It was a ten hour flight from Hong Kong to Fiji, but it was like travelling to a different planet. Well-organised, polite Hong Kong became totally laid-back, friendly Fiji. A new country for me and number 69 in my Countries Visited.
I found it a bit frustrating at first expecting everything to be as planned and on time, but gradually I relaxed and let the Fijian way take over. Well it probably makes sense when it’s 30°C and very humid with spectacular electric storms suddenly boiling up.
This was Stage 2 of my Round the World in 30 Days trip and it had started well with a good flight from Hong Kong. Maybe the flight attendants on Fiji Airways were not quite as efficient as those on Malaysian Airways, but the wine was definitely superior, including an excellent Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.
I’d always thought of Fiji as a little island in the South Pacific, just a mere speck compared with neighbouring countries like New Zealand or Papua New Guinea. So the four hour coach ride from the airport at Nadi to the capital Suva took me by surprise. In fact Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, is about half the size of Wales, but with higher mountains – quite a big speck!
The coach was air-conditioned, unlike the standard Fiji coach which has no glass in the windows. However fitting five seats across seems rather optimistic, especially as Fijians are not exactly the slimmest people on earth – quite the contrary. A diet of large amounts of corned beef (according to our Photo Editor, Snapper John, a Fiji expert) produces very effective rugby players, but poor travelling companions when sharing a three-person coach seat with two of them!
My time in Fiji was split between Suva and the old capital, Levuka, on the nearby island of Ovalau. To get to Levuka involved a four hour coach-ferry-coach journey, which took more than seven hours because of ferry problems. The Fijians on the coach could not comprehend why I was getting stressed about the delay. I flew back to Suva on an eight-seater plane, with some great views along the way. A distinctly more stress-free option (when the plane turns up)!
My Highlights of Suva
1. Electric Storm. Maybe a bit unusual to add as a highlight, but the intensity of the storm on our first night in Suva was striking – almost literally as the lightning appeared to land just a few feet from our hotel balcony. The noise of the thunder and rain was deafening.
2. Ocean Front Promenade. From the back of the Suva Holiday Inn, a seafront promenade snakes into the centre of the city with views over the harbour to the mountains beyond.
3. Municipal Market. A massive, noisy, colourful collection of stalls selling fruit, vegetables, fish, flowers and, on the fringes of the market, almost everything else imaginable.
4. Thurston Park and Clock Tower. A small, neat botanic garden with some unusual plants, although most were unlabelled. The squat Clock Tower, erected in 1918, commemorates the first Mayor of Suva.
5. The Fiji Museum situated in Thurston Park. The museum brings the history of Fiji to life with a large war canoe, war clubs and cannibal forks. My wife was fascinated by the beautiful Masi dresses made from beaten mulberry tree bark. The hundreds of small, squawking school-kids visiting at the time seemed to add to the atmosphere.
I didn’t visit the Colo-i-Suva Forest Park, one of Suva’s major attractions. This was mainly because it is very muddy at this time of year. Also there are security concerns as pilfering has been rife in the park; it is advised that you visit as part of group or pay for a park ranger to guide you.
My Highlights of Levuka
Levuka was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2013, with the citation stating that the town is: ‘an outstanding example of late 19th century Pacific port settlements’. Most of my highlights relate to Levuka’s rich heritage.
1. Clapboard Wooden Buildings. Along Beach Road there are several colourful buildings dating back to the late 19th Century and giving a feel of the town at that time full of whalers, beachcombers, missionaries and other similar doubtful elements.
2. Morris Hedstrom Building. One of the first shops in Fiji, now a small, but interesting museum.
3. Whale’s Tale Restaurant. Although not very promising from the outside and looking a bit basic inside, I found the food to be superb. The various dishes, all cooked to order in a well-organised kitchen, were a mixture (fusion!) of Indian and Fijian.
4. Church of the Sacred Heart. The main part of this Catholic church dates back to 1858 with the stone clock tower added 40 years later. On Sundays it competes with three other Levuka churches. However my vote for hymn singing would go to the Assemblies of God church situated close to where I was staying. I was awoken to some great harmonies which continued until late in the afternoon.
5. Mission Hill and the Oval. From the back of the Methodist Church, 199 steps lead up to Mission Hill and climbing further you reach a plateau known as the Oval. The climb was worth it for the great views, but, following a heavy rainstorm, we had to be assisted along the slippery muddy paths by a couple of young Fijian boys – much to their amusement. It reminded us that we are Senior Travellers.
Accommodation in Fiji
In Suva I stayed at the Holiday Inn, conveniently placed near to the city centre. My room had a wide view over Suva Harbour with colourful sunsets thrown in for good measure. What made staying at the hotel such a pleasant and memorable experience was the friendliness and helpful manner of all the staff. Book online to get a Senior Discount rate.
Definitely the best place to stay in Levuka is the Levuka Homestay, run by Australians, John and Marilyn. The breakfast is delicious featuring Marilyn’s own special muesli and freshly prepared pancakes. An evening drink with the hosts on their balcony watching the sunset is not to be missed.
Raffles Gateway Airport Hotel fulfils its function as an airport hotel, convenient for an early morning departure. However, I’m not sure how it gained its top Trip Adviser listing, particularly when it tries to charge an exorbitant rate for WiFi. I refuse to pay for Internet access at any hotel – it costs them nothing – and was eventually, grudgingly given 30 minutes free of charge as compensation for the TV not working.
I was not looking for a week or two sitting on a beach as most Fiji visitors – that’s not my idea of a holiday. And as a Senior I was not into taking part in hectic water-sports or long hikes in the mountains. Rather I wanted to get a feel of the culture of a third-world Pacific country and as such the five nights I spent in Fiji were probably long enough.
Senior Travellers need to be careful not to wear expensive jewellery and to watch for petty thieves, particularly near the Municipal Market in Suva and at the Colo-i-Suva Forest Park.
My lasting impressions of Fiji are of a scenic, tropical island with an interesting heritage and over-crowded, slow coaches, but most of all of very laid-back, friendly people.
I was immediately brought back to earth when I arrived in New Zealand on Stage 3 of my Round the World trip. Aucklanders are pleasant enough people, but far too busy in general to exchange a smile and a few words. Back to the real world!