“We live and we die by the clock and that’s all we have.” Chuck Nolan, Castaway
Something that I still remember years after my trip to Fiji is the exceptional hospitality from locals, and that time seemed to pass at a much slower pace. ‘Relax you’re on Fiji time’ seemed to be the locals’ mantra and pretty soon we began echoing these very words to anyone who would care to listen. After all, it’s not every day you get to be on one of the 333 islands surrounded by pristine beaches and crystal clear blue waters. Fiji lives up to its reputation as being a tropical paradise and for me was certainly a once in a lifetime experience.
They say that it’s the ultimate holiday destination, and with so many high-end luxury resorts on many of the islands perhaps Fiji is not that well suited towards the budget traveller. However, budget I did and found that it’s entirely possible to go to Fiji without being a bitcoin millionaire. Now, I admit my lack of preparation on this occasion actually helped me.
Like most travellers to Fiji, you arrive in Nadi which is essentially the gateway to the other islands. Nadi is more culturally diverse than you would expect, with a large Indian population, who were bought over to work on the sugar cane plantations during British colonial rule. Near the airport is a Hindu temple called Sri Siva Subramaniya which is easily distinguishable from a distance due to its vibrant colors. Nadi also caters to the high-end holiday maker with a luxury resort called ‘Denaru Island’ with a golf course and marina.
After getting a taxi to the pier for Tavarua Island, only to be told the hotel had been fully booked due to the Fiji pro surfing contest taking place at the world famous Cloudbreak. Luckily, on the bus back to the city a kind local befriended me and hearing upon my predicament offered for me to stay with him and his family. I stayed with him for a week and during this week I got to experience true Fijian hospitality and village life. This included Kava ceremonies, watching wild horses being trained on the beach, and eating like a local with fresh fish being on the menu most days.
During this week, I bonded with everyone in the family, from the ex-rugby playing Dad to the mum who was pulling double shifts at the aforementioned luxury resort. Even, the very shy daughter warmed to me after a few days. I ate the same food, participated in the Kava drinking ceremonies, which happened a bit too frequently on some occasions! Staying at a high-end resort or not, it’s impossible not to escape this aspect of Fijian culture.
Kava is a traditional Fijian drink, which is a mild sedative made from the crushed root of the yagona plant, a relative of the pepper plant. It is strained with water into a large communal bowl and drunk using small bowls. At first, you think the effect of drinking Kava is going to be somewhat similar to alcohol, from the way Fijians talk about it. But, it’s more of a sedentary effect than alcohol and after drinking it I felt sleepy and blissed out. It certainly goes some way to explaining why Fijians are always so happy. If you’re struggling with jet lag, drinking kava might just be the best way to get on Fiji time!
As for fitting in some surf, as I like to do on most of my trips, I decided to go with Fiji Surf Company and get a boat ride to Namouto lefts costing around $160 to get there. Sadly, surfing Cloudbreak was out for me as they were holding the wildcard trials. Unfortunately, it didn’t look the huge perfect left-hand barrels you often see from videos and photos, but the pros were still managing to find some shade from the sun. Still even at 3 – 4ft, it’s a gnarly wave and breaking over razor sharp reef, and a super shallow ‘Shish Kebabs’ section to watch out for. Definitely pack booties if you plan on surfing Cloudbreak would be my advice. After a morning’s surfing at Namoutu lefts, which still offered some fun walls to play with and was a good choice to get acclimatised and eased in for the first day, it was time to take it easy and explore some of the other islands.
I headed to Manu island where there’s a couple of hostels to stay at. Manu island has a great laid back sleepy vibe to it. It’s a great base for daily activities such as snorkelling and fishing. You can easily get to Castaway Island, made famous by the film Tom Hanks stars in, by a small boat charter.
When you get to Castaway Island, first you have to stop off at a neighbouring island and pay a small fee/tourist tax to go there. This money goes to the local community in maintaining the island. Once we got on the island, you’re welcomed by a Fijian song and get a few hours to explore the island, sunbathe and snorkel.
We opted for the latter and dived into the crystal clear blue waters. I’ve never seen a shark, only in aquariums, but there were plenty of reef sharks swimming just a few metres away, it was amazing to see them in their natural habitat and undisturbed by our presence. If they were larger sharks, I’d probably feel a bit different to being so close, but this was definitely something I could mentally handle.
I hope to go back one day and get back on ‘Fiji time’. Who knows, perhaps I’ll even score perfect Cloudbreak when I go back.