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.
Top image: Nacula island, Yasawa Islands © Przemyslaw Skibinski/Shutterstock
Clearly visible from Nadi, the MAMANUCAS are a stunning collection of 32 small islands surrounded by 35 square kilometres of translucent ocean strewn with coral reefs. Situated in the lee of the main island of Viti Levu, the islands boast the finest weather in Fiji – year-round sunshine, calm seas and gentle breezes. Given the ease of travel and the wide choice of resorts this is the prime beach holiday destination in the South Pacific.
The coral islands, lying immediately offshore from Nadi and Lautoka, comprise a dozen picturesque tiny coral cays, which feature heavily in the tourist brochures and boast several world-class surfing breaks. More prominent, though, from the mainland are the larger volcanic islands of the Malolo Group, with rolling grassy hills framing beautiful beaches and the surrounding seas bobbing with yachts and ferries. There are plenty of activities here to keep tourists busy, including game fishing, jet-skiing and kayaking, as well as excellent scuba diving.
Forming the western border of Fiji, the remote Mamanuca-i-Cake Group is also volcanic in appearance but has more rugged coastlines and steeper hills covered in light forest. Being further from the mainland – it takes ninety minutes by boat from Nadi – these islands are less busy, with just three small boutique beach resorts appealing mostly to the honeymoon market. They are also a popular stop on overnight cruises.
The coral islands comprise twelve tiny cays, surrounded by a shallow lagoon. These islands seldom rise more than 5m above sea-level, are covered with light scrub vegetation and until recently were all uninhabited. Apart from the resorts that are now built on them, there’s not an awful lot to distinguish one from another, except for Namotu and Tavarua in the southeastern tip of the Malolo Barrier Reef, which have world-class reef surfing. The northern coral islands are the most accessible, with transfers from both Port Denarau and Vuda Marina in less than twenty minutes.
Twenty kilometres from Nadi, the coral cays give way to four large volcanic islands making up the Malolo Group. This is the heart of the Mamanucas tourism experience, boasting the most popular and busiest resorts. Malolo, the largest island in the group at just over 2400 acres, and its little sister Malolo Lailai have a scattering of resorts, a marina and the chiefly village of Yaro. Along with beautiful Castaway Island these islands form a cluster protected to the south by the stunning Malolo Barrier Reef. Surfing in the passages is a fifteen-minute boat ride away and advanced scuba divers will enjoy the challenging wall dives on the outer edges of the reef. Six kilometres to the northwest of Malolo is Mana, the liveliest island for backpackers, with lovely beaches to explore.
Ten kilometres northeast of Beachcomber and just a few kilometres off Lautoka on the Viti Levu coast is Mystery Island. Leased by Captain Cook Cruises, the island is used as a picnic stop on its three- and seven-day small ship cruises up to the Yasawas. The snorkelling reefs are at least 300m from the beach and best accessed on the organized snorkelling boat trips.
With fast boat transfers and a wide choice of dive operators, divers can easily sample all dive sites in the Mamanucas while staying at a single resort. The islands are a great spot to learn to dive with sheltered lagoons, water temperatures seldom dropping below 24°C and excellent visibility, usually at least 30m.
The dozen or so shallow patch coral dive sites in the northern coral islands are ideal for beginners. More advanced divers come here for the two popular wrecks – a partially intact World War II B26 bomber at 26m; and the 40m-long cruise ship, Salamander, lying at 12–28m and covered in soft corals and anemones. In the southwest of the Mamanucas, the 30km-long Malolo Barrier Reef has several deep drop-offs suitable for experienced divers – turtles, lion fish, rays and large sharks are common. The reef is a fifteen-minute boat ride from Malolo Lailai.
The reefs surrounding Mana have some exceptional sites for beginner to intermediate divers. The most raved about site is “Supermarket”, offering regular shark encounters from white tips to greys, as well as a drift dive along a wall with an abundance of lionfish and moray eels. Other sites include “Gotham City”, named for its abundance of batfish, and “Barrel Head”, a wide bommie where you can drift along a wall with massive sea fans and plenty of turtles. Heading west to the Mamanuca-i-Cake Group, Tokoriki has several interesting sites with gorgonian sea fans featuring prominently at “Sherwood Forest”, along with a fine selection of soft corals, nudibranchs and anemones.
Three of the world’s seven species of sea turtle can be found in Fiji and all three lay their eggs on the small coral islands of the Mamanucas. The green and hawksbill are very similar in appearance and average around 1.2m in length whilst the endangered leatherback can reach over 2m. Female turtles reach sexual maturity around the age of 25 and return to the same beach where they hatched to lay their eggs, burying them deep in the sand in batches of up to two hundred. This happens at night, some time between September and January. After sixty to seventy days, the eggs hatch en masse, again at night, and the hatchlings make their way to the sea. As few as one in a thousand reach full maturity, and the odds of survival are being reduced further by light and noise pollution from resorts.
Despite a national ban on hunting turtles for their meat – which for Fijians is both a delicacy and an essential ingredient in ceremonial feasting – locals in the outlying islands continue to do so. In an effort to revive populations and promote ecological awareness, Treasure Island Resort has set up a small turtle sanctuary to nurture baby sea turtles for a year before releasing them back into the ocean. If your timing’s right you may be able to participate in their feeding and release which generally occurs between November and March.
Yanuya is a long thin island with several knolls. The village here is renowned for its pottery making and you can visit on a day-trip from either resort, or on the daily Seaspray sailing cruise from Mana Island which comes ashore for a traditional kava ceremony and village craft market.
