To me, the pristine islands of northern Fiji are what the old South Seas are all about. Compared to busy Viti Levu, "The North" takes us back to the old days of copra (dried coconut meat) planters, of Fijians living in small villages in the hills or beside crystal-clear lagoons. You will get a taste of the slow, peaceful pace of life up here as soon as you get off the plane.

The rolling plains of northern Vanua Levu, the country's second-largest island, are devoted to sugar-cane farming and are of little interest to anyone who has visited Nadi. Labasa, a predominately Indo-Fijian town and Vanua Levu's commercial center, reminds me of Dorothy Parker's famous quip, "There is no there there."

But Vanua Levu's southern side is quite another story. From Labasa, the paved Cross-Island Road traverses the rugged central mountains, where cheerful villagers go about life at the ageless pace of tropical islands everywhere. The Cross-Island then drops down to an old trading town with the singsong name Savusavu.

Vanua Levu's major sightseeing attraction, Savusavu is noted for its volcanic hot springs and magnificent scenic harbor -- a bay so large and well protected by surrounding mountains that the U.S. Navy chose it as a possible "hurricane hole" for the Pacific Fleet during World War II. Today it is one of Fiji's major sailing centers and a popular stop for cruising yachties, who can clear Customs and Immigration here. The blue waters of the bay also are home to Fiji's first black-pearl farm.

The Hibiscus Highway starts at Savusavu and cuts south across a hilly peninsula to the airstrip before continuing along the south shore to Buca Bay. Although 19km (12 miles) of it is paved, this road is neither a highway nor lined with hibiscus (cows grazing beneath the palms ate them all), but it does run along a picturesque, island-strewn lagoon through the heart of Vanua Levu's copra region. This area has one of Fiji's largest concentrations of freehold land, which Americans have been buying in recent years. So many Yanks have bought here, in fact, that residents elsewhere in Fiji facetiously refer to Savusavu as "Little America." Although you'll drive past thousands of coconut palms, the number of housing developments now rivals that of copra plantations along the Hibiscus Highway.

The coastal plain here is primarily a raised limestone shelf, meaning that the reef is shallow and the beaches cannot hold a candle to the sands on Taveuni. Keep that in mind as you plan your vacation.