...on the islands of fiji in the south pacific.
As the speedboat rounded a bend in the Sigatoka River, uniformed schoolchildren on the riverbank smiled and waved to the arriving tourists. Villagers bearing leis waited on the hill above, ready to escort their guests to the community hall for a kava ceremony, the time-honored way that outsiders are welcomed to a traditional Fijian village.
The journey inland to the village of Mavua on the island of Viti Levu had been just 10 miles by bus over dirt roads and another few miles by river, but the setting was a world apart from the four- and five-star beachfront accommodations the tourists had left that morning. The village was situated in the heart of the lush Salad Bowl of Fiji, where much of the food is grown for the island. Along the river, men fished with nets or rinsed sweet potatoes just dug from the earth. Women washed clothing, children swam, and the occasional cow or horse wandered down to the riverbank for a drink.
Back at the coastal resort that evening, the same tourists watched in awe as young Fijian men—renowned the world over for their fire-walking ability—walked barefoot across burning coals in a demonstration of the spiritual ceremony their ancestors had been practicing for hundreds of years.
Bula (welcome) to Fiji, a honeymoon destination sure to satisfy any couple craving a mix of the exotic and the familiar, all set in a tropical paradise. Once notorious as the “Cannibal Isles,” this group of islands in the South Pacific is home to a people who now pride themselves on their friendliness.
The 333 islands of Fiji (more than 100 of them inhabited) vary widely in size and character. Some are mere spits of sand or coral. Others accommodate a few resorts and perhaps a village or two. The largest island, Viti Levu—about the same size as the Big Island of Hawaii—is comprised of rainforest and beach, cities, farms and small villages. Viti Levu is also home to Nadi Airport, the arrival point for most of Fiji’s international visitors.
Many tourists skip off immediately to another of the islands in search of the fabulous beaches featured in travel brochures, most commonly to islands of the Mamanuca Group. But if that’s all you see, you’re missing the parts of Fiji that introduce you to real Fijian life, so be sure to spend at least some time on one or more of the three largest islands, which in addition to Viti Levu include Vanua Levu and Taveuni. Vanua Levu is where you will find the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, one of the top resorts in the South Pacific and a mecca for divers.
The Coral Coast
Consider spending a few days on the Coral Coast on Viti Levu’s southwest side, which can be reached by car or bus from Nadi. The beaches along the Coral Coast are not as impressive as those on the Mamanuca Islands, with the gorgeous exception of Natadola Beach, the best beach on the island. But the Coral Coast is the easiest starting point of many tours, including the village visit described above, a daytrip that originates in the town of Sigatoka, a short distance inland from the Coral Coast.
The Sigatoka River Safari (sigatokariver.com) combines a very fast speedboat tour of the Sigatoka River with a visit to a traditional village along the river. You can’t just wander into a Fijian village without permission of the village chief, so an arranged tour is the best way to learn about life in a Fijian village, where many of the islanders still live. “When you come to our village, you are coming through our lives, to know who we really are, our culture and how we live,” says village guide “Gus” Autiko Qasevakatim.
Think of a village as a neighborhood where everyone is related. As recently as 30 years ago, many villagers lived in bamboo houses with thatched roofs, but since those materials cannot withstand hurricane winds, these days most houses are constructed of concrete, wood or tin. Some, but not all, have running water and electricity. Cooking is still done outdoors over campfires.
Most visits to Fijian villages include tours of the village and time spent asking questions and perhaps being entertained by some of the villagers. The Sigatoka River Safari has the delicious benefit of including a meal prepared by the village women, who serve it on tablecloths spread on the floor.
Also consider an excursion on the Coral Coast Railway, a restored sugarcane train that now offers scenic tours. By far the best option is the Natadola Beach Resort Tour. The train chugs through sugarcane fields, forest and mangrove swamps, alongside village after village where residents wave and youngsters run behind the train until they tire out and, finally, hugs the coast on the way to the final destination, Natadola Beach. The train makes a stop at Muka Caves, where the guide will regale you with stories of Fiji’s cannibalistic past, which ended in 1867. (Today tourists can buy replica cannibal forks and carved wooden decorative weapons at most every souvenir shop.)
Coral Coast visitors can also take hiking tours to waterfalls, where the native guides might use their diving skills to impress the tourists swimming in the lagoon (adventuresinparadisefiji.com). Sigatoka Sand Dunes and the archaeological site of Tavuni Hill Fort are other excursions, as is souvenir shopping in Sigatoka. The Coral Coast and several of the nearby islands, including Beqa Island, are noted as well for the superb diving opportunities, which include shark diving.
Many of the Coral Coast hotels cater to families (Fiji is a favorite destination for Australians and New Zealanders), so be sure to inquire. A few of the resorts that honeymooners should consider: Intercontinental Fiji (intercontinental.com) on Natadola Beach; The Fiji Hideaway (hideaway.com.fj), a boutique hotel with rooms in individual bures (cottages); and the Pearl South Pacific (thepearlsouthpacific.com) at Pacific Harbor. If you can spring for it, ask for one of the penthouse suites at the Pearl. On Beqa Island, stay at Beqa Lagoon Resort (beqalagoonresort.com), which caters almost exclusively to divers, or at the posh, romantic Lalati Resort and Spa (lalatifiji.com).
The Mamanuca Islands
These sunny isles are the stuff daydreams are made of: pristine white-sand beaches fringed by palm trees, and crystalline waters of blue and green. The 13 small islands in this mini-archipelago off the west coast of Viti Levu are usually reached by high-speed catamaran from Nadi’s Port Denarau. You can take a day cruise from Nadi to one of the Mamanuca Islands, but you won’t want to leave. Instead, spend a few days—or more—here. In addition to the beaches, activities available on various islands include snorkeling and diving, surfing, fishing, parasailing, and all sorts of boating opportunities, from kayaking to sailing.
Accommodations range from backpacker camps to five-star, adults-only boutique resorts. One—the Likuliku Lagoon Resort—even has those oh-so-romantic over-water cottages (likulikulagoon.com). Some places cater to families, others to couples, still others to partiers, so investigate before booking.
Planning Your Trip
How to get there: Air Pacific, Fiji’s international airline, flies to Nadi from Los Angeles and Honolulu. The non-stop, overnight flight leaves Los Angeles in the evening and arrives in Fiji early morning. (airpacific.com, 800-227-4446)
Pacific Sun is Fiji’s domestic airline and one way to get around the islands. A few islands are connected by ferry service.
For more information: The country’s official tourism Web site is fijime.com. Package deals, including airfare and hotel, are available on both the tourism and airline Web sites.