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.
Top image: Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple © Henryk Sadura/Shutterstock
There are a handful of affordable hotels along the bland and overdeveloped main road between Nadi Airport and Downtown. However, to get a view of the ocean, you need to stay at either Wailoaloa Beach or Denarau Island, off the Queens Rd on Nadi Bay. Wailoaloa Beach, the budget and backpacker centre, is the most central of these and has a laid-back atmosphere with stunning views along the coast, but the greyish beach itself is by no means postcard-worthy. The opulent man-made creation of Denarau Island, 5km west of Downtown, with its five-star resorts, luxury homes and a modern shopping centre has an intuitively hollow, plastic feel. Vuda Point, a 20min drive north of the airport, features a couple of mid-range boutique beach resorts and is closer to Lautoka. For longer stays, try Nadi Beach Homes (672 7999, nadibeach.com), with excellent-value weekly and monthly rates in three-bedroom private holiday homes with swimming pools, modern one- and two-bedroom a/c beach apartments, or studio-style homestays.
The area around Nadi offers access to Viti Levu’s rural interior as well as the surfing breaks of the nearby Malolo Barrier Reef; the latter can be sampled by staying at Rendezvous Fiji. Inland, the flats of the Nadi River eventually yield to the alpine Nausori Highlands. North towards Lautoka, the Queens Road passes the scenic Sabeto River Valley and Vuda Point. A few kilometres further on, the busy industrial port of Lautoka offers good shopping and access to the north coast. In the distance, the shapely Koroyanitu National Park beckons through the haze.
Founded by actor Raymond Burr (aka Perry Mason), the Garden of the Sleeping Giant boasts a wonderful collection of orchids and other flowering plants as well as several trails meandering through the landscaped grounds and into the lowland rainforest abutting the Sleeping Giant escarpment. The entrance fee includes a tropical juice which you can enjoy on their lovely terrace.
Around 10km southeast of Lautoka, Koroyanitu National Heritage Park has the most accessible walking trails of Fiji’s two National Heritage Parks. The park was created in 1992 to preserve the area’s natural forests and endemic birdlife from clearing for pine forest and encroaching grasslands.
At the Abaca visitor centre you can pick up pamphlets and local information, and you’ll find two walking tracks from here. The most challenging is the Batilamu Track, which snakes uphill through forest for two hours until it reaches the summit of the 1163m Mount Batilamu. The mountain forms the belly of the Sleeping Giant, and from the summit you can see all the way back to Lautoka and across to the Yasawa Islands. Alternatively, an easy two-hour loop trail follows a grassy ridge to Savuione Falls, which tumbles 80m in two tiers to a deep swimming pool. From the falls, the trail descends into thick dakua forest back to Vereni Falls close to Abaca village.
If you’re interested in exploring the park further, guides from Abaca can accompany you on an overnight trail deep into the forest. This involves a tough five-hour walk to the remote village of Navilawa.
Half an hour’s drive north of Nadi, LAUTOKA is Fiji’s second largest city and an important port. It’s a surprisingly low-key affair – the city centre doesn’t feel any bigger or busier than Downtown Nadi, with most of the 53,000 population living amongst the light industrial suburbs. Although there is little to admire architecturally, Lautoka is a good place to wander, with plenty of leafy avenues and diverting Fiji-Indian stores and market stalls – the latter a far cry from Nadi’s touristy souvenir shops.
The organized city centre is laid out in a grid pattern with one-way streets, flanked by beautiful tree-lined Vitogo Parade and parallel Naviti Street. A walk around this one-square-kilometre centre takes in the majority of shops, the municipal market and an impressive mosque. Opposite the mosque, there’s an endless parade of fashion stores along Vitogo Parade selling suits, saris and costume jewellery. Most of the shops along Naviti Street sell a bizarre array of odds and ends, mostly cheap imports from China, but you’ll find plenty of colourful fabrics sold by the roll as well as tailors who can make you up clothes at bargain rates. Across Naviti Street under a Brutalist concrete dome is the Municipal Market, one of the most spacious and least claustrophobic markets in Fiji.
Towering over the coastal flats of Nadi are the high peaks of Koromba to the south and Koronayitu in the north, both over 1000m and forming part of the spectacular Nausori Highlands. With your own transport, a stunning drive starts from halfway along the Nadi Back Road at the turn-off known as Mulomulo Road. Head inland along this road for 14km, and after a steep hairpin bend, keep an eye out for a walking track on the left-hand side (you can park 50m beyond at a roadside clearing on the right); the track leads up past a triangular survey marker to a steep cliff with superb views over the Sabeto River Valley and out over Nadi to the offshore islands.
