Fiji’s lively capital city, Suva, sits on a 5km-long peninsula in the southeast corner of Viti Levu, backed by steep mountains and fronted by a deep-water harbour. Visually it’s one of the most attractive of all the South Seas ports, with pretty colonial buildings in the centre and moody weather rolling in off the ocean, covering the surrounding rugged peaks in thundery clouds. Despite the often humid and rainy climate, Suva has a lot going for it. Shopping is good and the nightlife is excellent, with cool bars, lively restaurants and busy nightclubs. With a population of 86,000 there are also all the facilities you could hope for, from banks to cinemas, along with all government departments. But a stream of country dwellers coming to the capital has put pressure on the municipal infrastructure, petty crime is an issue and tin shelters on the outskirts house increasing numbers of needy people.
Apart from the quaint museum and stately buildings there are few standout attractions in central Suva. However, spend some time here and you’ll discover a vibrant cosmopolitan city with strong community bases from all corners of the Fijian archipelago and across the entire South Pacific. Organizations from throughout the region have their headquarters here and the University of the South Pacific attracts students from all over the world.
Inland, the lush tropical rainforest of Naitasiri quickly takes hold – the peaceful Colo-i-Suva Forest Park is only twenty minutes’ drive from downtown. Suva’s poorer neighbourhoods sprawl north along the Kings Road in an almost constant parade of busy satellite towns to Nausori, an industrial and farming centre home to Suva’s domestic airport along the banks of the imposing Rewa River. The river and its surrounding mangrove estuaries have long been Fiji’s tribal power-base, with both the Burebasaga Confederacy of Rewa and the Kubuna Confederacy of Bau based in the region.
The name Suva means “little hill” and refers to a mound in the Botanical Gardens where the temple of Ro Vonu stood in Suva village. In the 1840s the village became embroiled in a dispute that was to have far-reaching consequences for the whole of Fiji.
The 1841 massacre
In 1841, Qaraniqio, a fearsome chief from Rewa, visited Suva and stole a pig. Qaraniqio and his warriors were caught in the act and one of his men was killed. In retaliation the Rewans attacked the village, killing over three hundred men, women and children; the bodies were carried by canoe to Rewa for a celebratory feast. On hearing of the massacre, Cakobau, chief of Bau, demanded retribution – Suva came under his protection as the chief of Suva Village had married a woman from Bau twenty years earlier. His revenge attack on Rewa eventually sparked the eleven-year war that decided the fate of the islands.
Australia moves in
Having achieved victory and crowned himself King of Fiji, Cakobau faced even greater problems. On July 4, 1849 at Nukulau island off Suva, the house of US commercial agent John Williams accidentally caught fire during Independence Day celebrations. Following Fijian custom, the locals looted everything inside. The US Government held Cakobau accountable and demanded US$42,000 in compensation. In 1868, when the first instalment was due, the Australian-owned Polynesian Company offered to pay off the debt in exchange for 200,000 acres of land around Suva Point. Under threat of US naval attack, Cakobau had little choice but to accept and by 1870, 170 Australians had arrived to farm cotton in the area. However, they soon discovered the soil was too thin and the climate too humid and sugar was planted instead. Fiji’s first sugar mill was built to process the crop, although this too failed to profit.
Suva becomes the capital
After Fiji was ceded to Britain in 1874, officials began to survey the islands to build a new capital. The Polynesian Company promised ample freehold land should they choose Suva and this, together with Suva’s deep-water harbour, led the British to favour Suva over its nearest rival Nadi. By 1882 the move from the old capital of Levuka was completed. The dense jungle tumbling from the hills was cleared, the swamps were filled in and Victoria Parade, named after the monarch of the time, became the heart of the new town.
Twentieth-century and present-day Suva
In its early days as capital, Suva was little more than a backwater trading port but gradually it grew, securing wealth and new impressive colonial-style buildings. In 1914, gracious living finally arrived with the completion of the Grand Pacific Hotel, which boasted vintage champagne, haute cuisine and a manager from London’s Savoy. Not quite as swish were the merchant quarters around Cumming Street, fronted by kava saloons and brothels. Many devout citizens called for the street to be cleansed of its evil, and just that happened in February 1923 when a rampant fire spread through the area.
