After spending six weeks in the paradise known as Hawaii, I decided to continue chasing summer around the world. Anything else would have been too much a shock to my system. Plus, after much searching, Fiji was one of the cheapest flights I found from Kona (less than $500)! Cheap, Fiji?! YUP! Turns out this island paradise is not just for wealthy travelers. But planning this trip was far from easy. I had no idea the amount of time and work involved in planning a trip to island hop in the South Pacific. First, you have to decide which islands you want to go to. Then price (for airfare and accommodations- not just getting to there, but also to the next destination). Getting from one island to another can be deceptively hard- even if they aren’t far apart in terms of distance, most don’t have boats or flights directly from one to another, so you have to spend a lot of time figuring out if you can get from point A to B, the cost and time to do so, and once you get to point B, where you can go from there. Then factor in visa requirements; I skipped any countries that require you obtain a visa in advance, if it couldn’t be done online, because there are so many countries in the South Pacific that allow US citizens to visit without a visa (so long as you stay less than the specified # of days, which differs per country- usually somewhere between 30-90 days). Even once you get through those steps, you then have to figure out where (which islands within each country) to spend your time. Until I started planning this trip, I had no idea Fiji is made up of 330 islands (!!!) and 1/3 of those are inhabited! That gives you loads of options of places to visit.
Due to the multitude of options, deciding where to go and what to do with just one week can be overwhelming. I came across a few blogs that I found particularly helpful in my initial planning, so want to be sure and share those as resources (no reason for me to reinvent the wheel and repeat here): https://www.neverendingfootsteps.com/plan-budget-trip-south-pacific/ and http://annaeverywhere.com/cheap-budget-fiji-trip/#05 and https://www.lostinsilverfern.com/2017/10/11/budget-week-in-fiji/ and https://whywaittoseetheworld.com/fiji-on-a-budget/
Because I always want to be culturally sensitive/appropriate when traveling, I found these blogs super helpful: https://www.traveldudes.org/travel-tips/fiji-25-things-be-aware-when-visiting/69185 and https://theculturetrip.com/pacific/fiji/articles/10-things-to-know-before-you-go-to-fiji/ and http://www.traveller.com.au/twenty-things-that-will-shock-first-time-visitors-to-fiji-gsz2fx
Getting Around/Transportation in Fiji
You can fly into Nadi (pronounced Nandi) or Suva; the most affordable flight options I found (and the only direct flight from Honolulu) was into Nadi. Arriving in Nadi was as charming and friendly as everything I had read. It’s a short walk from the airplane to customs, and upon entering this part of the airport you’re greeted by several Fijians playing music and singing. What a wonderful start to a trip. Getting through customs was a breeze (super efficient), and finding the bus was just as easy. You can ask just about anyone and they will direct you, but as an FYI: the airport layout is like the letter L; international arrivals are at the top of the long part of the L, and buses are at the center of the short part of the L. It only takes about 3 minutes of walking to get from one to the other. There are several bus companies that operate on the island, and buses usually run every hour; it makes no difference what bus you take, so long as you’re heading in the right direction (though it’s more efficient to take an “Express” bus to cut out some of the stops that the local buses take). Don’t worry, even if you take an express bus, the majority of those riding are Fijians! As my resort/hostel was located in Korolevu, on the Coral Coast, I found a bus heading in the direction of Suva, and the cost for me was only 9FJD (~$4.25), compared to 130FJD ($61.50) for a private shuttle from my hostel. The only real downside to buses is time; you could end up waiting 30 minutes to 1 hour for one to arrive, and the 106km from the airport to my resort/hostel then took between 1.5-2 hours (the stop along the bus route, no matter the bus, is “Beachouse”- right out in front of the resort!). But if time isn’t an issue, buses are the best way to travel. Renting a car is definitely the best way to flexibly (and efficiently) get around the island, and if you have more than one person, it’s probably worth the cost. Prices of rental cars can be quite expensive though, especially if you’re renting for a short period of time (the longer period you rent for, the better the rate).
By my second day on the island I realized that taking the bus was one of my favorite things to do on the island; Fijians are incredibly friendly and love chatting with you, and they won’t hesitate to offer you food (if they are snacking). I realized that if I was taking a private car, I’d miss out on these fabulous opportunities to get to know locals. In fact, my experience riding the bus was what made me realize that I was missing out on far too much by staying at a resort/hostel instead of a homestay. (Caveat: a few others at my resort/hostel had less than glowing reviews about riding the bus. Luckily, my experiences were all positive.)
