Extending in an arc off the coast of Viti Levu, the Mamanucas and Yasawa Islands are a chain of beautiful palm-fringed islands with perfect white sandy beaches, placid lagoons and picturesque resorts. This is Fiji’s tourism gem, attracting thousands of visitors, especially from Australia and New Zealand. Thankfully, though, the islands remain remarkably undeveloped – no building rises higher than a coconut palm and even on the most popular islands it’s possible to wander a short distance to find a secluded stretch of beach. The focus here is on relaxation. Most visitors spend their days sunbathing, snorkelling or scuba diving, with sightseeing limited to hiking between small villages or trekking to a hilltop to see the sunset. Evenings are spent around the resort bar and restaurant which, apart from at a couple of backpacker resorts, tend to wind down around 10pm – this is no Bali or Ibiza, though there are plenty of opportunities to try yaqona (kava).
The thirty or so small islands of the Mamanucas lie just off the coast from Nadi making them the most popular day-trip destination in Fiji. Budget accommodation and small boutique resorts are scattered evenly around the group, some on tiny uninhabited coral islands and the majority in secluded bays. Honeymooners, families and singles flock here between June and October when Australia and New Zealand are gripped by winter; finding accommodation can be difficult during this time.
Extending to the north of the Mamanucas is a long, thin string of fifteen volcanic masses that make up the Yasawa Islands. These islands are slightly larger and more dramatic in appearance than their southern neighbours and, being further out from the tourist hub of Nadi, are less commercialized. The beaches here are exquisite and the best way to see them is by hopping on and off the fast Yasawa Flyer catamaran – the most popular backpacker trail in Fiji – and staying at the many locally owned budget resorts along the way. For a little more luxury, consider taking an overnight or week-long cruise, putting ashore at secluded beaches and anchoring at fabulous coral reefs for snorkelling.
Before the arrival of tourists, the Mamanucas were used as fishing and egg gathering grounds by the people of Viseisei and Nadi on Viti Levu. The majority were never inhabited due to the intense sun and lack of fresh water. Only three of the larger volcanic islands – Malolo, Yanuya and Tavua – supported fishing villages. With poor farming conditions, life was extremely tough and the majority of islanders sought out new opportunities on the mainland. Today, with a reversal of fortunes, every village household earns money through hotel land rent and has at least one family member working in the tourist industry. Food supplies are now shipped in on fast boats from the mainland.
Conditions were better on the larger Yasawa Islands. Thanks to the presence of natural spring water and more fertile soils, a greater number of coastal villages established here. The southernmost islands of the chain, Kuata and Wayasewa, are aligned to the mainland village of Viseisei, being part of its yavusa or district. All other islands give allegiance to the high chief or Tui Yasawa who resides in Yasawa-i-rara Village at the northernmost tip of the group. Little is known about the early history of the Yasawa people except that they were deeply feared as warriors by the inhabitants of eastern Fiji. In 1789 Captain William Bligh, having been cast adrift in a small rowing boat by the Bounty mutineers, rowed through the Yasawas and was chased by several war canoes. Fortunately for him, a squall blew in and the pursuing Yasawans retreated. The passage through which he escaped is known as Bligh Water.