Relax in that lounge chair, sip an island cocktail and let the South Pacific’s tropical breezes cool your body and blow away any thoughts of work. You’ve left your cellphone in the suite, so all you have to do is decide whether to snorkel or dive one of the world’s most spectacular reefs, sail on sapphire water to a private island for lunch or select a fish for dinner while exploring a local market.
Bula! Welcome to Fiji. The country’s official slogan is “Where happiness finds you,” and friendliness is embedded in the Fijian culture. When a local holds a hand out to you, he usually wants a handshake — not a tip. “Welcome home,” a local says after learning you’re visiting from the United States.
Fiji is a country of 333 islands, but only 110 are inhabited, affording plenty of choices if you want to play Robinson Crusoe for an afternoon. You’ll also discover lots of adventures should you get bored sitting on the powder-soft beaches and swimming in this country where temperatures average in the 80s year-round.
Visiting these islands requires a 10-hour flight from the United States; but once you arrive, you’ll unwind in luxe resorts and experience Fiji’s intriguing blend of cultures. The islands have been inhabited for more than 3,000 years, but Europeans didn’t discover them until 1643 when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman and English navigators arrived. Capt. James Cook sailed through in 1774, and Capt. William Bligh came after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789.
Shipwrecked sailors and runaway convicts from Australian penal settlements landed here, followed by missionaries instrumental in ending the Fijian practice of cannibalism by the mid-1800s. After 96 years as a British colony, Fiji gained independence in 1970. Today the Indo-Fijians, whose ancestors were brought here as indentured servants to work in the sugarcane fields, make up 43 percent of the population.
Spend a few hours in the fruit and vegetable markets if you want to get a feel for how the locals live, shop and eat. Farmers urge you to choose from colorful displays of fruits and vegetables, and butchers cut meat for shoppers’ dinners. Dodge children chasing each other through the crowded aisles, and listen to women bargain with fishermen selling ocean-fresh choices in the fish market. Browse the aisle full of kava roots which, when pounded or chewed and mixed with water, create a drink with a narcotic effect.
Escape from the hectic market environment on a stroll through the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, filled with acres of vividly colored orchids and flowers. Actor Raymond Burr created the gardens and lily ponds in 1997 to house his own orchids, and today they’re open to the public. Take one of the tours to learn about the hundreds of different Asian orchids, Cattleya hybrids and other flowers. Or just walk through the gardens and over the bridges in the tropical jungle area anchoring Sleeping Giant mountain.
A visit to a village where locals still live in the traditional ways introduces you to their culture. You may even attend a formal kava ceremony. During this centuries-old ritual, the village chief enters, followed by other village members, and then the guests. Villagers grind the kava root and strain it through a cloth into a large wooden bowl. First the drink is offered to the chief, then to everyone else.
When you’re tired of sitting on a beach, take a day cruise. You’ll have a chance to watch sea birds dive for food, perhaps spot a whale or dolphins, and snorkel in the middle of swarms of fish nibbling on coral. If you’re staying on Denarau, a small island with several resorts and linked to Viti Levu, take a cruise on an 83-foot classic schooner to one of the Mamanuca Islands. Resorts on some of the other islands also offer day cruises. At the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, book a boat ride and be dropped off on a small private island — just you and your friends or family.
Fiji bills itself as the “Soft Coral Capital of the World,” and just walking off the shore of many islands you’ll see colorful corals. Don’t be startled by a cruising turtle with flippers big enough to hug you. Swim around giant mushroom coral so big you’ll look like a Lilliputian next to it. Watch a shark slice through clouds of brightly colored fish.
The Namena Marine Reserve, which sprawls across 27 square miles of ocean between Fiji’s two biggest islands, is considered one of the top dive spots in the world. The reef hosts more than 400 types of coral and more than 1,100 fish species. You may scuba among bottlenose and spinner dolphins and see minke, sperm and humpback whales. Several resorts and dive companies offer day and multiday scuba diving trips to Namena.
Looking for more action? Go river-rafting through the Upper Navua River Gorge, where black volcanic walls stretch 130 feet high and at times are barely 16 feet apart. Kayak through the mangrove forests on the Koro Sea or in the calm, cliff-lined bays of Beqa Island. (Rivers Fiji offers one-day and multiday trips.) Try tandem skydiving to view the multihued corals fringing the islands as you freefall then float downward under an open parachute.
No matter where you decide to stay in Fiji, you’re within easy reach of beaches and water sports. You’ll find several brand-name resorts on Viti Levu, but the more private luxury properties reside on islands reached by small feeder planes or boats. Most of these upscale resorts are all-inclusive.