Accommodations in Fiji
Fiji has options for every type of traveler. For those on a budget (or traveling solo and looking to connect with others), there are numerous homestay options on Airbnb (in fact, when traveling to many of the outer islands, these are your only options), as well as resorts that offer dorm rooms (yes, that’s a thing here and it’s a genius idea!). Or if money is no object, Fiji also has it’s share of super lux resorts that will set you back $$$$; during my conversation with a local Fijian kava farmer (on the bus, of course!), I learned that there’s a resort on Taveuni that costs between $9,000-$47,000/night! So if you want to travel like Oprah: https://www.laucala.com/
For the rest of us, and as a solo traveler, I opted for a stay at Beachouse Resort Fiji (http://www.fijibeachouse.com/) on the Coral Coast, due to great reviews, beautiful location, free daily yoga, free wifi, free kayaks and canoes, and loads of other freebies. They have a “Bula Budget” special that is amazing! For about $64USD I got a bed in a dorm room for 5 nights (only 3 of the 6 beds were taken during my stay), all the amenities noted above (and more), and the choice of a free massage or free snorkeling trip! I’m traveling the South Pacific during low season, as this is rainy season and also cyclone season- so if you’re willing to chance it with weather, there are many more affordable rates and most day trips/tours can be booked the day before you want to go (and I only encountered a bit of rain and cloudy skies during my week in Fiji). The room also had a private bathroom, which was this amazing, outdoor bathroom- fully private, but open sky and a garden inside! The common areas include: cafe/restaurant, dining tables, a bar with a pool table (free to play) and dart board, a small pool, and loads of chairs and hammocks lining the beach. The sand in front of the resort is white and really soft; no reef shoes needed to go in and out of the water here, and the colors really are this stunning mix of emerald greens and almost purple(ish) blue, and even at high tide (*during this time of year) you can walk really far out and still see the bottom (it is so clear and shallow really far off the coast).
With water and views like this, I had to have a little fun posing. One of my dorm room buddies, Sus (short for Susanne, from the Netherlands) was kind enough to play photographer. The beach and ocean in front of the Beachouse really are spectacular!
The guests staying at The Beachouse were from all over the world and ranged in age from young children to people in their 70s. There were families here on vacation together, couples on a romantic holiday, and numerous solo travelers. My favorite parts of staying at The Beachouse were the new friends I made (especially, Sonya from Germany, Sus, Nicole from Switzerland, and Richard and Weatherly from South Carolina), free daily yoga, free “scones” (in the US, we’d definitely call these biscuits and YUM) and tea/coffee at 3pm daily, how quiet it was at night, so many animals/pets on the property (I’ve seen at least 6 dogs and 1 cat!) and the stunning location (the beach and ocean here are breathtaking).
What I wasn’t crazy about (and why I might not stay here again, or at least, why I’d limit my time here to just a couple of days): the location is very far from Nadi and Port Denaru, where all of the day trips to outer islands leave from and there’s no way to get a bus early enough to get into town on the same day as a trip, meaning you have to either pay for a rental car or book a hotel or Airbnb stay in town the night before if you want to do a day trip; the resort is perfect for people who want to come and just sit and relax in one place (and sometimes that’s exactly what you want/need in a vacation!), but offers limited opportunities to engage with locals (other than the staff)- so if you want to get to know any Fijians, this isn’t the best place to stay; there are no restaurants or cafes in walking distance outside of the resort, and no kitchen facilities that I’ve seen for you to store food or do your own cooking, so you have to purchase all of your meals from the restaurant on-site (unless you take the bus 1+ hour(s) into town or farther over to Pacific Harbour or Suva) at a cost of $8-$10/meal (while it’s convenient and not that expensive, the meals are just so-so and options are heavy meat – they do offer at least one veg option per meal, and usually one seafood option but the seafood always seems to be fried, and most option are chicken or beef, which I wasn’t expecting on this island).
Feeling a bit disconnected from the “real” Fiji, even though I had paid for 5 nights at The Beachouse, I left one day early to stay with a family in Nadi for 2 nights. Also, this was the most practical and affordable way to be in Nadi early enough on Saturday (my last full day) for the day cruise. There were loads of homestay options on Airbnb, so I chose one that had numerous positive reviews, offered free pickup/drop off at the airport, included food in the price (and rave reviews of the food), and was walking distance from a pickup location for the day cruise. I’m typing up this blog at the end of my homestay and, well, it has been an experience. It felt a bit less like a true homestay (where you really are involved with, and get to know, the family), and slightly more like a typical Airbnb room rental- though with amazing food included (Fiji really does seem to have the best Indian food outside of India!). I would definitely try a homestay in Fiji again, but probably one in a smaller village or on an outer island (rather than here, where my host family mostly watches TV all day).
