Fiji's Capitals, Past and Present

Suva is a seductive mix of old sea port and bustling modern city, where colonial shopfronts sit beside gleaming office blocks and shops.

Flying over the smattering of islands embedded in calm blue seas is the first taste many visitors have of Fiji. Once at  Nadi Airport on the main island of Viti Levu, travellers head straight for the beach resorts of the Coral Coast or outer islands. Very few make the three-hour road trip to Fiji’s capital, Suva, with even fewer getting to the former capital, Levuka. But they pass up a chance to gain insights into Fijian culture and history.

Levuka, on the island of Ovalau, was the colonial capital from 1874 until 1882, but its position on a narrow strip of land between the sea and steep, rocky hills, offered limited room for expansion. Hence, in 1882, the British colonial government passed the mantle on to Suva, leaving the quiet Levuka with only memories of its past glories. 

Since taking over as capital, Suva has become the largest urban area in the South Pacific outside of Australia and New Zealand. Today, the two capitals may be worlds apart, but they are both well worth exploring.

Super Suva

Suva is a seductive mix of old sea port and bustling modern city, where colonial shopfronts, painted in riotous Indian reds, yellows and pinks, sit beside gleaming office blocks and shops. While many of Suva’s 77,000-plus residents are of Fijian or Indian descent, the city is a cultural melting pot where you can trace the waves of migration from Europe, China and other Pacific islands. 

Stroll beneath an avenue of royal palm trees in Suva’s Thurston Gardens on your way to the Fiji Museum located within the grounds. Here you’ll find a collection of historic artefacts including notched forks and clubs, which bear testament to the victims of Fiji’s past cannibals. 

Also on show are remnants of a leather boot worn by Christian missionary Reverend Thomas Baker, who fell foul of villagers in Navatusila. They made a meal of him in 1867 and, it’s rumoured, also tried to eat his boots, but found the leather far too tough.

Across Queen Elizabeth Drive (which is a continuation of the main drag of Victoria Parade) is a walking track for the health conscious. Known locally as the ‘sea wall’, it’s not uncommon to spot politicians and business leaders going through their paces. 

Drop into the Curio and Handicraft Centre on Stinson Parade for a fine selection of Fijian carvings, souvenir wooden cannibal implements, jewellery, tanoa (kava bowls) and tapa (bark cloth] and haggle away. 

At Suva Market, you’ll see stalls laden with fresh tropical produce and bottles of coconut oil. Venture upstairs to check out the market’s spice and yaqona (kava) sellers. Made from the roots of a pepper plant, kava is an intrinsic part of Fijian culture and shared at most ceremonies. If you can get past the muddy water colour and the tingling, slightly tongue-numbing effect, you’ll find this traditional drink induces a mellow state. 

After a morning exploring Suva, jump into a taxi for a 11-kilometre ride to the stunning Colo-I-Suva Forest Park on Princes Road. Here, you can bushwalk through the lush rainforest, before taking a dip in a refreshing freshwater pool. 

If the day’s excursion has left you feeling peckish, choose from one of Suva’s fine restaurants to appease the hunger pangs. Popular choices include JJ’s on the Park, Tiko’s Floating Restaurant – housed in an old cruise boat – or newcomer Maya Dhaba, which opened last year and boasts some delicious South Indian dishes. 

Laid-back Levuka

Historic Levuka, too, has a great deal to offer visitors venturing off the beaten track, with its green hills stretching down to the harbour and its peaceful, old-world atmosphere.

From Suva, there are a couple of options available to make your way to Levuka. Jump aboard a bus for a three-hour journey north to Natovi Wharf, then hop on a ferry for the one-hour trip to Levuka. Alternatively, from Nausori Airport – a 30-minute drive from Suva – take a 10-minute flight to Ovalau, then a 30-minute ride into town. The dirt road winds through forests and villages, before arriving in Levuka’s wide main street.

With its old-fashioned cafes and musty, timber stores, Beach Street has a sleepy feel about it, but the former capital still retains an air of importance, which is evident in the monuments and historic buildings. 

In its early days, Levuka was a wild, lawless place with a busy port and an oversupply of drunken sailors and whalers, escaped convicts and adventurers. But upon becoming the nation’s capital it thrived, and in its heyday the town boasted more than 50 hotels.

Levuka was also home to Fiji’s first public school (1879), its first bank – the Bank of New Zealand (1876) – and Fiji’s first newspaper, The Fiji Times (1869). The South Pacific’s oldest continuously run hotel, the Royal Hotel, opened in the 1850s and is still going strong. The hotel can organise daytrips, which include lunch, to the nearby unspoilt islands of Caqalai, Leleuvia and Naigani.

While the pace of life is slow in Levuka and the night-life is almost non-existent, there is still plenty to see and do. Explore the town as part of an organised tour, or for a spectacular view of the settlement and beyond, walk to the Methodist Church in Beach Street and climb the 199 steps to the top of Mission Hill. Every step taken is rewarded by the magnificent view of the Koro Sea and nearby islands. 

Reward yourself for the effort and call in at the Ovalau Club for some well-earned refreshments. Soak up the colonial-era ambience in the quirky white clapboard building, which is Fiji’s oldest social club.  

Make the journey only a kilometre out of town, heading south, and you’ll discover the spot where Chief Cakabau signed Fiji away to Great Britain on 10 October 1874. Near a small creek lies the fenced-off three ‘cession stones’, which commemorate both the 1974 centenary of that ceremony and Fiji gaining independence on 10 October 1970.

Across from the memorial is a large traditional thatched-roof building known as the Prince Charles Bure, which was built in 1970 for a visit by the heir to the British throne and is still used for important ceremonies. It stands on the site of an earlier bure where King George V (then the Duke of Clarence) resided during a 1890s visit to Fiji.

Towards the end of a long day, gather as the locals do beneath the trees along the sea wall to socialise. Alternatively, sit on the balcony overlooking the water at Kim’s Paak Kum Loong Restaurant or dine inside where there’s an array of curios on display. Or try The Whale’s Tale, which serves a tasty selection of Fijian and western-style foods. 

A couple of days may be ample time to explore the small island of Ovalau, but then there are those who never want to leave.

Words by Kate Watson - Published in Voyeur June 2008
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 920,000
Area 18,274 km2; (all Fiji islands)
Time Zone GMT +12
Languages English (official)
Currency Fijian dollar (F$)
Electricity 220 – 240v 50Hz
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