Dream of Fiji, and how do you see it? Many people – speaking from experience here – picture it as one, big, uninterrupted haven of coconut palms. Oh no. Fiji is actually made up of over 320 individually breathtaking islands, nestled in the coral reefs of the South Pacific ocean.
During two weeks of island hopping around Fiji in August, we experienced hammocks (always trickier than they look), snorkelling better than the Great Barrier Reef and endless beaches, on 5 different islands in the Yasawa and the Mamanuca groups – off the coast of Viti Levu, where you’ll find the cities of Nadi and Suva.
But one aspect of being bleary-eyed, budgeting backpackers which people don’t talk about much (probably because it makes them sound unashamedly ungrateful) is that deciding how and where to spend your hard-earned money (in our case, thanks to a potato farm) can get ridiculously stressful, at a time in your life when you should feel completely free from pressures and schedules.
With Fiji, it’s best to invest in some serious island research. Don’t half-arse a gap year in Fiji. The trick to being satisfied with this paradise pick ‘n’ mix? Knowing what to expect from the different islands you can choose.
The One That’s Ridiculously Small
South Sea Island
30 minutes away on the Yasawa flyer (a temperamental ferry the colour of bananas that may have got stranded on coral reef a couple of times while we were there) is the first stop in the Mamanucas: South Sea Island. A tiny, tiny boat speeds off with no fear, bags and passengers bumping everywhere, towards what doesn’t seem big enough to be an actual island you can sleep on. You disembark straight onto sand tickled by water as clear as gin, as you’re sung to and greeted by adorable staff. Oh, and when they say you can walk from one side of the island to the other in twenty steps, they’re not wrong.
Snorkelling, paddle-boarding, kayaking – all free here. Make the most of it!
Eating dinner on the beach under the stars. WHAAAAT.
A lot of day trippers because of its closeness to the mainland. This means you appreciate the quietness and stillness of the island in the evening more, but drunken holidaymakers and screaming children while you sunbathe isn’t ideal.
Bedbugs. You have been warned.
Others like it: Bounty Island is nearby; however South Sea is pretty one off in terms of how miniature it is.
The One With Dancing On the Beach
We were really excited to move on, and it was only a 15 minute journey to Beachcomber, known as the party island. Don’t go expecting Ibiza in the South Pacific. It didn’t quite live up to the hype, because it wasn’t that busy, but it was hilarious and we met wonderful, crazy people.
A huge cocktail list (and FOUR happy hours).
Our favourite snorkelling spot, unexpectedly; no-one else was around as we swam between gigantic boulders of coral full of blindingly blue starfish.
Organised evening entertainment with fire dancers = Woah.
100 bed dorm. Enough said.
Others like it: There’s probably nowhere else quite like Beachcomber.
The One Where You Meet the Locals
Way Lai Lai
The most tropical and rainforest-y from afar, Way Lai Lai sees you travel from the ferry in a scarily battered punt; the island looms out of the waves with a giant rock formation high above like a mountain, surrounded by more palm trees than you can shake a stick at. I had my favourite swim here, only me in the water along the whole beach, admiring how untouched the view was.
We loved meeting the little kids from the village – one joined us to play volleyball – and they were all so smiley, chattering “Bula Bula” (hello in Fijiian). They live right by the beach, a few steps down from our bures (cute little shacks where you sleep); you feel like an intruder at first, but you’re made to feel so welcome, and they rely on backpackers.
The breathtaking sunset viewpoint (well worth riskily clambering up a rock towering out of the shoreline).
No snorkelling while we were there; this was the windiest island and it was too rough to spot fish in the waves.
Don’t drink the tap water even though they say you can. Believe me. And it’s way, way cheaper to stock up on bottled water from the mainland before you island hop.
Others like it: Barefoot Kuata. Right opposite, known for snorkelling with reef sharks!
The One With the Craziest Blue Sea
You know those travel moments which you know will never leave you? The journey to Safe Landing was exactly this. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the water. Which was weird, because I kind of looked like I was staring at the guy steering the boat.
A family-run resort, this was the island where I felt most at home, most settled, and most in love with Fiji. This is exactly what people mean when they say about the amazing Fijian hospitality.
Learning to play ukulele with the staff Ron Black and Sam Brown. Yes, this really happened.
Free activities – frisbee golf, medicine lessons and jewellery making with coconuts.
Weird food. I mean, watermelon in egg fried rice?!
Others like it: If you can, go fancy and stay at the Blue Lagoon resort. I can’t imagine how the water could be an even clearer, vivid turquoise, but apparently it is.
The One With All the Fish
Barefoot Manta was the most like a proper holiday resort out of the islands we visited. There are 3 different beaches, called Sunset, Sunrise and Mantaray. A beach is a beach, but having all this choice of sunbathing spots makes you feel even luckier.
Float in big rubber rings for free; it’s such shallow, warm water, and you’re surrounded by friendly humbug fish as you sunbathe.
We didn’t do it because of lack of funds (boo, make sure you save some!) but between May and October you can swim with manta rays.
Best food we had in Fiji – proper restaurant quality served on the Sunset Deck.
A lot of couples = bit awkward as single backpackers.
Not much of a bar scene and not as intimate as other islands, where we spent evenings playing cards with other guests.
Others like it: Mantaray Island Resort.
Fight Off FOMO
So how does island hopping work? Buy a Bula combo pass through Awesome Adventures Fiji, for a duration of 5 to 21 days. Then you can book islands in advance (what we did) or speak to travel agents onboard the ferry as you travel, for up to 5 hours, between islands. Popular ones (Barefoot Manta especially) fill up, so this can be risky.
Once you’ve chosen which islands to live the dream backpacker life on, all that’s left to do is lie in your hammock, avoid drinking “kava” (a local drink made from ground roots of a plant ), and try and not get FOMO (that’s Fear of Missing Out) over the islands other people you meet have visited and loved. It’ll just add another 300-odd onto your wanderlust list!