Fiji, known for its thirst quenching “Fiji” water, gracious hospitality, Kava ceremonies and idyllic islands, particularly the Yasawa Islands, is a spot in the South Pacific that shouldn’t be missed. While the images of of Fiji you would normally see on t.v. or in gossip magazines detailing latest whose-who honeymoons / vacations spots display crystal clear waters and white sand beaches my first glimpse of Fiji was anything but. Upon arriving in Fiji, I was disappointed to learn that not ALL beaches nor most beaches in Fiji have these qualities. To a certain extent, the main land is rather- dare I saw- average. The beaches are nothing spectacular and the low tides often make the ocean un-swimmable. To ensure you get that picture perfect, hammock laying experience- head to the Yasawa Islands.
The islands are broken up into 3 groups: Navati, Nacula and the most northern groups aptly named- the Yasawa i Rara. Most cruises and sail trips leave from either the port in Lutuko or Denaru. It takes about 2 hours to get to Naviti and another 2 to get to Yasawa i Rara; however, most boats only go so far as Naviti. If you want to head all the way up north, you will need to do either a 7 days cruise or fly to the northern beaches.
The Naviti Islands is a landing spot for most cruises and sail boats- as it is closest to the mainland. Due to the island’s close proximity to the mainland its also the spot where Fiji’s first missionaries arrived and were accepted by villagers. Interestingly, the Fijians have accomplished what very few both developed and developing countries have been unable to achieve- to not only live in harmony with other religious groups but to respect different religious observances. While parents can send their children to Muslim, Hindu or Christian schools- all these schools are public, supported by the government and any individual of any faith may attend the school of their choosing. In addition, every major holiday is celebrated by ALL Fijians. Not only is the Hindu holiday Diwali considered a national holiday but so is Easter and Ramadan.
I decided that I wanted to see what the idyllic Fiji had to offer and ventured off the mainland for the total Fiji experience, embarking upon a 3 day 2 night cruise- on a smallish boat housing approximately 70 people ranging from honeymooners to families with small kids, to backpackers looking for a unique experience. There are numerous companies that organize island hopping. We went on the Blue Lagoon cruise, there is also Captain Cook cruises and for the serious Budget traveler there is the Robinson Crusoe option that offers dormitory sharing on board.
On our first day out at sea we anchored ourselves on the Navati Island, visiting Somo Somo beach where we were greeted by local villagers welcoming us with a chorus of ‘Bula’s’ (the Fijian translation of hello/ greetings/life). Upon disembarking the villagers from the Kese community invited us to join them in their traditional Kava ceremony, which is a local plant mixed with water that tastes like muddy water, numbs one’s mouth and if drunken in large quantities can have the effect of alcohol on the body and the mind. Most Fijians will say that you haven’t really been to Fiji if you haven’t tried Kava as Kava is intricately integrated into the Fijian way of life. It is not so much the physical importance of the drink but it is an emotional event where guests are greeted and families get together to share stories.
After gulping down a coconut filled cup of Kava the Kese villagers performed their three ritual dance routines: the Meke which is a choreographed performance using large leaves to create sound and movement, the Taralal- the Fijian shuffle and the Tuiboto-a type of congo dance where any minute the direction of the line can change.
Following the dance, we were invited to attend the local shell shop where as a means of income the local women display beautifully styled shell necklaces, which are incredibly detailed and sold for the bargain basement price of $5 and under. The villagers were so warm and welcoming to all the tourists- the locals even loved when I asked if I could take a picture of them and were even more excited to see the final product.
The next morning, after our 6 am swim, we landed on another part of Naviti called Nanuya Laila (the same spot where the famous Blue Lagoon movie was filmed). Here I discovered the white sand beaches and the crystal blue waters I had been longing for. The island is fringed with tall palm trees and water posesing so many shades of blue that I couldn’t decide which hue was more beautiful. We spent the day lounging on the beach, cooled by the swaying palm trees while enjoying a delicious bbq lunch. From our drop off point The Nanuya Island Resort (rooms starting from 242 Fijian) was a short 15 minute stroll down the beach , which houses gorgeous treetop and beachside bures set on an equally idyllic beach, open air dining room, a dive shop and more hammocks than guests. The resort offers a variety of excursions, including its own self contained dive shop, snorkeling, kayaking, fishing and a visit to the Sawa I- Lau caves. (To get there you will need to either take the daily Yasawa flyer from the Denaru port that takes you to a variety of islands before dropping you off in Nanuya Laila or you can charter your own high speed Naiad vessel). Another good spot in the area is the Blue Lagoon Beach Resort which relishers the backpacker feel, offering a variety of accommodations from low budget rooms to nicely appointed bures.
I had heard that the diving in the Yasawas was fantastic- so I went for 2 early dives. While the fish were colourful, they were species I had seen many times before. But what really blew me away was the spectacular coral -it was bright blue, orange, red, some pieces of coral looked like flowers, some like giant mushrooms and others like tree. On my second dive they took us to a dive spot called the ‘Cabbage Patch’ and while the beginning of the dive looked much like my first dive we suddenly came upon what looked like batches of giant cabbages all clumped together. Some were as large as 15 meters reaching the water surface while others were so tiny that fish could barely swim through them. All together it looked like a cabbage patch out of a scene in Alice in Wonderland. The fish loved swimming through the cabbage crevices and the colour of fishes were amplified by the orangish tinge of the cabbage patch. If you are thinking of diving in Fiji- the Yasawas is the place to go but don’t except to see any real big fishes unless you manage to go out of one of the “big fish boats’ (usually reserved for Wednesdays and Saturdays).
I returned to the beach to be greeted by the glistening sun and 2 person hammocks calling my name. I spent the rest of the afternoon dozing in and out of sleep in my hammock, exploring the island and swimming in the island’s azure waters. It was a pretty picture perfect day. To top it off our crew prepared a white table cloth lovo dinner on the beach. Lovo (meaning ‘earth oven’) is the traditional Fijian feast where the chefs bury meat and vegetables covered in palm leaves underground immersed in hot coals or fire. The earth literally acts as an oven, cooking the food for several hours. For our Lovo, the crew prepared an assortment of food including lamb, chicken, casavo ( a local root plant) taro and yams. They ended the evening by playing some indigenous music that has the ability to calm even the wildest child under the star filled sky.
On our last morning we explored Somosomo Bay which was equally as tranquil and enclosed with cobalt water, coconut filled palms and the deseredtness of an island being discovered for the first time.
While the beaches we visited were some of the most beautiful coastlines I have ever encountered- my captain, a local from the Yasawas, explained that the north has the most gorgeous beaches in the Yasawas group and the nicest spot to visit is Liku which hosts both 5 star accommodations and backpacker joints. A great option in the North is the Hideout Resort (dorms from 80 Fijian and doubles from 160- includes all meals)
If you are thinking of heading to Fiji, I wouldn’t even waste your time on the mainland. as the islands are where you will discover local life, native traditions and Fiji’s truly beautiful beaches. The Yasawa Islands is where you will find the idyllic beaches that lure travellers year after year.