By 1952 Suva covered an area of fifteen square kilometres and was proclaimed Fiji’s first official city. A year later, a tsunami caused by an offshore earthquake smashed into the shoreline, killing eight people and causing damage to the city centre. In 1987 and again in 2000, Suva hit the world headlines after political coups threw the city into chaos with widespread looting. The 2006 coup was less fiery, with the army quickly assuming control of the streets. For more background on Fiji’s political history see The four coups.
Top image © Alan Benge/Shutterstock
As you’d expect, the capital has a decent variety of accommodation, although it’s the one place in Fiji you won’t find palm-fringed resorts, thanks to the lack of nearby beaches. The only time it’s difficult to find a room is at Christmas or during the Hibiscus Festival (usually the school holidays in Aug). Suva South and Central are the best options for most visitors, being close to the top restaurants and bars as well as the Fiji Museum. Suva North is distinctly seedier, with several hotels offering rooms by the hour. Heading out of the centre the suburbs offer a few more characterful options. Note that most of the budget motels and inns are quite shabby and serve the local clientele only. For long-term rentals, the classified pages of the Fiji Times or Fiji Sun, especially on Saturdays, are your best bet, with a good selection of houses, apartments and rooms. When enquiring, try and get a local to call as they are more likely to get a discount.
There are plenty of attractions around Suva worth exploring on day-trips or by staying overnight. Off Suva Point is Nukulau Island, which has the only sandy beach and snorkelling reef in the vicinity. Inland, the tranquil forest park of Colo-i-Suva forms a boundary between Suva and the wet mountainous interior of Viti Levu. The mountains feed the impressive Rewa River, which drains to the north of Suva through Nausori town and into the vast, mangrove-lined Rewa Delta. This region, and the coast to the north, is home to the chiefly villages of Rewa and Bau – the latter once home to Cakobau, the only King of Fiji – and remains the most influential power-base in Fiji.
Colo-i-Suva Forest Park
Around 25 kilometres north of Suva is Colo-i-Suva Forest Park, a pristine area of low-altitude rainforest. It’s a pretty place, dominated by mahogany trees, their trunks thick with parasitical tree ferns. There’s a good chance of spotting wild orchids in the park as well as endemic birds, including the Pink-billed Parrotfinch. An easy one-hour nature trail leads to a couple of small waterfalls with pools good for swimming and nearby picnic benches.
Unfortunately, the park has a reputation for theft from cars and occasional muggings – the attendant at the park entrance can arrange a guide, and can look after valuables.
The Rewa River Delta
East of Suva, the landscape is dominated by the snaking tributaries and mangroves of the Rewa River delta, dotted with small fishing villages. At the eastern end of the river is Kaba Point, where the great war between Rewa and Bau came to its bloody conclusion in 1855 with a battle involving five thousand warriors and a hundred war canoes.
The rise of Bau Island and KingCakobau
Despite its modest size Bau Island played a key role in the history of Fiji. Up until the eighteenth century, Verata, 10km north of Nausori, and its rival Rewa had ruled the archipelago, the latter being the head of the aristocracy of Burebasaga, one of the three founding clans. In 1760, a tiny island named Ulu-ni-Vuaka (“the head of the pig”), barely 300m from the shore of Viti Levu, was settled by warriors of Verata lineage and in time became known as Bau. The island’s first chief erected sea walls to protect it from invasion and built stone canoe docks, making the island a powerful seafaring base. In 1808 a Swedish “beachcomber” named Charlie Savage – who five years later would end up in the cannibals’ pot – visited Bau and brought with him firearms, until then never possessed by Fijians. Using these new, terrifying weapons, the ruling chief, Naulivou, fought a series of wars with Verata, 15km to the north. When Verata was weak Rewa grew in strength and between the two, they battled the upstarts from Bau for supremacy. Bau grew more powerful under the rule of the brutal cannibal chiefs of Tanoa and later Cakobau. The chiefs seized upon the right of vasu, claiming wide support from villages throughout Fiji. At its peak, the island boasted three thousand inhabitants and twenty temples.
