Fiji's Top 10 Island Secrets

As the plane drops towards Nadi, forest-cloaked hills and far-flung archipelagos beckon. Heed their call.

Paradise: sunlit coral. Brilliant sparking water. Lush greenery. It’s an entrancing idyll. But here, as anywhere, paradise is only part of the story. If Fiji is known for its pearl farms, stunning reefs and pina coladas, so too is it for high tariffs, devastating cyclones and resort dining that doesn’t live up to the price tag.

Yer, Fiji remains one of the great destinations: a verdant patchwork of rugged mountains and brilliant dive spots. Away from the blue-lagoon clichés are white-water rafting sites, world-class hiking and a plethora of eye-opening cross-cultural experiences. Hospitality is inherent, truly among the best in the world – and now the accommodation experience is coming of age. As Christene Douglas, whose family has owned Matangi Island since 1878, says: “There’s a lot more variety and diversity in the style and standard, catering to a much broader clientele.”

To experience Fiji whole, look no further than the fringing reef billowing out from the main island of Vita Levu like a petticoat. As the plane drops towards Nadi, forest-cloaked hills and far-flung archipelagos beckon. Heed their call.

1. Hike the Hills

Ruggedly beautiful walking trails are one of Fiji’s less-heralded joys. Even the tiny 97-hectare Matangi Island provides a sweat-inducing slog high above its luxurious bures (wood-and-straw huts) to a ridge line with magnificent views. Close to Matangi is Taveuni, known as the ‘Garden Island’ for its abundant birdlife, waterfalls, pools and walks that range from easy to exhausting. On Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, resident Sharon Wild runs the small but stylish Naveria Heights Lodge, which offers guests hiking and mountain-biking adventures to remote parts of the region. On Ovalau, in the Lomaiviti Group of islands, you can hire a local guide in the pretty colonial town of Levuka and hike up to Lovoni, which sits in a volcanic crater.

2. Temple Times

Ever since Indian labourers were drafted to work in the 19th-century sugarcane plantations, Indo-Fijians have been part of Fiji’s cultural landscape. Almost 25 per cent of Fijians are practising Hindus and their joyful temples are found everywhere. Highlights include the technicoloured Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple in Nadi. It’s a rare example of Dravidian architecture outside India and, with six festivals (including Diwali) observed throughout the year, a significant place of worship for thousands of local devotees. The northern side of Vanua Levu has strong Indo-Fijian roots. Here, you’ll find the Naag Temple, home to the snake-shaped rock, known to locals as Cobra Rock and perpetually festooned with bright garlands.

3. Roam Wild

Fiji’s spectacular real estate includes about 300 islands covering more than 18,000 square kilometres. If you want to head into the wild blue yonder, make your way to Rotuma, a tiny volcanic island 465 kilometres north of Nadi. Right on the fringes of Fiji, it is nevertheless serviced by commercial flights. The island isn’t about conventional tourism, but rather cultural immersion — homestays with local families are the highlight. As, of course, are the pristine beaches, great hiking trails and, from 1 December, six weeks of feasting, dancing and fun during the annual Fara festival.

4. Hot Stuff

Both Fiji’s indigenous and Indian cultures have a tradition of firewalking. The Fijian ritual, vilavilairevo (‘jumping into the oven’), originated in the villages of the island of Beqa, off the southern coast of Viti Levu, where it is believed that the talent of walking on fire was a chief’s gift imparted by the gods. You can catch firewalking performances at the kitschy Arts Village in Pacific Harbour and in some resorts, though it has lost its significance. Not so for the Hindu firewalking festival, which is held at Suva’s Raj Maha Mariamman Temple each August and features devotees who walk on hot coals as part of the worship of the goddess Maha Devi.

5. Church Bells

Even if you’re not a believer, listening to the melodic sounds of Fijians raising up their voices on a Sunday can be a venerable experience — whether you’re visiting a tiny Methodist church made entirely of coral, as seen in the remote village of Arovudi on Ovalau; Suva’s imposing Sacred Heart Cathedral, which is built from Sydney sandstone; or even listening to staff members singing their hearts out in the community hall at the luxurious Vomo island resort.

6. Have a Ball

Fijians are passionate about rugby union. Pass the time of day with a bartender and talk will inevitably turn to the sport. Get well and truly caught up in the atmosphere at the recently revamped 25,000-capacity TFL National Stadium in the capital. Suva Rugby marks its centenary in 2013 — check the upcoming season fixtures with Fiji Rugby Union and join the celebratory vibe.

7. Take to the Water

Buca Bay is not a million miles from sleepy Savusavu on Vanua Levu, but when you’re standing at the end of its empty, dusty breakwater — just you, a couple of suitcases and a surprised-looking Fijian perched on a sack of sweet potatoes — it feels a little like that. As the wooden Amazing Grace ferry chugs into view, groaning with chatty locals and more piles of produce, you realise why there’s no website for this operation. A couple of hours later, you’ve landed on neighbouring Taveuni. If you’re in luck you’ll have saved some cash, shot the breeze with your fellow passengers and enjoyed the region’s amazing scenery.

8. Go Off-Road

Vanua Levu is under-appreciated. Its north and south, lands of sugarcane and coconut groves respectively, are separated by a sweeping range of hills — soaring pine trees on one side, lush tropical vegetation on the other. The roads may be pockmarked but people drive at a leisurely pace, with just the odd rickety bridge and meandering cow breaking the path of the sporadic traffic. Rent a 4WD from one of the international hire-car operators in the yachtie haven of Savusavu or in the northern cane town of Labasa, and bump your way around the island.

9. Dine Five-Star

If your pockets are deep enough, there are culinary riches to be found all over Fiji. Fijiana Restaurant at Likuliku Lagoon resort near Nadi had continued its commitment to culinary excellence since the resort first opened in 2007. The Wakaya Club & Spa in Suva has an International Guest Chef Program, which has seen the likes of Charlie Trotter and Nobu Matsuhisa work the stoves. And at the millionaires’ playground of Laucala Island, Limousin and Wagyu beef cattle browse the pastures and traditional Fijian methods are used to farm everything — from chillies to tropical fruits. As general manager David Stepetic puts it, it’s all about “freshness, authenticity, refinement and spontaneity”.

10. Do Good, Feel Good

Round out your trip in style and good conscience at Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, set on almost seven hectares of coconut plantation on Vanua Levu. The retreat aims to provide abundant creature comforts at minimal environmental and community cost. Air-conditioning is unnecessary, thanks to traditional Fijian roofing — high and densely thatched, it allows heat to escape naturally. Waste water is recycled, and a kitchen garden and nursery are run on organic principles. There are also cultural, marine and eco-awareness programs on offer to guests: you might take in some of Fiji’s best underwater sites, get involved in clam-farming or explore the area’s mangrove environment. As resident marine biologist Johnny Singh puts it, “Here, everything is intertwined.” No matter what secret island experience you seek, Fiji will deliver — it’s just a matter of knowing where to go.

Words by Emma Ventura - Published in Voyeur December 2012
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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