One of my favorite places to hang out in Fiji is cigar-shaped Taveuni, just 6.5km (4 miles) from Vanua Levu's eastern peninsula across the Somosomo Strait. The country's third-largest island is one of the world's most famous scuba-diving spots. Although it is only 9.5km (6 miles) wide, a volcanic ridge down Taveuni's 40km (25-mile) length soars to more than 1,200m (4,000 ft.), blocking the southeast trade winds and pouring as much as 9m (30 ft.) of rain a year on the mountaintops and the island's rugged eastern side. Consequently, Taveuni's 9,000 residents (three-fourths of them Fijians) live in a string of villages along the gently sloping, lush western side. They own some of the country's most fertile and well-watered soil -- hence Taveuni's nickname: the Garden Isle.

Thanks to limited land clearance and the absence of the mongoose, Taveuni is the best place in Fiji to explore the interior on foot in Bouma National Heritage Park and the gorgeous Lavena Coastal Walk. It still has all the plants and animals indigenous to Fiji, including the unique Fiji fruit bat, the Taveuni silktail bird, land crabs, and some species of palm that have only recently been identified. The Ravilevu Nature Preserve on the east coast and the Taveuni Forest Preserve in the middle of the island are designed to protect these rare creatures.

In a volcanic crater atop the mountains at an altitude of more than 810m (2,700 ft.) is Lake Tagimaucia, home of the rare tagimaucia flower that bears red blooms with white centers.

The surrounding waters are equally fascinating. With dozens of fabulous dive sites nearby, including the Rainbow Reef and its Great White Wall, Taveuni is the best place to explore Fiji's underwater paradise.

The little airstrip and most of Taveuni's accommodations are at Matei, on the northeastern corner of the island facing the small, rugged islands of Qamea and Matagi, homes of two of my favorite little offshore resorts.