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This was our third journey into the beautiful South Pacific and one heck of a long trip from our home base in Detroit in the U.S.
Since were Delta fanatics, our trip started out with the compulsory hop to Atlanta (l:30 flying time). After an hour on the ground there, it was another 4:30 in the air to Los Angeles. After a three hour wait at LAX, we climbed aboard an Air New Zealand 767-300ER for the next leg of the tripa 5:35 hop to Honolulu. Finally after 90 minutes on the ground in Hawaii, we were off on the final leg of the trip which was a 6:30 flight into Nadi in Fiji. By the way, Nadi is pronounced "Nan-dee" in Fijian.
Most "normal" folks would catch a non-stop flight to Los Angeles and then hop aboard an Air Pacific 747 for the non-stop on into Fiji. Or they would catch one of two weekly non-stop Air New Zealand jets to Fiji from LAX. In this case Air New Zealand's non-stop flights didn't come on the days we needed.
We were absolutely exhausted upon arrival and the time change was hard to deal with. Fiji is 16 hours ahead of Detroit time and since we crossed the International Dateline, we took off from Detroit on Thursday and arrived in Fiji on Saturday.
We spent the first night at the Sheraton Royal Resort which is now the Westin in Nadi on the main island of Viti Levu. Its a lovely hotel with a nice beach although its not at all suitable for snorkeling because Denarau Island is built totally on "reclaimed" land and the sand they trucked in to build the island made for murky water. Sheraton owns three properties on the islandthe Sheraton Royal, the Sheraton Fiji Resort and the Sheraton Villas. The "Royal" was a little less expensive than the "Resort" but still absolutely top notch and it was a pleasant experience.
The next morning we headed to the ferry landing on Denarau Island to catch what we thought was going to be a fairly luxurious ferryboat known as Tiger IV. However we were guided instead into an old rusty bucket of nails called the Island Express. At least I think thats what it was called. It had certainly seen better days. Our destination was Mana Island and the Mana Island Resort.
Mana Island is located in the beautiful Mamanuca island chain not far from Nadi.
It probably took the best part of 3 hours to get there because we stopped at two other islands on the way to drop off passengers. At the second island, we learned by complete surprise that we had to transfer to another boat while floating in the water. NO announcements were made on the sun deck about Mana passengers having to rush to catch another boat. Had another passenger not yelled that this was the connection to Mana Island, we would have remained on the initial boat and wound up back at Denarau. The crew was very poor at explaining procedures and everybody thought Mana Island would be the last stop without having to transfer. I don't think this vessel had a loud speaker system and I really wouldn't want to be on it in the event of an emergency due to a severe lack of communication with passengers. At least that was our experience.
We scurried onto the second boat just as they were ready to leave and we headed to Mana on this much smaller boat. When we arrived at the wharf on Mana, we pulled up to a tall concrete dock with just a tiny ladder that was practically glued to the cement pier. My wife looked at the 7 foot climb and said: "Youve got to be kidding, thats the way we exit the boat?" Yep, that was it. A narrow metal ladder with hardly any toe room.
Fortunately your baggage is completely handled for you. Once you leave your hotel, your bags are tagged with your destination and then you check them in at the ferry landing and they are loaded on board for you.
However, I would caution any elderly passenger or anybody who is not 100% agile to make sure that youre on the Tiger IV and not on the pile of rust that we rode in going over. The Tiger IV, as we would learn on the return trip, was first class all the way.
Mana Island Resort is a lovely facility on Mana Island and is owned by a Japanese group. It is the largest offshore resort featuring a variety of bures (pronounced "bur-rays"). We selected an Executive Oceanfront Bure and it was really quite nice. Unlike the Tahitian "fares," Fijian bures do not have a palm-thatched roof but rather a tin roof.
The inside of our bure was beautiful with a polished wood floor, a sitting area and king sized bed in the main section with a three part bathroom in the rear featuring a sink area, shower area and toilet. Perks that came with the Executive Oceanfront Bure included air conditioning, free daily laundry service and free postcards and stamps.
Our housekeeper was named "Sata" and she was wonderful. By the way, thats not how she spelled it but its how it phonetically translates from Fijian to English. In fact just about everybody at the resort was just wonderful.
While our bure was really great, some of the internal bures in the center of the island looked more like a campground setting. Shall we say "rustic" although they may have been sparkling inside. They just seemed a bit run down. In fact, many of the buildings on the property seemed a little worse for the wear with storm shutters broken, etc. Most of the bures in the center of the island were in need of a paint touch-up.
