With 333 islands making up this South Pacific dreamscape, it would take a lifetime to truly explore every corner of Fiji. For the past six years, I’ve been living in Fiji’s capital city of Suva and have made many travel mistakes and cultural snafus so you don’t have to.
From which island to choose to kava drinking etiquette to packing essentials, these are the dos and don’ts of traveling to Fiji.
1. What do I need to know before going to Fiji?
No two islands are exactly alike in Fiji and it’s worth researching the main ones before you arrive.
If you’re limited on time and want to see some of the country’s best beaches, spend your time island-hopping around the Yasawa and Mamanuca Islands. For waterfall-laden hiking trails and technicolor coral reefs, Taveuni awaits. Viti Levu, the main island, is home to Fiji’s capital city of Suva and hosts some of Fiji’s best-value resorts, cultural activities, hiking, and most of Fiji’s population.
To stay somewhere truly novel, try Beqa, which is famous for its firewalkers and has a strong cultural connection to the bull sharks that cruise around its surrounding reefs. Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, hosts the quaint town of Savusavu, a hub for scuba diving, freediving and laidback living.
If you’re keen to splash out on a five-star stay, take your pick of private island resorts – accessible by private helicopter, seaplane or boat – that offer an air of exclusivity not easily found elsewhere. Some top recommendations include Kokomo Private Island Fiji, Vomo Island Resort, and Castaway Island Resort.
2. Stay at small resorts and homestays for a Fijian experience
As a rule, the larger the resort, the less Fijian your trip may feel. Most of the international chain resorts are found on Denarau Island, a manmade island that makes up for its lackluster beach with plenty of pools, bars and restaurants.
Smaller resorts and homestays tend to be decorated with locally made art, offer guided trips to nearby villages and serve Fijian fare. Once staff members knock off for the day, they’re likely to invite you for a round or two of kava. If you want an intimate stay, Finding Islands Tours hosts immersive cultural trips on land and sea where you’ll learn about traditional ways of life and interesting facts about Fiji.
3. Schedule your outdoor adventures towards the beginning of your trip
Life in the tropics means that no matter the weather forecast, you could experience rain or bluebird skies (or both) on any given day. Plan your hikes, scuba dives, snorkel tours, sailing trips and other outdoor adventures towards the beginning of your stay. That way, you’ll have time to reschedule should the weather interfere with your plans.
4. Come for at least a week – the longer the better
If you plan to visit just one or two areas of Fiji, a week is enough time to have a balance of sightseeing and relaxing. If you hope to see more, you’ll lose at least half a day in transit whenever you island hop. There’s no way to see everything on one visit, so it’s best to slow down and pick just a few places to stay. If you’d prefer to do more rather than less, embark on day trips from your accommodation rather than changing sleeping spots every other day.
5. Go all-out when it comes to packing floral patterns and color
Go ahead and pack the floral button-up shirt or dress hiding in the back of your closet. Fijians tend to dress in bright, bold colors, often covered with Pacific Island patterns or tropical prints. A nice pair of sandals and a cheerful outfit will carry you from casual beach bars to fine-dining venues to the streets of Suva. If your outfit covers your shoulders and knees, it’ll also suit for village and church visits.
6. The buses and taxis are affordable on the main islands
Save money traveling around Viti Levu by riding the bus. The large buses connecting Nadi International Airport have space for luggage storage and are air-conditioned; Sunbeam and Pacific offer express services between Suva and Nadi. Public buses tend to be even cheaper but stop frequently and lack air conditioning. Taxis are metered, and generally affordable, but are only available on Fiji’s larger islands.
7. Get ready to embrace the bula spirit
Wherever you go, you’re likely to hear a hearty “bula!” from those around you. Fijians are famous for their hospitality and generally forgiving of etiquette blunders. A few Fijian words will carry you through many social situations. Bula means "hello," vinaka means "thank you" and moce (pronounced "mo-they") means "see you later."
If you ask a Fijian a question and they raise their eyebrows, you can take the answer as a yes. The word "set" is usually used as "okay." If you hear someone blowing kisses in public, it’s likely not a catcall – Fijians use this sound to grab attention from a person they know.
8. Don’t enter a village empty-handed
Whenever you enter a village, it’s customary to bring a sevusevu (gift). Traditionally, this gift is yaqona or kava, a pepper root that is ground into a fine powder and drunk from a large wooden bowl called a tanoa. Depending on the reason for your visit, the village representative might invite you to drink kava with the community or simply grant you access to their land if you’ve come to go on a hike, visit a waterfall, or simply want to take a tour.
9. Avoid wearing anything on your head whenever you enter a village
When you dress to enter a village, both men and women are typically expected to wear a sulu (sarong), wrapped around their waists and a shirt that covers the shoulders. Wearing anything on your head, like sunglasses or a hat, is considered impolite. If you’re bringing a backpack, carry it like a purse in the nook of your arm rather than on your back. Avoid lingering in doorways for too long once you’ve been invited into a room.
10. Don’t be afraid to ask for etiquette tips on drinking kava from a local
If you are invited to drink kava in a village, it will likely be with the head of the village and other members of the community and served in the community hall. When you enter, take off your shoes at the door and sit cross-legged on the floor near your village representative, who is usually someone assigned to host you for the experience. Kava is poured from a large bowl and served in a coconut shell, called a bilo.
It’s customary to accept the first bilo of kava offered to you. Every village is slightly different when it comes to how they drink kava: some clap before drinking, some say “bula” and clap after drinking, and some receive the bilo with both hands instead of one. When in doubt, ask the Fijian you’re sitting near. It’s okay to politely skip rounds and request "low tide" (a half-full coconut shell) if you wish to pace yourself.
11. Rugby is the sport of choice
There’s no sport more beloved than rugby in Fiji. After work and on weekends, rugby pitches are abuzz with activity, and making small talk about the sport is a surefire way to gain fast friends. Even if you don’t know the ins and outs of rugby playing, it’s worth attending a game or pulling up a chair to watch a televised match at a bar.
12. Not all tap water is drinkable
The tap water is typically potable in Suva, and most hotels provide filtered drinking water. Elsewhere, you’ll want to bring your own bottled water or carry a filter, like a Lifestraw, to drink from.
13. Take extra care in the cities after dark
When it comes to safety in Fiji, follow the same precautions you’d take in any major city. Stow your belongings out of sight and keep your wits about you. Crime against tourists is low in Fiji and typically involves theft. Avoid going out drinking alone at night and take extra care around the bars near Nadi and Suva late at night as this is where most muggings and assaults occur.
14. Contact the police, hotel, or head of the village should things go wrong
On the major islands of Fiji, contact the police (911 for emergencies, and 917 for police services) for assistance. On Fiji’s outer islands, there may not be an official police posting. In this case, it’s best to seek help from your accommodation or the head of the village, called the turaga ni koro.