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.
The Buca Bay Road finally hits Buca Bay at Loa village, from where dirt roads branch off north and south along the coast. The road north heads through a dozen fishing villages to Nabuka at the tip of Natewa Bay, facing Rabi Island. Two kilometres south of Loa is Natuvu Landing, departure point for ferries to Taveuni. Twelve kilometres south of Natuvu you can see petroglyphs etched into stone boulders alongside the creek bed at the village of Dakuniba (ask to see them). A couple of dive resorts are hidden in the heavily indented southeastern tip of the peninsula, which has the closest access to the stunning Rainbow Reef.
Two of the best times to visit Savusavu are during Savusavu Festival Week in November, when local arts, music and culture are promoted, and during the annual Hindu Krishna Lele Festival, which features fire walking and is held at the Khemendra School just before Christmas.
The seldom seen Fiji crested iguana (Brachylophus vitiensis) is one of the few large reptiles living in the South Pacific and found only on a handful of islands in Fiji. Averaging 40cm in length (split evenly between body and tail), they are distinguished from the more common and slightly smaller banded iguana by three thin white stripes around the body and a mohican-style head-dress. If aroused, their skin turns from a pale green colour to jet black.
These fascinating creatures were first discovered by Australian zoologist John Gibbons in 1979 on the tiny island of Yadua Taba, which nuzzles its larger sister Yadua 20km off the western tip of Vanua Levu. The 170-acre uninhabited island, declared as Fiji’s first wildlife reserve in 1981, is home to around twelve thousand crested iguanas, which eat the leaves and flowers of the island’s wild hibiscus trees. Other habitats include Monuriki in the Mamanucas and several small islands in the Yasawas, although populations at these locations are small. The only way to visit Yadua Taba is on a scientific research project, but you can view the iguanas without disturbing their natural habitat at Kula Eco Park on the Coral Coast.
Just offshore from Buca Bay, the small, hilly island of Kioa is home to four hundred Tuvaluans. Back in the 1940s the people of Vaitupu, the largest of the nine coral atolls in Tuvalu, were faced with a stark choice: cling on as rising sea levels began to erode their tiny island, or look for a new home. In 1947, the freehold island of Kioa, 1000km to the south in Fiji, was purchased by the people of Vaitupu for £3000. The first migrants arrived almost immediately and a steady trickle has continued ever since. The islanders live in the solitary village of Salia on the south coast. In 2005, they were formally granted Fijian citizenship. The fair-skinned Polynesian Tuvaluans have a lifestyle and language quite different from the Fijians. They are known as skilled fishermen and are often seen handline fishing from outrigger canoes way out to sea.
The hot and dusty market centre of LABASA on Vanua Levu’s north coast is Fiji’s largest town outside of Viti Levu but receives virtually no tourists. The administrative centre of Vanua Levu, it has a purposeful bustle during the day, but by sundown, with the departure of the last local bus, the streets become deserted. On the outskirts is the town’s lifeline, the Labasa Sugar Mill, which perpetually hisses, creaks and bellows out smoke during the sugar-crushing season between May and December. Labasa’s surrounding hilly countryside is the main attraction for visitors and exploring this area by open-sided bus offers great mountain vistas. Also nearby are two resorts with diving access to the fabulous, uncharted Great Sea Reef.
Rabi Island, 66 square kilometres in size, is home to the displaced Banaban Islanders from faraway Kiribati in Micronesia. Their tiny five-square-kilometre original homeland, Banaba Island, was systematically stripped of its phosphate deposits by British mining interests between 1902 and 1942. Soon after, during World War II, the island was captured by the Japanese, who slaughtered many of the islanders. At the end of the war the British Government relocated the remaining Banabans to Rabi Island in Fiji which it had purchased shortly before the Japanese occupation. The islanders received formal Fijian citizenship in 2005, and today almost five thousand Banabans live on Rabi. Tabwewa, halfway along the north coast, is the largest village on the island.
SAVUSAVU, Vanua Levu’s main tourist centre, is a small one-street town squeezed between rolling hills and a silvery ocean. Sitting alongside a bay that was once a giant volcano, Savusavu is Fiji’s most popular anchorage for visiting yachts. With several excellent restaurants and bars, splendid walks in the Savusavu Hills and fabulous nearby snorkelling at Lesiaceva Point, the town makes for a pleasant short stay.
From Savusavu, the sedate Hibiscus Highway passes old coconut plantations, hugging the south coast of Vanua Levu, while to the north are two picturesque waterfalls hidden amongst tropical rainforests, one at the village of Vuadomo, the other at the Waisali Nature Reserve.
Hopping on and off Labasa’s charming open-sided buses is a great way to see the countryside and meet the locals The following routes are highly recommended, each departing hourly from Labasa bus stand from 6am to 6pm, with increased services during peak hours.
Labasa to Basoga or Vunivau (20min; F$1.20). After passing the sugar mill and turning left up Valebasoga Road, get off the bus at the brow of the hill before the Chinese Cemetery. Walk towards the telecommunication tower (15min), following the ridge for stunning mountain views. Head back down via the tower access road, past Indian houses to Bulileka Road (20min). From here, frequent buses head back into Labasa.
Labasa to Coqeloa (50min; F$1.60). This route passes the sugar mill and snake temple and travels through Indian sugarcane settlements around the Bucaisau River Valley. Plenty of dirt roads branch out from the valley, making tempting walking diversions amongst beautiful mountain scenery.
The best place to snorkel around Savusavu is at Split Rock close to Cousteau Resort. You can get a public bus or taxi from town. Snorkel out towards the pearl buoys for the best coral patches. Long-established dive operator Koro Sun Divers (885 2452, korosundive.com; two-tank dive F$230) offer daily pick-ups from the Savusavu area and dive the reefs in the Koro Sea off the south coast as well as the Rainbow Reef. Once a week they run trips to the remote reefs of Namena Island.
In the busy sailing season between May and October one of the visiting yachts may offer day or overnight sailing charters – check at the Copra Shed or Waitui marinas. Tui Tai Adventure Cruise have their head offices in Savusavu, between the Planters Club and the J Hunter Pearl Office on Main Street.
To marvel at the fine views over Savusavu Bay, take a walk around Savusavu Hills. The best route starts from the eastern end of town, turning right up Buca Bay Road towards the airport. After a steep fifteen-minute walk, turn right again up the imaginatively named “Access Road” and follow the ridge westwards for nice views overlooking the town and Nawi Island.
There are three routes back into town. The shortest trail, which takes around thirty minutes, diverts off the road to the telecoms tower perched on the hilltop. From the far end of the clearing above the tower, a small grassy track leads down to a dirt road within five minutes. Follow this road and take the second turning on the left, heading uphill again on Nawi Street. From here, the ridge walk has views over the southern end of the bay and winds its way through light forest, past corrugated iron lean-tos back into town.
The other two options continue along Access Road for thirty minutes south towards the airport. From here you can either catch a bus or taxi back into town or continue for thirty minutes along the south coast via Nukubalavu Village to Lesiaceva Point. Near the point, on the north side of the Cousteau Resort, is a public beach with excellent snorkelling at Split Rock, 500m offshore. It’s a 7km walk along the coastline back into town, or you can catch a bus or taxi.