Technically, I've visited the Pacific nation of Fiji twice, however the first time around was in 1997 as a stopover on my flight from New Zealand to my new home in the United States. At the start of 2003 I made my first trip back to New Zealand, and this time I set aside a full two weeks for the Fijian stopover!
Fiji has been on my mind for quite some years as a good place to spend time, perhaps even as a place to spend a few years of retirement! The local people are extremely friendly, which is an attraction, and an added bonus is that they speak English, since the Fijian education system is patterned on the New Zealand curriculum. There has been ongoing racial tension between the native Fijians and the indentured workers brought in from India by the British to work in the sugar industry, however this tension hasn't resulted in a systematic breakdown of law and order. Aside from the people, the other attractions for me revolve around the natural world, in particular the local wildlife above and below the water. Fiji has a wide variety of highlights. It's one of the best places in the world for diving, with a reputation for prolific coral reefs. There are some colourful and interesting tropical birds, as well as beautiful insects which are overlooked by locals and tourists alike!
The great majority of tourists coming to Fiji end up with an extremely limited view of the country. After they land at the only international airport, located outside the town of Nadi (pronounced "Nandi", a legacy of an early missionary decision to represent each sound in the language by a single letter), they travel a short distance to a hotel or resort and stay there for the remainder of their time, seeing virtually nothing of the country. The worst place to go is also the most expensive - the absurd Denarau resort, which has a golf course and tennis courts but no beach, and still manages to charge up to $845 per night! Other people go a little way south on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu to the hotels of the Coral Coast, which owes its name to the marketing people - there aren't many live coral reefs in this area.
However, most tourists go offshore from Nadi, to the Mamanuca island chain (pronounced "Mamanutha" - blame those missionaries again!). There's no question that these islands are beautiful, but many of them are tiny, and on the larger islands it's unlikely that most people even venture outside the resort. The Mamanucas seem a little pricey for what's on offer, but they're probably ideal for people who want to lie on a beach doing nothing for a week, and I believe that some of these islands cater very much to twenty-something party animals.
Maybe it's just my "type A" personality talking, but I like a place with some room so I can run around and explore and do things, so my Mamanuca experience was strictly of the "photograph it as the boat passes by" variety. Instead, I headed up to the southern end of the Yasawa chain, to the island of Wayalailai. I stayed here for three days at a resort owned and operated by one of the Fijian villages on the island.
Here, and on other larger islands like Taveuni and Vanua Levu, I found what I came for - great wildlife both above water and below. There are many different varieties of fish and other creatures on Fiji's beautiful coral reefs, as well as beautiful birds and insects above the water line. As well as colourful dragonflies and damselflies, there are attractive butterflies and caterpillars, as well as a surprising number of spiders - some brightly coloured and patterned, others large and scary enough to make you think twice about that midnight trip to the bathroom!