Almost all of Fiji’s 600,000 annual visitors get their first glimpse of the country descending towards Nadi International Airport. Tiny tropical islands glint in the ocean off Nadi Bay while Viti Levu’s spectacular mountains loom inland. Given this introduction, Nadi (pronounced Nan-dee) itself can come as an anticlimax. Despite boasting Fiji’s third largest population, it’s not really a city, more a loose collection of villages surrounded by sugarcane fields, and you may be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived at a quaint, tropical suburbia. Where Nadi is useful, though, is in its choice of accommodation, with everything from five-star resorts to beachside backpackers dotted along the nearby coastline. You’ll also find all the facilities you need to plan the rest of your trip including banks, travel agents and a good range of shops, as well as a few excellent restaurants.
Nadi Airport, 10km north of the Downtown area, features a small cluster of hotels but otherwise it provides a low key and verdant arrival point, surrounded by farmland. Heading south along the congested Queens Road from here you come to Namaka, a frenetic shopping parade, while further south in the suburb of Martintar there are several ethnic and international restaurants, Nadi’s best nightlife and a couple of affordable hotels. South again, scruffily active Downtown Nadi is the terminal for buses, and home to the municipal market, internet cafés, boutique shops and cheap Chinese restaurants but virtually no accommodation. The southern point of town, where sugarcane fields take over, is guarded by Nadi’s sole iconic attraction, the riotously colourful Sri Siva Subrahmanya Swami Temple, or more simply “Nadi Temple”. A few kilometres west off the Queens Road lie the beaches of Nadi Bay, home to the budget hotspot of Wailoaloa Beach as well as Denarau Island, an exclusive luxury enclave.
Inland, there are tropical waterfalls, traditional villages and some breathtaking walking trails in the serene mountains of the Nausori Highlands and Koroyanitu National Park – the latter accessed via the utilitarian port of Lautoka, twenty minutes’ drive north of Nadi Airport.
Nadi before the 1870s was a wild, uncharted region, seldom visited by the tyrants of Eastern Viti or Lau and hardly documented by European explorers or missionaries. In 1870, a small British community, known as the Nadi Swells for their broad-brimmed hats and affluent demeanour, set up cotton and cattle farms along the Nadi River. Soon after, with the establishment of sugarcane as a viable crop and with indentured labourers from India, the region began its transformation to an Indo-Fijian dominated market centre. During World War II, the Royal New Zealand Air Force lengthened and strengthened the tiny Nadi airstrip, the US military constructed a major airbase and two large British gun batteries were erected either end of Nadi Bay to protect the surrounding waters of the Navula Passage. The Japanese invasion never came, but the paved runway was certainly big enough to receive the first jet planes and, with a slight expansion in the 1960s, Nadi established itself as the tourist hub of Fiji.