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Inside: The Mamanuca Islands are Fiji’s real idyllic paradise. Here’s how to get off the main island of Nadi and explore these sandy tropical gems.
“Ooohhh, who owns that yacht?” we asked with envy as our high-speed catamaran docked back at Denarau Marina.
“My 2nd husband,” joked Ma, as laughter filled the Captain’s Lounge.
We’d just returned from a day of sailing through Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands and Makereta (or just “Ma” as she prefers to be called) was our cheerful hostess and Cruise Director for the voyage. It had been a simply spectacular day and the Fijian people like Ma were a big part of the reason why.
People often throw the word “paradise” around with reckless abandon (I myself have likely been guilty of that) but for me, the South Pacific truly defines the word.
I’ve been lucky enough to see a lot of this region (Tahiti, Bora Bora, Moorea, New Caledonia, Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands, Vanuatu and Easter Island) and for my money, there’s no better overall South Pacific destination than Fiji.
With more than 300 idyllic islands to explore, there’s literally something for everyone – from backpackers to honeymooners to families. The two primary island chains are the Yasawas and the Mamanucas. There are plenty of lodging options on the islands but many prefer to stay on the main island and visit the two outer island groups on day trips.
I had arrived in Nadi, on Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, yesterday after back-to-back redeye flights from Jakarta (via Seoul). I could tell on approach to landing that the island had recently been blanketed by rain. Rivers swelled, puddles abounded and muddy island runoff had turned normally blue waters into a murky brown.
On the drive to the Westin Denarau Island Resort, my driver confirmed that the islands had seen significant rainfall in the previous two days and couldn’t offer any encouragement for the coming days. I didn’t have much planned for today, just a little relaxing by the pool. But I did have big plans for the next few days that would require some sunshine. Or at least the lack of serious thunderstorms.
I had a few hours to kill before I would be joined in my Fijian adventures by my Aussie friend Angela (of Antarctica fame). You may recall that Ang joined me for part of my Asian trip last August and we had an amazing time exploring Myanmar. Since our joint travel exploits had so far included remote and complicated destinations like Antarctica and Myanmar, it seemed only fitting that we were due for a more relaxed holiday. Which brings me back to Fiji…
This was my 3rd trip to the islands and after a less than exciting debut visit I had finally figured out how to do Fiji right on my 2nd attempt. On my first visit to Fiji (at the end of RTW #2) I was only on the island for two nights and never left Denarau. While the hotels were lovely and the setting relaxing, I didn’t get what all the fuss was about. These weren’t the beaches I’d seen in travel brochures of Fiji.
On my 2nd visit (during RTW 5 ½ – The Oceania Edition), I again stayed on Denarau Island. But this time I booked two day trips to the outer islands – one to the Yasawa group and one to the Mamanucas. I booked both trips with South Sea Cruises and thoroughly enjoyed them. Finally, I had found the real Fiji…and it was fantastic.
This time, when planning my return visit to Fiji, I knew exactly what I wanted to do – see more of the outer island groups. I perused South Sea’s website and sent the link to Angela so she could see what day trips caught her interest. We ultimately decided to do the Seaspray day-sailing trip on Tuesday and then a full-day trip to South Sea Island on Thursday. In between the two, we’d spend a day enjoying the variety of pools and facilities at the resort.
It was a perfect itinerary, but I hadn’t factored in the weather. And as I settled into the room, the rain began to fall.
When the Weather’s not Sunny, I’m Probably Spending Money
With persistent clouds and intermittent thundershowers dampening my enjoyment of the Westin’s facilities I decided to head over to Denarau Marina for a little shopping. Filled with restaurants, cafes and shops, the marina is just a short drive from most of the major resorts on the island.
Though I’d bought a few things over the course of the past few weeks, I always prefer to save as much shopping for souvenirs, gifts, etc. as possible for the end of the trip to keep my luggage lighter early on. With Fiji as my last stop, it seemed like the perfect place to pick up a few gifts. I had lunch at the marina as the rain continued to fall and spent the rest of the afternoon shopping and praying to the rain Gods that this would all go away by tomorrow. If it didn’t, I was likely to be broke by the end of the week.
