PHOTOS BY: Fiji.travel
Fiji has been attracting sun-loving folks to its white-sand beaches for decades, and those who arrive with notions of R&R and lazy days are seldom disappointed. For many others, Fiji’s underwater scenery has a reputation as the ‘soft coral capital of the world’, a moniker that lures plenty of divers and snorkellers to its shores.
While its beaches and water-based activities are the norm here, Fiji’s cultural and historical offerings are also worth the excursion, giving visitors a glimpse into its colourful culture and colonial history.
A number of traditional Fijian villages dot the archipelago’s 333 islands, and visitors are welcome to visit most of them.
While modernisation means that many villages are built with concrete blocks, a few villages still retain their traditional bure (thatched roof) construction. There are also options for homestays with local families within the village – while staying with the village chief is possible, visitors are usually paired with the first family they meet upon arrival. Accommodation is on woven floor bed mats, and meals are usually sourced from the village farms.
The largest and most well-known traditional village is probably Navala, nestled in the Ba Highlands in the northwestern part of Viti Levu. Surrounded by mountains and ridges, picturesque Navala has been in existence for at least 200 years, where about 200 bure homes are still built entirely the traditional way. Home to about 1,000 people, tourists are allowed to visit, but they must abide by their traditional customs.
Bukuya is another village that is off the beaten track, and while it offers the same experience as Navala (it’s also located in the highlands), the houses here are mainly concrete.
Other villages you can visit include Naweni (Vanua Levu) which is famous for its red prawns, Tau (near Nadi Airport) which is Fiji’s oldest settlement set in a large limestone cave, as well as those in the densely forested regions of Namosi and Naitasiri.
For a short excursion, the Arts Village at Pacific Harbour is a recreated Fijian village featuring traditional performances like meke dancing and fire-walking, and provides a good insight into the lives of the locals.
Koroyanitu National Heritage Park
For those looking for a bit more adventure in addition to a cultural excursion, Koroyanitu National Heritage Park (Viti Levu) features ancient trails that lead hikers past waterholes, small villages and up panoramic summits (like Mt Batilamu) where there are sweeping views of nearby islands. The marked trek takes in waterfalls, terraced gardens and villages.
There are 6 villages incorporated within the park, and are part of an ecotourism project. Located at the base of Mt Koroyanitu, Abaca village (where homestays can be arranged) has beautiful walks through native forests and grassland, with archaeological sites and waterfalls along the way.
While Fijians are pretty easy-going, it is always a good idea to adhere to their customs when visiting a village, like presenting a gift (sevusevu) of kava, and taking your hat off. There are three main types of ceremonies that visitors will be familiar with: the Lovo, Meke and Yaqona, which equates simply to “eat, drink and be merry”.
The Lovo is more like a magnificent feast than a celebration. The main feature of this is an earthen ‘oven’, where food is cooked on hot stones and covered with banana leaves or coconut stalks. Traditional food items include cassava (tapioca), kumala (sweet potato), yam and taro.
Fiji’s national drink is the yaqona (pronounced ‘yangona’), which is made from the pulverised root of a plant from the pepper family, and has a tingly numbing effect on the tongue. The act of sharing a bowl creates an invisible bond between the participants; it is often consumed when welcoming visitors and presented as a sevusevu (gift).
When mixed, a server will carry a cup to the chief guest, who must clap once before and after completely drinking the first cup.
No cultural celebration is complete without a traditional Meke dance. The type of dance varies from the blood-curdling spear dance performed by the men (who wear the full warrior costume with scented coconut oil), to the gentle and graceful fan dance performed by the women (who wear garlands of flowers and leaf skirts).
Two groups make up the Meke: the orchestra (vakatara) who sit on the ground and sing or chant and play the percussions (gongs, bamboo tubes, etc), and the dancers (matana).
While Fiji today is known for its resorts and beach getaways, it is easy to forget that it was once known as a country of cannibals and has been through WWII. The country’s rich history and milestones can be experienced at a few sites dotted around the main islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
Fiji’s history dates back to about 3,500 BC, and a visit to the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park is a good place to learn more about its people. This extensive sand dune system that stretches for several miles, reaching heights of 60m, is also an archeological site where 3,000-year old pottery has been uncovered alongside human remains and stone tools. There are several trails to explore, where you can find some of these ancient pottery shards.
Europeans were prominent in Fiji since the 17th century, and in 1874, the country came under British colonial rule. During this time, Fiji became a sugar producing country – the first sugar was produced in 1862 – when sugar mills were built on the larger islands in high rainfall areas. To get the sugar to the coast for export, many railway lines were built to link the highlands to the coast. While many of these ‘cane trains’ are disused today, the Coral Coast Railway has been repurposed to take visitors past the scenic coastline of the Coral Coast past thick green forest and cane plantations, stopping by at a traditional Fijian village and the Muka caves before ending at the pristine white sand Natadola Beach.
Another interesting excursion is the retro town of Levuka, Fiji’s first capital that’s still untouched by mass tourism. Founded by European settlers and traders in the 19th century, the town flourished with the cotton, coconut and sandalwood traders when ships and sailors of every nationality visited Levuka After the capital was moved to Suva in 1877, Levuka was destined to stand still in time. Today, it is home to Fiji’s oldest hotel (Royal) and a handful of 19th century churches.
While the town is an interesting visit, there are opportunities to visit nearby traditional villages including Silana and Lovoni.
During WWII, Fiji – like most other Pacific Island nations – was vulnerable to Japanese attack. This led to the creation of defensive gun batteries; the capital Suva had at least three, and Momi (nestled among sugar cane fields) was the site of another because it overlooked the Navula Passage.
Built by the New Zealand army, it was also manned for a short period by the Americans and served as a key strategic link between the USA and Australia during WWII. Today, the Momi Battery represents a period in Fiji’s history when so many of its citizens joined in the war effort.
Situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Fiji is accessible via a number of carriers including its national carrier Air Pacific, which has direct flights to Hong Kong and Australia (Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane). A 4-month visa is granted automatically upon arrival for visitors from most countries. For more on Fiji, visit www.fiji.travel.