‘Isles of smiles. Miles of isles’ – Fiji summed up perfectly on a poster in a bar. Of all the countries that I have visited, Fiji stands out for me as having the happiest and friendliest people that I have ever encountered. No matter where I went in this island nation, nestled in the southern Pacific Ocean, I was greeted with a warm and welcoming smile and an always enthusiastic ‘Bula!’ Their eternal happiness proves heavily infectious. Even outwith the main tourism centres, where living is more basic, and money is less readily obtained, the locals still wave hello and smile broadly, proving that money does not buy happiness but peace and community does. I had heard it muted that the indigenous Fijians did not all take kindly to the more recent influx of Indians that now call Fiji home, but I saw no evidence of this during my brief stay. What I discovered was a beautiful, welcoming country of mixed religion, with many people who seemed genuinely grateful that we had decided to visit their country.
Fiji’s largest island Viti Levu is less than a 4-hour flight from Christchurch in New Zealand. Flying with the country’s own airline, Fiji Airways, we arrived in Nadi International Airport after dark. A friend was celebrating a milestone birthday, and there was a large group of us who had joined her in splashing out on a memorable trip to Fiji, half of us going there for the first time. As someone that is used to staying in hostels and motels, this was my first time staying at a 5-star resort, and Denarau Island where our hotel was, was less than a 30-minute drive from the airport. In the dark of night, we saw only the streets we drove through, first through Namaka, then the outskirts of Nadi before turning off Queen’s Road to reach Denarau Island, a security-guarded island filled with resorts, private residences and a marina and port. Like most of the hotels here, the Sofitel has a grand entrance and we were greeted straight away by baggage handlers and drivers who insisted on taking our luggage, an experience that I’ve never had the pleasure of before. The front desk was where we got our first experience of ‘Fiji time’, a much laughed about, but at times slightly frustrating, lack of time management or rush. At 8pm at night, our room was not yet ready, and we were forced to take a stool at the bar to bide some time. Tired from our journey, we propped our heads up, consuming our complimentary drinks, followed by a pizza and more drinks, which were brought to us in no great hurry. Finally, at 9pm, we got the news that our room was ready, and we could crash out, ready to start the holiday afresh in the morning.
One of my favourite things about tropical islands is how deliciously fresh and flavoursome the fruit tastes. That morning and many after, we enjoyed a fruit platter for breakfast, looking out over coconut palms. With such a large group of us, we generally did our own things during the day and met up for dinners or a swim in the evening. My partner and I were eager to do some sight-seeing and go on some excursions, so whilst many of us headed down to Port Denarau, the two of us went round the tour operators to look at excursions, whilst the others went shopping at the boutiques. It was an overcast day, and there was a threat of rain, but the two of us booked to go ziplining near the Sleeping Giant mountain. As soon as we left Denarau Island, our driver took us off the main road and down a dirt track road, a road which the locals knew as a short-cut. As the driver said, this was the real Fiji. People wandered along the side of the road barefoot and small houses were dotted amongst the low-lying vegetation. With the area being so flat and low-lying, the area around Nadi and Denarau have been repeatedly devastated in severe floods, the most recent occurring in 2012 when 3 separate flooding incidents occurred a few months apart.
Turning off Queen’s road to the north of the airport, we eventually reached an un-sealed road which was riddled with pot-holes and washed out edges. Our driver bounced us round and over them, swinging from the left to the right side of the road, avoiding farmers and other vehicles as he went. We passed large fields of sugar cane, a common sight in many parts of Viti Levu, as we travelled up the Sabeto Valley, eventually pulling in at the zipline centre around lunchtime. Straight away we were kitted up and guided round the 5-zipline course which took us flying through the trees at speeds up to 40km/hr. Deep in the rainforest it was hot and sticky, and whilst the fee included unlimited ‘zips’ we opted to do just 1 circuit before stopping for a scrumptious lunch that was included in the price. Afterwards, us and another couple were guided on a sweaty rainforest walk past growing pineapples, bananas and coffee beans whilst cicadas buzzed around us and a parrot flitted noisily through the trees above our head. Our reward was a swim in the water at the base of Orchid Falls, two split-level waterfalls next to each other. It was exceedingly refreshing to get into the cool water and it made the hike back to the centre much more bearable.
