CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH

Fiji

The Fiji archipelago has it all: windsurfing, sailing, ocean kayaking, whitewater rafting, or simple basking in the glorious sun

By Jordan Simon, Saturday, Jan 1, 2000, 12:00 AM

Standing outside the village of Romuna, I bear the traditional sevu sevu (offering): a bundle of kava or yaqona root (pulverized and mixed with water, both look and taste like mud to outsiders but are nectar to Fijians). The beverage is an integral ingredient of any ceremony-indeed, of daily life - and a means of bonding with newcomers. A local, Simon, whom I'd met at my hotel, acts as my mana (advocate), initiating a ritualistic dialogue with the chief in the main bure (typical hut, with bamboo walls, woven mats, and classic - and increasingly rare-cathedral thatching). Cups of kava are served from a bowl beautifully carved from tanoa, a native dark wood. I clap once, drink, clap three times again according to custom, then watch a meke, a joyous folkloric song and dance accompanied by the percussive lali (a hollowed tree trunk). I'm asked to join in, and an unlikely, sweatily vigorous line dance ensues. Cost of the experience for our group of six: US$10 for the pound of kava (the price had just doubled, since herbal pharmaceutical companies are now exporting it hand over fist as a stress reliever). That tradition of hospitality prevails throughout Fiji, an archipelago of more than 300 islands (only one third inhabited), covering 426,000 square miles. A century-old British colony that became independent in 1970, its culture has remained intact, which helps account for its affordability. TV didn't arrive until 1990 (and McDonald's in 1996), so the islands attracted either backpackers or fabulously wealthy people to a few get-away-from-it-all private resorts. Traditional chiefs still own most of the land, and international companies must enter into a legal agreement with a local resident - meaning fewer sprawling deluxe properties. Instead, cheaper facilities - many appealing to cost-conscious divers-sprang up, in marked contrast to destinations like Hawaii and Tahiti. The ten-hour flight from Los Angeles discourages many Americans, leaving Fiji more to rambunctious Aussies and restrained young Japanese on low-cost package deals.

This hospitality also made Fiji legendary among the international grunge set, some of whom took advantage of the Fijian concept of kere kere, or shared property: what's mine is yours. If when visiting a village you express interest, the chief may invite you to attend a lovo feast (tubers, fish, and meats swaddled in banana leaves and cooked in an underground pit) or even to stay with a family, sleeping on a bark-cloth mattress stuffed with dried coconut fibers. "Going native" remains an honored form of travel, and amazingly cheap: many locals still feel uncomfortable accepting money, because the entire village is an extended home and you're their guest. Be careful admiring something, as many Fijians will feel obligated to give it to you; rather than offering cash for your stay, buy a T-shirt, groceries, or ask the family what they would like. But you can just as easily "rough it" in contemporary or colonial-era hotels for as little as US$15 (one greenback is worth roughly two Fiji dollars; prices below are U.S.) or stay in your own fully equipped modern if basic home for $25-right on or near a beach. Dorm-style digs run as little as $5 per person ($12 including meals).

Although the people who arrived on these shores first are Melanesian, approximately half the population is East Indian (Hindu and Moslem). Their ancestors were brought in as forced labor for the sugarcane fields in the nineteenth century. Political turmoil, as the Indians demanded greater self-determination, scared off many travelers in the 1980s - another reason Fiji remains low on the tourism radar for Americans-but a new constitution has fostered peace and stability. Many towns have elaborate Hindu temples and onion-domed mosques with minarets, exotic contrasts to typical Fijian bures. That diversity is also reflected in the cuisine: curry shacks are common (as are inexpensive Chinese and pizza restaurants). At these lowest-cost eateries, full meals average $4-$8; Fijian dishes are slightly more expensive, though worth sampling, especially kokoda (seafood marinated in coconut, lime, and coriander) and wahoo steamed in lolo (coconut cream).

Veni, Vidi, Viti Levu

The easiest way to vacation in Fiji is to stay on the main island of Viti Levu. Roughly 10,000 square miles, it provides a microcosm of the archipelago's appeal: pristine beaches along the Coral Coast, the teeming colonial capital of Suva, a jumping-off point for exploring nearby islands on day trips, and a range of eco-adventures from trekking in mountains that tower to 5,000 feet to white-water kayaking down surprisingly fierce rivers to diving the renowned Beqa Lagoon with its currents, dramatic drop-offs, and riotously colored soft corals.

