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The Great Sea Reef off northwest Viti Levu encloses a huge lagoon where usually calm waters surround the nearby Mamanuca and Yasawa island groups with speckled shades of yellow, green, and blue. With ample sunshine and some of Fiji's best beaches, these little islands are great places to escape from the hustle of modern civilization.

The Mamanuca Group, as it's officially known, consists of small flat atolls and hilly islands ranging from 8 to 32km (5-20 miles) west of Nadi. Day cruises have made the Mamanucas a destination since the dawn of Fiji's modern tourism in the early 1960s; these islands are home to some of the country's oldest offshore resorts, which are still very popular among Australians and New Zealanders on 1- or 2-week holidays.

The Mamanucas generally are divided into two sections. To the north are a group of flat, tiny sand islands that barely break the lagoon's surface. Three of them are within virtual hailing distance, including Tai Island, better known for the rollicking Beachcomber Island Resort; Elevuka, home to family-oriented Treasure Island Resort; and Kadavu, shared by a nature preserve and Bounty Island Resort.

To the south, a row of hilly islands begins with Malololailai, which is nearly joined to the larger Malolo. Each has three resorts. Next to Malolo lie tiny Wadigi Island, home to an upscale get-away, and Qalito Island, which is better known as Castaway for its lone hotel, Castaway Island Resort. Beyond them, Mana Island has one of the group's larger resorts as well as low-budget properties, all sharing a great beach. The Mamanucas end to the west with Matamanoa and Tokoriki islands, both with resorts, and the beautiful, uninhabited Monuriki, where Tom Hanks starred in the movie Castaway.

North of the Mamanucas, the Yasawa Islands stretch as much as 100km (62 miles) from Nadi. Lt. Charles Wilkes, commander of the U.S. exploring expedition that charted Fiji in 1840, compared the Yasawa Islands to "a string of blue beads lying along the horizon."

For the most part, Fijians still live in small villages huddled among the curving coconut palms beside lagoons with excellent snorkeling and some of the country's most awesomely beautiful beaches. But the Yasawas are changing rapidly, with more than two dozen small resorts that span all price ranges. Particularly prolific are the low-budget establishments aimed at young backpackers, who now see a bit of beach time in the Yasawas as an essential part of their Fiji experience. In fact, rather than tour around Fiji, many backpackers today simply head for the Yasawas.

While accommodations are spread throughout the Yasawas chain, the largest concentration is on the shores of the so-called Blue Lagoon, a lovely baylike body of water nearly enclosed by Matacawalevu, Nacula, Nanuya Lailai, and Nanuya Levu islands.