First let's review Fiji's regions and the differences among them.
Everyone starts on Viti Levu. Known locally as the "mainland," Viti Levu is actually Fiji's largest island. Suva, the capital city, lies 197km (122 miles) from Nadi airport, or about halfway around the island. With a few exceptions, Viti Levu does not have the best beaches in Fiji. Where it does have good sands, the reef offshore is more walkable than swimmable, especially at low tide. In other words, plan to look beyond Nadi and Viti Levu for good beaches and the best diving.
The Nadi Area
Nadi International Airport is located among sugar-cane fields on Viti Levu's dry western side. To locals, the name Nadi applies to this area, which is the focal point of much of Fiji's tourism industry. Many tourists on package deals spend all their time here, and there is, in fact, plenty to do, including day trips out to the Mamanuca Islands. Nadi also is a convenient base from which to explore the nearby areas. Unless I have only a few days to spend in Fiji, however, I make it a stopover on the way to another destination.
A variety of hotels are concentrated between the airport and the predominately Indian-populated Nadi Town, whose main industries are tourism and farming. Here you will find numerous handicraft, electronics, and clothing merchants.
Fiji has some spectacular beaches, but don't expect to find any in the Nadi area. None of the airport hotels are on the beach, and even at Denarau Island, where the country's major resort development boasts half a dozen large beachfront hotels, coastal mangrove forests make the sand gray and the lagoon murky.
The Mamanuca Islands
Beckoning just off Nadi, the Mamanuca Islands are popular among day cruisers. Offshore resorts of various sizes and prices appeal to a broad spectrum of travelers, from swinging singles to quieter couples and families. Generally speaking, this is the driest part of Fiji, which means it is sunny most of the time. Some of the Mamanucas are flat atolls so small you can walk around them in 5 minutes. Others are hilly, grassy islands reminiscent of the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean or the Whitsundays in Australia. Since the islands lie relatively close together, most offer excursions to the others. They also are conveniently close to Nadi, so you don't have to spend much extra money or time to get there.
The Yasawa Islands
A chain of gorgeous and relatively unspoiled islands stretching to the north of the Mamanucas, the hilly Yasawas are blessed with the best collection of beaches in Fiji. Two versions of The Blue Lagoon movie were filmed here: the 1949 original, and the 1980s remake starring Brooke Shields as the castaway schoolgirl. Young backpackers turned the Yasawas into one of the country's hottest destinations, but the islands now have resorts to fit every pocketbook. The Yasawas are easy to reach from Nadi by daily high-speed ferry service, and you can visit them on Blue Lagoon Cruises or Captain Cook Cruises.
The Coral Coast
The Queen's Road runs around the south coast of Viti Levu through the area known as the Coral Coast. This was Fiji's first resort area, developed even before the international airport opened in Nadi in the early 1960s. You'll find big resorts, comfortable small hotels, fire-walking Fijians, and a host of things to see and do, such as a collection of Fiji's native fauna in the excellent Kula Eco Park. Most of the beaches along the Coral Coast lead into lagoons that are very shallow, especially at low tide. Most visitors staying on the Coast these days are tourists on package holidays, but it's still a good choice for anyone who wants beachfront resort living while being able to conveniently explore the country.
Pacific Harbour and Beqa Island
About 48km (30 miles) west of Suva, Pacific Harbour was developed in the early 1970s as a resort complex with a golf course, private residences, shopping center, cultural center, and a seaside hotel (in other words, a real-estate development). Because this area is on the edge of Viti Levu's rain belt, the project never reached its full potential. Nevertheless, it has the country's best cultural center, most scenic golf course, and excellent deep-sea fishing. It's also the most central location for river rafting on the Navua River, kayaking along the coast, and diving in marvelous Beqa Lagoon (pronounced Beng-ga) -- all of which make Pacific Harbour the self-anointed "Adventure Capital of Fiji."
A 30-minute boat ride off Pacific Harbour, rugged Beqa is best known for its surrounding lagoon. Here you'll also find Frigate Passage, one of the world's best surfing spots (but not for novices, since the curling breakers slam onto the reef). Beqa has a bevy of comfortable hotels.
Fiji's third-largest island, Kadavu lies about 100km (60 miles) south of Viti Levu. It's a long skinny island whose south shore is skirted by the Great Astrolabe Reef, another of Fiji's top diving destinations. On the north coast is beautiful Long Beach, which -- at several kilometers in length -- lives up to its name and is one of Fiji's finest. Ashore, its lack of mongooses, iguanas, and other imported predators make it a heaven for indigenous wildlife and birds, including the endemic musk parrot, fantail, honeyeater, and whistling dove.