By 1871, with the backing of the European merchants of Levuka, Cakobau had proclaimed himself King of Fiji. Three years later he ceded the islands to Britain. Today, the chief of Bau remains one of the most powerful in Fijian political life. As for Rewa, the aristocrats managed to retain their hold over their far-flung subjects and the Burebasaga Confederacy remains the largest and most powerful of Fiji’s three ancient confederacies.
Three kilometres off Kaba Point is the four-acre Toberua Island, home to one of Fiji’s first boutique island resorts (see below). There are colourful coral formations and reef sharks at nearby Toberua Passage, which is excellent for both snorkelling and scuba diving. The resort will organize your transport to the island, as well as twice-weekly boat trips to Mabualau, a tiny limestone islet 5km to the east, dedicated as a nature reserve and packed with large white fluffy boobies.
The lively hub of the city, Suva Central, is not even half a square kilometre in size and runs south of Nubukalou Creek to Gordon Street. This is where the best of the city’s eating, shopping and strolling opportunities are focused.
Drinking, nightlife and entertainment
One of Suva’s most enduring charms is its lively nightlife. Most of the bars and clubs are in one block around Victoria Parade and Carnarvon St, making it easy to hop from one to another and sample the different atmospheres. Fijians like to drink communally, as if drinking yaqona – if you buy a Fiji Bitter “long neck”, which is more economical, it will be shared by passing round a small glass to down in one. It’s a quick way of getting drunk and brawls occasionally break out in the wilder places. However, the locals are very protective of foreign visitors and on most occasions you’ll be well looked after. Taxis are advisable for the ride back to your hotel.
The most popular restaurants in Suva are Chinese, and many of these whip up over-the-counter meals for around F$6. However, with variable hygiene standards, this kind of fast food is best avoided unless purchased from one of the two busy food courts: one at Downtown Boulevard off Renwick Rd; the other at Dolphin’s Plaza on the corner of Victoria Parade and Loftus St – both are open between 8am and 5pm but closed on Sundays. Otherwise, there’s a good variety of cuisine on offer from European to Indian and prices seldom exceed F$30. BBQ hawkers set up on Victoria Parade beside Ratu Sukuna Park from 6pm every day selling large portions of chicken and sausage with dalo and salad for F$5 – make sure the food is cooked in front of you as it often sits around for a while.
North of Nubukalou Creek, the Suva bus stand on Rodwell Road typifies Suva’s bustle. By day, Indian peanut sellers and Fijian barrow boys run around amongst the black exhaust fumes frenetically plying their trade. By night, the area becomes desolate, save for a few drunks and homeless people, who sleep on the benches and rummage amongst the rubbish. Opposite the north end of the bus stand is the Flea Market (Mon–Sat 8am–6pm), a great place to buy cheap clothes and souvenirs.
Mark Street, Cumming Street and around
Southeast of the Municipal Market, a cluster of Chinese and Indian merchant shops can be found around Mark Street and Cumming Street. Crammed with an unbelievable array of homewares and astoundingly colourful clothing, these are great places to poke around in. At the eastern end of Mark Street, Toorak Road leads inland to the blossoming residential area of Toorak, home to the city mosque, while Waimanau Road – with the raucous bars of the Kings Hotel on its corner – heads north into the hills towards the Colonial War Memorial Hospital and beyond to grand Borron House, a government residence and ballroom used for ceremonial events.
The Municipal Market
Towards the city centre, the colourful Municipal Market is the largest in Fiji, with a huge variety of fruit and vegetables for sale. Upstairs are the yaqona and spice stalls, although note that kava drinking has been banned by the City Council. On Friday and Saturday mornings, Fijians from miles around visit the market, which spills out into the streets amongst the BBQ sellers and shoe-shine boys. Keep an eye out for pickpockets at these times.
Renwick Rd is the place to head for malls, which contain a variety of stores and amenities such as cafés and ATMS, while scruffy but characterful Cumming St has Suva’s best selection of clothes shops, where you can buy fine Indian attire and fabric by the metre. One of the street’s many tailors can then whip you up a suit or shirt, or try the Flea Market.
