VANUA LEVU is about half the size of its big brother Viti Levu, but in terms of tourist facilities it pales by comparison. There are few white sandy beaches and little accommodation outside of Labasa and Savusavu, which are connected by the island’s only sealed road. However, the lack of other tourists makes it a joy to explore, especially on an inland bus ride, and the spectacular setting of Savusavu Bay is worth the trip alone.
As with Viti Levu there are distinct leeward and windward sides to the island. The dry north coast is strewn with sugarcane farms, pine forests and mangroves with the Fiji-Indian-dominated Labasa Town as its focal point, while the hillier south is dominated by tropical rainforest and huge coastal coconut plantations. Midway along the south coast is Savusavu, a picturesque sailing town which makes a lovely base for a few days.
Three remarkable islands lie off Vanua Levu’s coast: Yadua Taba to the west, home to the endemic crested iguana; and to the east, facing Taveuni, the two culturally unique islands of Rabi and Kioa, each home to a displaced South Pacific community.
Vanua Levu was the site of the initial European rush into Fiji in the early nineteenth century, fuelled by the discovery of sandalwood in Bua Bay on the southwestern coast of the island. Opportunist merchants from Port Jackson (Sydney) and London first began arriving in 1804, loading up with sandalwood before sailing on to the ports of Asia, where their cargo was sold at a great profit. In return the Fijian landowners received muskets, pans, mirrors and other trinkets, until every tract of the prized resource had been cut down.
During the 1860s more Europeans began to arrive, this time in search of land for the cotton trade. The chief of Vanua Levu and Taveuni, Tui Cakau, sold fifty thousand acres of fertile land on Vanua Levu to European traders at just two shillings per acre. The balance was paid in the form of credit to buy liquor and luxury goods from the new landowners. After the collapse of cotton prices at the end of the 1860s, the Europeans switched to the copra trade, which flourished until the 1940s. Huge areas of coconut plantations still stand tall amongst the coastal landscape and a few die-hard kai loma planters, mixed-blood descendants of the original Europeans, continue to eke out a living from the crop. Recently some of the old European and kai loma families have begun to carve up their huge plantations, selling them off in small chunks to expat investors. The most popular properties are located around Savusavu, which has seen prices rise to as much as F$200,000 (US$110,000) an acre.