Fiji can offer a diverse range of first impressions for the visitor, depending on how you arrive and where you go. I first set foot on Viti Levu in 2010, on a 21 day South Pacific cruise to taste the cultures and sights the island nations are known for. As we sailed through azure blue waters, our first Fijian port of call was Denarau Island. Once a swampy area, it has been cleverly transformed into a tourist drawcard. The island is alive with top end hotels, a water park, apartments, villas and luxurious private homes with spacious modern interiors and private jetties.
Port Denarau is the jumping off point for both the Yasawa and the Mamanuca groups of islands. Most of the inter-island ferries are based here and departure times find the terminals a multi-cultural hotpot of tourists, ranging from backpackers to the five star travellers. This is a breeding ground for Fijian tourism dollars.
The ship anchored outside Denarau Island and we were ferried to the wharf at Port Denarau in tenders. Port Denarau complex put on a show for the 2000+ passengers who alighted there that Sunday. The men in grass skirts were shimmering with sweat in the hot May sun. Some beat the lali (drums) while others did the meke (a dance) and yet others offered a bilo (cup) of kava for the tourists to try.
Port Denarau is a fort of shopfronts selling manufactured souvenirs, American branded cafés and assorted restaurants. We had the option to ‘escape’ and take a tour on the open sided Bula bus for a quick whip around the island. Looking back, that first glimpse of Fiji for me did not do it justice. There is so much more to Fiji and thankfully our cruise itinerary included two more ports to broaden that view.
Overnight, we cruised around to the capital city of Fiji, Suva, situated on the south eastern end of Viti Levu. Suva city crawls up the hills that surround the central business area. Here the experience was very different. Anchored at Queens Wharf we could browse the local range of products at the small market set up specifically for our arrival inside the wharf area. Bright bula fabric in sulus, shirts and bags beckoned. Coconut shell crafted earrings and necklaces, were interspersed with imported plastic or enamel alternatives.
Once we left the safety of the wharf area we were swallowed in the crowds at the bustling marketplace. The Suva City Markets are found in a two level building, open six days a week. Rows and rows of tables offer up fresh, mostly organic, produce. In season, the pineapples, pawpaws, watermelon and mangoes are a big drawcard. With a mix of indigenous Fijian, Indo-Fijian and Chinese traders you will find shallots, eggplant, tomatoes, ginger, lettuce, coriander and so much more. Leafy greens such as fern fronds and water spinach and hardy root crops of dalo and cassava can be found also. Most produce is sold in heaps or bundles. A heap of tomatoes may include five or six. A heap of pineapples can consist of three or five, depending on size.
Upstairs we find selections of Indian spices to buy by the scoop. The aroma tickles the senses enticingly. This is where the kava and yaqona sellers also sell their wares. Kava, in Fiji, is known as the pounded form of yaqona sold by the size of the brown paper bags it comes in. Yaqona is the roots of the pepper plant, piper methysticum, which is sold as bundles if you want to pound your own.
Venturing away from the markets we found handicraft markets near the seawall. Tiny stalls all offering similar products, some of which we witnessed being carved or woven as we wandered.
This was my 14 year old son’s first introduction to bartering. He relished it, as it fed the budding entrepreneurial investment banker lurking within him.
Combing through the grocery shops to discover new products is always a favourite first time experience for me in a new country. Sometimes I walk away being none the wiser to what the product is used for, sometimes my curiosity is piqued enough to buy and try. Aromas from food courts wafted blends of Asian chop suey, Indian curries and Fijian vakalolo dishes. Gloria Jeans or McDonalds was the standby option for sceptical children.
Bula was the word everyone used in passing, always with a smile and Sukuna Park near the water, at the edge of the main shopping area, was an obvious meeting place for locals, some sharing sandwiches; others in groups singing; some snoozing under the shade of the sprawling trees in the afternoon sun. Hints of old colonial facades could still be seen along the majestic Victoria Parade, a must-do-walk when in Suva.
Back onboard, the view over the marketplace, showed the mayhem of the bus stand. Buses were coming and going, hundreds of people moving around, going back home, at the end of the workday. I marvelled at how disorganised it all looked. People walking in every direction, taxis tooting, and the barrage of open sided buses coughing out their diesel fumes as they took people to their destinations. Little did I know at the time of departure that, in the future, Suva would become my home and I would use the word bula every day, many times a day.
Our third and final Fijian port of call was an island in the Kadavu group to the south of Viti Levu, a small island with no roads and no transport, other than your feet. The island had one village of roughly 100 people and a marine resources field station for the University of the South Pacific. The island is perched near the Astrolobe reef, a must do experience for divers.
There was lovo on offer for lunch, and kava, of course. The villagers sold some of their wares, bright sulus waved in the breeze and they performed the meke for the tourists but that was the sum total of man-made entertainment. Mother nature provided the rest, as we walked to the other side of the island and over a steep hill that gave us a brilliant view back to the cruise ship before our return.
Finding a quiet patch of sand, we spent the rest of our day lazing on the beach, snorkelling and swimming. The beach was of shell grit, littered with driftwood and shaded by coconut palms. We broke open an aged coconut and ate the flesh; we rounded up hermit crabs and raced them in a rounded divot in the sand. We collected shells and made patterns in the sand. We built miniature rafts, and fossicked through the flotsam for building materials.
Our three-day introduction to Fiji presented three different experiences and three vastly different environments with the most memorable day being the one we spent baking and relaxing under the Fijian sun.
Story and photographs by Michelle Talemaitoga.