0500; www.awesomeadventures.co.nz). If loud music and raucous parties aren't for you, the Resort Walu Beach (00 679 665 1777; www.walubeach.com) on Malolo Island in the Mamanucas is a good budget choice. In the same island group, Castaway Island Resort (00 679 666 1233; www.castawayfiji.com) has good facilities for families.

One in nine of the visitors to Fiji is on a honeymoon (perhaps that should be two in 18). Newlyweds are unlikely to be disappointed by either the Turtle Island Resort (0800 028 5938; www.turtlefiji.com) in the Yasawas or Vatulele Island Resort (00 679 655 0300; www.vatulele.com) off Viti Levu's south coast. Vanua Levu ("big land") is relatively undeveloped and, except for around Savusavu, has limited infrastructure and services. This isn't the best island for beach-lovers but offers excellent opportunities for snorkelling and diving, kayaking, bird-watching and hiking.

For an easy-to-reach, sleepy island with a rich colonial heritage, visit Ovalau, a crumple of stone drenched in dense green foliage. Your plane touches down on the only patch of ground flat enough on which to land - it's as though a chunk of Africa has broken off and floated around to the middle of the South Pacific. Stay in Levuka, a town now on the slow road to dilapidation but that was once the original location for European colonists; it was Fiji's capital until 1882, when the title shifted to Suva. The pinks and blues on the houses along the seafront are washed to a pale pastel. When the Royal Hotel (00 679 344 0024; www.royallevuka.com) opened 150 years ago, it was the first and finest place to stay in Fiji. Today, it's the wonderfully decrepit hotel at the end of the world, on an island that resembles a film set. A basic double room costs FJ$100 (£33), including breakfast.

IS THERE MUCH TO DO APART FROM LIE ON A BEACH?

The multitude of fringing reefs around the islands offer splendid diving (see box) and snorkelling possibilities. Fabulous corals exist close to the coast and are easily accessible, even to beginners. The adventurous can go night-snorkelling and discover the wonders of the ocean after dark. Some of the best snorkelling sites include the rocky coastline of Vanua Levu, the Yasawas and the Mamanucas.

If the full range of marine sports isn't enough, on dry land you can go cycling and horse-riding. There's plenty for hikers, too - for example the spectacular scenery and diversity of flora and fauna in Koroyanitu National Park (00 679 666 6644) on Viti Levu. The island's lush rainforests offer opportunities for some spectacular white-water rafting and kayaking. There are also a number of top-notch golf courses in Fiji, but for locals, rugby is the sport.

WHAT IS THERE TO BRING BACK?

Despite the impact of outside influences, Fijians still practice many traditional arts and crafts. Pottery and wood-carving are still important, as is the weaving of pandanus leaves into mats and baskets. This is also the place to come for masi or tapa - cloth laboriously produced from the bark of the mulberry tree. Other popular items to bring back include sulu, the wraparound sarongs that are Fiji's most distinctive form of dress for both sexes (as worn by male customs officials at the airport).

WHEN SHOULD I GO?

This month, if you're feeling multi-cultural: the inaugural South Pacific World Music Festival (001 310 568 8676 (ext 223); www.southpacificworldmusicfestival.com) takes place between 22-28 November in Savusavu on Vanua Levu and will feature performers from all over the region, including Hawaii and New Zealand. The event is, however, restricted to those staying at certain resorts in the Savusavu area. Also, you could get a little wet. Rainfall is prevalent in all districts from November through to March, during which time hurricanes are experienced, on average once every two years. Most of the time though, the climate is benign. In coastal Viti Levu, the average southern summer high often reaches 30C (but seldom exceeds 35C), while the average winter low is 20C, although often lower in elevated inland areas. Trade winds from the east-south-east bring year-round cooling breezes in the late afternoon and early evening.

The Fijian "winter" or "dry" season from April to October is a good time to visit, when temperatures fall, rainfall and humidity levels drop and there is less risk of cyclones. The water temperature remains between 25C and 29C year-round.

A good time not to be in Fiji is during the Australian and New Zealand school holidays. The archipelago is a popular holiday destination with families from the Antipodes, which means air fares are higher than at other times of the year and accommodation is scarce. See www.dest.gov.au/schools/dates.htm and the FAQ section at www.minedu.govt.nz respectively.

HOW DO I GET THERE?

The main airline serving Fiji is Air New Zealand, which has connections from Heathrow via Los Angeles. You can also connect at California's largest city from British Airways or Virgin Atlantic to Air Pacific. A return flight on Air New Zealand during the April-June low season will cost around £700; over Christmas, this rises to £1,275. Fiji is also allowed as a stopover on round-the-world tickets, or on journeys between the UK and Australasia via the Pacific.

You can book direct but it is likely to work out cheaper - and a lot easier - to contact a specialist such as talpacific (020-8288 8400; www.talpacific.com) which can book "land only" arrangements (accommodation, transfers, car hire, cruises, excursions etc) or will package these elements up with flights. If, for example, you fly out before 9 December on Air New Zealand, staying two nights at the Sheraton Royal Denerau Resort and five nights at the Tokoriki Island Resort in the Mamanucas, you will pay £1,660 including flights, transfers and breakfast.