The Queen's Road runs between Nadi Airport and Suva, Fiji's busy capital and one of the South Pacific's most cosmopolitan cities. Suva city has a population of 86,178, according to the 2007 census, but more than 300,000 are believed to live in the metropolitan area. The country's history is on display at the excellent Fiji Museum, Suva's top attraction. Remnants of Fiji's century as a British possession and the presence of so many Indians give downtown Suva a certain air of the colonial "Raj" -- as if this were Madras or Bombay, instead of the boundary between Polynesia and Melanesia. On the other hand, Suva has modern high-rise buildings and lives at a fast pace -- not surprising because Suva is in many respects the bustling economic center of the South Pacific islands and is the home of many regional organizations. The streets are filled with a melting-pot blend of Indians, Chinese, Fijians, other South Pacific islanders, "Europeans" (a term used in Fiji to mean persons with white skin, regardless of geographic origin), and individuals of mixed race.
Rakiraki and Northern Viti Levu
An alternative to the Queen's Road driving route to Suva, the King's Road runs from Lautoka through the "Sugar Belt" of northern Viti Levu, passing through the predominately Indian towns of Ba and Tavua to Rakiraki, a Fijian village near the island's northernmost point and site of one of the country's few remaining colonial-era hotels. Jagged green mountains lend a gorgeous backdrop to the shoreline along the Rakiraki coast. At Viti Levu's northernmost point, Volivoli Beach is one of the country's most beautiful. Offshore, Nananu-I-Ra Island beckons windsurfers and budget-minded travelers, and the nearby reefs are among Fiji's best for diving.
East of Rakiraki, the King's Road hugs deep, mountain-bounded Viti Levu Bay, one of the most beautiful parts of Fiji. From the head of the bay, the road then twists through the mountains, following the Wainbuka River until it emerges near the east coast at Korovou. A left turn there takes you to Natovi Wharf, where ferries depart for northern Fiji. A right turn leads to Suva. In other words, it's possible to entirely circumnavigate Viti Levu via the Queen's and King's roads.
Levuka and Ovalau
East of Viti Levu in the central Lomaviti Group of islands, picturesque Ovalau is home to the historic town of Levuka, which has changed little in appearance since its days as a boisterous whaling port and the first capital of a united Fiji in the 1800s. No other place in Fiji has retained its frontier facade as has this living museum. Ovalau is an incredibly beautiful island, but its lack of beaches has deterred major tourism development; consequently, it remains in a time warp and is of interest mainly to those who want a taste of the way the South Seas used to be.
Within sight of Levuka, Wakaya Island is the home of Fiji's top resort, the Wakaya Club, an enclave for Hollywood stars and other well-heeled folk. It's the project of Canadian David Gilmour, who also is responsible for giving us Fiji Water.
Vanua Levu, Taveuni, and their nearby islands are known collectively as "The North" because they lie northeast of Viti Levu and comprise Fiji's Northern Province.
The northern side of Vanua Levu, Fiji's second-largest island, is dedicated to sugar cane, and its main town of Labasa is like Nadi without the tourists -- and without anything for tourists to do should they go there.
But on the south shore, the little town with the singsong name Savusavu lies nestled in one of the region's most protected deepwater bays, making it a favorite stop for cruising yachts. Tucked behind a small islet, the town is a throwback to the old days when schooners arrived from Suva to trade cloth and rum for cattle and copra (coconut oil).
Southern Vanua Levu has a considerable amount of freehold land; in fact, so many of my compatriots have bought parcels that Fijians now facetiously refer to Savusavu as "Little America." One of them is motivational speaker Anthony Robbins, who owns Namale Fiji Islands Resort & Spa and holds some of his seminars there. Another is environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques Cousteau, who has lent his name to Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, the finest family resort in all of the South Pacific.
Savusavu also is the homeport of Adventure Fiji, which uses the 42m (140-ft.) sailing schooner Tui Tai to make 7- and 10-day soft-adventure voyages to Taveuni, Kioa, and Rabi islands in northern Fiji, and to the Lau Group on the eastern side of the archipelago.
Fiji's "Garden Isle" of Taveuni is another representation of the old South Seas, a land of copra plantations and small Fijian villages tucked away in the bush. Unlike Vanua Levu, Taveuni has some of Fiji's best beaches, especially near Matei, at the airstrip on its northern end. Matei is one of my favorite places in Fiji. It has several small hotels and surprisingly good restaurants within walking distance of each other, yet it seems a century removed from modern life. Taveuni is the best place in Fiji to visit a waterfall in Bouma National Heritage Park and go for a hike on the Lavena Coastal Walk along its wild eastern shore. Offshore lies the Somosomo Strait, Fiji's most famous diving destination. Two excellent resorts inhabit lovely Matagi and Qamea islands off Taveuni's northern coast.
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