You could spend months in Fiji and barely begin to scrape the surface of its many islands and adventures on these islands. By planning only a week here (because I wanted to hop around and visit other South Pacific islands), and not wanting to spend a crazy amount of money, I had to accept that I would only get to see a few things on this trip.
This is Fiji’s main island, and where both Nadi and Suva are located. I found some awesome itineraries online if you want to rent a car and explore the entire island; unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to do this type of exploring justice. Plus, it was only after I arrived to The Beachouse that I realized its location made it really difficult to see/do much else on this island. But I did take advantage of some activities offered at The Beachouse, including going horseback riding (for only 40FJD = less than $19USD). Eddie, a local Fijian who lives in the nearby village, has raised horses his entire life. While he started the ride with me, I spent most of my time riding with Ulay (pronounced: Ew-lee), a 14 year old (he’s in 8th grade) who also lives in the nearby village. We rode along the beach (it was low tide), and then up into the mountains.
Whether you’re taking a bus from Nadi heading to Suva (where buses take a 5-10 minute stop), or staying at The Beachouse and want to go “to town,” Sigatoka is where you’ll go. During my second day at The Beachouse, Sonya and Suz wanted to go into town with Bruce (surfing instructor) so I tagged along. It took us around 45 minutes – 1 hour on the bus to Sigatoka. Once we arrived, we had a SUPER yummy and cheap lunch at “Go Kools Hot Snack Vegetarian Restaurant” (a small restaurant next to a Chinese restaurant just behind the market), and best Indian food I’ve had since leaving India (and more heat/spice than most dishes I ate in India!). Turns out, spicy Indian curries are very much a thing here in Fiji. Not only was lunch super tasty, but it cost only 4FJD (that’s less than $2USD!), and the portion was so large I couldn’t finish it! We then headed over to the local market, where you can buy yummy produce for cheap! The girls and I loaded up on watermelon, mangoes, and a fresh cut “piece” of (about 1/4 of an entire) pineapple that was kept chilled and ready to eat (that sweet treat cost me only 1FJD = less than $0.50USD!). If you’re staying anywhere on this island and have a kitchen to cook for yourself, a trip to this market is totally worth it!
Snorkeling with Sharks & Village Visit #1
After a few days at The Beachouse, I worked up the courage to sign up for the “shark snorkeling” adventure, and so glad I did! Six of us joined in for the day, led by Kroy and Joseph.
We hopped into a small boat and went out to part of the reef that was about 30 minutes distance from The Beachouse. There we did lots of snorkeling and definitely saw sharks swimming below us. Unfortunately, I am still getting used to my new underwater camera so the quality of the photos is not ideal (and wifi at my homestay in Nadi won’t support uploading a video), so I’m just posting one photo of a still captured from one of my videos.
After spending about one hour out on the reef snorkeling, we then headed to Kroy’s village. We got to see his home, meet his mom and several of his siblings, his dog (Snoopy!) and cat, and enjoy some cake (also called scones, which I’m now learning must be the Fijian term for any baked good) and tea made with lemongrass leaves picked from their trees. Kroy’s village is quite typical of many smaller Fijian villages on Viti Levu- most all homes have corrugated metal sheets for roofs, and walls made of the same material, wood, or dry wall. I also did a village visit while on my day cruise (see below), but this one was by far my favorite, since we were in Kroy’s house and with his family. Tourist advice for visiting villages in Fiji: for women, make sure that you have a shirt that covers your shoulders (and try not to have a deep V-neck that reveals too much cleavage), and pants or a sarong to cover your knees (some of the girls even used their beach towel as a skirt and that’s totally fine). For both men and women- remove all hats and sunglasses from your head; only the village chief is permitted to wear these.
