The sand under my bare feet is sparkling white and powdery fine. As I stroll along the winding beach, my feet sink in ever so slightly—just enough to nicely cushion my steps.
The weather is perfect—temperature in the low 80s, clear blue skies overhead, a gentle tropical breeze blowing. There is no one else on this stretch of beach, no one else anywhere in sight.
A few feet to my right the water of a barrier reef is splashing softly against the beach. The water is clean, clear, and stunningly colored—all sorts of shades of blue and green.
To my left, rows of gently swaying coconut palm trees fringe the beach. They stretch as far as I can see.
As I walk along the isolated beach, the only noise I hear is the water soothingly splashing and some birds singing softly.
This is the South Pacific everyone dreams of.
Much has changed about Fiji since I first discovered its charms a few decades ago—but it’s also true that much hasn’t.
On the main island of Viti Levu, which has roughly the land area of Connecticut and contains the country’s only real city and towns, there are more buildings than there used to be—even more multi-story ones and several McDonald’s and Burger Kings.
There’s more traffic on its roads and they’re much improved.
Broadcast television, not introduced until the 1990s, is most everywhere on the main island but almost nowhere on the outer islands.
Far more so than most other popular tourist destinations, the islands in the Fiji archipelago—especially as you move away from its large main island—have essentially maintained the character and culture that make them so wonderfully pleasant.
You can find beautiful islands with plenty of sunshine and great beaches all over the world, but it’s the Fijian people, as warm and delightful as these islands they call home, are that gives Fiji its edge. “The nicest people in the world,” “Tales of the South Pacific” author James Michener called them.
Visitors are amazed by Fijian hospitality. Few other countries in the world make the visitor feel so welcome. Fijians are unbelievably friendly and hospitable. It’s not feigned, not just some gimmick designed to boost tourism—it’s the real thing. It’s just the way they are. Being nice comes naturally to Fijians.
To Fijians, family and friends are the most important things in life, and if you are visiting, you are a friend and if you are a returning visitor, you are almost family.
A country with Western heritage—it’s a former British colony, a member of the British Commonwealth, and English is the official language—and South Seas charm, Fiji is a mosaic of cultures.
Indigenous Fijians, most of Melanesian ancestry but some of Polynesian, make up about 54 percent of the country’s population of 900,000. About 38 percent are Indo-Fijian descendants of indentured workers the British colonial power brought in to work on Fiji’s sugar plantations. The remainder is a mix of European, Chinese, other Asian and other South Pacific islanders.
Relations between indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians have always been tense, and a series of coups in recent decades resulted in a significant exodus of Indians, which many believe has harmed its economic growth potential. This has little to no impact on visitors.
Fiji’s cultural diversity brings forth some pretty good cuisine and makes for interesting cultural performances. Especially noteworthy are Fijian fire-walking ceremonies, Indian curries, and Fijian song and dance. Fijian music is exceptionally pleasant and Fijian singing can be unforgettably beautiful.
Better Value Than Hawaii or Tahiti
What seems to deter many from considering Fiji is a false perception about costs. Actually, the costs of accommodations, entertainment, and food have always been considerably less in Fiji than in either Hawaii or Tahiti.
Most visitors spend nearly all their time not very far from the country’s international airport at Nadi on the western side of the main island, where they can find area hotels and resorts in every price range.
Just 15 minutes from the airport sits ocean-front Denarau Island Resort, the largest resort complex in the South Pacific islands, with 9 fine hotels, 40 restaurants, an 18-hole champion golf course, a driving range and putting green, tennis courts, a nice collection of boutiques, bars, cafes, banks, a supermarket, a bakery, and spas.
Plus it has a large modern marina from which you can embark on cruises of varying duration to the nearby Mamanuca group, the farther away Yasawa group, and still more distant parts of Fiji.
Taking one of these cruises is a great way to see and experience what many—me among them—think of as the real Fiji. On them, I’ve relaxed on pristine beaches, snorkeled in some of the finest snorkeling spots in the world, visited Fijian villages, attended a village feast, enjoyed some great Fijian singing, and learned about Fijian culture. Accommodations aboard the ship were very comfortable, food and service excellent, and sailing in these waters very smooth.
Anyone wishing to see more of the main island than just the Nadi area might want to rent a car or sign up for a tour and visit Fiji’s capital city of Suva near the other end of the main island of Viti Levu.
The road to Suva hugs the Coral Coast of Viti Levu for much of the journey and offers an abundance of scenic vistas. It is not a long drive—only about four hours—but a smart thing to do, especially if you are a first-time visitor, is to break it up with some stops along the way.
I always make it a point to stop, either for lunch or for an overnight visit, at Shangri-La’s Fijian Resort & Spa. The Fijian, located about a third of the way between Nadi and Suva, has probably the best beach on the main island and all the amenities of a fine resort. It’s also probably the most kid-friendly resort in Fiji, and for that reason and others it has long been a favorite with visitors.
At the town of Sigatoka (pronounced as Singatoka), a popular stop for some duty-free shopping, it’s worth the short diversion to drive up the Sigatoka Valley a while to take in some Fijian countryside scenery.
Another stop well worth making at about an hour’s drive outside of Suva is Pacific Harbour, a golf and deep-sea fishing resort that offers excellent cultural performances.