The centrally located Coral Coast is an ideal base, from which you can visit Suva for a day, then overnight on the historic island of Ovalau (a $27 one-way flight from Suva). International flights arrive at the Nadi (pronounced "NAN-dee") airport, usually in the middle of the night. At the airport's tiny tourist office, helpful staffers provide recommendations, even make calls; brochure racks climb like ivy up the walls, containing all conceivable information on lodging, sight-seeing, dining, and car rentals (including a few coupons). Regrettably, the town of Nadi is a bustling, congested, grubby bazaar of handicraft shops, Fijian fast-food joints, and markets; the main "sight" is its extraordinary multicolor temple. Still, it's best to decompress at an airport motel, then get a fresh start the next day. The best value is the New Nadi Bay Hotel (723-599, fax 720-092)*, with 24 snug rooms and apartments decorated in soft pastels; doubles with fans are $34 ($42 with air-conditioning). The area does boast attractions (and comparatively pricier beachfront lodgings for the severely jet-lagged) worth visiting before leaving.

Fortunately, Viti Levu is easy to negotiate. The island is ringed by one main drag, called King's Road in the north, Queen's in the south. The southern shoreline runs from Nadi past the Coral Coast to Suva. The northern coast is unspoiled but far less accessible (roads are frequently rained out); though there are numerous hotel bargains, they're generally shabbier than their southern counterparts, and restaurants scarcer. The cheapest way to navigate the southern coast is via bus, which is also a perfect introduction to the friendly locals (expect village invitations and an endearing curiosity manifested in often ingenuously personal questions). You could circumnavigate Viti Levu for $5; service is slow but regular throughout the day and evening hours. Every village has a bus stop (though you can hail the glorified safari vans from the highway); Nadi and Suva have mini-depots. Rental cars offer more freedom and can go as low as $10 per day plus 17 per mile for a small car without air-conditioning, up to $35 for a Toyota Corolla. Gas is expensive-approximately $3 a gallon-figure $30 for the Nadi/Suva round trip. A valid U.S. drivers' license is required and driving is on the left. The usual names - Avis, Hertz, Budget - have Nadi and Suva airport offices.

Singatoka/Coral Coast, Viti Levu: Sandy, low-cost catches

Some of Viti Levu's finest beaches lie southeast of Nadi, accessible only via dirt tracks from Queens Road, including the gorgeous Natadola ("nah-tahn-DOH-lah"), where tour operators offer day trips, including lunch and horseback riding, for about $25. Buses are infrequent; a rental car is advisable. The next major town, Singatoka ("sing-a-TOH-kah"), marks the beginning of the Coral Coast, an almost unbroken scimitar of palm-shadowed sand running to Pacific Harbour, a modern development with an 18-hole golf course, resorts, condos, a cultural center, and little genuine appeal.

Several properties and eateries cluster across the street from the sand in the next village, Korotogo ("koh-roh-TONG-oh"), whose beach could be better maintained. The best buy is the Casablanca Hotel (520-600, fax 520-616), halfheartedly Moorish and sitting atop a hill overlooking the sea amid two acres of overgrown gardens. Immaculate if narrow efficiencies-tiled, fully equipped, and modern, with local touches like bark-cloth wall hangings-are $29. Waratah Lodge (500-278) is composed of three A-frames in Christmas colors crawling with hibiscus and bougainvillea; $30 duplexes with fans and aging kitchens sleep six to nine. Both have pools, BBQs, and bike rentals. A half block away, Le Caf, (520-877) and Sinbad Pizzahouse (520-600) both offer unusual pizzas as well as curries, grilled chicken, and seafood for $3-$8.

This area is more memorable for its side attractions. The fertile, meandering Singatoka Valley is nicknamed the "Salad Bowl" of Fiji; take a cruise along the Singatoka River under a canopy of lush, sun-filtered vegetation or haggle with a spearfisherman to take you out on a traditional bilibili, a bamboo raft. The villages along the river are renowned for their pottery, fashioned from the rich red earth, while the tawny, 100-foot-high Sigatoka Sand Dunes comprise Fiji's first national park.

