We arrived in Fiji via sailboat and then spent several days chill-axing off the coat of Vanua Levu, an island northeast of the big island in the Fiji island chain. Saying goodbye to Sophie after ten fun days (well, aside from my sea sickness during the ocean crossing!) was tough but Alison and I also new that we would regret not seeing some other parts of Fiji while we were here.
We caught a tiny turboprop airplane from the smallest airport either of us had ever been to, bound for Nadi, Fiji (pronounced “Nandi”) which is a major tourist hub. Near Nadi is an upscale area called Port Denarau that many tourists spend a night in on their way in/out of the country; however the real place people head to for the bulk of a Fiji trip is the island chain off the coast called the Mamanuka and Yasawa islands.
These islands are accessible by ferry boat (or sea plane), with the majority of folks taking a high speed catamaran service that island hops throughout the resort areas every day. The islands are very spread out, with the ferry ride being almost five hours for the islands farthest away from the mainland.
What is unique about Fiji is that it caters to backpackers and budget travelers in addition to the rich and super rich. We saw some of the largest yachts in the world at the Port Denarau marina (two had helicopters on the top deck), and also the yacht named “A” belonging to a billionaire Russian Oligarch moored off one of the islands we visited in the Mamanukas (it happened to be the same one we saw in French Polynesia during our honeymoon last year, it looks like a submarine and was designed by Phillipe Starcke).
Unlike our honeymoon last year where we stayed at five star resorts in over the water bungalows, this time we were traveling to experience places and not pamper ourselves in luxury. We wanted to see a few different islands, but didn’t know where exactly to stay. We arrived at the Port Denarau marina (after stopping en route at an Indian restaurant for lunch!) and bought our accommodations at a travel agent desk after reading some brochures (and noting some tips from Jamie and Jenna on where to go as they had sailed in the area before), then boarded out catamaran a few hours later.
1) South Sea Island: a tiny island you could walk around in five minutes!
2) Manta Ray Island: where you could, if lucky, swim with Manta Rays. We also heard the resort was quite nice.
3) Blue Lagoon: it was made famous by the eponymous movie, and we heard it was a gorgeous resort and beach.
4) Bounty Island: we chose to stay here on our way back from Blue Lagoon to break up our travel, since it was so close to the main island and we had a long flight back Seattle in the evening.
South Sea Island:
We stayed in a dormitory, in fact, that was the only option for lodging on this tiny spot of sand in the middle of the sea. The food was so-so, as we would soon learn that people in Fiji don’t really understand what “vegan” means….there are plenty of veggies and fruits available, but combining everything together into a healthy meal was hard to do. We had better luck with vegan food at the other islands (though it still wasn’t great). One great thing about this island was that since it had so few people staying every night, dinner was served right on the beach, by candlelight. Very cool!
Manta Ray Island:
We swam with Manta Rays and it was awesome! Part of me, though feels bad that the animals are disrupted by humans snorkeling around them (the Rays are feeding in the channel where we go to see them). They are only present in this area for a few months a year. We saw about seven different Rays, including a Devil Ray (all black) and Manta Ray (with white on the belly.) We didn’t have an underwater camera and are still waiting for a friend we met on the island to email the pics to us. Just trust us that is was amazing. If you ever swim with Rays in the open ocean, just listed to the guides and don’t touch or in any way harass the animals. Let them swim below you.
In addition, right off the beach from our resort (literally five feet away from the water’s edge) was a pristine marine reserve and protected reef. It was vibrant in color and full of fish. Unlike many of reefs we saw in Fiji that were full of dead coral, these were fully alive and we took full advantage and snorkeled several times a day.
I don’t recall the name of the island, but the resort we stayed at was called “Blue Lagoon Resort” and it was near the Blue Lagoon, made famous by numerous films. The day after we arrived, it started to rain. And I mean RAIN! I’ve never seen rain this hard, it was torrential. Even stepping outside would soak you head to toe. As a result of the rain (which lasted over 24 hours), all water and land activities were cancelled.
Instead, everyone huddled inside the bar/restaurant area and watched a cheesy remake of the Blue Lagoon on a TV they brought out (NOT the original starred Brooke Shields, but the even cheesier remake starring Mila Jovovich). We also caught up on internet (wifi was decent here) and read a little, while giving a lot of pets to the resort dog “Charlie”, who used to live on the property before the resort was even build. Charlie can pretty much go wherever he wants on the resort now!
Getting dropped off at your island was the most fun part of the journey. The catamaran would stop, and numerous dingy/small boats would motor in to drop off passengers and pick up new ones, along with provisions for the islands .
This island had the dumpiest accommodations, and we stayed in a dorm. However, the staff was unbelievably friendly and they actually had better vegan options for us to eat than South Sea or even Manta Ray island. The weather was also nice here….and the beach was large….so we just hang around on the sand and enjoyed out last full day in Fiji before flying home.
Overall, it was fun but not something we would do again (though we would definitely come back to Fiji and go other places).
Our trip to the Mamanuka and Yasawa Islands was fun and worthwhile to do as a “once in our lives activity”, but not a great value or something we would do in the same way if we return to Fiji.
Our main gripes are (1) the cost and (2) the quality of the lodging we had given the cost.
Remember, Fiji is a developing country, and the per capita wages are relatively low compared to the USA/Europe/Australia. I understand and have no problem paying a premium for visiting such a beautiful place and providing jobs/wages for the locals, and I was ready to do so. However the prices in this part of Fiji were just exorbitant (my comparison is India or Thailand as a reference). Note: I’m referring to the Mamanuka and Yasawa resorts, other parts of Fiji can be much more affordable. Even considering that people/goods need to be delivered to the islands via boat, it was still surprisingly costly.
Even the budget/backpacker resorts we stayed at cost ~$80-100 USD for lodging per person (in a large shared dorm!) and another $80-100 USD for a compulsory meal plan per person. If you eat meat and don’t have dietary restrictions, the meal plan would be a feast, however as vegans, we felt like it was a total waste of money. We didn’t eat 80% of the food available for buffets, and the custom meals they made us weren’t great (of the lot, Blue Lagoon had the best food). Also, there was no option but for us to pay the full amount for the compulsory meals.
Some of the accommodations (e.g. Dorms on Bounty Island and South Sea Island) were dumpy, despite the high cost. Blue Lagoon and Manta Rays Islands were the exception, where the accommodations were nice (though still costly).
As a result, we would not go back to these islands and these resorts.
That said, we definitely want to visit Fiji again. When we do, we will find some places off the beaten path where we can have good clean lodging at a fair price, an a la carte selection of meals (perhaps cook ourselves) and avoid paying the tourist premium applied to resorts in the Mamanukas and Yasawas.
Perhaps the biggest motivator for going back to Fiji is the people, culture and slower pace of life. Fijians are super friendly, family oriented…and laid back. We like that.