Fiji, not to put too fine a point on it, is an onion. No, it doesn’t smell, but yes, it can make you cry – more on that later. This island nation has layers that, once peeled back, reveal more secrets than you thought it kept
Words: VARDHAN KONDVIKAR
Photographs: JYOTHY KARAT
WOULD you like to meet my boyfriend?” asks Jyothy, my photographer, flipping open her laptop. Our host and guide, Biu, gives her a searchlight grin and nods happily. Even on Skype, Fijians are happy to make friends.
“He’s a serial killer,” she qualifies.
The grin fades, leaving only Biu, like the Cheshire cat in reverse. His eyes bulge – even Fijians have their limits. He looks around, but we’re on an island, surrounded by a reef that’s surrounded by water of a colour you can only describe as “Colin window-cleaner and Head & Shoulders blue.” There are sharks out there. There’s no escape. The Chinese-Canadian couple sharing our table is here on honeymoon, and the honeymoon is in trouble. It’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but there’s no electricity in the rooms, and clearly none of the party-beach atmosphere the bride had expected – and Daniel, the groom, has planned this as a surprise. Clearly, he has a lot to learn. Right now, he’s learning that cajoling his new bride into having breakfast with the girlfriend of a serial killer might have been a lapse of judgement.
“It’s Dexter,” says Jyo, finally, and everyone relaxes. She bursts into maniacal laughter, which raises the tension levels again. As I said, Fiji is one of the most beautiful places on Earth, but you have to plan carefully, or you could find yourself in very dire straits.
And in this land of kava that numbs your tonsils, of easy talk of how Grandpa built a nice oven for Grandma to cook a couple of people for the Sunday family get-together, in this place where you sigh like a Victorian maiden at glorious beaches, you learn you’re not in a country at all, but in an onion. Yes, that’s right. An onion, because Fiji has layers, and you need to decide the level at which you belong.
We’re going to peel these away, one by one, and leave you with a splendid feast. Feel like just frying your hide on a beach and getting in some romantic time? There’s a layer for you. Feel like getting to know the real Fiji and her terrific people? There’s a layer for you.
Also, rather like an onion, Fiji can make you weep – but that’s when you have to leave.
LAYER 1: PORT DENARAU & NATADOLA BEACH
It’s easy to dismiss Port Denarau. A purpose-built resort town near the airport, the golf course and family-friendly hotels will have seasoned travellers pooh-poohing: why come all the way to Fiji to hang around noisy children and parents with radioactive tans?
But you’d be short-selling this place if you thought that. Head over to the Port Denarau Marina in the evening, and you’ll see what I mean. This place is fun. There are at least three bands playing, and a totally kitschy South Seas fire-dance thingy is presided over (and I mean no insult here whatsoever) by Louie from the Talespin series, complete with hat and garland and raspy voice. Want a crab? At least five restaurants serve it. Indo-Fijian goat curry and rice? Easy.
The surprising Fijian rum, in flavours from coconut to banana? Not as easy to find, but totally worth it. And between them all, good-looking crowds strolling by the yachts, fairy lights everywhere – if it’s a holiday you’re looking for, this is as good a place to be as any.
Also, this part of Fiji’s big island, Viti Levu (incidentally, ‘Viti’ is the original name for Fiji, possibly changed by invading Micronesians), is where the weather is at its most stable. Sunny skies, great temperatures – we’ve arrived at a bad time, when New Zealand’s being naughty and pushing cold air up towards Fiji, dropping temperatures to a level not seen in the last 30 years, but, on this bit, it’s still perfect. And it’s well-organised, so, for people who want planned activities, it works very well. The hotel we’re staying at, the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa Hotel, has a pool large and varied enough – fountains, water-slides, a jacuzzi, the works – to keep a child busy until he’s 30, a range of water-sports things on the beach for the more adventurous, and large piña coladas for everyone else.
If you’re looking for a quieter time, head about an hour down the coast to Natadola Beach, which, as I can testify, is one of the most pleasant you can find. And, more importantly, it’s all fine sand – a secret the photos of Fiji won’t tell you is that most of those blindingly white beaches are coral, which looks great but really hurts your feet. On this one, kick off your sandals, and be five years old again. The Yatule Resort & Spa here has that proper beach-resort feel: go tan your hide on the beach, wait for a grinning islander to come up and offer you a horse-ride, the sun glinting off the one gold-laced incisor that seems to be in vogue here. Haggle, smile, look for the lady who’s set up her little massage shack, haggle some more. In the evenings, go shower off the sand in your little cottage, done up in the style of a traditional Fijian bure, and stroll up for dinner in the light of flaming torches. Ask for a big meal and one of the really good local beers, be serenaded by a musician on his ukulele, be On Holiday.