The beach widens as you approach Suva, with excellent offshore snorkeling. Tubukula Beach Bungalows (500-097, fax 340-236) provides clean if spartan lodgings, from dorms ($7.25) to fully equipped multi-bedroom units ($28-$44, depending on size and beach proximity), as well as activities and a mini-mart. This is one of the properties, ranging from beach bungalows to air-conditioned hotels, endorsed by the Fiji For Less organization (340-211, fax 340-236; or in the U.S. fax 310/362-8493; fiji4less.com), affiliated with several backpacker and hosteling associations.

Gorgeous landscaping and beach; warm Aussie owners; lively clientele; free bikes, bush walks, and canoes; and cheap meals ($1.50 breakfast, $1.50-$4 buffet and full meals like lasagna or tuna fettucine) are the lure of Beach House (530-500, fax 530-450). Lodgings are adequate, with cramped, shared-bath loft doubles $19, dorms $8.25, and camping $5. For a splurge, the local-style bures of intimate yet full-service Tambua Sands Beach Resort (500-399, fax 520-265) are cheerful, with fridges and ceiling fans; oceanview bures are $45 (two meals daily cost $11 per person extra). The grounds and beach are lovely; the restaurant-decorated with local crafts-offers nightly entertainment; and activities range from coconut husking (free) to horseback riding ($4.50).

Suva, Viti Levu: A really capital mishmash

Fiji's steamy capital of Suva (population 120,000) is a bizarre mix of colonial and contemporary, of traffic jams and tranquil gardens, with the appealingly tatty air of an old-time sailor's port of call and ethnic crossroads (the disco and clubs lined up on the main drag tell it all: Bourbon and Blues, O'Reillys, Bad Dog Cafe, Traps). Graceful Victorian government edifices alternate with cinder-block office buildings and hotels. It's not necessarily worth an overnight, but you can take in the sights during the day and catch the 5 p.m. flight for Ovalau. Some might enjoy checking out Suva's slightly seedy but colorful nightlife, then grabbing the 7:45 a.m. early bird or a ferry/cargo boat. Patterson Brothers Shipping (315-644) is reliable and comfortable; most boats have VCRs and refreshments, and one-way fares start at $12 (they run car ferries, too).

Stop by the bustling public market, with produce from around the islands. Then visit the excellent Fiji Museum, nestled in the impeccably landscaped Thurston Gardens. It provides a superb glimpse into the origins and culture of Fiji, from a great oceangoing war canoe to traditional native costumes and more gruesome historic relics (Fijians were considered the world's fiercest cannibals a mere century ago). There are also galleries celebrating Indian culture, rotating crafts exhibits, and artisans engaged in demonstrations.

Prices are lower and quality higher for authentic crafts at actual villages. But you'll find the widest selection in the bustling Handicraft Centre (really just a place to gather aggressive pushcart peddlers) by the waterfront. Bargaining is expected, but beware "sword sellers," who will ask your name, then instantly carve it on a wooden sword or tanoa bowl and expect you to buy it. Also, even some genuine pieces are often emblazoned "FIJI."

Local restaurants run the gamut, but the best are Asian; try Sichuan Pavilion (corner of Pier and Thompson streets, 314-865), elegant in lacquer and mirrors but quite reasonable, with entrees starting at $4. To lay down your head, the South Seas Private Hotel (312-296, fax 340-236) is a turn-of-the-century wooden building in a peaceful residential area within walking distance of city center; plain rooms with fans and private baths are $19.

Ovalau: Old-time offshore charm

Just a few miles and a hundred years offshore from Suva lies Ovalau, site of Fiji's first capital, Levuka. An official candidate for designation as UNESCO World Heritage Site in honor of its cultural and historic importance, it's an indescribably charming town of peeling clapboard houses and crooked sidewalks. The oldest (1850s) hotel and drinking club in the South Pacific - and straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel - the Royal Hotel (440-024, fax 440-174) has doubles with bath, ceiling fan, enclosed patio, uneven hardwood floors, and four-poster or brass beds for $14-$17. Nearby, the dilapidated but atmospheric Ovalau Club (440-507), founded in 1904, sports yellowed photos of royal coronations and weddings, and nautical banners from around the world.

