Fiji is a postcard-perfect tropical escape for travellers who prefer hammocks over high-rise hotels. But despite appearances, the country isn’t just a holiday haven for relaxed sun-seekers.
Beneath its tranquil exterior is a diverse society born from a captivating past. The once-called ‘Cannibal Isles’ is now an economic powerhouse in the Pacific, and not all of its residents run on ‘island time’.
In this article, we explore the sights and sounds of modern-day Fiji, unpack its fascinating history, and dive into all that the archipelago has to offer for international visitors. Bula!
Fiji at a glance: population, cities and geography
Fiji is a cluster of over 330 islands located in the South Pacific Ocean. Only 110 are permanently inhabited, but all of them are staggeringly beautiful. The Fijian archipelago was formed by volcanic activity, which has resulted in the dramatic landscapes that enthral travellers today.
November to April is Fiji’s warm season, and May to October is considered the cool season (although temperatures still average a balmy 22 degrees celsius). In the warm season, heavy rainfall can be persistent and damaging. Cyclones occur about once per year and can often be devastating, like Cyclone Winston in 2016, which caused approximately $1 billion USD in damage and killed 44 people.
Viti Levu and Vanua Levu are the largest and most populous islands in Fiji. Suva, the country’s capital, is located on Viti Levu and is home to nearly 75% of the Fijian population. Suva is more of a bustling city than a tropical beachside vacation, however it’s a must-see for travellers who are interested in exploring modern-day Fiji. Among the lively markets, shopping districts and impressive British colonial architecture, Suva’s prime attractions include:
If you decide to visit Suva, note that petty theft is common in the city, with unsuspecting travellers being an easy target. Ensure you keep your valuables under close guard, especially in crowded areas like markets, shopping malls and bus shelters.
Fiji’s tourism hotspots
Suva is an exciting clash of old meets new, however for most international visitors, it’s only a stopover before the tropical relaxation truly begins. The country’s true tourism heavyweights boast white-sand serenity that rivals any other tropical destination in the world - a fact that makes up a large part of Fiji’s cultural identity. Let’s take a look at a few of Fiji’s premier tourist attractions.
The Mamanucas are some of the most popular islands in Fiji. There are 20 islands in the group, which can be reached by plane from Nadi or catamaran from Port Denarau. Visitors can enjoy laid-back resorts and heart-thumping adrenaline activities in equal measure, and find accommodation options that cater to most budgets. Whether you’re honeymooning or travelling with the family, if it’s resort living you desire, the Mamanuca Islands will deliver.
There are also excellent surfing areas that can be accessed by boat from many of the islands, however ensure you stick to your skill level as the challenging waves break over shallow coral reefs. Likewise, ensure you’re well prepared for the harsh sun and sharp coral when snorkelling and scuba diving.
The reefs in the area are healthy and sharp, making them unforgiving towards human skin. Untreated cuts can easily become infected, so a basic first aid kit is a staple for anyone visiting the Mamanuca Islands. However, if you are cut or grazed on the reef, it’s always best to seek medical attention from the resort’s medical centre to be sure you avoid infection.
Denarau Island is the perfect example of resort culture in Fiji. The largest integrated resort in the South Pacific is all about relaxation in excess, with upscale accommodation, private beaches, countless swimming pools, fine dining restaurants, a marina and an 18-hole championship golf course to top it off.
Denarau Island was singled out as a resort development in the 1960s, and ongoing expansion has transformed it into the luxury micro-city that celebrities, honeymooners and tropical holidaymakers now enjoy.
The historic Yasawa Islands are a further-flung answer to the luxury resorts of the Mamanuca Islands and Denarau. As it’s an outer island chain, getting to the Yasawas is more difficult than other areas of Fiji, which is enough to deter some visitors. In fact, land-based tourism to the area was officially restricted by government until 1987.
The Yasawa Islands are a cultural curiosity for a few reasons. The USA used the islands as a communications outpost during WWII, and the islands were also the film set of The Blue Lagoon movie, released in 1980.
Today, the high-end Yasawa and Turtle Island resorts are the popular choices for luxury accommodation in the area. They both offer a range of activities, including bike riding, hiking, sea kayaking, sailing, snorkelling and windsurfing, however travellers should take extra care because of the area’s isolation.
Emergency medical care in the Yasawa Islands is limited, and cases of serious injury may require emergency transport to Nadi or your home country. One of our highest claims came from an unlucky traveller who fractured his hip while holidaying on a tropical island, needing immediate repatriation to Australia in an air ambulance.
Like Suva, Nadi is often regarded as just a pitstop on the way to the resort. However, the city offers a unique look into Fiji’s diverse modern culture.
Nadi is home to much of Fiji’s Indian population, which is colourfully expressed by the city’s many temples and shrines, restaurants and stores. In fact, Nadi boasts the largest Hindu temple in the southern hemisphere - the Sri Siva Subramaniya.
Travellers who can’t afford to stay in the luxury bures (single-room houses) of Denarau and the Mamanucas will find cheaper alternatives in Nadi. Travellers will also find a different pace than in the resorts, with bustling shopping districts, restaurants and bars.
However, also like Suva, petty criminals and scammers have been known to target tourists in Nadi. Nadi International Airport is the principal landing point for international arrivals, and as such some taxi drivers will attempt to exploit tired or unassuming tourists. Travellers who catch taxis in Nadi should remember to:
- Ensure the meter is running to avoid improvised fares.
- Don’t leave your bags on the sidewalk for the driver to load while you board the taxi.
- Keep valuables in the car with you, not in the boot.
A simple way to deter potentially troublesome taxi drivers is to load a local map on your phone screen. This shows the taxi driver that you won’t be tricked by unnecessarily long routes.
Fiji’s interesting history
The tropical archipelago we now know as Fiji has a captivating history. The Lapita people, a prehistoric ancestor of the Polynesians, Micronesians and Melanesians, originally occupied the islands. Trade was common between the neighbouring islands of Tonga and Samoa, and Fijians became renowned as expert boat builders.
But life in Fiji was more cannibalism than coconuts in the 19th century, with the area being dubbed the ‘Cannibal Isles’ by European sailors who avoided Fijian waters at all costs. In fact, Fijian chief Ratu Udre Udre is believed to have eaten between 872 and 999 people; a feat commemorated with a pile of stones placed next to his tomb.
Fiji’s violent history doesn’t end with cannibalism. When the ancient boat builders completed one of their vessels, they pushed it towards the water by using live men as rollers, crushing them to death. Fijians now refer to this brutal era as “na guana ni tesoro”, meaning “time of the devil.”
Fijian culture today
As any visitor to Fiji will attest, the violent brutality of the past couldn’t be further from the welcoming and generous society of today. The country is often said to have the friendliest locals in the world, who never fail to offer an enthusiastic greeting of “bula!” to travellers.
Sport is central to life in Fiji, with Rugby Sevens being the country’s national code. Like the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team has the Haka to begin each match, the Fijian side has the Bole - their own war cry.
There have been political upheavals in the country in recent decades, including military coups and government corruption. Travellers to Fiji are advised to avoid all political protests for their own safety.
Although Fiji is evolving into a modern island nation, traditional values are still strictly observed. Travellers should remember to:
- If visiting a village, wear modest clothing and remove your hat.
- Take off their shoes before entering a home.
- Do not touch people’s heads, including children.
- Receive gifts graciously and answer personal questions politely.
Fiji’s stunning scenery may be its prime attraction, but it’s the people who call the country home that give visitors a travel experience they’ll never forget.
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