After a tearful goodbye following our time home for the holidays, we took off on the second leg of our around the world adventure. Leaving behind single digit temperatures and promises of snowfall, we began our journey to the South Pacific. Two layovers and 26 hours later, we arrived at the much anticipated destination of Fiji.
Everything you’ve heard about the natural beauty of the romanticized Fiji Islands is absolutely true. Deep in the Pacific Ocean the 333 Fijian isles stand tall, perched above turquoise waters lined with exquisite beaches. The size of each island differs greatly. Some look no larger than an enormous mound of sand while others are palm-studded with dense rainforests and mountains rising to magnificent heights. Uniform to every island are the surrounding crystal-clear waters and incredible coral gardens lining the ocean floor. The views are as dramatic as they are stunning.
True to our laid-back travel style, we arrived at 4 a.m. without a plan, map or reservation. Typically, we like to be a bit more prepared than this, but with the hectic holiday calendar and last-minute errands, we placed planning our Fiji holiday on the backburner. Luckily, we were greeted at the airport by vultures disguised as travel agents clad in traditional Fijian garb (long skirts and flower-printed shirts) with the sweet-smelling frangipani flower in their hair. They greeted us with a warm “BULA!” (Fijian for hello or cheers) and helped us orient ourselves and plot our stay.
As we predicted, Fiji is not ideal for a budget traveler and trying to make the most of our time here on a tighter budget proved to be quite challenging. The majority of accommodation options include high-end resorts, and the strong monopoly on transportation and island activities has prices skyrocketing. Begrudgingly reminding ourselves we aren’t on vacation and have a budget to stick to, we opted for a cheaper backpacker resort on the string of islands known as the Manamuca Group.
We arrived by boat to the beautiful island of Mana and settled in to the budget resort which would serve as our home base for the next few days. I had grown quite accustomed to the comforts of home over the holidays so readjusting to this traveling lifestyle, and in this case sharing a bathroom with 15 other people, was not easy. A quick look around, however, at the stunning views, abundant sunshine and blue waters, proved to be just the wakeup call I needed.
Just as I began to readjust to this basic travel style, we hit the jackpot. We got word of a resort on the neighboring island of Malolo offering free upgrades to their guests to the private beachfront villas dotting the coastline. Off we went on the first boat we could find to take advantage of this offering. Here on Malolo we found a little bit of heaven waiting for us in our one little bamboo roof hut overlooking the turquoise waters.
Both accommodations offered all the amenities of nice resort.They had snorkeling gear and kayaks to rent and arranged a variety of excursions, including fishing, sunset cruises and diving. We partook in an island hopping adventure, which gave us the chance to explore nearby islands like Mandriki (where the movie Castaway was filmed). Lucky for us the island still maintains the remote appeal characterized in the movie. So isolated, in fact, that our arrival broke up a nice little nudist gathering on the beach.
What sets Fiji apart from all other exotic locales I’ve had the chance to experience in my twenty seven years of existence is undoubtedly the water. Still, green and clear, the vast ocean looks more like an aquarium, providing a look into a richly exotic underwater world.
The large banks of coral made water adventures activities a real treat and a daily dose of snorkeling and kayaking became standard. Swimming with schools of brightly colored red, yellow and rainbow-colored fish and coming face-to-face with blue starfish and brilliant coral reefs will always be my Fijian highlight. It certainly made the long flight more than worthwhile.