Off the west side of the village are the islands of Monuriki and Modriki, used as the setting for the 2001 film Castaway. With steep craggy rock faces and thick forests, it’s difficult to explore these islands, but with a guide you can reach the summit of the long flat rock face of Modriki from where Tom Hanks looked out in despair seeing nothing but ocean (though in reality there are six islands directly in front of you to the east, the Sacred Islands and the southern Yasawas to the north, as well as most islands in the Mamanucas). The beaches on the eastern side of both islands are beautiful, with fine white sand piled deep on a point backed by tall palm trees.
The volcanic YASAWA ISLANDS attract thousands of visitors, drawn to their dramatic jagged peaks, tranquil bays and stunning beaches. Connected by a fast daily catamaran service from Nadi, the islands are easy to hop between and have developed into a popular backpacker trail.
The group of thirty islands has three distinct zones. Kuata, Wayasewa and Waya, in the southern part, are similar in nature to the outer Mamanucas, with high mountain peaks, dramatic rock faces and fantastic walking tracks. These three islands are the closest to the mainland, only two hours by fast catamaran, and are by far the most interesting to visit, with deep bays and pretty villages providing regular stops for overnight cruises. To the north is the largest island in the group, Naviti, with rolling grassy hills and a dozen small offshore islands where manta rays congregate between May and October. Fifteen minutes’ sailing north of Naviti are the northern Yasawas, home to a cluster of budget resorts and three super-exclusive retreats.
Flanking the north and east coast of Matacawalevu are the small islands of Nanuya and Tavewa, with the larger island of Nacula to the north forming the Blue Lagoon Bay. The bay is named partly for its dream-like turquoise waters but also to capitalize on the semi-erotic 1980 film The Blue Lagoon, starring Brooke Shields, filmed partly on Nanuya Levu. Around this sheltered bay is the highest concentration of backpacker resorts in the Yasawas, making it a handy place for island-hopping.
A fantastic way of seeing the remote side of the northern Yasawas is to join one of the kayaking trips run by South Sea Ventures (02 8901 3287 in Australia, southernseaventures.com; 7 nights for A$2130). Group trips run between May and October, and involve between three and four hours of paddling a day in either single or twin sea-kayaks. On the eight-day trip, five days are spent paddling between Matacawalevu and Sawa-i-Lau, camping on beaches in two-man tents. Trips are equally suitable for novice or experienced kayakers, although a reasonable level of fitness is expected.
The volcanic island of Wayasewa (also known as Waya Lailai) is dominated by the towering 350m-high twin peaks of Vatuvula and Vatusawalo, with the old village of Namara sitting precariously beneath. In 1985, after heavy rain, a landslide brought several huge boulders tumbling down the hillside to within inches of people’s homes. The village was declared unsafe and relocated to the north side of the island at Naboro. It didn’t take long, though, for a few stubborn families to return and when the adjacent backpacker resort reopened, more villagers moved back. Today, over half of the houses are occupied, although most families with young children prefer living close to the new primary school at Naboro.
Dramatic Waya has a strange, contorted appearance, with knife-edge ridges, monumental rock protrusions and several unbelievably photogenic beaches. From its western coast, a giant’s face seems to peer out from the island, slanting back as though floating in the sea. Four fishing villages lie around the coast, all connected by walking trails, making it a paradise for hikers (remember etiquette codes for dress and behaviour when visiting villages). Although Waya is connected to Wayasewa by a 200m-long sand spit exposed at low tide, the islands’ inhabitants have very different roots: the people of Waya look north to the high chief of Yasawa Island, while Wayasewa is inhabited by the people of Vuda from Viti Levu.
Less intriguing than Waya Island but blessed with delightful secluded beaches, Naviti is the largest of the Yasawa Islands, home to five villages and the region’s only boarding school. The island is shaped somewhat like a lobster with two elongated arms reaching out to the north and a cluster of small islets forming a tail to the south. The best of the beaches is alongside Botaira Beach Resort on the southwest side.
A gradual climb from the Botaira Beach Resort into the hills and along a grassy ridge to the southern point of the island presents an inspiring view looking down on the lagoon around Drawaqa Island with its thousand hues of blue. The lagoon offers excellent snorkelling, and between May and October it’s possible to swim with manta rays, which feed around the rich current-fed passages. Your best chance of seeing them is one hour after high tide. You can visit from Botaira Beach Resort, a ten-minute boat ride away, or swim directly from Barefoot Lodge on Drawaqa Island or from the aptly named Mantaray Island Resort, on the adjacent island of Nanuya Balavu.
Thirty years ago, travellers who wanted to explore the Yasawas had to obtain a special visitor pass from the District Office in Lautoka. However, in 1987, the government decided to open up the region to independent travel. A few backpacker resorts initially sprang up on Tavewa, and these were soon followed by similar developments on Waya and Wayasewa. Passage to the islands was by small fishing boat, usually without radio or life jackets and often with dubious engines. Having witnessed the success of these early resorts, the government opened an ecotourism start-up fund offering F$50,000 worth of materials to local landowners. The result was an explosion of budget resorts. Since 2001, with the introduction of the Yasawa Flyer catamaran service, the region has changed dramatically and the romantic days of exploratory tourism have given way to a thriving commercial industry with over thirty resorts now operating across the area.
The majority of backpacker resorts in the Yasawas are run by the islanders themselves, either as individual businesses or as community projects. Services and hygiene have improved over the years, although you’re still likely to run into the odd creepy-crawly, especially in the thatch bures. Meals at the more basic resorts can be a disappointment – it’s definitely worth bringing some snacks.
Compared to the mainland, costs are inflated. Most resorts charge F$80 for a dorm bed including three meals, while a small bottle of beer costs around F$5. Snorkelling gear costs F$6 a day to rent so it’s definitely worth bringing your own set. There’s little else to spend money on – organized activities are limited to fishing trips and village visits and work out at F$20–50 per person.