For my 24th birthday, I spent it the one way I desired: in solitude* and without anyone even knowing it was my birthday. My gift to myself was a few days in Fiji – after all, my bucket list now consists of being in a different county for every birthday in the years to come.
*for the most part
I will note that I excitedly booked my ticket to NAN (Nadi Airport) when I found a great deal two months in advance. However, I didn’t do any research on Fiji until the week leading up to my departure.
If you simply Google “Nadi, Fiji,” you’ll quickly see that most try to get the heck out of Nadi as soon as touching down. Nadi is the westernmost part of the island of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island – and also the international gateway to Fiji. Most travelers take a connecting flight out of Nadi so they don’t even need to step outside the airport. Well, I was naive. I had booked a hostel I found online (incredibly cheap, equivalent to $6USD/night) for the week and thought that Nadi was a prime spot to be in Fiji. They have all the photographic white sand beaches in Nadi, right?!
You see, there’s a reason that the hostels are so cheap in Nadi. While I didn’t have a negative experience there, I definitely was uneasy when my taxi driver drove us through the village. Yes, Nadi is a village – not a bustling city of tourism. I can honestly say that Nadi was the closest I’ve come so far to experiencing third world living conditions. I haven’t been to Densapar (Bali) yet, but from what I’ve heard, Nadi seems to be its equivalent.
Luckily, I found a way to experience part of the Yasawa Islands based on my limited time. With some refunds, about $40USD lost, schedule changes and last-minute bookings, I had a ticket to Mantaray Island Resort via Awesome Adventures. If I had just read Nomadic Matt’s Fiji travel guide beforehand, I probably could have escaped the last-minute panic attacks, but I can chalk it all up to experience in retrospect.
Still, like the old saying goes – everything works itself out in the end. When I arrived at Nadi airport, it was extremely similar to the atmosphere of Hawaii. Having just flown in from Sydney, it was a bit of an interesting adjustment (lavish, beautiful city to an isolated, unpopulated island), but nothing unmanageable.
Since I went with Bamboo Backpackers on Waialoa Beach, I had a free pre-arranged driver pick me up from the airport and shuttle me to the hostel. I immediately learned how isolated and carefree Fiji is from the rest of the world when I mentioned that I used to work at Disneyland, and he had no idea what that was.
“You know, Mickey Mouse?”
“Nope *shakes head*”
I was fascinated – Fijians remind me of Kiwis on steroids, in the sense that everything is 1,000 times more chill than New Zealand. And that really says something (it’s not a bad thing, trust me). There’s a genuine warmth and kindness in their voices. Everyone greets you with a loud, “Bula!” and you’re always referred to as, “my friend.” Fiji time is also comparable to Hawaii – in the sense that time doesn’t exist or matter. At all.
“Just don’t go back to work on Fiji time – you can only do Fiji time here,” a local mentioned.
I also learned about Fijian perspectives of the world. Most Fijians do not have enough funds to ever travel outside their home country, but rather than being sad about that, they’re thankful for the beautiful place they live in. After all, they live on a South Pacific island – such a hard life, just tanning and relaxing all day. “Why would I want to go anywhere else?” my taxi driver mentioned.
However, there is a downside to their perspective. My driver was also shocked that I was traveling alone (he mentioned that it was because I was a girl), even though I argued that there are thousands of girls who enjoy traveling solo and are perfectly safe as long as they exercise common sense. I’ve learned that the first ones to judge or be fearful about girls traveling alone are usually the ones who unfortunately have never traveled outside their own country – their little safehaven.
The majority of travelers I met in Fiji were either: (1) honeymooners; (2) lovey-dovey couples; (3) party backpackers who always had alcohol in their possession. I should mention that late August happened to be the Southern Hemisphere’s winter (even for Fiji, although this just meant a lot of wind – not cold at all), so I was unluckily caught up in staying at an isolated island with about 30something American expats studying abroad in New Zealand/Australia, on their winter break. Granted, some were nice, but still. I’m a bit old for that demographic now.
Going back to the whole traveling solo bit: I was often asked who I came with – and most were in disbelief that I came by myself just for fun. Looking back on it, yes, I may only go back to Fiji (or the Caribbean, Virgin Islands, etc.) if I brought along a few friends or partner. But it’s really not impossible to have a great time in Fiji by yourself, since you’re bound to meet people (at least one) who you connect with along the way.
I managed to make the most of Nadi while I was there, and I ended up (thankfully) only staying the equivalent of a full day there (split between the beginning and end of my stay of Mantaray Island). It consisted of walking the entirety of Waialoa Beach, which wasn’t spectacular – but hey, it was a beach, and our hostel was right on it. Throw in a few hammocks, beach, volleyball, lounge chairs, pool, and outdoor bar, and you’ll see why anyone can come to Fiji and just kick their feet up in the air.