Beach Street, Levuka's restored waterfront, is now practically a promenade, where kids play soccer with coconut husks while women sell fruit under banyan trees circled by squawking mynah birds. Also here are three marvelous restaurants. Caf, Levuka (no phone) prepares full dinners like papaya prawns or chili and garlic pork for $5; breakfasts and lunches are even less. Kim's (440-059) is harshly lit but gussied up with Chinese New Year's dragon wall hangings and Christmas lights year-round, and serves up sumptuous Chinese/Fijian/Indian/European buffets Sunday nights for $5.50, all you can eat. The "gourmet" spot is Whale's Tale (440-235), with a nautical theme (driftwood, whale photos, dried sea fans, thatch-and-bamboo bar) and Fiji-tinged Continental fare-$6.50 for a three-course dinner (delicious chicken in kumquat sauce with garlic bread). The owner's Australian husband, Arnold Ditrich, is the island's self-professed kava "dealer"; a bowl is always being emptied at the back table.

Ovalau's few beaches are tiny and black-sand (one reason it lacks a tourism infrastructure), but it's surrounded by unspoiled keys and pockmarked with underwater caves and mangrove channels. Sea kayaking is popular, as is mountain biking, through Ovalau Transport and Tours (440-611, fax 440-405, ecotoursfiji.com), which also organizes "Tea and Talanoa" chats with delightfully eccentric locals and expats.

Wrapping up in Nadi

Since return American flights depart at night, you can explore the Nadi area before leaving. Just north is the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, Raymond Burr's astonishing terraced gardens showcasing lily ponds and over 2,000 varieties of orchid from around the world (buses stop there and at Visisei village, reputed landing place of the first Fijians, for roughly 50[cents]). Trekkers can experience the Abaca Village & Koroyanitu National Heritage Park (666-644; $6 includes guide and round-trip transport from Lautoka), a tropical rain forest with glittering 100-foot waterfalls framed by black volcanic mountains and lava outcroppings. Abaca ("am-BAH-tha") is one of a few isolated villages that host a work/stay program. For $15, you hike with a guide, perform typical tasks like tilling fields or beating laundry on rocks in a stream, then eat and sleep with a family. One caveat: the ride up the rutted dirt road in a cushionless safari van alone qualifies as adventure travel.

Many travelers prefer ending (or starting) their trip on the water. The best nearby beach accommodations are at Club Fiji (702-189, fax 702-324), which attracts a youthful international crowd to its 12 acres and 24 traditional thatched bures with hardwood floors, ceiling fans, fridges, verandahs, private baths, and seashell color schemes. Beachfront lodgings cost $44, but identical "oceanview" bures offer a sliver of sea view for $35; dorm rooms ($5.50 per person) are further from the beach. On premises are full water sports (free), a dive shop, and an excellent restaurant - with everything from tacos to pizzas, starting at $4. For a more Robinson Crusoe feel, you can also stay on one of the Mamanucas, flat coral keys tossed casually into the Pacific off Nadi like a luminous strand of pearls. The best value is Ratu Kini's (721-959), owned by the chief of Mana island; its basic thatched bures with bath run $44-$56, bountiful buffet meals included.

If you enjoy your Fijian experience, you can explore the other main islands (Kadavu, Taveuni, Vanua Levu), all remarkably lush, mountainous, with world-famous dive sites, and even less developed for tourism. Indeed, that bundle of kava costs more these days than many basic digs.

Further Fiji facts

Contact the Fiji Visitors Bureau (5777 W. Century Blvd., Ste. 220, Los Angeles, CA 90045; 800/932-3454, 310/568-1616; bulafiji.com). Another helpful Web site is City.Net Fiji, at city.net.countries.fiji.

Fiji flights

Air Pacific (800/227-4446) offers direct flights from Los Angeles, starting at $699 round-trip. The two domestic airlines, Air Fiji (877/AIR-FIJI, airfiji.net) and Sunflower Airlines (800/294-4864), offer dependable, comprehensive service between Nadi and Suva and most of the islands on various smaller aircraft; tickets start at $25 one-way; ask about special off-peak rates during the week.