Most who visit Fiji want little more than a white-sand beach, a cloudless sky and the opportunity to fall into a sun-induced coma under a palm tree. On this score, Fiji doesn’t disappoint. The Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands arc north like a stingray’s tail from the body of Viti Levu and are Fiji’s movie stars, dangled in front of the world as idyllic South Sea Edens – their reefs and cobalt blue waters providing cinematic eye candy for films such as Tom Hanks’ Cast Away and Brooke Shields’ vehicle to stardom, The Blue Lagoon.
Fiji has been in the tourism business for decades and the Nadi and Denarau island-hopping-escape itinerary has proven to be a winning formula. Those that arrive with notions of cocktails on alabaster beaches are seldom disappointed. The underwater scenery is spectacular and some of the finest, and most accessible, dives in the Pacific can be found here. Its reputation as the ‘soft coral capital of the world’ is well justified and with the opening of the country’s first overwater bungalow resort on Malolo, Fiji remains flushed with sunburnt tourists despite the 2006 coup.
But the Yasawas and Mamanucas – as lovely as they are – are only part of the equation and there’s more to Fiji than can ever be seen from a beach towel.
North-West of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, is the Yasawa Group, a chain of volcanic islands set to rival the better-known Mamanucas in the popularity stakes. A daily catamaran threads its way from one bay to the next, dropping off and picking up travellers as it goes. The Yasawas are sparsely populated and the rainless dry spells that once made life so difficult for villagers is proving to be their greatest asset now. Local communities, inspired by the successes achieved further down the line, have opened budget resorts and tout their coral gardens and laid-back charm as ‘the real Fiji’.
To get to grips with the national psyche you have to spend time on either of the two main islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Two-thirds of the population live in urban centres and it is on Viti Levu that you’ll find the country’s two cities: Suva, the capital, and Lautoka, a port town reliant on the sugar-cane farms that surround it.