We had a few weeks of long service leave owing so decided to explore the lesser known northern islands of Fiji. Our aim was to travel slow and experience a range of different places to stay and things to do. This article is a glimpse into what we learnt from a wonderful, joyous month exploring Fiji's northern division.
Our journey began near Savusavu staying at the fully self-contained apartments of Siga Siga Sands. The Seahorse Bure was perfect. I'd go as far as to say, one of the best appointed rooms I've stayed in. Everything from the cooling, bathroom, kitchen, security and entire layout, made it very pleasant to stay.
From there we did day-trips to the world-famous Namena Reef with the famous Jean Michel Cousteau resort. We also went to Natewa Bay with the wonderful staff of Ocean Ventures, whose work includes developing conservation and sustainability on the peninsula. When the wind was bit strong from the south (see 'weather warning', below) we were also able to kayak the salt lake just inland, enjoying an amazing meal cooked by the lovely staff of Salt Lake Lodge.
From there we worked our way along the southern coast of Vanua Levu before taking the ferry to Tavenui for a few days at the incredible Paradise Taveuni. Note, the ferry leaves Natuvu about 8am (be there half an hour earlier) and takes about an hour or so to get across. It arrives in Waiyevo, where we were picked up.
Paradise Tavenui is a luxury dive and snorkel resort situated near the far southeast tip of the island. Most of the journey is on dirt roads and if it's wet, you'll need a driver with 4WD. We got a taxi because it was dry, but that's not common. The top of the island is shrouded in cloud and there are frequent tropical downpours.
The house reef at this location is exceptionally beautiful and accessed from right in front of the rooms. The currents are very mild and it's a great place to reside for a few days. There are boat trips daily into the Somosomo Strait as well as visits to waterfalls and local villages.
Paradise Taveuni feels like a village. From the moment you arrive you're part of the family. Snorkelling, diving lovo (barbecue in the ground among banana leaves) meals, luxury spa ... it has it all. And the cost? Including flights to Fiji, about the same as a week on Heron Island in the Great Barrier Reef. If you love snorkelling and diving, this is a place you need to go!
The laughter is the thing that will stick in your mind most of all though. The staff are delightful. Within minutes of guests arriving, as the staff put on a 'Fiji night', concierge Flo recited the names of all 65 guests. That's the capacity of the resort (16 bures), plus a few visiting yachts moored outside.
We had a simply wonderful time.
From there we headed north and stayed in bures at a local resort near Matei. We hired a local bird guide to go and see the island endemic Orange Fruit Dove and hired kayaks to visit the pristine coral reef islands near Coconut Lodge. We spent a few days in this region, mostly snorkelling off Maravu.
The reef here is in good condition. It's recovering fast and there was plenty to see. There are also some nice stretches of beach. Food was a little expensive and in hindsight, we might have liked to have had a place to cook ourselves. We had a fabulous meal at Coconut Grove but you have to call up to arrange it (it's not advertised online). A favourite restaurant of locals and expats alike is Tramonto at the top of the hill. The views are stunning.
But don't believe anything you read about Matei being the main town (there are numerous articles online that state this incorrectly). The nearest well-stocked supermarkets are in Somosomo. Restaurant are somewhat over-priced here for what they are and there is relatively little choice.
Our next stay was the charming village of Naivivi on Qamea Island, with 'Ma' and 'Pa'. This rural village homestay is lovely but naturally basic.
The first thing you'll notice is the constant laughter everywhere. The village is run traditionally with elders and committees that represent the locals. Every month there is even a working bee to tend to the village. The school kids start the day singing and brushing teeth before the teachers even arrive. My partner, a primary school teacher, commented that the teaching materials classes were more advanced than in most Melbourne private schools.
Everywhere we went, we were accompanied by smiles, kids and dogs.
The village dogs adopt you. They walk ahead, and even wait for two hours on the beach, before walking you back home. It’s instinctual. Yet in the week we stayed in a remote village, we never saw one dog poo. We still haven’t figured out how that worked!
We had to bring our own water (about 2l a day per person) and enjoyed possibly the best meals we had in the whole of Fiji. We took day trips out around the islands and even snorkelled off the Como Laucala resort, a $30,000 a night luxury resort, where it's said Oprah Winfrey and British royals holiday.
Along the way we discovered many surprises. The main one being that almost nothing online can tell you about where to go and what to expect. We found almost all information to be misleading, out-of-date or incorrect. It's partly a consequence of COVID. The Pacific is recovering from a substantial loss of staff to Australia. For example, some of the Tripadvisor top-rated attractions no longer existed.