The road continues climbing through pine forests to Nausori village. Five kilometres beyond is a fork in the road – the left track marked Natewa Road heads over to Vaturu Dam, but it’s a rough 4WD trail.
Abaca got its name by accident. The original village was called Nagara but in 1931 a landslide hit the village, leaving only three survivors. Thankful to be alive, the three went in search of a new home. On their journey they came across a large stone emblazoned with the letters ABC. The letters had been painted by a missionary in the 1830s while teaching the alphabet to the people of Nagara. Inspired by this prophetic sign, the survivors decided to name their new village “Abaca”, an acronym in the local dialect for “the beginning of eternal life after a miracle”.
Denarau Island was once a swampy mangrove forest but with substantial landfill, reclamation and landscaping, and, more recently, hotel and residential development, it is now a picturesque but heavily manicured environment. The island now boasts large resorts – including global giants Hilton, Sofitel, Westin, Sheraton and Radisson – standing in a line along a sombre grey beach, which in places has been powdered white with imported sand. The beachfront is divided by a rocky point: west beach, facing Malolo Island, has the Sheraton and Radisson resorts and is good for beachcombing, with stronger waves and often littered with driftwood; the north beach faces Nadi Bay, with tranquil views overlooking the Sleeping Giant, a shapely mountain feature separating Nadi and Lautoka. The man-made lakes, canals and inlets of an eighteen-hole championship golf course take up much of the island, with several holes hemmed in either side by hotel apartments and premium residential properties.
With a population of around twelve thousand, split almost evenly between indigenous Fijians and Fiji-Indians, NADI has a laid-back rural charm, enhanced by an almost constantly sunny climate. The twin Fijian villages of Navoci and Namotomoto and the murky Nadi River separate Downtown Nadi from its northern suburbs. South of here, the congested Queens Road is referred to as Main Street, lined with fashion and accessory shops and with a lively market square off to one side. East of the market and beyond the bus stand is a tiny grandstand overlooking Prince Charles Park, venue for Nadi’s football and rugby games.
The northern side of town is by far the most pleasant, with several excellent restaurants serving Indian dishes, and some interesting boutique handicraft stores, although persistent taxi drivers vying for attention distract from its charm. The further south you walk along Main Street, the seedier things become and by Westpoint Arcade beyond Hospital Road, the sidewalk touts take over, hassling tourists with “Bula mate!” or “Best prices in my shop!” From here on, the road is dominated by kava saloons where the locals gather to play pool.
In 1994, the impressive Sri Siva Subrahmanya Swami Temple moved from beside the flood-prone Nadi River to the southern end of town, where an evocative three-tower Hindu complex was created over a ten-year period by eight specialist craftsmen brought in from India. A leaflet for visitors details the stories behind the vividly coloured murals. The Dravidian temple is dedicated to the deity Murugan, whose statue, specially carved in India, is housed within the 12m-high main pryramidal vimanam with a rectangular toped roof. The two towers at the rear of the temple with colourful domed shaped roofs are dedicated to Ganesh and Shiva.
The best time of year to visit the temple is during one of its festivals, the most striking of which is the Thaipusam Festival, held in January/February. The festival attracts worshippers from around the world, and sees pierced devotees dragging chariots using meat hooks inserted through their flesh.
The bizarre Thaipusam Festival at Nadi’s Sri Siva Subrahmanya Swami Temple calls together thousands of Hindu worshippers to celebrate the birthday of Subrahmanya, or Lord Murugan, the god of war worshipped amongst South Indians. During the ten-day festival held over the full moon between January and February, devotees arrive at the temple to pray and cleanse their spirits. Some prove their faith with multiple body piercings on the chest, arms, face and tongue while others drag chariots, or kavadris, attached by sharpened meat hooks to their backs. It’s a fascinating and highly photogenic festival and you’ll be offered free food and invited to join in the celebrations, which are accompanied by dancing musicians. Be sure to observe common courtesies such as removing shoes before entering the temple grounds and not attending if you have recently drunk alcohol.