There is plenty of choice for dining at Port Denarau, and that first night the birthday girl chose to go to the Hard Rock Cafe. We dined outside under the moon enjoying cocktails whilst a live band played near the waterfront. The band were amazing with the singer having an exceptional voice and we stayed on to listen to them play. There was a slightly surreal moment after they had finished when the Hard Rock staff came outside and danced to the Village People’s YMCA. With so many eateries, the port was buzzing and it was a fantastic atmosphere to be a part of.
Having woken early, just like the previous morning I went out for a walk along the shore past the neighbouring resorts. It was a peaceful time to be up with only the occasional jogger and staff about the place, and even being another grey day, it was a lovely area to walk around. Not being used to the luxury of 5-star resorts I enjoyed having a nosey round the various resorts I passed comparing swimming pools, hammocks and vistas. After another delicious fruit platter breakfast, we were collected and taken to Port Denarau to catch our ferry out to Mana Island. An unrushed 90-minute catamaran ride heads to Mana via South Sea, Beachcomber and Treasure islands. It was still a little overcast, but despite the grey skies, it was still possible to appreciate the beautiful blue waters lapping on the golden sands of each of these little spots of paradise. These islands were too small to berth at directly, so passengers had to disembark onto a smaller vessel to get out to them, but Mana was big enough to have a jetty. Approaching the pier through the narrow channel, the group of locals at the end of the pier burst into song and serenaded us as we disembarked onto our island paradise.
Aside from a couple of backpackers and some private residences, Mana Island Resort is the only accommodation on the island. It encompasses a myriad of styles of accommodation that spans a broad section of land spanning from the south beach to the north beach. The pier, watersports centre and a restaurant sit on the south beach, whereas the kids pool, infinity pool and pool bar are nestled by the north beach. With beaches on the north, south and west coasts, there’s plenty of choice to sunbathe or swim, especially as there is a natural reef surrounding most of the island. After yet another drawn-out wait to get into our room, during which time the pool-side bar was made use of, finally we were able to kick back and relax. For my partner, that means lying by the pool, whereas for me, that means exploring. Before we went our separate ways, we had lunch at the restaurant on the south beach, and watched the boats come and go off shore. A group of us went along the beach to the east of the resort, past the neighbouring village, and then turned back when we reached the rocky end of the beach.
I’m a lover of ‘me’ time, and when everyone else headed back to the resort, I set off west. Within the resort is a path leading up to a lookout which gives a fantastic view over the resort to the east, sunset beach to the west, and the nearest islands to the north and the south. It was a beautiful viewing point, even on an overcast day. Coming back from there, it was a winding route through the resort to find the road to sunset beach. It snakes past the end of the island’s airstrip and through bush. It wasn’t long until I was stopped by some of the resort staff on a golf cart who insisted on taking me to sunset beach despite my insistence that I wanted to walk. One of the things that saddened me about Mana Island was that the resort was built right next to the island’s village, but they were separated by a high fence that was guarded by security. It was possible to skirt this fence on the beach, and the villagers, and the nearby backpackers were very welcoming of resort guests, but the resort did not return the favour. The resort staff were polite and friendly but it didn’t take long for them to enquire where I was staying and ask for my room number. They seemed satisfied that I was a resort guest, but I wondered how they would have behaved had I not been one. As it was, they were almost too friendly, enquiring about my relationship status and asking where my boyfriend was and why I was alone. It made me feel a tad uncomfortable, and I was relieved when at last they dropped me off at sunset beach.
Sunset beach, unlike the north and south beaches of the resort was desolate. Not a soul was around, and it was just me, the sand, and the lapping waves. I meandered along the soft shore, passing the time idly before following the road back to the resort, praying to be left alone to walk. A turn-off through vegetation leads to another lookout, this time overlooking the pier and the south beach, as well as a private beach that is accessible only to residents of some upmarket residences. Another catamaran had arrived and there was a stream of people disembarking.