It's also a consequence of people living day to day. Fijians who have done something ... like taken the ferry ... will know. Everyone else doesn't. That includes the people who sell the tickets in town.
It's not that tourism isn't good here. The hospitality was incredible. There's just little accurate online.
What you'll find is that most of the coast and resorts are American-owned. The only contact details are usually '+1' numbers. But you'll also find that everyone knows everyone. Behind all of this are Fijians doing all the work and they are incredibly eager to help.
Whatsapp is really useful to have but don't expect a text message response. It's better to make a call. We did this once or twice and found ourselves heading off on wonderful day trips the very next day.
You will no doubt hear about Cyclone Winston that had a devastating effect on the reefs in 2016. You'll also read lots of opinions about the state of the reefs online.
You can see the signs everywhere but recovery has been extraordinary and not everywhere was equally affected. There are places where the coral might even be more abundant with unusual wildlife now, than before. This is no reason not to visit.
The reefs in the strait between Vanua Levu and Taveuni are called the 'Rainbow Reefs' for good reason. These are soft coral reefs and covered in spectacular pinks, oranges and yellows ... with fish to match.
Our guide Thomas from the Jean Michel Cousteau resort suggested divers 'sniff the yellow coral' for full effect.
The sleepy town of Savusavu is the gateway to this entire region. Away from the hustle of the major cities, it is a charming mix of visitors and locals, keen to help you with your stay. It's easily a place you can spend a few days and visit like you would any local city.
We finished the trip back in Savu Savu in a bed and breakfast just out of town overlooking the harbour and mountains. There are lots of places to stay in town from about FJD$40 a night, up to a few thousand a night. But there are many quaint self-contained units too, only a few minutes from town. Be aware though that the hike up the hills can be arduous if you end up somewhere away from the sea. We got a bit trapped by one stay where we were forced to pay inflated prices for a 4WD into town. A $5 trip was costing us $50. But the views were fantastic.
Savusavu is a peaceful and well-serviced harbour where you can walk the full length of the high street in less than ten minutes. There are well-stocked supermarkets, a range of eateries and a pleasant harbour-side park and marina. The restaurants are great. From the Copa / Captain's Table, to the world-acclaimed Surf 'n' Turf. The marina hosted vessels from all over the world. Visiting yachts from Australia and New Zealand were moored alongside a Google co-founder's $84 million superyacht.
These are South Pacific Islands. You don't visit expecting to find well-developed tourism. If you have limited time, you need to plan your trip before you go.
But you have to be prepared to put your trust in the locals and go with the flow. Everything works out but it can be a little frustrating not knowing exact plans at all times. It took us a day or two to find out the times of the ferry to and from Tavenui. It only costs FJD$15. The ticket office in town can't tell you but eventually we found someone who uses it regularly.
Live in the moment and you'll love it.
But let us know if you’d like any help. A bit of planning and knowing what to expect will guarantee you a wonderful time in this beautiful part of Fiji.
There are several flights a day directly from Nadi to Savusavu or Taveuni. These are on 12-seater aircraft and take about an hour. Alternatively you can fly to Savusavu and take the ferry to Tavenui. You can either get a bus and ferry from town to Natuvu (2 hours, FJD$25) or taxi to Natuvu (FJD$150) plus a $15 ferry trip, payable in cash on arrival.
Wind strength and direction is a key consideration for this part of the world. A US dive group we met never made it to the reef, due to unseasonally strong southeast winds. Prevailing winds are from the southeast anyway but you have to be prepared for some inclement days. Another visitor we met at Siga Siga had booked only two days and endured 24 hours of rain and strong winds. It fined up beautifully after she left.
Needless to say, avoid cyclone season.
You will need cash everywhere you go. There are two banks on the high street of Savusavu.
We found taxi drivers to be extremely reliable. Even when we went with people we didn't know, the prices weren't surprising (nothing like on the main islands). Food prices are quite high in Fiji in the supermarkets and a restaurant meal can cost you anything from about $AU15-25. Taxis are about a Fijian dollar a kilometre (about 50c Australian).
The market is a wonderful place to get your food or just walk around. If you're staying self-contained, it's a lot less expensive too. There is a well-stocked New World IGA supermarket with lots of imported produce. Plus, there is a great boutique deli next to the Max Val-u supermarket, just south of the Copra Shed.
Writer, photographer and founder of Wildiaries
Simon has been studying and observing wildlife for over 40 years and for about 30 of that, writing stories, taking photographs and making short films. His observations and experience extend to travelling extensively through Australia and eastern Indonesia discovering new and exciting travel opportunities, as well as contributing to science and conservation. Simon is passionate about conservation and the impact travel can have on the lives of people in remote places.