April 19, 2008

Fiji on a budget

I've always wanted to go to the South Pacific. I can't really remember at what age I started having fantasies about living on a deserted island, but I must have been young. I could always picture it in my mind. I would live in a thatched hut, drink coconut water and eat the fish that I would catch. Maybe it came from reading Robinson Crusoe, or watching one too many episodes of Gilligan's Island. So when Julie and I found that the cheapest flight to New Zealand was through Fiji, we jumped at the chance to spend two weeks in paradise.

I was worried that Fiji was going to eat through our travel budget, as every image I had was of luxurious resorts that probably cost more a night than the W Hotel in Times Square. We prepared ourselves by traveling with our tent, hoping to stay on beaches. What we found was that we were not alone, and there is a whole tourist industry catering to backpackers (camping and dorms), especially since the decline of high-end tourism with the military coup in 2006. Just to let you know, Fiji is extremely safe, whether you are traveling as a backpacker or looking to stay at a luxurious resort.

From LA we flew on a cheap one way flight with Air Pacific to the town of Nadi (pronounced Nandi), which is on the main island of Viti Levu. There is not much to see in Nadi, and we only stayed there while in transit to the Coral Coast and the Yasawa Islands. We had a great time at Beach Escape Villas, which is located in New Town Beach with the majority of backpacker hotels.

After a night of rest in Nadi, we headed along the southern coast of Viti Levu (which is also called the Coral Coast, as it is internationally known as one of the best scuba and snorkeling areas in the world). We spent the next three days at the Uprising Resort in Pacific Harbour. Uprising will always hold a special place in my heart. It was our first true introduction to Fijian hospitality. The local staff taught me to play Fijian songs on the guitar, and then sat and jammed with us for over an hour. The resort really was a 'resort' and I was surprised when they allowed us to camp on their private beach. Julie and I could only laugh as we pitched our tent right on the beach in front of the posh private bungalows that were about $100 night. We had a better view than they did! I should mention that we only paid about $15 each with breakfast to camp, and dorm beds were only $20 per person. It's a steal considering you get full use of the resort with pool, and activities.

During our first three days in paradise, we read, slept, and sunbathed. I went scuba diving with Aqua Trek to see the famous Bull sharks. The whole event was like going to an underwater zoo, and not what I expected. We did two dives in the same location where we basically just went straight down, sat on the bottom, and watched the dive masters feed the sharks and fish. The sharks were an amazing sight at roughly 14 feet long, but the whole thing was too staged for my liking. Julie and I did have a great day of snorkeling where we took a kayak out about a kilometer into the Beqa Lagoon and had a section of the reef all to ourselves.

From Pacific Harbour, we took a minibus back to Nadi for a night, before catching the ferry from the port of Denarau to the Yasawa Islands, which are northwest of Viti Levu. The New Zealand based company Awesome Adventures operates the Yasawa Flyer, which is a high speed boat that travels around the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands. This has made it so easy for tourists and us backpackers to just show up in Fiji and explore the islands without reservations. You can get an unlimited travel Bula Pass for 7, 14, and 21 days, but I wouldn't recommend it. In the end, we traveled for 10 days to the islands and it was actually much cheaper to pay for each trip, as we weren't limited to using their service and could catch local boats between close islands for much less than the Flyer. I should mention that the Yasawa flyer is fast, safe, and you can book resort accommodation on the boat, just hours before showing up to a place. This gives you great flexibility, which is how we like to travel.

Our first stop on the Yasawas was to the Melbravo resort on the northern island of Nacula (pronouced Nadula). We didn't have the best time here, so we only stayed two nights. The place was pretty rundown, and the meals were ok, but not amazing. Now is probably a good time to explain that all the resorts charged a flat rate that included three meals a day. In each island resort, we paid on average about $30 per person a night with meals. Melbravo didn't have much of a beach, or a good reef for snorkeling, but we did have a great cultural experience here. We attended a sunday church service, and also had lunch at the house of the local village chief. It was a nice experience as it was only the two of us and his family (I think he had a crush on Julie).

We continued our tour by hopping on the Yasawa Flyer and taking it back down to the island of Waya. We had seen a beautiful stretch of beach when we were first heading to Nacula and after a crappy beach, this was a priority. Boy were we in for a surprise. We ended up staying at the Sunset Waya resort for 5 nights because of the two beautiful beaches and probably the best snorkeling I have ever done in my life. At low tide, a gorgeous sandbar would form that would connect Waya to the island of Wayalailai. The food was also really good, and the staff were so welcoming. When we arrived (and left) the island, the staff gathered on the beach with guitars to serenade us. At night we had activities from drinking Kava, a local brew of the Kava root and water (pretty nasty stuff), and fire dancing. We made some great friends here, both locals and other backpackers, and it was hard to leave. Plus, it was the cheapest place we had stayed. Note to other travelers, if you show up without a reservation, you can usually negotiate a better price as they agencies are making about a 15% commision.

From Waya we took a small boat taxi for 15 minutes around to the southern side of Wayalailai, where we stayed for two nights at the Wayalailai Eco Haven Resort, which is owned and operated by the local village on the island. This was a good place to end our tour of the islands as it had the nicesest facilities of the three places, including a PADI dive center. The weather wasn't the greatest, but I did manage to kayak over to the island of Kuata for some more snorkeling. The day we arrived was also a big celebration, and we had quite the feast while watching some traditional dancers and singers.

All in all, our two weeks felt like two months. It was easy to forget the day and time, as everything was on 'Fiji Time.' I went barefoot all day, everyday, and even learned to open coconuts with a machete. It wasn't always sunny, and we survived some rain storms that broke two of our tent poles. But all in all, I guess I finally lived my South Pacific dream. Here are my photos of Fiji.

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