It was relatively well known that the best place to eat on the island, was the backpacker’s restaurant which had an ocean view from it’s south beach location, on the edge of the village on the non-resort side of the high fence. Many resort guests made the journey round the fence along the beach to eat there and we were no exception. The place was packed, and the band had to be moved to allow us all to sit down and eat. I tried a Fijian prawn dish which was nice but rather lacking in prawns, and we listened to the locals singing Fijian songs before heading back to the comfort of our beds.
There was a hint of blue in the sky the next morning – the first chance of sunshine since we’d arrived. Waking early, I went for a walk along the beach, looking at coral washed up on the shoreline, and giggling at the sight of my favourite shoreline creature: the humble hermit crab. My partner and I headed out to sea on the Seaspray, a lovely yacht that took us round Mana and then north to the nearby islands. It was a fantastic day for a sail, the clouds separating and the sun gleaming down on us and the beautiful blue waters. We headed first to Matamanoa Island, an exclusive resort where we picked up a couple of extra passengers. From there it wasn’t far to Monuriki Island, the island where Tom Hanks was Castaway. We moored offshore, and were ferried onto the beach from where we could go snorkelling. It had been nearly 3 years since I had last snorkelled, and my last experience of tropical snorkelling had been in the lagoon of Rarotonga. I had enjoyed the snorkelling in the Cook Islands, but this was definitely better. The coral was not particularly colourful but the fish were plentiful and close to shore. Some of the fish were especially curious, swimming very close to investigate. I spent nearly an hour in the water taking it all in, reluctant to go back to shore.
On our return to the boat, we were greeted with a most amazing barbeque. Fish, chicken, sausages, steak, salads, fruit, and dessert and all you could ever want to drink. It was scrumptious. The boat set off, by-passing neighbouring Monu island, and moored off Yanuya island where we once again headed to shore. The villagers here welcomed us with a traditional kava ceremony – a drink that is made from ground down roots of the plant of the same name. It is reputed to have an anaesthetic-like quality: de-stressing and making the drinker sleepy and relaxed. Villagers drink it like Westerners drink alcohol: socially and medicinally. We had been pre-warned that it would be watered down into a ‘tourist-strength’ form, and everybody at the gathering got to taste some. It was a ritual, and several of our fellow tourists ignored the ritual and drank without the customary greeting and thanks. I received my cup with thanks and noted that it tasted exactly how it looked: like muddy water. It had no effect on me whatsoever. After buying some trinkets at the local market, we got a tour round the village, past the local’s homes, the community centre, and the boarding school with its rugby pitch. This particular island was host to the neighbouring island’s rugby union team. There was a stunning vista from the beach on Yanuya and from there it was a lovely sailing back to Mana where we had another dinner at the backpacker’s restaurant where we were entertained with a fire-dancer on the beach.
Despite using sunscreen, I had unfortunately suffered the worst sunburn of my life on my back whilst snorkelling. It made for an uncomfortable end to my holiday, constantly having to watch what I wore and how I sat or lay down. The next day was another beautifully sunny day, and I had to clothe up to get in some more snorkelling. With the tide in, the south beach was the place to be, with a route marked out with buoys to an area rich in fish, near the ‘drop-off’ where the sea floor dropped down dramatically about 50m off the shore. There were two species of fish, one black and white like a zebra, and another a shimmering blue, who insisted on surrounding me in shoals and accompanying me as I floated near the surface watching the goings-on of the reef below me. One of the ‘zebra’ fish even tried giving me a nibble at one point. After a while, I headed inshore and crossed the width of the island to the south beach. The tide was out on this side making it quite shallow in places, but the fish were again plentiful, and again the ‘drop-off’ was within an easy distance. With boats moored up in the area, there were ropes and anchors fixed in place, and around these swarmed large groups of catfish. There was more diversity with the fish species on this side, and aside from being so shallow in places as to risk damaging the coral, I preferred the south beach snorkelling to the north beach snorkelling.
