The overriding impression of Fiji is a place of five-star resorts, fabulous beaches and fruit cocktails, with perhaps some firewalking thrown in for good measure. On my first visit that’s pretty much all did, but on return trips I’ve scratched away at the surface and discovered a holiday destination rich in natural and cultural attractions. Here are five of the best;
Up, up and away – hot-air ballooning
Fiji is the only place in the middle of the South Pacific where you can experience the thrill of hot-air ballooning. After an early start (4.00am) you’ll lift off from a small hinterland village and float from the mountains to the sea passing serene valleys, tranquil rivers and lush jungles.
From one village to the next, over wild, overgrown gardens, Hindu shrines and Islamic mosques people wave and call out bula, the Fijian word for hello or welcome. It is effortless, like being on magic carpet, all dips and rises and graceful turns.
In the early days of hot-air ballooning it was customary to carry a bottle of French champagne to give to the local farmers as thanks for landing in their field, but on an Adrenalin Fiji flight you carry a bag of rice to give to the family whose field you land in. The rice may seem like a small token, but it can feed an entire family for two weeks and is well received.
Flights last for about an hour, finishing with a gourmet breakfast – and yes – a glass of champagne.
Down by the river - Sigatoka river safari
Fijians love of children and family is legendary. If you’d like to learn more about Fijian culture, while getting the adrenaline rush of a jet-boat ride, take a Sigatoka River Safari up into the central hills to visit one of the remote local villages. Don’t be surprised if your face is painted with powder, if you’re dragged into some wild dancing or if a family invites you into their home for lunch (this is known as ‘sharing the Bula spirit’). And don’t be alarmed if your tattooed, bandana-wearing guides are called Captain Black Jack and Captain Hi-Jack, I promise you’ll be in safe hands.
Sigatoka River Safari was started in 2006 by Sydneysider Jay Whyte who saw the tour as a way visitors could experience traditional family life – even for just one day. Today the company visits seven different villages along the river, with each village receiving guests once a week. This is a win-win situation; the village earns money from the visit, but their traditional way of life is only impacted upon on a limited basis and equality between neighbouring villages is maintained.
Across the water – tall ships
The main island of Viti Levu has some fabulous beaches, but Fiji has another 333 islands waiting to be explored. For a taste of what the offshore islands have to offer a day trip to Tivua Island aboard Ra Marama is a good starting point. Ra Marama is an historic Brigantine rig tall ship built for the Governor General of Fiji in 1957 and fully restored in 1988. Operated by Captain Cook Cruises it departs Denarau Marina daily.
Tivua is a classic Fijian hideaway; a small coral cay ringed by white sandy beaches (it takes ten-minutes to walk around), good snorkelling, barbecue lunch and few visitors (Only a limited number of people are allowed on the island each day and the accommodation consists of just two little bures).
After a day of relaxing the highlight is the journey back, with sails hoisted and the local Fijian crew strumming guitars as the Fijian coastline comes into view. It’s a magnificent sight you won’t get unless you step off the mainland.
Over the hills - Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park
Many visitors find themselves staying on the Coral Coast, one of the most beautiful stretches of beach in Fiji. It’s popular with the ‘fly and flop’ crowd. But if you want to shake things up a bit, trade your deck-chair and holiday novel for a 650-hectare pile of sand. Two kilometres east of Sigatoka Town lies the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park, the location of one of Fiji's earliest recorded prehistoric sites.
About 3000 years ago the seafaring Lapita people settled here. Considered one of the most important archaeological sites in the Pacific, the dunes are still giving up their secrets. In some sections you need to step carefully to avoid walking on shards of pottery, other sections, currently under excavation, contain human remains.
The park, which was Fiji’s first National Park, has a friendly information centre and is a milestone in Fiji's drive for environmental conservation. There is a ‘two-hour track’ (a killer) and a ‘one-hour track’ (less of a killer) leading down to the surf beach which is a great spot for a swim after all that walking. Surf beaches are rare along the coral coast and this one is a beauty.
The dunes are also sacred for another reason – it’s where Fiji’s famous rugby players train. Apparently the dunes ‘are their secret weapon’.
A walk on the wild side – Kula Eco Park
Also near Sigatoka is one of Fiji’s best kept secrets, the Kula Eco Park (near the Outrigger on the Lagoon). This delightful stretch of rainforest works in cooperation with The National Trust for Fiji, The Endangered Species Recovery Council of San Diego and The Parks Board of New South Wales, Australia to conserve and protect Fiji’s wildlife and to provide a hands-on experience for visitors.
Visitors follow a board walk through the quiet, shady jungle, crossing numerous bridges over small streams and encountering peregrine falcons, red musk parrots and orange doves. Highlights include the chance to hold a rare crested or banded iguana (the kids love this), to speak with experts about the parks captive breeding programs and also to learn more about the unique plants and animals of Fiji. It’s also a great place to chill when it’s too hot to do anything else. The park has been presented the "Excellence in Tourism" award for Best Attraction in Fiji a number of times.
Article by Kerry van der Jagt