AS OUR SMALL PLANE left the main Viti Levu island behind and we made our way toward the Yasawa string of islands, the Fiji we dreamed of stretched out below us. Green tropical islands ringed by beaches, the South Pacific waters in shades of blue in between. When the seaplane landed near the beach at Turtle Island Resort, bare-chested men carried the women ashore while others sang a welcome song.
Singing is a key part of the Polynesian culture in Fiji, and it’s one of the strongest memories that lingers with me after my visit. The serenading starts at the international airport, where musicians and singers greet arriving visitors. It then continues at the resorts, where you will probably hear music. throughout the day and night, sometimes spontaneously. In this country, a staffer who doesn’t sing should probably be viewed with skepticism.
After such a long flight to get here from most of the world, you might want to spend your first night or two getting acclimated to the new time zone near Nadi, where the main international airport sits. In the Denerau Island development with a long beach and golf course, choose from a Westin, Sofitel, Sheraton, Hilton and Radisson Blu … and dozens of restaurants.
To feel the real beauty and essence of Fiji, though, get away from the entry point and find your own piece of paradise. Still a wild place with a lot of sparsely populated land, Fiji draws adventure travelers who come here to hike steep mountains, go caving, swim under waterfalls and ride down rivers. The rugged interior of Fiji’s two biggest islands offers enough adventure options to last for weeks. The firewalkers of Beqa Island remind people of the country’s unique history as they walk barefoot across glowing red coals.
Most vacationers, however, come here to find their own version of South Pacific, to discover the kind of tropical island they usually see only in someone else’s Instagram feed. They. take the long trip across the ocean to de-stress, enjoy picture-perfect sunsets and swim with fish of 100 colors under the water. Fortunately, more than one spot in this destination fits the bill. More than 300 islands have their own secret beaches, quiet coves and prime snorkeling spots waiting for you.
The Mamanuca Islands, filming location of the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away, sit close enough to Nadi to reach by boat in two hours. A wide range of lodging options includes — surprisingly — Fiji’s only overwater bungalows: Likuliku Lagoon Resort. The resorts all lie within easy reach. from the international arrival point, and some even transport you by helicopter.
The skinny string of Yasawa Islands to the north are a short hop by seaplane (or a longer one by boat), and they make it easy to feel like an adventuring explorer. The archipelago includes some of the country’s original private-island resorts, places like Turtle Island, where guests rotate having their own private beach for the day; and Yasawa Island Resort, where each bungalow features its own beach cabana, hammock and outdoor shower at the ready. Nearly every island boasts a nearby coral reef teeming with fish in waters always pleasantly warm for swimming.
The high-end resorts usually provide direct air service, but tourist ferries also serve Yasawa and Mamanuca islands, where visitors can hop on and off at the various island ports. With a little planning it’s possible to set up a beach-hopping vacation with some changes of scenery.
Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu, offers plenty to do inland and on the water. Housing some of the most reasonably priced places to stay, it also includes a few resorts attracting international jet-setters. Laucala Island, one of the most famous, lies off the coast of Taveuni Island and hosts 25 villas on 3,500 acres of land. It’s partly famous because of its developer, the founder of Red Bull — someone who could afford to spare no expense.
No matter where you end up for your relaxation time, you will probably participate in a kava ceremony to loosen up even more. This is not something put on for tourists: Even trekkers stumbling into remote mountain villages will see this important social custom in practice. Along with the national fish and coconut dish kokoda, kava is a traditional part of daily life for adults. Fijians make the mildly intoxicating drink from the root of a pepper tree, mixing a large enough quantity in a large cauldron for a big crowd to share.
Participants generally sit in a circle on the ground. When it’s your turn to drink, you clap once with your hand cupped to make a specific sound, down the drink from a vessel usually made from half a coconut shell, then clap again three times. It tastes like, well, something made from a root, but it will make you smile like an honorary Fijian.
Fiji is hot all year and runs on island time, so there’s seldom a reason to dress up, cover up or be in a hurry. As you can only reach most of the outer island resorts by prop plane, heavy, overpacked suitcases are a bad idea. On many flights, passengers and their luggage both go on a scale for weight distribution.
The best way to get into the groove on these islands is just to let things happen as they happen, in their own time. Sure, enjoy the progress in lodging comfort since the first explorers landed, but then relax and appreciate the natural attributes. Savor the chance to enjoy that perfect beach, that perfect sunset and a glorious day in the tropical sea.
INFO TO GO
Fiji Airways operates daily direct flights from Los Angeles (LAX) and Honolulu (HNL) to Nadi (NAN), the main gateway city for air service. Connecting flights on other airlines transit through Tokyo (NRT), Hong Kong (HKG), Singapore (SIN) and three Australian cities. Transportation from the airport to Denerau Island hotels or a seaplane departure point runs $20–25 by taxi, $40 by car service. Fiji Link offers domestic commercial air service to other islands and the capital.
LAUCALA ISLAND Occupying a small slice of land on a self-sustained island, all-inclusive Laucala has 16 staffers for every guest staying at one of the 25 villas. Laucala Island $$$$$
TURTLE ISLAND FIJI RESORT On the island where the movie Blue Lagoon filmed, the original laid-back, luxury, all-inclusive private island resort remains one of the best. Turtle Island $$$$$
VOMO ISLAND FIJI This family-friendly option has a wild kids club reached by a suspension bridge, and children have the option of eating with other kids for lunch or dinner, giving parents a vacation break. Vomo Island $$$$$
Most Fiji resorts are all-inclusive or include mandatory meal plans. Plus, Fiji has 300-plus. islands, so these choices all lie in the Nadi area, where international visitors arrive and depart.
INDIGO INDIAN AND ASIAN RESTAURANT Often hailed as the best upscale Indian restaurant on the main island, Indigo is air-conditioned and vegetarian-friendly. The Port at Denarau, Shop R3, Denarau Island, Nadi $$$
NADINA AUTHENTIC FIJIAN RESTAURANT This waterfront option serves upscale versions of local food presented with a flair, with an emphasis on fresh seafood. The Port at Denarau, Shop R1 & R2, Denarau Island, Nadi $$$
TATA’S CURRY HOUSE Located near Nadi’s biggest and most famous Indian temple, this locals’ favorite is not much to look at, but it serves up fiery curries that are definitely not watered down for tourists. Nadi Back Road, Nadi $$
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