Fiji. The name itself conjures up visions of crystal clear waters, white, sandy beaches and stunning coral reefs. So, are the glossy advertisements and desktop backgrounds to believed? Could Fiji possibly be this beautiful? In a word, yes. Fiji lives up to the hype and is every bit as beautiful as it is made out to be. Honeymooners and tourists looking for their own version of paradise cannot be faulted for dropping thousands of dollars to call this place home for a week or two. Which begs the question – can all this goodness be experienced by the budget traveler? If you don’t mind your fun packaged summer camp-style, then your answer is yes.
Fiji is not an island, like I had always imagined. Rather, it is an archipelago of 333 islands that vary greatly. First, in size: many are but a blip on a map, capable of being circumnavigated in minutes. Others, like the mainland, Viti Levu, are quite large and require several days to tour around; Second, in landscape: there are volcanic islands, full of dry, scrub brush and rocky beaches, and others still with dense jungles enveloped by pristine, white beaches and a veil of mint green water; Third, and most notably, in cost: island resorts run the gamut from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (with one island resort going for a cool $70,000 USD a night) to all-inclusive backpacker hostels on the high-end of cheap.
Travelers typically choose to concentrate their time on one of the two main chains of islands – the Mamanucas closer to the main island or the Yasawas further north. Prices to both islands proved to be quite expensive due to a monopoly on the ferry trade, with the trip to the Yasawas double in cost. We quickly learned that the bartering methods we had mastered in Brazil and Argentina were a foreign concept to the Fijians. In the end, we decided that Mama knows best. We opted for the closer Mamanuca group of islands and set sail for our soon-to-be home, the $30 dorm bunk beds of Ratu Kini Backpackers Hostel on the island of Mana.
Like almost all of the island resorts, the cost was inclusive of a compulsory meal plan. Typically, I enjoy eating as a way of experiencing a culture, so I was a bit dismayed to learn that my restaurant and meal would be chosen for me. However, after arriving to Ratu Kini on the island of Mana, it became apparent very quickly why this is the case. All of the islands are very small, and still very well preserved. A slew of bars and restaurants on each island would only deteriorate the condition of the islands rapidly and take away from the beauty – which, simply, is why everyone is there in the first place.
Each day was spent doing something that we could hardly imagine doing just last week when we were home in St. Louis for Christmas. Again, because the islands are very small and there are no outside establishments, the resorts and hostels come up with some very creative ways to keep guests entertained. Similar to camp, each night had a theme. The theme of our first night was “Fijian Fun” with a traditional kava ceremony and some very entertaining Fijian songs and dancing. The next night at Ratu Kini consisted of a ridiculous cross-dressing session that was taken way too seriously by way too many people. It quickly became Studio 54 on acid. After happy hour – consisting of “stubbies” or short, fat, apothecary-esque bottles of Fiji Bitter or Gold – we witnessed the head dive instructor dressed as a femme fatale in a dance-off with the other cross-dressed guests. His/her dance included some very lewd and hilarious moves that would make top-end strippers envious. It ended as all great things do, with his 2-year old daughter confused and crying in the audience, asking, “Daddy, what are you doing?!”
Days began with the gulping of Fiji water (yep – they actually do drink Fiji water in Fiji, and it’s not $15 a bottle like in Vegas) to ward off any hangover that could’ve existed from the previous night’s fun and a communal breakfast with the other campers. We went for hikes around the island, through jungle forests, snorkeled and hired a boat with several others for an island-hopping adventure to take advantage of Fiji‘s beautiful waters.
We ventured to Matamanoa where we pretended to be guests at the posh resort and then to Monuriki, where they filmed the movie “Castaway.” Our group was pleasantly surprised to find the “Tom Hanks island” empty, with the exception of two nudist couples. Fortunately, we arrived before the big touring groups and were able to hike to the top to the caves and check out the incredible views of the surrounding islands.
After two days, we were ready to leave behind the camp-style life and took the bait on a great deal the Walu Beach Resort was offering on the island of Malolo. With the Australian reality TV show “The Resort” cancelled, the literally made-for-TV resort is in limbo and was offering free upgrades for guest staying in dorms to beachfront bures. Bures are the traditional thatch-roofed huts with pitched roofs. It was a second honeymoon of sorts, with a deluxe bedroom, two bathrooms and a sitting room, all with ocean views.
We took advantage of the resort’s amenities, including an ocean-front pool, hammocks and sea kayaks to head out to a reef to snorkel. There, we saw yellow sting rays with bright blue polka dots, Nemo, zebra fish, electric blue starfish, a sea snake and, on my last day, a shark! It wasn’t huge – only about a foot and a half long – but it was so incredible to turn around and see a shark right in front of my eyes (not to worry, it wasn’t a Great White and was far less interested in me than I was in him).
Our last day we spent on the main island and had fun drowning stubbies of the local micro-brew, Vono, and hashing over camp-life with other travelers we had met along the way. While initially disappointed in the camp life that was Fiji for us budget travelers, we came to appreciate the forced fun. We were both quick to realize that we had met and formed friendships with more people in the five days we were on the islands than we had in the six weeks we were in Brazil, where we stayed in private rooms in pousadas. Budget travelers, do not fear. Take our advice, there is still a place yet for you in the wonderful isles of Fiji.