Day Cruising to Outer Islands
There are numerous companies offering day trips to Fiji’s outer islands, but the one with the most options (and a really good reputation) is South Sea Cruises (https://ssc.com.fj/). I chose the “Seaspray Day Adventure,” which cost about $127USD for a full day cruise (https://ssc.com.fj/day-cruises/seaspray-day-adventure/). The price included a pickup from numerous hotels around Nadi, one of which was a very close walk from my homestay. The bus then takes everyone to Port Denarau, and after a short (maybe 10 minute) wait, we boarded the “Tiger V” catamaran, which made stops at South Sea Island and Beachcomber Island, before arriving to Mana Island (about 1.5 hours after departing Port Denarau) where we switched vessels. My only complaint: though the day cruise includes unlimited drinks (beer, wine, soda, and water) while on the SeaSpray vessel, they don’t include free drinks (even water) while on the Tiger V; 3 hours is a lot of time during the day to spend on a boat without beverages (and this is one of the most expensive day trips they offer, so not including drinks throughout seems ridiculous to me). My advice is to bring a bottle of water with you before boarding, and then load up with extras from the SeaSpray boat at the end of the day.
The cruise to Mana Island was beautiful. While on the water, you begin to get an idea of just how many islands there are in Fiji!
Once at Mana Island, we then switched onto our ship for the day: a 15 meter yacht with a truly fabulous crew. The other tourists on our cruise ship (who I spoke to) were from Austria, Colombia, China, and my two favorite people of the day: Hannah and Devonne, fabulous women from the UK currently living in Australia and truly living life! (Great photo of the 3 of us to close out this post.)
Our first stop: Modriki Island, now most famous as the primary filming location for the movie Castaway with Tom Hanks (putting that on my “to watch” list now!).
We stopped here for one hour, and I spent the entire time snorkeling; others relaxed on the beach under umbrellas the crew set up for us. A wonderful pit stop and a beautiful island. (Note: there is a resort on this island that’s supposed to be awesome. My tour did not include a visit to that part of the island, which also meant we weren’t able to see Tom Hank’s character’s raft from the movie, nor hike up the mountain. They strictly limit the number of visitors to that resort daily, so if this sounds like your thing, a cruise to Castaway Island is your best bet.)
While the rest of the tour got back onto our yatch for lunch, I got a short, private tour of the sea caves on the other side of the island (it helps to spend time making friends with the crew).
Lunch was lovely, and served on the boat! They had enough food for me to stick strictly vegetarian (plenty of salads, bread, and rice with vegetables), but I decided to give in and have some of the fresh fish they were grilling. (First time eating fish since Spain I think!)
And here are shots I took while snorkeling. Some of these reef shots may also have been from the prior day, as it’s hard to remember which I took at which location. But one thing that is painfully obvious (even with my subpar underwater photography skills) is how damaged the reefs are in Fiji; so much is bleached out and not thriving. Climate change is painfully real, and the reef is a mirror of just how real it is.
The next stop: Yanuya Island. This made Village Visit #2 for me. The village has 500 residents, and because there is no fresh water supply, many homes have giant tanks to capture rain water for drinking. (And as our guide told us: if they don’t have water, we just drink from coconuts, which are free and there’s an endless supply. After all, we live in Fiji.) While I would have preferred to have spent time in villages when not being shuttled from a day cruise/tour in and out of a village (it kind of feels like a weird spectator sport: AND SEE HOW FIJIANS LIVE HERE!), I do think it’s important to try and get some sense of life outside of the major cities and resorts. And while at Yanuya we participated in a traditional kava ceremony in the village, which is an important part of Fijian culture. If you haven’t tried it before: it looks (and tastes a bit) like muddy water, and the after-effect is a bit like eating szechuan (Chinese) food- it leaves your mouth a bit tingly and ever so numb. The traditional way of drinking is to clap (by cupping your hands, not flat handed) once prior to drinking, accept the coconut shell (in which kava is always served) and drink the entire drink at once (bottoms up!), and after handing the empty shell back, clap 3 times and say Vinaka! (“thank you” in Fijian). While this village visit didn’t feel quite as intimate, because we didn’t visit a family of someone with us, we did walk around and see the school and meet a lot of the locals, all of whom happily yelled BULA! and waved whenever we walked past. The homes in this village were super colorful, which I loved!
The day finished off in reverse of how it started: we went back to Mana Island, got back onto the large Tiger V catamaran, and then had a bus return me to the stop near my homestay. It was a full day adventure (8am-6pm) and worth every penny. If I had more time here, or was to come back, I’d definitely opt for renting a car to drive myself around Viti Levu, and probably spend several days with families at various outer islands. But all in all, I had a lovely first trip to Fiji!