In this Article by South Pacific travel expert Ian Osborn
Nadi — Yasawa Islands — Viti Levu — Mamanuca Islands — Outer Islands
Backpacking around the Fiji Islands
There are three main routes for backpacking around the Fiji Islands. The most popular and consequently the most commercial backpacker route in Fiji is along the Yasawa Islands where roughly 30 budget backpacker resorts are scattered along the island chain offering accommodation in thatch huts and dorm beds. What makes this region so popular is its gorgeous beaches, great snorkelling lagoons and easy access to the accommodation.
To visit the Yasawa Islands, backpackers purchase a travel pass for 7-, 10- 14- or 21-day Yasawa Flyer which enables them to hop on and off the passenger ferry The Yasawa Flyer, and so visit all the beautiful islands along the way. The Yasawa Flyer is a fast and comfortable catamaran which departs Port Denarau in Nadi every day at 8.30am travelling through the Mamanuca Islands and up the Yasawa Islands, returning to Port Denarau at 5.30pm. The ferry stops at all islands along the way as far as Nacula Island in the northern Yasawas. It's a great system and enables backpackers to visit lots of different backpacker resorts and to meet fellow travellers along the way. Packages with the travel pass, accommodation and meals is another great option offered by purchasing the Yasawa Travel Pass:
The second popular route circumnavigates the main island of Viti Levy - there are a handful of lively hostels on the Coral Coast and laid back retreats on Nanuya Island on the north coast and on Caqalai Island off the east coast. For more of an adventure, Tavuni in the north of the country is great for eco travellers, explorers and scuba divers.
Nadi and around
Almost all backpackers spend the first day two hanging around Nadi before heading off to other parts of the country. Nadi is home to the international airport and the obvious place to start your holiday with plenty of very affordable accomodation, lots of tours and excursions on offer and other backpackers to meet who can share their own travel experiences in Fiji.
The most popular place to stay in Nadi for backpackers is at Wailoaloa Beach. The ocean here is too murky for snorkelling but the views looking out to the offshore islands and along the coast towards majestic mountains that surround Nadi. If you need shopping, Nadi Town has an excellent selection of Internet cafes, boutique shops, lots of department stores offering cheap clothes and several great restaurants. Bars and nightclubs are hard to find and can be on the rough side - the exception being Ed's Bar in Martintar.
Extending north east from Nadi and accessed by the daily fast catamaran the Yasawa Islands is a chain of 15 beautiful remote islands with a muddle of budget beach resorts aimed at the backpacker market. This is where the young at heart come to travel, to island hop, to experience the real Fiji. In fact, what they experience, are some of Fiji's most beautiful beaches, Fiji beer and a kind of hit and miss Fijian hospitality - sometimes great, sometimes very frusrating. Apart from the beaches, there's excellent snorkelling, several lovely fishing villages to explore, hills to climb, an unusual cave to visit, and then more beaches. This is where travellers meet, swap stories, make friends, form relationships and top up their tan.
The Yasawa Travel Pass enables backpackers in Fiji to purchase a one-off pass entitling them to transfers from Nadi to 16 backpacker resorts along the Yasawa Islands and with pre-paid vouchers for accommodation along the way which can be booked in advance or left as a last minute decision giving travellers the flexibility to explore on a whim. Snorkelling is generally excellent directly off the beaches in all Yasawa islands, although sometimes the best spots are on outer reefs reached by short boat trips. There are hiking trails throughout the hills offering fine coastal views over the lagoons.
Most of these backpacker resorts are owned and operated by locals and are built on customary village land. Some are very basic with poor standards of hygiene and sewerage systems whilst others are well managed with organised activities and day trips. Accommodation typically consists of one or two thatch bungalows (bures) with en-suite bathrooms, a handful of private bungalows with shared bathrooms and a couple of mixed dormitories sleeping around 8 people. Electricity is powered by diesel run generators and water is cold and usually drinkable. Meals are served as a set menu and are included in the price. Standards of quality and the services provided differ from one place to another and tend to change over short periods. The following have been long standing favourites are are listed in travel distance from Nadi, the closest appearing first:
Around Viti Levu (the main island)
You can explore the offshore islands of day and sailing cruises or venture into the interior on 4WD tours or along the Coral Coast on historical and sightseeing tours. There is also excellent rainforest along this coast which you can explore on rafting trips or on hiking trails. Backpackers seeking a quieter alternative to the Yasawa Islands might want to consider a trip to Nananu-i-Ra Island with its pretty beaches and laid-back ambience.
The Mamanuca Islands
The Mamanuca Islands directly off the west coast of Nadi Airport are quick to get to and make a great option if you only have a few days or don't want to fuss about travelling too far. These islands enjoy Fiji's sunniest weather, y are easy to explore and are blessed with gorgeous white sandy beaches sandwiched by swaying coconut trees and turquoise lagoons.
The Mamanuca Islands, being closest to Nadi, are a lot more commercialised than the Yasawa islands and most islands have up-market beach resorts. However, there are a couple of small islands with lively budget beach resorts which appeal to the party style backpacker market with a lively atmosphere. The closest of the Mamanuca Islands takes just 30 minutes by fast catamaran ferry.
The Outer Islands
For adventurers and diving enthusiasts, the Northern Islands is the best destination, particularly Taveuni. This rain forest clad island has some fantastic walking trails in national Parks with waterfalls and lush rain forest. This is also Fiji's finest dive destination with the fantastic soft corals of the Rainbow Reef a major attraction. Flights connect Nadi and Taveuni twice a day and take 1 hour 10 minutes. Alternatively, Kadavu in the south offers off the beaten track adventures or the Ovalau Region offers great beaches and snorkelling lagoon and is less commercial than the popular backpacker trail of the Yasawa Islands.
Fiji Backpacker Accommodation Options
In Fiji, the term “hostel” usually refers to a town boarding house aimed specifically at locals. The common name used is “backpacker resort”, and these can be found throughout the islands and even in Nadi. Most have rooms or lodges crammed with dorm beds but often the price of a simple double room or bure is the same as two dorm beds. Student discount cards such as YHA / Nomads are not accepted in Fiji.
Guesthouses in Fiji tend to be colonial styled wooden buildings with simple rooms, communal lounges and shared bathrooms, often used by government contract workers in the outer islands or remote settlements on the larger islands. They are usually cheap, with rooms costing around $40 and make convenient bases for travellers wanting to explore off the tourist trail. More appealing to general tourists are a handful of bed and breakfasts around the country, those in Nadi and Suva on the main island attracting business travellers, whilst several charming home stays and self contained cottages in the small towns on Vanua Levu, Ovalau and Taveuni, are mostly operated by expatriates and charge from $100 per night and up.
Village stays are operated by local Fijian families on customary land, opening up their homes to travellers for absolute immersion into the local culture, or building dedicated tourist bures just outside the village environment which gives both parties a little privacy. Village stays commonly cost around $60 per person per night including local style meals, sometimes served with the family and laid out on the floor, Fijian style.
Camping is not encouraged in Fiji and is perceived as an insult to the local culture when out in the wilds. However, several backpacker resorts permit pitching of tents within their resort grounds and specific organised expeditions, with the consent of village landowners, make temporary camp on secluded beaches.