For most tourists, Nadi’s nightlife revolves around quiet resort bars, with happy hours usually running from 5.30pm to 6.30pm. To immerse yourself in the local after-hours culture you have to head to either Martintar, popular with Nadi office workers, or the south end of Downtown where pool bars, kava saloons and a couple of raucous nightclubs are the hangouts for urban and rural Fijians. Apart from these two areas, and the resort enclaves of Denarau Island and Wailoaloa Beach, Nadi after dark is pretty much a ghost town and roaming around on your own isn’t recommended. Traditional dance shows are held at several resorts and are usually free to watch, with a blend of animated Fijian war mekes, elegant Polynesian-style hula and enthralling Samoan fire dancing; some are combined with lovo buffet dinners. Times may vary, so it’s worth calling ahead. There’s a multiplex cinema next to the Capricorn Hotel in Martintar.
Being a tourist town, Nadi’s restaurants offer almost every style of international cuisine, though there’s just one traditional Fijian restaurant, in Denarau. Prices at all independent restaurants are very reasonable, with mains seldom topping F$40, although resort restaurants tend to be overpriced. Most of the resorts on Denarau Island offer themed buffet dinners for between F$55 and F$75 per person; you can also experience a Fijian lovo night (around F$60 per person), traditional food cooked in an underground oven at the Sofitel Fiji Resort on Thursday and Sheraton Fiji Resort on Saturday. For lunch, the Downtown area has plenty of good affordable restaurants, especially for sampling Indian dishes; one of the best options is the free lunch provided by the Sri Siva Subrahmanya Swami Temple – head towards the trestle tables at the rear of the temple (visitors can make a donation but there’s no obligation). The most popular places for dining out at night are along the Queens Rd between Namaka and Martintar, an otherwise dull light industrial area, and at Port Denarau, with its fine-dining restaurants, marina views and inflated prices.
One element of Fijian life that seems to have changed little since the 1800s is the meke, a performing art of dance and song. Legends and tales have been passed down the generations through meke and it remains Fiji’s most prominent form of artistic expression.
Traditionally, music was created only by chanting and rhythmic clapping, often with the addition of a lali (hollowed wood) drum hit with bamboo sticks. More recently the guitar and ukelele have been introduced. Mekes are generally performed by male-only or female-only groups, although a modern introduction, the vakamalolo, combines the two.
At formal mekes, men may perform club and spear dances and the women perform fan dances. In village mekes, the practice of fakawela involves presenting the dancers with a gift in appreciation of their performance, often fine cloth or fabric. At times of weddings or other celebrations bringing two parties together, this usually involves encircling the dancers with long rolls of cloth. Otherwise money is collected as they perform.
Nadi has a decent selection of shops and its department stores are handy for stocking electronic goods such as memory cards for digital cameras. General shopping hours are from 8.30am to 5.30pm weekdays, and 8.30am to 1pm on Saturday. Most shops at the open-air Port Denarau shopping centre are open daily including Sundays from 7am to 7pm, closing at 9pm on Friday and Saturday.
Port Denarau is the jumping-off point for trips to the Mamanucas; accommodation at the port is expensive, so many visitors stay in Nadi and take advantage of the efficient free bus service that links resorts and hotels with the hydrofoil service on request.
Nadi offers a huge range of tours and activities, allowing you to sample the nearby islands of the Mamanucas and Yasawas, hike inland to remote villages, or try out scuba diving or deep-sea fishing, all within a day. If you just need to kill a few hours, Denarau Island offers excellent golf and tennis. You’ll be able to book day-trips and activities at your accommodation but note that hotel and resort tour desks always give preference to operators, paying them the highest commissions, or even promote private tours with family and friends. If in doubt, contact the operators listed here direct or try Sun Vacations at Nadi Airport. Tour operators offer complimentary pick-up and drop-off from all Nadi hotels. Bear in mind that if you’re staying near the airport, the journey to Port Denarau (departure point for island trips) takes over an hour meandering around the suburbs and town picking up other guests; to save time, you may want to travel by taxi, which will cost F$22 one-way and take 20min.
Although Wailoaloa Beach has neither gleaming white sands nor an aquamarine lagoon, it does have a tranquil ocean outlook and stunning views towards the mountains, and makes an excellent spot for a beach stroll; it’s a reasonably tranquil place to spend a couple of nights recovering from a long flight and planning onward travel, but there nothing to keep you here longer.
The picturesque beachfront stretches for 3km in the heart of Nadi Bay but has surprisingly little development. Backpacker hostels and budget apartments congregate around Wasawasa Road in Newtown and here you can enjoy a quiet beer, grab a meal or watch Polynesian dancing at weekends. The sea is good for swimming, although the murky lagoon is rather off-putting, blackened from the surrounding muddy mangrove estuaries.