Lautoka - Fiji's sweetest city

by Jeanette.Scott

A holiday in Fiji tastes sweeter during Lautoka's annual Sugar Festival. Find out what else to do in Fiji's second city, where the locals sway to a Bollywood beat

A familiar reggae beat accompanied the rhythmic bouncing of the bus. Rumbling along the road and whisking past sugar plantations, an untypical soundtrack from England complemented a typical Fijian journey.

A repetitive bula (Fijian for hello/welcome) bumped shoulders with Red, Red Wine. The driver, gripping an unlit cigarette, a soft drink can and the steering wheel, turned the music up. Rat In Me Kitchen – it was Birmingham’s reggae band UB40 mixed with Fijian rap, 50 Cent, Missy Elliot and a handful of other hip hop and R n’ B artists. It was a non-stop sound that made a happy ear-plug against the din of the road. The windows did nothing to prevent the noise; they were little more than rolled up plastic tarpaulins tied with string, though they were refreshingly airy.

Lautoka

The orange Nadi General Transport bus linked the 33km between the busy port of Nadi and Lautoka, known as the Sugar City, on the country’s main island of Viti Levu. The bus leaves every 15 minutes – dependent on “Fiji Time” - and should take an hour to wind along the coastline and zigzag across train tracks.

Ninety minutes, two Fijian dollars and an earful of UB40 later, I peeled myself off the faux leather seat at Lautoka’s bus station. The station hugs a market where a rainbow of colour burst from flowers, vegetables and fruits for sale. The heat and the hallucinogenic patterns on the dresses of the female sellers, who were all sporting carefully sculpted Afros, put my head in a whirl.

In a neat row at the edge of the blue tarpaulins laid out on the floor, which doubled as outdoor stalls, glass enclosures showcased a dazzling array of traditional Indian sweets, mithai. Some appeared sugary, some laced with coconut, some looked like pieces of noodles; other treats appeared to boast green peas. Opting for sugary, I got my first taste of Indian Fiji.

A Bollywood beat

Lautoka, Fiji’s second city is also home to a sizeable Indo-Fijian population. It sways to a Bollywood beat and saris take the place of sarongs. The Indian labourers who arrived more than 100 years ago brought with them flavours of the motherland but the descendants of the first arrivals have adopted Fiji Time and a more carefree attitude.

Where to stay

If you stay in the city centre it's a doddle to get around on foot as it's a mere blip on the map. The Tanoa Waterfront Hotel is just 2km from the city centre on Marine Drive but it's a decent hotel with reasonable rates (from around 90 FJD). The property is a little dated but the outdoor pool is a bonus on those sticky-hot days.

Lautoka Hotel (Naviti Drive) in the city centre is also a clean, budget option (see description below). It's also home to the Seaview Restaurant and Pizza Inn (6660 388), one of the only restaurants in town worth eating at. It offers a range of international dishes from around 12 FJD, with surprisingly good pizza.

There's a handful of eating establishments in Lautoka with the obligatory over-bearing red of Coca-Cola branding and plastic tablecloths. But the freshest produce can be found at the market at the bus station (there's access off Naviti Street and a number of other roads that encircle it).

What to do

There isn't an awful lot to be entertained by in Lautoka. It's an interesting detour for its Indian flavour, and many use it as a stopover before hopping off to Fiji's magical islands. It's also just 10km to Koroyanitu National Heritage Park, where the beauty of Fiji's shapely highlands can be explored.

The main draw for tourists is the chance to take a real slice of Fijian culture. The beach resorts and islands can be heavenly, but when you've taken part in one kava ritual (see my other guide on Fiji) and been serenaded by another welcoming committee, the real Fiji begins to feel very far away. Lautoka immerses you in the day to day ritual of just living and breathing Fijian life and if the urge to be a tourist still has a grip, head to the markets and haggle for souvenirs.

The Sugar City

The saccharine sensation of my Indian sweets was waning but I had just stumbled into the annual sugar festival. The sugar mill has been churning out local raw cane and contributing to one third of the country’s industry since 1903. The trade is in decline but it is still vibrant enough to have an entire festival dedicated to it every September.

Lautoka’s tree-lined streets, normally buzzing with activity, were quiet. The waterfront esplanade was deserted. Everyone was in Churchill Park for the start of the festival. A train track dissected the streets from the park but it was a harmless hop into the festival. By lunchtime the track was littered with families squatting for lunch under the shade of the trees. Lunch consisted of a pile of unidentified meat and a token scrap of salad wrapped in newspaper and dished out by children from a wall of about 50 smoky barbecues.

