Experience a completely different kind of tropical splendor in Fiji.
In the 2000 blockbuster film Cast Away, Tom Hanks’ character, Chuck Noland, is stranded on an uninhabited island so drop-dead gorgeous that you often forget to pity him.
The backdrop is downright seductive— aquamarine lagoons fringed by sugary-white sand, coral reefs brimming with neon marine marvels and radiant weather all typically conducive to sheer bliss.
The downside for Noland is how his stranded status on Fiji’s Monuriki Island isolates him from humanity. Few will argue that the true beauty of this enchanting paradise flows from the genuine warmth of amiable islanders who make you feel like a friend rather than a visitor.
“There’s a reason that Condé Nast Traveler readers voted Fijians as the friendliest people on Earth for more than 20 years running,” says Jack Young, a former Anahola, Kaua‘i, architect, who fueled his South Pacific passion by developing Koro Sun Resort & Rainforest Spa on Vanua Levu (korosunresort.com).
The lay of the land—or some 332 islands in Fiji’s case—is mind-boggling. A mere one-third of the archipelago is actually inhabited, with resorts and hotels rimming Vanua Levu and the main island of Viti Levu.
Others are sprinkled amid near and far-flung groups where coral, volcanic or limestone-based terrains are garnished with tropical rainforests and inland rivers. Some feature traditional Fijian-style accommodations with fewer than 20 bures (bungalows) each, while others are ultra-exclusive with only a single property on the entire island. All are accessible via puddle jumpers, seaplanes, helicopters, ferries or high-speed catamarans.
Much like “aloha,” “bula” is a greeting as well as a state of mind. Yet, while Hawai‘i and Fiji share cultural similarities, the latter captivates with its own distinctive character. Since community is paramount, many Fijians still dwell in self-sustaining villages, where they were raised and continue to practice the familiar customs.
“Fijians are unconditionally welcoming,” Young says. “We’ll take our Koro Sun guests to a small village, where a chief invites them to swim in the pool at the base of a waterfall. It’s an experience that’s authentic and pure.”
Vacation pace options also differ. “If you want the seclusion of a private island with one resort, you can have that experience in Fiji,” Young says. “Or if want to be near a little harbor town like Savusavu with a vibrant community for cultural immersion, you can find that here as well.”
Many couples gravitate to secluded adults-only escapes like Matamanoa Resort (matamanoa.com), the Turtle Island resort (turtlefiji.com) of Blue Lagoon fame, and Likuliku Lagoon Resort (likulikulagoon.com), with Fiji’s only overwater bungalows.
Families into private island chill are better suited to properties like Outrigger’s Castaway Island Fiji Resort (outrigger.com) on the Mamanuca Group’s 170-acre Qalito Island. The 66-bure hideaway oozes that quintessential barefoot-and-hammock vibe, with snorkeling and paddleboarding in a translucent lagoon or circumnavigating the perimeter via kayak.
Fiji is also coveted among diving enthusiasts for its treasure trove of 1,000 fish species, and its nearly 4,000-square-miles of brilliant formations in this “Soft Coral Capital of the World.” Vanua Levu’s underwater volcanic origins have matured into such revered sites as Canyons, Nuggets, Goldilocks and Nsonisoni Pass.
It just makes sense that Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Resort (fijiresort.com) landed here within a 17-acre coconut plantation overlooking Savusavu Bay. Regardless of location, nearly all resorts have an on-site dive operator, or work closely with one nearby, for PADI certification and excursions.
Avid big-wave surfers are equally appeased, since Fiji’s Southern Hemisphere domain brings large winter swells from April through October. You’ll find more mellow summer surf from November through March, when the weather is warmer and wetter. Breaks like Cloud, Wilkes Passage and Swimming Pools off Namotu Island are legendary.
Unless you’re dead set on scurrying to seclusion, however, you’re likely to best quench your cultural thirst by spending at least a day or two in the thick of things on Viti Levu—especially if landing at Nadi International Airport (to break up a longer trek to New Zealand or Australia).
You’ll find thermal mud pools, flourishing orchid gardens, established by American actor Raymond Burr, Fiji Museum (fijimuseum.org.fj) and bustling markets in Nadi and Suva. Vendors hawk everything from woven baskets and pearl necklaces to colorful produce grown in Sigatoka’s fertile “Salad Bowl” region.
In the heart of the Viti Levu’s Coral Coast, Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort is a lushly landscaped retreat where Talai Butler Service presents a South Paci~ c twist through welcome drinks and chilled towels at check-in, and Champagne and canapés delivered to guest rooms each afternoon.
Sharing Lomalagi Hill with Kalokalo Bar is Bebe Spa, a sanctuary that indulges in treatment rooms with private, open-air balconies—four of which are designed with sunken spa baths. While the menu doesn’t include lomilomi, the coconut oil-infused Fijian Bobo Massage is a divine, fluid stroke “cousin” performed via hands, elbows and forearms.
Larger resorts, such as Outrigger, pamper the palate as well with a weekly lovo feast prepped in an underground oven. Akin to the Hawaiian lu‘au, Fiji’s version spices it up with the almighty kava, a bitter beverage resembling muddy water that brings a curious numbing effect to the lips and tongue.
“Kava is at the epicenter of the Fijian culture,” Young says. “You don’t celebrate a lovo, discuss issues or negotiate without a bowl of kava. It slows down the pace, and helps people get on the same page.”
For “purists” who relish cultural immersion through eco-adventure, Sigatoka River Safari (sigatokariver.com) journeys deep into Viti Levu’s interior, where hospitable villagers welcome you into their homes. Count on kava consumption being reserved for men, and know you’ll consume your lovo lunch by hand while sitting on the matted floor, since utensils and dining tables are not customary in community dining halls.
What’s especially endearing about the Fijian fiber is how these musical people spontaneously break out in meke. This enchanting blend of dance, song and theater rolls out at feasts, or when bidding farewell to new friends after sharing the afternoon together.
Some 20 minutes from Nadi on Denarau Island, you can day-trip from Port Denarau Marina to nearby island clusters of Mamanuca and Yasawa. Or explore from five to 21 days with a “Bula Pass,” with 12 islands in the chain of 20 offering accommodations.
Not an island in natural terms, Denarau’s integrated resort complex deviates from Fiji’s more laid-back attitude with resort brands certain to ring a recognition bell. But limiting your Fijian getaway to this modernized area is like attending a lovo and skipping dessert.
“Everyone looks for happiness,” Young says. “But the Fijians—the people who are trying the least—actually have it the most. It’s what sets Fiji apart from other island destinations. They all have beautiful beaches, water and weather. But nowhere else makes you feel the way you feel in Fiji.”