Fiji is spread over a huge area of the southwest Pacific, covering almost 1.3 million square kilometres. On a map, the islands may look close enough together to hop between, but with limited infrastructure this can be a time-consuming process, often involving back-tracking to either Nadi or Suva. Viti Levu, the main island, is extremely well connected by public transport and easy to explore, as are the popular beach destinations of the Mamanucas and Yasawa Islands, connected by fast catamaran. Exploring further afield, though, requires patience and a sense of adventure, with cumbersome passenger ferries and cargo boats visiting the outer islands on a weekly or monthly basis and flights in small propeller planes landing on gravel and sometimes even grass airstrips.
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Nadi, on the main island of Viti Levu, is the nation’s tourist hub, home to the international and main domestic airport and with sea access to the Mamanucas. Suva, 120km away on the opposite side of the mainland, is the transport hub for all outer-island shipping, as well as having air access to ten outer-island airstrips.
On the two largest islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, as well as on Taveuni, exceptionally cheap buses travel around the coast and countryside on a fairly regular basis and carrier vans or taxis can be hired for private tours. On all other islands, though, getting around usually involves a boat journey, often in a small, ten-passenger fibreglass boat with a 60HP single engine, and these, when chartered, are expensive. Hitching a ride with the locals is much cheaper but more often than not boats are filled to the brim, sometimes with as many as twenty large Fijians plus their luggage.
Fiji’s domestic flight network is dominated by Pacific Sun, the domestic arm of the government-owned Fiji Airways (330 4388, fijiairways.com), and served by small twin-propeller planes only. Whilst flying in such aircraft may cause a little nervousness, it is by far the quickest way to get around and there are often excellent deals available via the airline’s website, with discounts of fifty percent or more available on the main tourist routes. This can make flying almost as cheap as travelling by passenger ferry. Prices range from around F$100 one-way from Nadi to Suva, to F$400 for the flight from Nadi to far-flung Rotuma. Availability is seldom a problem, except at Christmas when flights can be booked out months in advance. Baggage allowance on internal flights is a meagre 15kg per person. If you plan on travelling with your own scuba diving equipment or surf board check with the airline in advance.
Northern Air (992 2449, northernair.com.fj) is based in Waila, Nausori and operates services to Gau, Koro, Levuka, Labasa, Moala and Savusavu.
There are also two seaplane companies operating in Fiji: Turtle Airways (672 1888, turtleairways.com) based at Wailoaloa Beach in Nadi, and Pacific Island Air (672 5644, fijiseaplanes.com) based at Nadi Airport. Turtle Airways (672 1888, turtleairways.com) offers a daily public flight to Turtle Island in the northern part of the Yasawas for US$280 one-way with a minimum of two passengers, but you must pre-arrange a boat to transfer you on to your intended destination – departure times vary and can only be advised the day before based on sea conditions. Island Hoppers (672 0410, helicopters.com.fj) shuttles guests to upmarket resorts by helicopter. Baggage allowance on seaplanes and helicopters is 15kg per person, with excess charges thereafter.
By passenger ferry and cargo boat
The busy tourist destinations of the Mamanucas are graced by fast passenger catamarans offering fabulous views from their upper decks and enclosed air-conditioned seating on the lower levels. By contrast, the bulky and ageing vehicle and passenger ferries visiting Kadavu, Vanua Levu, Taveuni and the Lomaiviti Group suffer particularly from sea swell, and often meander around an erratic schedule. Christmas is especially hectic, with over-laden boats common during the summer school break from early December to late January, while rough seas often disrupt schedules between December and April. While the service to the Yasawas is fairly pricey (F$147 for 5 days’ travel), it only costs around F$80 for the long trip from Lautoka to Savusavu.
Cargo boats have been plying Fiji’s waters since the pioneering days of the late nineteenth century, bringing in trade, exporting copra and connecting the people with the outside world. It is still common practice for passengers to join cargo boats supplying the outer islands, usually sitting and sleeping on deck amidst barrels of oil, boxes of tinned meat and bunches of bananas. For those with a little time and a spirit of adventure, it’s a chance to rub shoulders with Fijians from all walks of life, and it’s cheap and cheerful, too: the route from Suva to Kadavu, for example, will set you back around F$50 one way.
With no rail service and few people owning cars, buses are the only practical way for the public to affordably get around the large islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Both islands have reliable, frequent and exceptionally cheap bus services operating out of all town centres. Buses usually have open-sided windows and visit almost every rural location imaginable, be it along a dirt road, up a steep mountain or over narrow wooden planks bridging rivers and stopping when requested.
Express buses run between major towns on Viti Levu. The five-hour journey between Nadi and Suva costs around F$20. Most buses are rather dated with hard cushioned seats and sliding windows but the tourist operator Coral Sun runs a modern air-conditioned soft-seated coach for double the price. You should also consider the air-conditioned tourist bus operator Feejee Experience which circumnavigates the main island on a four-day adventure journey. A very limited bus schedule operates on Ovalau and Taveuni, mostly for shuttling kids back and forth from school, but on all other islands buses are non-existent.