The traditional greeting in Fijian is Bulapronounced "boo-lah." And they say it with vigor. It means good morning, good afternoon, hi, etc., and is liberally used by the friendly Fijians. The other Fijian word we heard and used a lot was "Vinaka." Pronounced "va-naka," it means thank you.
We did notice one interesting cultural difference between Fiji and Tahiti Polynesia and Rarotonga. In Tahiti and in the Cook Islands, men and women wear a flower behind their LEFT ear to signify that they are married or spoken-for. In Fiji, the flower goes behind the RIGHT ear if one has an attachment.
Our bure was situated on north beach. Across the island (which isnt more than a third of a mile wide I wouldnt think) was south beach. At low tide, snorkeling was much better on south beach. During high tide, it was absolutely stellar on north beach. There were other beaches, too, like the beautiful Sunset Beach although it was a hike.
The resort had three restaurantsthe Mamanuca, the North Beach Barbecue and the South Beach Restaurant. The people at the resort were so nice I hate to bring up a negative but I must. The food left a lot to be desired. In fact, in some cases we feared that it had the potential to be tainted because of a lack of proper temperature. We do not claim to be food safety experts but common sense would dictate a little more attention to detail here.
We chose the North Beach Barbecue for our first meal (lunch) after arriving on the island and on a scale of 1 to 10, Id give it a 1 at best. They featured a selection of lamb, fish, beef and chicken from a charcoal grill. All was badly overcooked and the side dish selections were unappealing, to say the least. Potato salad was brought out at room temperature and quickly heated up from there in the mid-day sun.
Breakfast comes with the room and is served in the Mamanuca Restaurant buffet style. The food was passable there but again, items were not always kept at proper temperatures during our visits, in our opinion. Some hot dishes were room temperature with no apparent heat source and some "cold" dishes were not well chilled. My daughter noticed that a warm yogurt that she selected was several days past the expiration date stamped on it.
The best of the restaurants, by far, was the South Beach Restaurant. There the food was pretty tasty. Sadly, however, everybody in my family dreamed about how wonderful a BK Whopper would be!
Please understand. I don't want to sound like a typical "American pig" here. I realize that most people in Fiji probably have to work themselves to the quick just to put a decent meal on the table. That's the way it is on most islands around the world. And to the locals, a shot at dining at any one of the Mana restaurants would be a great treat. But paying the high prices visitors pay for their holidays, you'd just expect a little bit higher quality when it comes to food service.
Prices at lunch ranged from $8 to $l5-Fijian (their dollar is worth about 60% of a U.S. buck). Dinner prices were roughly $10 to $44 with the $44 dollar price tag going to lobster. Interestingly, the lobster dinner was probably the best value. Normally when you order lobster you get a few micro bites and pay through the nose. But at the South Beach Restaurant, the lobster was more than I could eat. It could actually serve two people.
Tropical drinks were $8 $10 if my memory is correct and wines by the bottle at dinner ranged from $28 on up. The Australian wines were quite good, by the way. The local beerFiji Gold and Fiji Bitter---was drinkable and cold!
We were a little disappointed with the seafood in Fiji. The "local prawns" were frozen and thawed out and they were definitely overcooked everywhere we tried themeven in Nadi. In most cases, the "catch of the day" was a Spanish Mackerel type fish locally called Walu. It was okay but nothing to write home about. I did sample some "coral trout" at the Sheraton and it was ooo-kay but nothing great. Coral Trout is from the sea bass/grouper family.
On one occasion we sampled the Friday Night Seafood Buffet at the Verandah Restaurant at the Sheraton Fiji Resort and it was probably the best food we had. The lobster bisque was absolutely world class but the shrimp and local mud-crab were obviously frozen to begin with and thawed out. Which brings me to a point. Would somebody please tell me why hardly any of the South Pacific islands have outstanding fresh fish on the menu? They are surrounded by pristine water loaded with fish! We found the same thing to be true in Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and to a lesser extent in French Polynesia. (Tahiti and Moorea did have abundant, excellent Mahi Mahi.)
Snorkeling was wonderful although we had to wait for high tide to do any good on north beach. For me it was especially rewarding since about one third of all the fish I saw were new to me and Ive "been around the horn." In fact, Im still trying to find a good resource book with pictures so I can identify all those foreign critters. The wrasse population was incredible. Check out the picture link at the bottom to give you a taste of what we saw under water.
As with most islands, Mana had its share of stray dogs and cats and we fell in love with one little white dog my daughter nicknamed Freckles. We grabbed some extra scraps from breakfast and fed them to her.