You can also reach Fiji on no-frills flights operated from Australia by Virgin Blue and from New Zealand on Pacific Blue, though this is likely to work out as a more expensive option. One more possibility is Korean Airlines, which can get you to Fiji en route to or from New Zealand via the Far East.

Fiji is a popular destination for yachties sailing around the South Pacific, but getting to Fiji by sea nowadays is very difficult unless you're on a cruise or aboard a private yacht.

HOW DO I GET AROUND?

The larger islands have good bus networks - express buses travel between major centres, while local buses may not have glass windows but are relatively comfortable and civilised, and stop at every village they pass. Those on a budget who are spending a lot of time on Viti Levu might want to check out the hop-on, hop-off bus tours run by Feejee Experience (00 679 672 0097; www.feejeeexperience.com). The route is known as the "Hula Loop" and is a good way to get acquainted with the island, and with other backpackers.

Flying between islands is quick, easy, fun (because most of it is in very small aircraft) and relatively cheap; £40 will take you from Suva's airport at Nausori, the air hub for the whole republic 23km north-east of the capital, to most other islands. Domestic flights are on Air Pacific (0845 774 7767; www.airpacific.com), Air Fiji (00 679 3313 666; www.airfiji.net), which offers a four-flight airpass from FJ$517 (£172), and Sun Air (00 679 6723 555; www.fiji.to).

Travelling by ferry tends to be a lot cheaper - and a lot more fun. Ferry routes connect most major coastal areas of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu with the other major islands. A wide variety of cruise options is also available, from dinner cruises to luxury eight-day trips: for instance, you can take a four-day cruise to the Manuca and Yasawa Islands on the Reef Escape (00 61 2 9206 1122; www.captaincook.com.au/fiji). Traffic drives on the left and there are about 5,000km of roads, a third of which are paved.

WHERE WILL I SLEEP?

Although Fiji has several hostels and simple hotels, most people choose to stay in a resort, many of which - whether catering to impecunious backpackers or budget-blowing honeymooners - have adopted or incorporated Fijian design elements and motifs to heighten the feeling of a vacation in an exotic South Pacific setting. Doesn't sleeping in a bure (a thatched-roof cottage or villa) sound more enticing than a night in a standard hotel room? There are a number of resorts on Viti Levu itself and these can work out cheaper than staying on other islands, chiefly because land transfers may be cheaper than those by sea, plane or helicopter. As international flights often arrive or depart at unsocial times (potentially causing problems with transfers to or from island resorts), it may be worth staying somewhere vaguely near the airport for a couple of days at the beginning or end of your Fijian stay.

The backpackers' residence of choice on Viti Levu is the Raintree Lodge (00 679 332 0562; www.raintreelodge.com), built five years ago beside an abandoned quarry. A night in a dorm costs from FJ$18 (£6); it is also a regular stop on the FeeJee Experience circuit.

WHAT WILL I EAT?

You'll have few problems tracking down Chinese or Indian food. Local specialities to look out for include kokoda (marinated local fish steamed in coconut cream and lime) and duruka (an asparagus-like vegetable). Seafood is a main part of the Fijian diet and is often cooked in lolo (coconut milk): don't confuse this with lovo, a traditional earth oven in which fish, chicken, pork and vegetables are wrapped in banana leaves then slowly cooked for several hours. As you might expect, you'll also have the chance to sample a fine array of tropical fruits.

MINE'S A CRUSHED PLANT ROOT

Fiji's national drink is kava (also known as yaqona), which is made from the pulverised root of the Polynesian pepper shrub (Piper methysticum). Visit any Fijian village and you will undoubtedly come across a group of people sitting around a large wooden bowl, dipping in half-coconut shells and knocking back the mud-coloured contents. The taste is akin to three-week-old washing-up water, which has the added "benefit" of numbing your mouth. Most resorts now offer kava tasting sessions - at least if you turn it down here you're unlikely to cause any offence.

BELOW THE SURFACE

Fiji is consistently rated as one of the world's top 10 diving locations. There's something for everyone, with countless opportunities to take a PADI beginner's course and an array of different dive locations to suit all tastes. You'll see spectacular reefs, vibrant corals, underwater caves and vertical walls: there's a rich variety of marine life including pelagic fish, manta rays and turtles. Fiji's waters are mild all year round and offer excellent visibility. There isn't a "best" resort for diving but it's unlikely you'll be disappointed by any of the following. South of Viti Levu, Matava (00 679 333 6098; www.matava.com) is on Kadavu, one of the few remaining undeveloped islands. The striking Astolobe reef and the Kadavu group of islands have both been created by past volcanic activity and tectonic movements. On an island in the Beqa Lagoon is the newly opened 16-villa luxury Royal Davui Island resort (00 679 336 1623; www.royaldavui.com) North of Viti Levu in 17 acres of coconut plantation on Vanua Levu is the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort (00 679 885 0188; www.fijiresort.com).

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

From the Fiji Visitors' Bureau (020-7202 6365, www.bulafiji.com).

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