On Viti Levu, the main island, there are several large resorts, including The Westin Denarau Resort & Spa. From the pools to the Fijian-style décor in the guestrooms and the open-air dining rooms, the property resembles many Hawaiian resorts but with a more laid-back ambience and a staff with a genuinely friendly attitude. The excellent children’s program attracts families, especially from Australia.
The Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort is a luxury resort, but don’t expect over-the-top glitz. It sprawls across 17 acres of a former coconut plantation, and the spacious bures (thatched-roof villas) are in sync with the surroundings and the resort’s eco-sensitivity. All-inclusive here includes lodging; food; and your choice of several activities, such as yoga on the beach or a kayak excursion, daily. This family-friendly resort offers a private nanny or a Fiji Buddy to keep each child entertained (part of the all-inclusive fee), along with separate adults-only and family dining areas.
Don Santee, who photographed divers underwater for Jacques-Yves Cousteau, runs the resort’s 5-star PADI diving center. A quick boat ride gets you to several colorful sites right in Savusavu Bay, which opens into the Koro Sea. Diving costs extra most of the year, although during the off-season the resort may offer dive packages.
Guests are royally spoiled at the Namale Resort and Spa, which consistently shows up on the “most romantic place to stay in the South Pacific” lists. (The Bachelorette television show filmed an episode here.) The 19 bures, each sited for privacy and artfully decorated, only house 44 persons. Several are set on the edge of a cliff, ensuring dramatic views and staircases so you can climb down to explore the sea floor when the tide is out. Many bures have private plunge pools and outdoor showers. Even the dining lodge, with a focus on Indo-Fijian cuisine, offers single tables set in alcoves carved into the rocky cliff.
Designed for adults who prefer a quiet atmosphere, the resort also offers a list of daily activities, a three-screen golf simulator and a quirky nine-hole golf course. The spa is designed for calming and pampering. Although the resort sits on the edge of the water, this area of Vanua Levu doesn’t feature any sandy beaches.
Travelers who have collected lots of hotel points will find properties in Fiji where they can redeem them. In addition to The Westin Denarau, look for the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa, the Sheraton Fiji Resort and the Radisson Blu Resort Fiji Denarau Island.
Take a tip from the Australians who flock to Fiji for vacations. They warm up on the beaches under the South Pacific sun then cool off by snorkeling or diving among the world’s most colorful reefs.
Fiji Info to Go
International flights arrive at Nadi International Airport on Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. Fiji Airways, which codeshares with American Airlines, flies non-stop from Los Angeles (LAX) to Nadi. If you’re traveling to or from Australia or New Zealand, you may be able to arrange a stopover in Fiji. From the airport, transfers by car to many resorts are available. Representatives from many all-inclusive luxury resorts on other islands meet guests at Nadi Airport and shepherd them to inter-island planes. Weight is strictly enforced on these planes; expect to have your luggage, carry-ons and even purses weighed. Overweight bags are charged an extra fee. (Avoid this by checking luggage from your U.S. gateway through to the island where you are staying.)
Where to stay in Fiji
Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort Fiji This all-inclusive resort attracts families, as a private nanny or Fiji Buddy keeps children entertained while parents dive or enjoy other water sports. Vanua Levu $$$$
Namale Resort and Spa Namale deserves its reputation as one of the most romantic resorts in the South Pacific. Lovers rarely leave their secluded bures except to dine at private cliffside tables. Hibiscus Highway, Savusavu, Vanua Levu $$$$
The Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa One of the country’s larger resorts, The Westin features Fijian-style décor, open-air dining rooms and lots of activities for families. Denarau Island North $$$
Restaurants in Fiji
Saffron Tandoori Restaurant This unpretentious restaurant attracts locals and tourists for its curries, the savory saffron special crab Marsala and other Indian dishes popular with the country’s large Indo-Fijian community. Jack’s of Fiji, downtown Nadi, Viti Levu $$
Wicked Walu Share seafood platters featuring fish so fresh they might have been swimming in the lagoon at your feet hours earlier. Warwick Fiji Resort & Spa, Queen’s Road, Coral Coast, Viti Levu $$$
Zing at Ocean Terrace Sample sunfish teriyaki-style, spicy pork dumplings or other Asian-inspired cuisine with a contemporary twist. Request a table overlooking the pool or ocean. The Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa, Denarau Island North $$$$
Read more about scuba diving in Fiji.
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