I also [very reluctantly] tried kava, a crop of the Southern Pacific. The roots of the plant are used to produce a drink with sedative and anesthetic properties, which is why Fijians drink it so often. I was the only girl in their kava circle (I wonder why), so I was crowned the Kava Queen and was given the duty of instructing everyone to drink whenever I wanted (but that included me, so I rarely said anything). Your tongue basically goes numb at the first sip, and I attribute it to the liquid form of dirt and mud. It tastes that bad. We drank out of a halved coconut – I think I had the equivalent of four. But hey, you don’t go to Fiji and not try kava, especially when it’s a cultural tradition.
Getting to the Yasawa Islands
The Yasawa Flyer (Awesome Adventures) is your main gateway to the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands. The boat ride takes anywhere from 30 min – 5 hrs, depending on the island/resort you choose to stay at (see map below).
This transport vessel ended up being a large yellow three-tiered boat (think of a gigantic submarine). Mantaray Island was about three hours from Nadi, but the boat ride was stunning. As you can see on the map, if you choose Nanuya Lailai Island, you’ll have to stop at every island/resort leading up to your destination. The bonus is that you’ll get to see every island in the Mamanucas and Yasawas – as long as you can stomach the long boat ride.
The minute the Flyer departed from Port Denarau Marina (Nadi) and started passing the first remote islands, the water color changed from a murky gray to postcard-type turquoise waters. It was amazing. I’ll repeat: If you want to experience Fiji, you need to get the heck out of Nadi as fast as you can. We even saw a few mackerel fish fly out the water as we boated by – they were so large, they actually looked fake. My camera skills were far too slow to capture those moments.
Unfortunately, our ride back from Mantaray Island to the marina (three hours) was absolutely dreadful – the worst boat ride I’ve ever experienced. The waters were extremely choppy that day, which meant our boat was constantly rocking – we’re talking like A Perfect Storm status, except it was super sunny outside. All of us on the top outer level were drenched head to toe in water. I remember us watching a gigantic wave come over the deck and moaning, since there was nothing we could do about it. As a result, we each had to crawl down the stairs (literally) to the lower deck. Probably the most rocky, unsatisifying three hours on a boat of my life – I can still relive it in my head, which isn’t pleasant.
How to enjoy yourself in Fiji
Most travelers opt for an island hopping pass to experience a chunk of the Yasawas and Mamanucas. I’d recommend looking into this pass if you’re more of the free-spirited backpacker type, just looking for a good party time.
Since I was limited to only one island with my time constraints, I did my best to enjoy everything on that one mass of land. I basically did every activity they offered (sans spear fishing and sunset tubing, since both involved party crews. Translation: no thank you). Well, when we first arrived on the white sand, crystal-clear-watered beach, I was forced to relax. For the first time in my life, I was given the luxury of absolutely nothing to do except tan and chill out when we waited for the low tide to turn into a swimmable high tide. I usually don’t like sitting still, but when the sun was out, there was no better feeling than laying out in the sun and hearing the slow waves wash against the shore.
Kayak rentals were free and snorkel gear was $10 FJD/day ($5 USD). When you’re on a remote island, you might as well seize every opportunity to get out in the water – whether that involves swimming, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, boating, you name it. The water itself was extremely warm, comparable to Hawaii. Anyone with a phobia of diving into icy waters would be relieved in Fiji.
Mantaray Island Resort
Now, I chose Mantaray Island Resort for a number of reasons. It was one of the middle-tiered resorts (read: not super expensive, yet not cheap and trashy either) that still looked gorgeous. Plus, it boasted a highly likelihood that you would swim with mantarays, and is also known as the best snorkel/dive spot throughout the Yasawas. It also had more than one beach (although the second one was the smallest I’ve ever seen – but a beach is a beach).
When we arrived, we unloaded from the Yasawa Flyer into a small tugboat (I had actually never been in one prior to this) that took us to the remote island of choice. We were greeted by happy workers and plenty of singing and ukulele-playing upon arriving on shore. For the first time in my life, I was on a beach that surpassed all of the ones in Hawaii.
The photos can’t even begin to show how beautiful the water is. You have to be there yourself firsthand to see how clear and pristine everything looks. The water was bright blue with a gradient of turquoise (with outlines of coral from afar) when the sun was out, which made it perfect for diving/snorkeling. The water was so clear, we could see all the native fish from a distance without even walking out onto shore. I’d assume that the Cook Islands, Bahamas, Virgin Islands, and other island destinations are probably similar in that respect.
I picked the dormitory (again, the cheapest option), which meant a cramped room full of bunk beds – 36, to be exact. We were filled to capacity, and if you climbed out of your bunk bed at the same time as the person across from you, you’d bump into each other. That’s how close the quarters were – the beauty of traveling.