The rest of the day was spent lounging by the infinity pool. I’m not normally one for sitting still, but with waiters bringing you food and drinks at your beck and call, it was hard not to relax, and my partner and I whiled away a large part of the day sat in the shade staring out to sea. I doubt I would have struggled to spend a second day doing exactly the same if we’d had the time. Our last night on the island, we again ate at the backpacker’s restaurant where I enjoyed a tasty prawn dish before watching some crab racing with some poor little hermit crabs. I was torn between feeling sorry for the crabs and feeling excited at the drama as the crabs unknowingly raced against each other.
Our final morning on Mana Island was cloudless. With some spare time before our ferry back to Viti Levu, I headed back up to the lookout overlooking the north beach to soak up the last view of the island. I once again had the place to myself, and I enjoyed the view for as long as I could tolerate the intense sunshine. Our last view of Mana was a glorious one as we were serenaded back onto the boat by what looked like most of the resort staff, and headed off towards Castaway Island. Creeping out through the narrow channel, the water was so clear, and a shade of blue that I’ve never seen before anywhere else. Past Castaway Island, we skirted round the coast of Malolo Island, one of the largest in the Mamanuca island group, and then Malolo Lailai island. Unfortunately, the closer we got to Viti Levu, the cloudier it became, and we returned to Denarau Island with the sun hidden.
It was too early to get into our room, so we left our luggage behind and we headed into nearby Nadi in search of some markets. We had been given some tips from one of the crew on the Seaspray, and catching the bus to the bus depot, we headed out to wander the streets. With 9 of us together, it wasn’t long before a local man took advantage of us and tried to lead us somewhere we didn’t want to go. It was exactly what we had been warned to look out for and I wasn’t having a bar of it. We regrouped in a local cafe before we decided to split up into smaller groups. My friend had had enough and wanted to go back to the hotel, so 3 of us headed back to the bus and returned to Denarau Island. As the bus headed through the streets of Nadi, I was inwardly disappointed to discover that the area that we had wanted to get to had been just 2 streets away from where we had reached. I knew I was unlikely to have time to come back to the town again, so had to accept that it had been missed.
Our last day involved a very early rise as my partner and I headed down to the Coral Coast on the south of Viti Levu. On arrival at Sigatoka, we joined a tour which took us up the Sigatoka Valley, following the Sigatoka river until eventually we arrived at a small jetty where we boarded a jet boat. I’ve tried a lot of adventure sports and activities in my life but had yet to go jet boating. It had never really appealed to me at all and since injuring my back last year I’ve unfortunately had to become a lot more cautious with what activities I take part in. But I’m glad I went. We tore up the river, skimming round corners and obstacles, appearing to fly at times over the water and all the while, the rolling green valleys, pastures and hills passed us by. There were plenty of locals using the river to bathe and wash their clothes as well as for their horses and cattle to bathe and drink, and we waved at them as we whizzed by. It threatened to rain a couple of times but never came to much, and eventually we stopped at a village where we were shown around and then taken to the community hall for a kava ceremony and a spectacular lunch prepared by the village women. The whole village had come to welcome us and share with us their traditions and rituals. Again, some people forgot their manners when it came to accepting the kava, and again I noted the distinct resemblance to muddy water. In fact the kava looked exactly like the river that we had just boated down on. In the end, I somehow ended up getting two helpings, but even with the double serving, I still felt no effect of the drink. After a lunch of various meats, salads and fruit, we were invited to dance. Fijian dancing involves a lot of hip wiggling and is therefore quite easy to pick up. The villagers and our guide didn’t take kindly to people shying away and by the end of it all, most of us had danced several times. I wondered how much the villagers enjoyed these tourist visits and how much was down to tolerance, but Fijians just seem permanently happy and content with their lot, so perhaps it was my Westernised cynicism that was the problem.
Following some 360o spins on the jet boat, a last chance to see the Fijian countryside on the way home, and a last chance to enjoy the resort’s inviting pool, my partner and I headed to Port Denarau for our last meal. Eating at a lovely seafood restaurant on the quieter side of the marina, my fantastic fish dish was the best meal of the whole holiday. The next morning, rising early, it was a short drive back to Nadi airport for the flight back to Christchurch. We got a good view over Viti Levu as we left Fiji behind, and I mentally added this small, friendly country onto my ever-growing list of places I want to return to.