Though spread out – the 330 islands of the Fijian archipelago are scattered over a whopping three million square kilometres – the country is chock full of authentic, off-the-tourist-trail experiences that offer a genuine immersion into Fiji’s culture, nature and local lifestyle.
Village visits and homestays
Anyone who has ever pulled ashore to a Fijian island resort can testify to being received with hearty greetings and welcoming songs. But to get beyond the bula!, head out to a homestay or visit a village. Homestays provide an unmatchable, authentic insight into the real Fiji – you’ll be living with a local family, like a local family. Village visits offer a shorter – but equally enthralling – experience. On the main island of Viti Levu, the strikingly scenic Navala offers guests an immersive stay in one of Fiji’s most traditional villages, while offshore, homestays on Waya Island welcome visitors keen on experiencing local life the Yasawa way.
More often than not, homestay guests and village visitors will be welcomed with a kava (yaqona) ceremony, a ritual involving the drinking of the mildly psychoactive powdered root mixed with water and served in a coconut shell cup (bilo). While you’re more likely to catch a meke (lively performance enacting ancient lore) at a resort than a village, there’s a good chance you’ll be treated to a slow-cooked lovo (pit oven) feast; expect groaning plates of succulent meat and fish, plenty of local root vegetables (cassava, taro, yams) and palusami (tinned beef, onion and coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves).
Beyond the resort walls, this island nation is alive with thriving traditions, fabulous festivals and Fiji-style fun. Much of local life revolves around rugby and church, and visitors are welcomed at both matches and Masses. Check out the national game – and associated footy frenzy – at Suva’s National Stadium, or join spirited supporters on the sidelines at an all-in village match. On Sundays, you’re guaranteed goosebumps – whatever your beliefs – as local congregations harmonise to the heavens; services at Taveuni’s Wairiki Catholic Mission are particularly divine.
Winter is the season when locals tend to let loose at festivals: join the party at Nadi’s Bula Festival, get into the groove at Suva’s Hibiscus Festival, and witness astonishing mind-over-matter devotion at the South Indian Fire-Walking Festival. As temperatures begin to rise in October, Hindus and Christians across the country light up to celebrate Diwali.
Year-round, you can sample the flavours of Fiji at the country’s ubiquitous open-air markets. From the biggest – Suva’s buzzy Municipal Market – to small, mats-on-the-ground affairs in tucked-away villages, markets are Fiji’s heart and soul, offering locals not just a place to shop, but to banter and connect with community.
While Fiji’s isolation means that native mammals are few and far between, its trees and seas are home to a prolific population of endemic birds and marine creatures. Binoculars in the backpack, underwater camera at the ready: it’s time to meet the locals!
One of the country’s top offshore draws is the chance to swim and snorkel with huge manta rays, especially in the channel between the Yasawa group’s Nanuya Balavu and Drawaqa islands, and further south at Kadavu’s aptly named Manta Reef. In the Yasawas, Mantaray Island and Barefoot Manta resorts offer ‘look, don’t touch’ manta ray encounters; in Kadavu, head out with the crew from Matava Resort. Prefer something with a bit more bite? From their base at Pacific Harbour, Aqua-Trek Beqa runs undersea adventures sure to get even the most daring diver’s flippers quivering: feeding encounters with huge bull and tiger sharks!
On land, the ‘Garden Island’ of Taveuni is famous throughout the birdwatching world. Sheltering upwards of 100 bird species, Fiji’s third-largest island boasts prime twitching spots including the jungly 1195m Des Voeux Peak, a habitat of the rare, elusive orange dove and the tiny, endangered silktail; the Vidawa Rainforest Trail, with birdwatching walks run by shamans; and the steamy, dreamy Lavena coast. The rugged remote island of Kadavu also offers a birdwatcher’s bounty; its rainforests harbour a kaleidoscope of tropical birds, including four found nowhere else in the world.
Picture this: you’re bubbling calmly beneath gentle turquoise waves, enveloped in silence and engrossed in the antics of a cheeky clownfish. Suddenly, you feel a swish of movement behind you: is it a shark? A giant ray? Alas: it’s a squadron of snorkellers splashing frantically to fit into an undersea selfie. If this scenario rings any bells for you, a live-aboard in Fiji could be just the ticket.
An alluring adventure for intrepid divers – though some cater to snorkellers and even those just getting their sea legs – live-aboards offer the chance to visit uncluttered sites far beyond anywhere land-based operators may go; some live-aboards also drop anchor at otherwise unreachable islands. Most itineraries run for five, seven or ten days, with all meals and accommodation included in the price. Lautoka-based Nai’a offers trips exploring Lomaiviti, Bligh Water and Namena Marine Park.