The fun of the fair

As the coals cooled, the fairground whirred into life. Rides that had seen more mechanically-sound days thrilled youngsters and a Ferris wheel dominated the night sky. We settled into the rickety half cage and budged up when two young boys were ushered in alongside us. Tightness equalled safety it would seem. The boys looked nervous. A single bar was latched into place over the four laps. The wheel flew around its pivot and hurtled riders skyward before plunging downwards at a startling velocity, leaving stomachs and screams in the night sky. The children, who had been unsure of the strangers when they first scrambled on to the wheel, laughed with us as the adrenaline and relief flowed on exit, before shyness took over again and they offered a coy wave before running off giggling.

For all the fun of the fair, the festival is a genuine occasion for celebration for Lautoka. Sugar production keeps many in jobs and food and clothes. The natural resource tastes especially sweet for the locals; they even crown a Sugar Queen to take pride of place during the festival's parade through the streets.

Hitting the club

Energised still by the death-defying fairground ride, we found ourselves in an Indian nightclub, the Ashiqi Nite Club with DJ Raj, a venue nestled into the basement of my choice of digs that night - the Lautoka Hotel in Naviti Street. The ageing, Colonial style hotel housed basic, comfortable rooms in a maze of whitewashed, wood-clad corridors that were open to the elements, like a genial old passenger ship. Prices start from 15.50FJD for a dorm bed, to 80 for a deluxe room. We paid extra for the comforts of a fan and a safe. The building’s former elegance has been lost to the past. But in the basement, younger blood was pumping.

I was expecting Bollywood style glitz: silky drapes and exotic cocktails. I got a room reminiscent of a school hall with bars on windows, beige curtains, plastic chairs on the outskirts and pre-mixed drinks in cans. The most remarkable school throwback was the division between boys and girls. Only a few confident souls danced carelessly on the small dance floor. Three dollars’ admission paid, can of sugary drink purchased, we ended up dancing the night away – a sweet ending to the short break in Lautoka.

Jeanette.Scott

As a travel writer and photographer I've contributed to the LA Times, Lonely Planet, Real Travel, The Australian, The Herald Sun (Australia) and, of course, as an editor and writer on www.simonseeks.com. Following a stint in hospitality, I started my media career in 2002 in newspaper journalism, and I've written for the Guardian, Metro, Coventry Telegraph, Coventry and Warwickshire Times and Living magazine.

According to a fairly pointless Facebook application, I've visited 24% of the planet. Good to know, although there are ten minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. I'm fascinated by our planet and whenever I visit a place that's new to me - be it Barbados, Burkina Faso or a previously unvisited corner of Britain - I want to capture it. I want to keep the confluence of smell, noise and vision; the expressions on the faces of the people; the layers of history; the unfamiliar food and drink. I fasten it in my mind's eye - but when my memory fades, I've got a stack of photographs and a thousand furiously jotted notes to remind me.

Favourite places - my home town of Chester, New Zealand's south island, Malaysia, Fiji, Melbourne, Norway's fjords, Italy (mainly the restaurants), Greek Islands, London, Edinburgh, the Lake District, and home (Chester, though my true "home" will always be Warwickshire).

My Chester

Where I always grab a hot drink: A coffee with the grand (and quite surreal) decor of Oddfellows as the backdrop is a treat; but when my sweet tooth is raging the Blue Moon Café can’t be beaten for hot chocolate with lashings of whipped cream and marshmallows.

My favourite stroll: Treading the wooden slats of the Queen’s Park Bridge is pretty unique. I cross it every morning and evening to and from Simonseeks HQ. For a look at real life in Chester, cross the bridge from the city, drop down to riverside and head away from the direction of the racecourse. You’ll find grand homes and, eventually, the meadows (the scene of a very special New Year’s Eve midnight picnic for me).

Where to be seen: At the races of course! After a day at The Roodee get your hands on one of the coveted Bedouin tents to dine/drink/people watch from in the outdoor space at Oddfellows.

The most breathtaking view: Get the lift to the fifth floor of Abode and check out the view from the Champagne Bar. It’s both unique and breathtaking. If you’re not thirsty, stand on the steps of the High Cross (the pointy monument where the four main streets – Watergate, Eastgate, Northgate and Bridge – meet). Behold The Rows and let the history of the buildings and the buzz of modern life around you slip into your memories.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Grosvenor Park is perfect in winter but the first rays of sunshine draw picnicking crowds. Act like a local and cross the Queen’s Park Bridge to find your haven in the meadows.

Shopaholics beware!: Visit any of the stores (ground and first floor level) on The Rows and shop accompanied by centuries of history.

Don’t leave without...clocking some time with the Eastgate Clock. Put your shopping bags down, take a picture if you must, but make sure you climb the steps and simply stand and watch the world go by for a while.