You'll see why I like Fiji so much as soon as you get off the plane, clear Customs and Immigration, and are greeted by a procession of smiling faces, all of them exclaiming an enthusiastic "Bula!" That one word -- "health" in Fijian -- expresses the warmest and most heartfelt welcome I have ever received anywhere.

Fiji's great diversity will also be immediately evident, for the taxi drivers who whisk you to your hotel will not be Fijians of Melanesian heritage, but Indians whose ancestors migrated to Fiji from places like Calcutta and Madras. Now about 38% of the population, these Fiji Indians have played major roles in making their country the most prosperous of the independent South Pacific island nations.

Fiji has a lot to offer in terms of raw material for building the region's largest tourism industry. In the most-visited areas -- and especially on Fiji's marvelous offshore islets -- you'll find gorgeous white-sand beaches bordered by curving coconut palms, azure lagoons, and colorful reefs offering world-class scuba diving and snorkeling, green mountains sweeping to the sea, and a tropical climate in which to enjoy it all.

Fiji has something for every budget. Its wide variety of accommodations ranges from deluxe resorts nestled in tropical gardens beside the beach to down-to-basics hostels that cater to the young and young-at-heart. Out on its 300-plus islands is one of the largest and finest collections of small, Robinson Crusoe-like offshore resorts I have ever seen.

Although it has been in the news because of its military coups (four of them, most recently in Dec 2006), visitors have not directly been affected by the political tensions. The 2006 coup was completely peaceful and not completely unwelcomed by many in Fiji. I recently spent the better part of 2 months traveling throughout the country, and I saw no evidence that there had even been a coup. From a traveler's point of view, everything was working normally. Travel advisories by the New Zealand government notwithstanding, politics in Fiji, to my mind, should not determine whether you visit these marvelous islands and their extraordinarily friendly inhabitants.

Before you start making your plans, let's see what Fiji is like today, review the fascinating story of how it got to this point, take a look at its mix of cultures and languages, and get a glimpse of its natural environment.

"Fiji Time" -- There's an old story about a 19th-century planter who promised a South Pacific islander a weekly wage and a pension if he would come to work on his copra plantation. Copra is dried coconut meat, from which oil is pressed for use in soaps, cosmetics, and other products. Hours of backbreaking labor are required to chop open the coconuts and extract the meat by hand.

The islander was sitting by the lagoon, eating fruit he had picked from nearby trees while hauling in one fish after another. "Let me make sure I understand you," said the islander. "You want me to break my back working for you for 30 years. Then you'll pay me a pension so I can come back here and spend the rest of my life sitting by the lagoon, eating fruit from my trees and the fish I catch? I may not be sophisticated, but I am not stupid."

The islander's response reflects an attitude still prevalent in Fiji, where many people don't have to work in the Western sense. Here life moves at a slow pace, which the locals call "Fiji Time."

Consequently, do not expect the same level of service rendered in most hotels and restaurants back home. The slowness is not slothful inattention; it's just the way things are done here. Your drink will come in due course. If you must have it immediately, order it at the bar. Otherwise, relax with your friendly hosts and enjoy their charming company.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.