I wasn’t keen on the way our meals were structured – we’re talking military style, like someone rings a bell and everyone has to clamor together and sit down in the cafeteria to eat. And if you accidentally slept in or didn’t hear the bell, then too bad – you missed out on food for that two-hour mark. The gap between lunch and dinner was seven hours, which was presposterous to me. That’s probably why they were selling $10 FJD woodfired pizzas, sodas, and other junk food at a small snack shack next to shore. I framed it as, “That’s okay, we’re only taking $89 FJD/day from you for these structured meals, but if you’re hungry in between those set times, you can spend more of your money on some [terrible tasting] junk food here!” Most of the medium and high-tiered resorts had compulsory meal plans built in – at an extra high fee – meaning you couldn’t argue your way out and had to pay the fee every day you stayed there in order to eat.
We were given at least five different options for each starter, entree, and dessert for lunch and dinners – and breakfast was buffet style. Being a food snob, I’d say that the food wasn’t great, but it wasn’t particularly bad, either. I will say that I liked the food in New Zealand more, so maybe that says something…
Not to mention that I wasn’t allowed to eat in the cafeteria hut on my last day (since my boat from the island was departing at 3pm) – or else I would have had to fork over an extra $25 FJD – so I resorted to a $8 FJD hot dog that made my heart very sad.
If there’s one thing that made my Fiji trip worth it, it was scuba diving. Let me tell you – scuba diving in Fiji was far better than diving The Great Barrier Reef.
Despite the hype of the GBR in Australia, Fiji has far better visibility and far more marine life and underwater spectacles. Other travelers agreed – even the Kiwi dive instructor who currently lives in Fiji. After all, the majority of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef is bleached for the purpose of coloring – whereas in Fiji, everything is native and pure (and we hope it stays that way). That leaves you with one hell of a spectacular dive.
I’ve done the general conversions to USD, and it’s safe to say that any scuba course (open water, advanced, or dive master) will be far cheaper in Fiji than stateside. It’s a little cheaper to get your certifications done in Koh Tao, Thailand, from what I’ve researched, though. Advanced certification in Fiji is approx. $270 USD, whereas it’s only about $240 USD in Thailand – no accommodation factored in.
There was a group of American expats who paid the equivalent of $400 USD for their Open Water certification, including three extra dives. I paid over $700 USD to be semi-privately certified in California. Even though it was worth it, I would have much rather been certified in a foreign country. Fiji, Thailand, etc. – definitely get certified out there.
However, at the time I went, our resort was offering a stellar deal on a 5-dive package (2 dives and 3 night dives, including advanced certification), for the equivalent of $350 USD.
Why the hell didn’t I take advantage of that?!
Oh, because I’m an idiot. I might
always “sometimes” get sick after diving, but I’m totally going to push myself to get advanced certification someday. It’ll probably be in Koh Tao.
I didn’t think I would even dive in Fiji (budget reasons – even though I was more than okay even with the dives factored in). However, I figured that would probably be my last visit to Fiji for awhile – so why not?! I’m so glad I signed up spontaneously. My dive instructor, Tooks, gave me a private dive since I was the only one already certified who went that day. Just me and my dive buddy, alone?! I’ve actually never done that before.
It was remarkable. I’ll never forget how much my eyes lit up underwater when seeing this whole new world. The Great Barrier Reef just doesn’t even rank when I put the two experiences together – although I’ll probably change my mind if I dive it again during the summer.
We dove through caves, swam to the ocean floor, swam through schools of vibrantly colored fish (most were so tame that they just watched us as we swam next to them), and were surrounded by coral everywhere. Instead of being herded like sheep in our large group of 8 in the Great Barrier Reef, I had the freedom of taking everything in with Tooks, and he even guided me hand-in-hand to ensure that I knew where I was going. He even took my GoPro and strapped it on his wrist (all while underwater) to get better footage for me. Talk about awesome and really caring. And as scared as I was to enter the water by tumbling backwards off the boat with my gear, it worked – and was twice as fun.
We even had a little Nemo nibble our fingers (see photo below). The others mentioned they saw octopi (WTF) and moray eels (WTF, I LOVE EELS), so I was sad that I didn’t get any peeks at those – but still. FIJI.
I only did two dives and had a wonderful time with each – but when I resurfaced on the last one, I had the same experience as in Catalina (the day I got certified). All I remember was getting on the boat, one of the guys asking, “Did you see any sharks?!” (we did), unbuckling my gear as fast as possible, and mumbling, “Hold on,” as I leaned over the boat’s edge. I basically fed fish again – but the worst part was that the water was so clear, you literally could see how awful that polluted it. I was mortified. I’m praying to God that I equalize properly and without any issues in my future dives….