Minivans and carrier vans
Also running in urban centres and speeding along the main roads are ten-seater minivans, which stop by the roadside to pick up waiting passengers for the same fare as a bus. Many operate illegally and drive carelessly but if your only consideration is to get from A to B quickly and cheaply, they’re a good option. More basic carrier vans, with an open back usually covered by tarpaulin and with a wooden bench along each side, travel along the rural dirt roads carrying people and their produce between the villages and town markets.
On the main island of Viti Levu a car is without doubt the best way to explore the countryside. Although buses and carrier vans travel to most regions, the freedom to stop at will for photos, to chat with locals along the way and simply to travel at your own convenience is both pleasurable and time saving. Renting a car is straightforward using your home licence, but you must be aged 21 or older. Rates are relatively cheap, starting at F$65 per day including insurance (twenty percent more on Vanua Levu and Taveuni due to less competition and poor road conditions), but the relatively high cost of fuel makes longer trips quite expensive. Prices are fixed by the government.
It’s a good idea to rent a 4WD, or, at the very least, a car with high clearance – most roads off the coastal highway are unsealed, of compacted dirt and often littered with crater-sized pot holes; with rain (and it often rains in the mountains) these roads become very slippery and sometimes impassable without a 4WD. Rental companies tend to void insurance for breakdowns or accidents on dirt roads so check in detail beforehand.
The same facts apply to Vanua Levu, but renting is not so straightforward, with only a couple of rental firms in Savusavu and Labasa, and these with only a few cars available, so pre-booking is advisable. The only other island where you can rent a car is Taveuni.
Driving between towns along the sealed coastal road of Viti Levu is very straightforward, but turning off this road can be intimidating, with absolutely no signposts and roads splitting and veering in every direction. Keep an eye open for the tiny white roadside markers which indicate distance from set points, usually from major towns or turn-offs and the main connecting roads. There are no decent maps available to help navigation in the countryside – the only option is to ask for directions along the way.
The most common hazards apart from the potholes are mindless pedestrians and stray animals. Driving is on the left, with the speed limit generally set at 40kmph through towns, 60kmph in the suburbs and 80kmph elsewhere. If you break down, call your car rental company which should provide you with a 24hr service number – but be warned there are few telephones along the roadside and mobile phone coverage is pretty sporadic in rural areas.
The following major car rental companies have offices at Nadi Airport, where you can arrange a rental before your trip.
Avis US and Canada 1-800 331-1212, UK 0870 606 0100, Republic of Ireland 021 428 1111, Australia 13 63 33 or 02 9353 9000, New Zealand 09 526 2847 or 0800 655 111; avis.com.
Budget US 1-800 527-0700, Canada 1-800 268-8900, UK 0870 156 5656, Australia 1300 362 848, New Zealand 0800 283 438; budget.com.
Hertz US & Canada 1-800 654-3131, UK 020 7026 0077, Republic of Ireland 01 870 5777, New Zealand 0800 654 321; hertz.com.
Thrifty US and Canada 1-800 847-4389, UK 01494 751 500, Republic of Ireland 01 844 1950, Australia 1300 367 227, New Zealand 09 256 1405; thrifty.com.
Getting about by taxi in Nadi and Suva is cheap and practical, regulated by the government with flag fall set at F$1.50 between 6am and 10pm (F$2 outside these hours), plus 10 cents for every 100m travelled, all calculated by meter. Competition is fierce, with unlicensed minivans scouring the streets and picking up passengers along the way, charging 50 cents for an inter-urban journey.
Hiring a taxi for rural sightseeing or travel between towns is a good option if you don’t want to drive yourself, and works out as a cheap alternative if travelling with three or more people. Negotiate a rate beforehand and expect to pay around F$30 per hour depending on how far you want to travel.
By bicycle and motor scooter
There are few cyclists to be found on Fiji’s shoulder-less, potholed roads, and good reason for it – cyclists are shown little courtesy from motorists. However, exploring rural Viti Levu or Vanua Levu by bicycle will certainly draw attention and conversation when passing through villages and should be a great adventure for those confident enough to try. Unless you bring your own bike though, you’ll have to buy one in Nadi, Suva or Labasa, but don’t expect quality. The only place you’re able to rent bicycles is at a few large resorts, with Denarau Island off Nadi and Malolo Lailai in the Mamanucas being the main contenders.
Motor scooters are extremely rare except in Nadi, where they are something of a novelty. Travelling along the busy town roads is practical, though not particularly safe and you should certainly expect the unexpected with motorists who seem to be blind to anything on two wheels. Travel beyond the town area is not recommended.