From the ukulele welcome at the airport to the kava ritual on the islands, hospitality Fiji-style is like nowhere else on earth
You know you’ve arrived in the friendliest country in the world when you’re greeted in the airport’s arrivals hall by a quartet of singing, smiling ukulele-players. The familiar pattern of the hibiscus flower sways on their shirts. Their smiles relax and for the first time, but certainly not the last, you’ll hear the word “bula”.
It means hello, welcome, cheers or whatever your guidebook says. It means all those things and more, and a bula accompanied by a Fijian smile is the warmest welcome you are ever likely to receive. It’s as warm as the sand on the nation’s beaches on a clear day. And if you’ve just arrived on Fijian soil from Britain, the welcome is as refreshing as a long cool cocktail.
The main island, Viti Levu, holds a host of treasures. The city of Suva is cultural if functional, and Lautoka is a sweet gem of a city, Fiji’s second largest and home to a sizeable Indo-Fijian population. It sways to a Bollywood beat and saris take the place of sarongs. Every year the annual sugar festival takes place and the normally sleepy town buzzes on its sugar high. The mountains of Viti Levu’s interior are cool and green and dramatic. And the city of Nadi (pronounced nan-dee), though pleasant, really just acts as a traffic junction for the island’s main transport routes. Let’s face it: if you’ve reached Nadi, you’re really only interested in the jewels that sparkle in the seas off the west coast.
The words alone bring images of white-sand-fringed, palm-tree-crowned mini slices of paradise cuddled by warm crystal blue waters. The South Pacific waters that swim around Fiji are peppered with islands worth visiting. Hundreds of islands, in fact, which peel away from Viti Levu in a giant swirl.
As the international airport brings visitors in to Nadi, the likelihood is your island adventure will begin from the city’s port. Despite their convenience and mass appeal, the Yasawa and Mamanuca groups of islands are stunningly beautiful. Seclusion and tranquillity can be found, albeit in small doses, but these islands are known as backpacker party playgrounds.
On Malolo, largest of the Mamanucas, as the mosquitoes feasted on my flesh, I feasted for very little cash at the Resort Walu Beach. The dorms were great value and the resort’s free kayaks can be taken out to find some of the most incredible reef life. Keen snorkelers will find underwater heaven anywhere in the Mamanucas. I spotted innumerable tropical fish all the colours of the rainbow, plus a few sea snakes and a sting ray.
The island of Monuriki, though uninhabited, is instantly recognisable to movie fans. Tom Hanks was Castaway here. You can reach it from the island of Mana. And so, on to Mana, where Ratu Kini’s backpackers' resort blends in with a local village and is a great base to discover the island’s beaches.
It sounds impossible, but you’ll find yourself growing bored of an island after a day or two. Thankfully, water taxis are plentiful, if not cheap, and they’ll usually take you to whichever island you’ve set your sights on next. And so, onwards again, to Bounty Island. Celebrity Love Island was filmed here for one series and though the C-list celebrities (footballer Lee Sharpe plus glamour girls Rebecca Loos and Abi Titmuss) didn’t fall for one another, they couldn’t help but fall for the coral paradise of Bounty. There’s only one resort, imaginatively titled Bounty Island Resort, and the snorkelling is divine - though if lying on white sand and soaking up Fijian rays is more your thing, then that’s cool too on Bounty.
A recurring theme was emerging on these islands. The warm welcome and songs on arrival, they were a given. But something else had been thrown into the mix. Something foul, something brown, something called kava. It is a ritual welcome drink, a daily tipple if you are a local. Kava is a brew made by squeezing the juices from a Fijian root through a piece of cloth and into a bucket or bowl, mixed with water. It is at first tongue-numbing and gum-fuzzing and eventually, after quite a few bowls, hallucinogenic. It looks like a puddle and tastes like the inside of a shoe. Also unfortunate is the fact that it is considered very rude by your hosts to refuse the first bowl. I made it to two once. I'm a kava lightweight.
If you have the time and the budget, venture out to some of Fiji’s other islands. Nananu-i-Ra in the north boasts phenomenal diving opportunities. Out east the Lomaivitis offer a cultural colonial air, and south of Viti Levu is the Kadavu Group, which draws divers to its brilliant Great Astrolabe Reef.
But if you are moving on, then something else you’ll need to factor into your beach adventures is the time - Fiji Time. It is as officially unbendable as Greenwich Mean Time. The boat runs late? Fiji Time. The boat doesn’t turn up? Fiji Time. The boat steals three hours of your day because the captain stops to buy fresh chickens from a nearby island? Well, that’s Fiji Time. So you’d better just kick back, grab a cocktail, and relax.