Every morning, there would be loud drums playing if any mantarays were spotted. This was anywhere from 6-9am. I took this as a cue to literally get up before the sun rose, throw on my bikini, and be ready to go whenever they sounded off. The swim itself was beans cheap ($25 FJD, or $18 USD) – I mean, where the heck can you swim with a billion mantarays for only $18?!
There were other groups from other islands as well who would normally be in the same mantaray spots – but it was never overcrowded. We saw about five mantarays swim right by us. One passed underneath us – it was so close, we could have touched it (alas, no touching). I’ve never seen mantarays that close, nor swam (or snorkeled) with them, so it was an incredible experience. They swam swiftly, though – if you blinked for two seconds, you missed them whiz by. They were beautiful – smooth, grayish-blue marine creatures with white spots on their backs. I didn’t expect them to be that large – some were about the same size as an actual human, length-wise.
Fast Facts on Fiji
Fiji is a cluster of 333 beautiful islands and over 500 beautiful islets. Out of these, 110 islands are populated, although 87% live on Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. As of last year, its total population (every island) was approx. 896,000. Their economy is primarily based off tourism (people like me) and sugar, which is understandable – sugarcane is everywhere you look in Nadi. Our USD is worth a lot more in Fiji ($1 FJD = $0.50 USD), which is one of the prime reasons so many tourists are attracted to the islands.
Honestly, everyone travels differently. Despite usually planning and researching ahead, I learned a huge lesson by letting this trip fall to the wayside. It’s always good to have some sort of idea where you’re headed – and if you don’t, just let the locals plan it for you. Every hostel and hotel in Nadi has accommodating, knowledgable people who just want you to have the best Fijian experience possible. In Nadi, I was told that I could have received more of a discount and better advice on booking my trip to the Yasawas if I had just showed up there without booking any other boats/resorts.
If you’re really adamant about staying overnight in Nadi and are only planning on doing the Mamanuca or Yasawa Islands, you need to be sure to book a flight that gets into Nadi extremely early (usually landing by the 8am mark is fine). Reason for this: The Awesome Adventures boat departs every morning at 8:30am sharp. If your flight is delayed (or if you get in at 2pm, like I did), you’ll have to book overnight accommodation in Nadi and wait until the next morning to catch the boat.
Or, if you went to skip all that hassle, Awesome Adventures does a specialized welcome and departure pack for you. I stayed at the far cheaper Bamboo Backpackers hostel, and didn’t have any issues booking online (or even canceling a few of my nights). It was located next door to Smuggler’s Cove and Aquarius on the Beach, which are far more expensive as part of the Awesome Adventures package. However, other backpackers mentioned that the high price was probably just for the hot water in their bathrooms. Bamboo Backpackers didn’t have access to hot water. If you’re a bit of a flashpacker rather than a backpacker, you should probably opt for one of the nicer hostels (but seriously, a quick minute cold shower isn’t going to kill you).
The Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands are primarily reached via the Yasawa Flyer, as noted in the paragraphs above, which should be booked in advance (it usually tends to be full). Note that these two groups of small islands are the closest to Nadi. I highly recommend only taking the bare essentials on the boat (if you’re staying overnight in Nadi and returning back to the same place, you can leave your luggage in a storeroom at a hostel). Unless you don’t mind your large suitcase or bag being thrown from the Flyer into a smaller boat to reach your destination, it’s a lot easier to travel lightly. Also, The Yasawa Flyer is automatically included in your reservation for a resort in the Yasawas/Mamanucas. I accidentally double-paid for this because Bamboo Backpackers didn’t know I already reserved my resort ahead of time – so they made double money off me, damn.
When picking a specific island or resort, you should also research the demographics of the tourists who visit each. For example, I wouldn’t dream of staying at Beachcomber, which is the island with the worst party reputation in Fiji. Octopus Resort was my first choice (plenty of beautiful beaches AND lush forestry), but I went with Mantaray Island Resort since it ended up being cheaper per night – and I was sold on the whole diving thing.
Another note: On the Awesome Adventures site, only some of the resorts have hot water, WiFi, and other amenities included. The resort I chose didn’t have any amenities (cold showers four nights in a row, woohoo!), but again, it just depends on your travel style. You get what you pay for, after all.
The richer folk can afford flights to the more isolated, less touristy islands – if that’s your calling, I recommend researching. Tavenui is supposedly home to the best diving in the world. When I have about $10,000 USD to spare, I’ll gladly take a trip out there (Tavenui is not cheap in comparison to the other islands).
Overall, I’m glad I opted to spend my birthday in Fiji. Even though I’ve been spoiled by the luxuries of the beauty in New Zealand and Hawaii, it was still a wonderful trip and a marvel to see such clear blue water. And who knows, maybe I’ll see an octopus next time I’m out there again…