Beach-lounging, kava-drinking, surf-riding – Fiji’s got it all, and a rich, welcoming culture to boot.
If you ever felt compelled to describe an idyllic tropical island, there’s a few features that we reckon would make everyone’s list: white sandy beaches, palm trees heavy with coconuts, crisp turquoise waters and a burning sun overhead. Throw this into a pot with incredible food and the friendliest hosts you’ll ever have the good fortune to meet and you’ll get Fiji, the almost-comically perfect South-Pacific island cluster.
Perhaps your preconceptions of this slice of paradise are better formed than ours, but we didn’t imagine Fiji to be an ideal spot for outdoor adventure of any kind before actually visiting. There are no mountains to ski, no rapids to kayak down, and the obvious spot for adrenaline-junkies, the ocean itself, is ludicrously calm. It’s a destination for sun-worshippers and rich businessmen with too many yachts and too little sense – right?
Nearly all of this would be proved wrong, and Fiji would fast become one of our favourite places to visit in the world. Ever.
When visiting Fiji, it’s imperative to balance your time between experiencing the lush resorts that are purpose-built for tourists and spending time in the country’s villages, where you can understand what life on the island is actually like for its inhabitants (though it’s actually 333 islands; everyday’s a school day). Our time was managed by the brilliant Feejee Experience, who packed our 10-day tour with both of the above.
Our first four days were spent circumnavigating, and saw us witness a traditional fire dancing ceremony, hike through a tropical forest to a spectacular 50ft waterfall, delve deep underground to a revered cave that once was home to a tribe of cannibals and visit a Fijian village. These islands hosted a cannibalistic culture until late into the 19th century; the last unfortunate soul to be eaten was a British missionary, Rev Thomas Baker, who allegedly make the mistake of touching a chief’s head to bless him. The tribe regarded this as an insult and promptly killed and ate him. Modern Fijians naturally share our abhorrence at these acts; in 2003, that same tribe met Baker’s descendents and begged forgiveness. Even still, it was fascinating to see in person the pits where victims were kept alive until they were chosen to be eaten, the rocks they were cast against to kill them and the space where the tribe gathered to share this ‘delicacy’. Conducted by torchlight far underground, it’s a shiver-inducing tour to say the least.
Our visit to a local village was the polar opposite of this experience, full of smiles, impromptu music and dancing, and, most of all, kava. Fiji’s national drink, kava is made from powdered root mixed with water, which tastes much like it sounds. The laidback vibe that permeates throughout life in Fiji gains clarity when you drink kava – it’s a mild narcotic, and too many bowls (it’s served in a ceremonial fashion) will definitely slow you down. As the designated chief of our visiting party, I sank more than a few and slept very, very well that night.
From the mainland, we boarded a boat from Port Denarau and embarked on a six day tour of Fiji’s outer islands. Encircled by coral reefs and pristine, aquamarine waters, these resorts are picture-perfect havens of natural beauty – the first one we ventured to was literally called Robinson Crusoe Island. Walking barefoot across their white sands, you’re met at every turn by an image of remarkable splendour: palm trees swaying in the sea breeze, fishermen crossing the bay, a local man husking a coconut to drink its water there and then.
The waters around the Yasawa islands – a good four-hour journey from the mainland – are not only crystal clear but teeming with life, resulting in some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving you can imagine. From tropical fish and vibrant coral reefs to manta rays and sharks, you’re guaranteed to experience something simply not possible on the British coastline. Conditions for sea kayaking and kitesurfing are perfect for those who prefer to stay above water, too. When it comes to outdoor adventure in the South Pacific islands, water sports reign supreme.
It’s easy to get absorbed into Fiji’s natural wonders and the remarkable friendliness of its people (they are without a doubt the happiest people I’ve ever met) but it’s difficult not to wonder how manufactured this image is. Driving through Fiji, many villages are constructed with corrugated metal and some are yet to receive electricity, and yet the resorts that welcome tourists are exquisite. Tourism is by far Fiji’s biggest industry (sugar cane is second, if you’re interested) so it makes sense that the government would funnel money into improving that experience, but it’s difficult to relax on a beachside hammock with a cold beer when you know that mere miles away, someone is living without access to those same comforts. Saying that, a Fijian grumbling would surely have to be the fifth horseman of the apocalypse – it simply doesn’t happen. Theirs is an anti-materialistic culture that values family and community above all else, and everyone we met seemed perfectly content with their lot in life – they certainly don’t begrudge tourists.
Fiji is a fine case study for the balance to be struck between tourism and ecology, too – the mass of visitors to the islands each year are warmly welcomed by Fijians and contribute to the economy, but they can be damaging to already fragile ecosystems. Climate change is steadily eroding the coral reefs surrounding these tropical islands – we met marine biologists from the USA studying these effects and innovating methods to combat them – and the constant influx of, often inexperienced, snorkellers can exacerbate the impact. On the one hand, Fiji’s economy can’t survive without its tourists; on the other, those same tourists might be damaging the natural wonders that draw them in the first place.
Fijians, or at least the people that we met, are incredibly proud of their islands and encourage tourists to visit at their leisure; based on our experience, it’s an opportunity that you should grasp with both hands. Travel there with a view to visiting the ‘real’ Fiji, though – its villages and people – and be conscious of your impact. That should apply to anywhere you visit as a foreign traveller but it has special relevance to a country as rich in natural splendour and character as Fiji. Step off the plane with a ready smile and a ‘bula’ greeting as warm as the sun overhead – I can guarantee you’ll be met in kind.