Bula, bula! Craig Tansley finds that reopened Fiji is as friendly and welcoming as ever – if not more so.
Maybe I actually am the King of England?! I’ve taken a ferry from halfway up the east coast of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, to the country’s former capital, Levuka. It is World Heritage listed thanks to its amazingly preserved streetscape, a relic of the 1860s and 1870s when Levuka was the epicentre of culture and commerce for the whole South Pacific. But what’s more remarkable – as I wander the main street with its wide verandas and century-old store facades – isn’t so much the buildings, it’s the people. They stare at me with open mouths. As I walk past, locals shout, “bula!” in fevered excitement; some come right up and shake my hand.
“Is this normal for tourists here?” I ask the local tourism representative. “No, you’re the first foreigner they’ve seen since Covid,” he answers.
Fiji has been open to vaccinated Australian travellers since December 1 last year, but there are many places still to see a single tourist since Fiji closed to the world in March 2020.
Travellers tend to base themselves around Fiji’s most popular tourist destinations – Denarau Island, the Mamanuca Islands and the Coral Coast. Anywhere beyond is still yours to have for yourself.
“It’s a great time for anyone wanting to see Fiji like they’re early explorers,” my taxi driver tells me.
On first observations, nothing seems to have changed in Fiji since its reopening. All that’s required to enter the country is a rapid antigen test between 48 hours and 74 hours after arrival. And that is easy to organise: they are carried out at your accommodation in rooms set aside for Fiji’s Ministry of Health staff. Getting tested is a matter of walking through the door, then waiting 20 minutes.
It’s been four years since my last visit and perhaps I’d forgotten how exotic – but familiar, all at the same time – Fiji is. Since it reopened to Australians on December 1, it has become our number-one overseas destination. And that is for a reason.
The moment I arrive in Fiji, I am ushered through Immigration by my tour company, and deposited in a car. My driver is deliriously happy to see me. Many Fijians were forced into low-paying, labour-intensive jobs when tourism temporarily stalled, now they act like every one of us is the reason they’re back in a better job. Which – I guess – we are. Already an insanely friendly race of people, they’ve managed to slip it up a gear.
I am driven through green rolling hills just south of Nadi to a luxury resort set around a lagoon, straddling the sea. Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay is built along a cliff face metres above the ocean. I sit in an infinity pool, then at the bar, then the seafood restaurant, all of which look out across the Mamanucas.
Next morning, I take a surf charter boat straight from the resort’s wharf out to Fiji’s world-famous surf breaks along the reef south of the Mamanucas. It is only a 20-minute journey before I am surfing one of the planet’s most iconic waves, Cloudbreak.
Everything is always awfully convenient for travellers in Fiji. I venture 25 minutes north of my hotel to Denarau Island, where there are bars, restaurants, boutique stores and some of the world’s best-known hotel brands side-by-side on an island connected to the mainland by causeway.
At Port Denarau, I can catch boats out to the islands of the Mamanucas and the Yasawas. There are 20 islands on each archipelago – home to some of the South Pacific’s best luxury private-island resorts, such as Vomo Island, Six Senses Fiji and Yasawa Island Resort & Spa – in a setting where three seasons of Survivor were filmed, along with the movie, Castaway.
Families will find resorts suitable for children, while adventure travellers will fall head-over-heels for the Yasawas. Protected from land-based tourism till just 35 years ago, there are no roads, cars, banks or shops and most locals still live in tiny villages and rely on subsistence farming. You can hike up to mountains, or swim with manta rays, or visit underwater caves. It is the right mix of leisure and action for me – I like options on Pacific Island holidays, but I also like hammocks, and cocktails by the pool.
Though it is the island of Taveuni that affects me the most. Fiji’s third largest island, it’s only 90 minutes by air from Nadi – and you’ll find everything from luxury five-star romantic retreats on the sand to good-value homestays in the forests. I first came 20 years ago, and today it remains as unknown to tourists as it was back then. A third of the island is national park and you won’t find better diving or hiking anywhere in Fiji. I spend days in forests without seeing another person, swimming beneath 70-metre-high waterfalls. I also discover some of Fiji’s best surf just off shore – I stay at a luxury eco-resort called Qamea, and each morning at sunrise wake to take a 15-minute boat ride to an empty reef break.
Covid couldn’t break Fiji. Travelling here is still like landing accidentally on a movie set. In a world still affected by the ramifications of a worldwide pandemic, it’s a relief to know Fiji remains as perfect a South Seas retreat as it ever was, no matter what kind of traveller you happen to be.
Take me there
Fiji Airways flies twice daily to Fiji from Sydney and five times per week from Melbourne. See fijiairways.com.
Stay on your own private piece of Fiji at Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay; check out pure luxury at Six Senses Fiji; discover the wonder of the Yasawas at Yasawa Island Resort & Spa; explore Taveuni’s offshore islands at Qamea Resort; visit Levuka from a homestay near town.
Explore more: fiji.travel