The predominate bird on the island was---what else in the South Pacific---the menacing myna. They are everywhere in the South Pacific and in vast numbers. They came over from India and have driven many local birds to extinction. There were some large doves on Mana and some beautiful little parrot finches. They look like a common North American finch only they have bright red heads and tails (males) and a green center section. On the main island we also observed incredibly beautiful lorybirds or lorikeets. They are bright red and look almost exactly like a medium sized parrot.
In the air, frigate birds were familiar visitors and we saw many terns but oddly no seagulls. And at night there were a ton of giant toads hopping around all over the island. You had to be careful not to trip over one of the big guys!
During the daytime many skinks roamed the islands and at night the gecko shift took over. Geckos are highly valued because they help control the pesky mosquitoes so its a good thing when you see them in your room. The more the merrier!
The mosquito problem on Mana and on the mainland was absolutely horrible. No, make that HORRIBLE!!!!
After eating out one night (all of the restaurants are open air or have open windows), the next day my daughter counted---and Im not makin this up, folks---110 mosquito bites on her legs!!!! My wife got several dozen during the same dinner while I only got a handful. (I must have tough, undesirable meat!) So if you go, use bug spray or youll get eaten alive.
There are actually two shifts of mosquitoes. One that works during the day and another variety that works the night shift so youre always under attack except during the heat of the day in the hot sun.
One impressive local critter in Mana and on the mainland is a huge bat known officially as the monkey-faced fruit bat. Locals call em Bekas. They come out at night and are huge. Mammals include the mongoose, which is a common pest on most islands around the world. In the Caribbean, the mongoose was brought in to kill the snakes but when they killed all the snakes they started turning to farmers chickens and they are now dreaded. In Fiji, the mongoose was brought in to control rats. But somebody wasnt thinkin clearly here since the mongoose hangs out during the day and rats are more or less nocturnal. So the two never met!
I cant say enough about the warmth and friendliness of the Fijian people. Most of them were eager to talk to us and learn about America since most guests come from nearby Australia or New Zealand. One chap named Odi asked me about New York and I cautioned him to be careful if he ever goes there because not everybody is honest and well intentioned. I warned him to be careful on the subway and he was amazed to learn that we had underground trains in America carrying people around! The same guy told me that his family regularly chowed down on monkey-faced fruit bats (tastes like chicken) and even mongoose. I then told him that we eat alligator back in the States and he laughed and looked at ME like I was crazy!!!
After leaving Mana on the return trip to Nadi and our final overnight stay at the Sheraton Royal Denarau we toured Nadi and hit the favorite local store---Jacks Handicrafts. They had fair prices on tapa (a sheet of bark that is soft and cloth like and is died with black and red patterns) which is a nice memento to take home and frame. It kind of symbolizes the South Pacific. Jack's now has an online store here. Fijians used to be cannibals and one of the most popular items that tourists take home are little human meat toothpicks! They're cheap and you can pass 'em out to all your friends back home!
While Nadi is generally considered quite safe the same cannot be said for Suva. The locals said crime there was definitely a problem.
Prior to making the trip we had read about political strife once again in Fiji including some recent bombing incidents. So I thought I'd get a local prospective by asking Odi on Mana about it. He is a Fijian native and told me that the problem centered on a recent election that saw an East Indian Fijian elected Prime Minister. His position was that Fiji deserves a local Fijian Prime Minister and not an "Indian."
Later I posed the same question about what triggered the violence to a cab driver who was an Indian Fijian. His response was that a handful of people resent an Indian being elected Prime Minister. However, he said the people voted the guy into office and by an overwhelming margin so they should be content with their fair and just election.
I was a little disappointed at the nighttime sky. In Rarotonga the stars were incredible because there were hardly any lights around. On Mana the tennis courts were illuminated most nights and there was a half moon which caused some of the stars to be overpowered. We did see the top stars of the Southern Cross, the famous pattern that Australians and Kiwis see in their sky.
Heading out to Fiji everybody told us the same thing. French Polynesia is nice. Ditto for Rarotonga and the Cook Islands but Fiji is THE PLACE to go. Im not so sure Id agree with that assessment although I can tell you that Fiji is a fabulous place. For me, Moorea will always be my favorite. But then it was a very special time for us as we celebrated our 20th anniversary and it was our first trip to the South Pacific.
The currency in Fiji is the Fijian Dollar. Driving is on the left. You will need a passport to enter this little slice of Paradise.