The capital city of Suva, set on a bay against a backdrop of volcanic hills, is not much of a tourist destination—no beaches and much rain. While it is the largest city in the South Pacific outside Australia and New Zealand (pop. 100,000) it has a small-town ambiance.
The streets of this city with a mix of colonial and modern architecture offer the best and most colorful display of Fiji’s multi-racial, multi-cultural personality—Indian women dressed in beautiful saris and adorned with gold jewelry; tall, muscular Fijian men wearing kilt-like sulus; men of British, Australian and New Zealand ancestry in safari suits or shorts and knee socks; Chinese in silk outfits; Sikh Indian men wearing turbans, Fijian women of both Polynesian and Melanesian ancestry dressed in colorful island prints; and people of all races in European and American fashions.
Must-do activities for tourists in Suva include standing in front of Government House, home to Fiji’s president, to see and photograph the ceremonial guard, dressed in a white sulu and belted red tunic, and visiting the small Fiji Museum, the best museum in the South Pacific islands. Suva has a wide selection of surprisingly good and very reasonably priced restaurants.
From Suva it’s easy to get to a few places I’ve enjoyed visiting, one of which is the tiny upscale resort of Toberua Island. Reached by a 30-minute boat ride, it’s beautiful beaches and crystal-clear water make it seem a world away from Suva.
An hour or less flight from Suva lie three Fiji islands worth visiting.
Vanu Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, is home to two particularly outstanding resorts, both located just outside the tiny town of Savu Savu: Namale Plantation, one of Fiji’s finest, and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, which caters to everyone, not just divers.
Taveuni, Fiji’s third-largest island, known as “The Garden Island,” remains a largely undiscovered gem. The island has some beautiful black sand beaches, as well as white sand ones, and scenic parks and waterfalls. Accommodations are limited to a few small hotels, which mostly cater to divers who have made Taveuni a favorite destination.
Ovalau, a small volcanic island known for its high peaks, is an interesting place to visit if you are a history buff. Its one town, Levuka, once a whaling settlement, was Fiji’s capital until 1881.
In all areas of Fiji the visitor may have the chance to witness and participate in a yaqona ceremony. Drinking yaqona (called kava in other parts of the South Pacific), has great significance in Fijian life. Made from the root of a pepper tree, the muddy-looking drink is mixed in a large wooden bowl carved from a single piece of hardwood called a tanoa and served in a bilo, a half coconut shell. It has a slight numbing effect but is considered harmless. Tourists seem to enjoy the ceremonial ritual. Turning down an offer to drink a bowl of Yagona is considered rude.
For those who want to splurge for the experience of a lifetime, Fiji offers some incredible upscale resorts that are like something out of the movies. A good example is Turtle Island, which was, in fact, featured in the 1960s film “The Blue Lagoon.”
Sited on its own 500-acre island in the far western Yasawas group and reached by a half-hour seaplane flight from the main island, Turtle Island is the resort that set the standard for Fiji’s reputation as one of the world’s finest get-away-from-it-all destination. “As close to heaven as you’re likely to get,” Harper’s Hideaway Report called it.
Only 14 couples are permitted at any one time—impressive when you consider that there are 14 separate isolated beaches on the island, some bordered by high cliffs, some set in coves; if you wish, you can reserve your own isolated beach and have drinks and meals delivered by boat.
Home during a stay at Turtle is a huge “bure,” a Fijian styled thatched cottage with a king-sized bed, large living and dressing areas, walk-in double shower, a jacuzzi and a bar that is always well-stocked with the finest in beverages, and a selection of fresh tropical fruits. On its verandah, there’s a queen-sized bed for day-time napping under the shade in case you prefer that to the hammock under the palm trees at the beach in front of your bure.
Gourmet caliber meals can be taken either communally, which most guests seem to prefer because it gives you the chance to meet and form friendships with interesting people from different parts of the world, or catered to you at your bure or some beach.
Other upscale Fiji resorts offer a similar experience.
Because of Fiji’s large and still growing reputation as one of the world’s finest travel destinations, new resorts in all categories are under construction and on the drawing board. So it’s a good idea to check the Tourism Fiji website (Fiji.travel) before finalizing your Fiji holiday decision.
If You Go
Information: See Fiji.travel
Best time to go: Anytime. Fiji’s climate is sunny tropical and weather is generally pleasant year-round. You’ll get better pricing if you take care not to schedule your visit during Australia or New Zealand school vacations.
Getting there: See Fiji Air. You might want to consider adding on Australia, New Zealand, or Tonga.
Safety: Fiji is considered a safe travel destination—and one of the friendliest—but petty crime is becoming a problem in the capital city of Suva.
Costs: Food and accommodations are reasonably priced. Compared with Hawaii or Tahiti, Fiji can be a bargain destination.
Language: English is the official language of Fiji.
Guidebooks: “Explore Fiji” from Insight Guides is a good choice.
Travel tip for peace of mind: If you ever had to be medically evacuated while traveling, it could cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Many plans that claim they cover this fall far short. My wife and I cover ourselves against this with membership in MedjetAssist.
Savings tip: You can claim a Tourism Value Added Tax (VAT) refund at the departure airport if you can show your original purchase receipt.
Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images spans all seven continents. See his work at EckertGallery.com.