Sitting on reclaimed land dug out from the hill surrounding Albert Park, Victoria Parade is the administrative centre of Fiji, with modern high-rise office buildings lining the road. At the north end is the attractive whitewashed FINTEL Building built in 1922. Behind, the modern 1970s-style Civic Hall is the venue for occasional dance performances. Heading south on Victoria Parade is one of the prettiest buildings in Suva, the Old Town Hall with its cast-iron columned veranda. The building is now a Chinese restaurant downstairs while upstairs is the headquarters for Fiji’s branch of Greenpeace. Next door is the imposing Suva City Library.
A few hundred metres to the south, the solemn-looking Old Parliament, built in 1939, sits at the end of Carnarvon Street, facing Victoria Parade and Albert Park. It’s now Fiji’s judicial headquarters and houses various government departments.
The Fiji Museum
Suva’s most rewarding attraction, the Fiji Museum, is set within Thurston Gardens, Suva’s spacious and elegant botanical gardens. If you have even a slight interest in Fiji’s history or want to see some of those wicked war clubs and cannibal forks, then it’s worth the trip to Suva. The museum is neatly laid out with a grand hall displaying a double-hulled war canoe, some impressive 12m-long oars and lots of intriguing daily items such as tattooing tools and wigs. The adjoining gallery maps out the arrival of the first Europeans and includes part of HMS Bounty’s rudder, a piece of eight from the Eliza shipwreck, and a small exhibition on the Reverend Thomas Baker, eaten by cannibals in 1864: don’t miss the gnawed remnants of his shoes. Upstairs, the Indo-Fijian Gallery recounts the history of Indian indentured labourers brought to Fiji between 1879 and 1916. The gift shop on the ground floor has a good selection of books on Fijian history and culture.
The suburbs and Lami Town
The four Suva Suburbs of Muanikau, Samabula, Tamavua and Cunningham are mostly residential areas but have several sights worth exploring. Beyond, to the west along the Queens Road, is seaside Lami Town, facing the attractive yachting anchorage of the Bay of Islands. Local buses run to the suburbs, Lami Town and the Orchid Island Cultural Centre regularly from 6am to 6pm, departing from the main bus stand.
Indian fire walking
Between April and September every year, Dravidian Hindus around Fiji seek favourable omens from the gods during the replanting of crops. To test their faith and devotion, many take part in one of the eighty or so Indian fire walking ceremonies that occur throughout rural Fiji. The build up to any ceremony is a two-week long process of denial and self-discipline to attain purification, culminating in a night of passionate dedication when the fire pit is lit. Before crossing the pit, the yellow-clad participants undergo body piercings, notably through the tongue and cheeks, bathe in either a river or the ocean and are finally physically whipped into a frenzy before strutting across the hot embers – not surprisingly a few participants end up in hospital. The most accessible of the ceremonies is held in August at the Mariamma Hindu Road Temple off Rewa Street.
Suva – a self-guided tour
The following walking tour (9km) should take three hours – a taxi ride covering the same ground will cost F$25 with waiting time. Start from the Old Parliament on Victoria Parade and head north into the city turning left at Ratu Sukuna Park along the harbour wall of Stinson Parade and into the market. From the market, walk along Usher Street, bearing right at the traffic lights and into busy Cumming Street for shop browsing. At the end, walk uphill along Waimanu Road and at the fork, bear right up Toorak Road. Turn right on Amy Street, head past the Toorak mosque and continue along flame-tree-lined Holland Street with its fine city views, past the Laxmi Hindu Temple. At the roundabout, walk across Victoria Park to Pender Street and at the end, turn right and first left which takes you along winding Domain Road and past some expensive residences. When Domain Road eventually hits Ratu Sukuna Road, turn left and right again on Vuya Road, off which lies Parliament House where you should make a detour. Carry on down Vuya Road to Suva Point and then head right on Queen Elizabeth Drive along the picturesque foreshore, past the grand Government House and through Thurston Gardens to finish your tour at the Fiji Museum, or back on Victoria Parade.
Watersports around Suva
The ocean around Suva is too polluted for swimming. The closest snorkelling reef is at Nukulau Island and a mediocre surfing break lies off Suva Point. For water activities it’s best to head west to Pacific Harbour, thirty minutes along the Queens Road, or to the offshore islands of Toberua or Caqalai, both popular weekend destinations for city dwellers. You may find overnight skippered yacht charters and crew work advertised at The Royal Suva Yacht Club at Walu Bay.