By Veronica Lescay
“Bula!” the villagers unreservedly greeted me as I passed a small, traditional community on my way to what was promised to be magnificent waterfalls. You can’t escape the friendly greeting anywhere in Fiji. I was on the island of Taveuni, which was a one-hour flight from mainland Fiji. Taveuni is known for its luxuriant forest, mountain hikes, and vibrant coral reefs. In fact, much of the virgin rainforest is protected by the Bouma National Heritage Park, which was one of the primary reasons I had decided to visit the island.
The truck I was riding in the back of rambled on down the rocky road. We were in route to Tavoro Waterfall in Korovou village, from which starts a trail that leads to three waterfalls. Fijians and international visitors alike frolicked in the first pool that lay beneath a magnificent waterfall. I decided to leave the first fall for a swim at the end of the hike, and hiked onwards to the second waterfall, a path which offered spectacular panoramic coastal views and a neighbouring island. I was in heaven. Beside my group of fellow travellers, there was no one else at the second waterfall, which ended up being the prettiest and most serene. After crossing fast moving streams with the aid of a rope and a clambering up steep crushed coral paths, I felt like I wholeheartedly deserved the swim in the cascading pool. I ended up visiting two more waterfalls that day, including Wainibau Falls, which required swimming through a passage in between 10 meter high rock faces. While waterfalls galore is not what one typically expects from Fiji, it is certainly there for those who seek an alternative to a typical Pacific beach vacation.
Next stop was the Yasawa Islands. People don’t usually associate Fiji with the backpacker trail, but the Mamanucas and Yasawa Islands cater to both the budget traveller and those with more refined expectations. I boarded the Yasawa Flyer, a catamaran that departs from Nadi every morning and stops first in four of the Mamanucas Islands (with dreamy names such as Treasure Island, Beachcomber, and South Sea Island). From there, the ferry continues on to the Yasawa Islands, known for beautiful palm-fringed beaches, picturesque resorts, and even hiking. Although the islands are well known to international tourists, they are surprisingly undeveloped, where you can effortlessly find your own private beach. While many travellers island hop and stay at multiple islands, I unfortunately had three days left, and decided on a locally owned budget option, Naqalia Lodge on Wayalailai Island.
The approach to Wayalailai Island is dramatic, as it is dominated by towering twin peaks with an old village perched below. Naqalia Lodge was basic, with only a handful of bungalows and a dorm room, but the staff treated you as family and one quickly became friends with fellow travellers. If relaxation is your goal, this was the place to be; dozing off in a hammock was a particular pastime of mine. Nonetheless, on my second day, I decided to venture out for a two-hour hike uphill to the summit of Vatuvula for a fabulous view of neighbouring islands, the village below, and spectacular rock formations in route. The hike was tougher than travel literature made it seem, and since I was the first one up that morning, I had to battle countless spiders that built their homes crisscrossing the trail. My philosophy on travel is that the harder you have to work for it, the more you enjoy the event at the end, so the fear of spiders was one I was forced to confront. With no other souls in sight, I summited the boulders and precariously gazed across the Pacific haven. The view was far finer than the Fiji I long imagined.
The next day I went on a short bush trek to find my own private beach. Coral reefs were aplenty, and local children were searching for shells. I plopped down in the sand and enjoyed the feeling of content, thinking the day couldn’t possibly get better. A young boy approached me with the usual “bula!”, and in the typical Fijian style, started asking me personal questions. This is a type of cultural exchange I live for, so I happily exchanged information despite the age and cultural gaps. The boy then invited me for a beachside picnic with his family, out picnicking after a day of fishing and farming. The family was ultra-friendly and inquisitive, and I’ve never felt more welcome by complete strangers. Oftentimes, the best part of traveling is the people you meet along the way, and Fijians are the friendliest people you can find. I ended up spending the afternoon with them, eating fish straight out of the ocean and contemplating the island life. The more you travel, the more you understand that we all share the same humanity.
Fiji does remarkable marketing, and hence its image to Western travellers is symbiotic with gorgeous stretches of golden sand, palm trees intensifying an already picture-perfect beach, and coral reefs abundant with tropical fish. Fiji offers this and much more to the traveller who looks beyond their plush resorts. Friendly locals, traditional village life and Indian culture, amazing hikes, protected rainforests abundant with waterfalls, and all you can drink kava await you!
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