Angela arrived just in time for dinner that night and though we were slightly disappointed by the current weather conditions, we were excited to finally be in Fiji and determined to remain optimistic about our plans for the week.
A Spectacular Day on Seaspray
When I awoke the next morning and drew back the blinds, I was relieved to see blue sky staring back at me. Not much of it, mind you, but enough to provide the necessary encouragement to get out of bed. And certainly more than I’d seen the entire day before.
By 9am we were back at Denarau Marina and boarding the Tiger IV, the high-speed catamaran that would ferry us to Mana Island where the Seaspray was waiting. It was about a 90-minute ride with scenic stops along the way at the tiny little dots of sand known as South Sea Island, Bounty Island, Treasure Island and Beachcomber Island (all as perfect-looking as they sound). At each stop, passengers were transferred by jetty to and from the islands. Some for day trips, others to stay at the small resorts on each island.
On my last trip I’d learned that the Captain’s Lounge upgrade on the boat was well worth the $27 round trip expense for access to the air-conditioned upper deck cabin complete with free drinks and snacks. As we entered the Captain’s Lounge we met Ma, our hostess and Cruise Director for the ride out to and back from Mana Island. Along the ride she gave some interesting history about the area and announced each island as we stopped.
By 10:30am we arrived at the dock on Mana Island to the lyrical voices of resort staff welcoming us in song in the traditional Fijian fashion. We disembarked the catamaran and boarded a small transfer boat to reach the Seaspray.
We had a full day ahead that would start with a trip to the uninhabited island of Modriki, set for the Tom Hanks movie “Cast Away” and end with a visit to a local village. Once the 50 or so passengers were all comfortably aboard, we began sailing toward Modriki. The weather continued to turn in our favor as we sailed and blue sky was quickly winning the battle with the clouds.
As we approached the deserted paradise of Modriki, I couldn’t understand for the life of me why Tom Hanks spent 2 hours trying to get off this gorgeous little island. Swaying palms and white sand lapped by turquoise waters, it was the stuff of pure South Pacific fantasy. (Sidebar: The American edition of the TV show Survivor has been filming here and on the surrounding islands since 2016.)
We were ferried to shore in two trips and had an hour or so at our leisure to snorkel and enjoy the island. On a hill just above the beach, was the only thing that still remains from the movie set, the words “HELP ME” spelled out in coconuts. The beach was fantastic but the snorkeling wasn’t the greatest thanks to reduced visibility from the recent rains. It didn’t matter; we still thoroughly enjoyed our stay on the island.
Next, it was time to re-board the Seaspray for a delicious BBQ lunch before sailing on to our next stop, the village on Yanuya Island. I was excited at the prospect of seeing a Fijian village as this wasn’t something I’d done on previous visits.
As we approached the shores of Yanuya Island, I was blown away by what a beautifully serene place this must be to live. And that beauty was reflected in everyone we met in the village, especially the school children. As we waited for the second tender from the Seaspray to disembark on the beach, Angela and I noticed the children in a nearby school house smiling and waving at us. We smiled and waved back, completely distracting them from their schoolwork.
Once we were all together, we walked through the village to the community center where we were treated to a Kava Ceremony by the village chief. Kava is a mildly narcotic drink made from the pepper plant and used on occasions both important and social. It’s traditionally accompanied by a ceremony to welcome visitors and when we arrived the village chief had prepared some for us to try.
We sat on the floor in a circle during the brief ceremony and then were given the opportunity to drink a bowl of the murky brown liquid. I had tried kava before on a previous South Pacific island and decided to pass but several of the Seaspray passengers gave it a go.
After thanking the village chief and doing a little shopping in the craft market, we began the walk back through the village to the boat. By this time the children were getting out of school and then ran excitedly to the school’s fence line to greet us as we walked by.
Sometimes, in my travels, I get so depressed by children who’ve been trained to demand money when their photo is taken and since it happens more often than not, I guess I’ve become a little jaded and hesitant when taking photos of children. But not here in Fiji. Like the adults, the kids all seem so happy and welcoming. Smiling brightly at us as we passed and shouting the Fijian welcome that had already become part of our daily jargon, “Bula! Bula!” They posed happily for photos as we walked by their school, expecting nothing more than a returned smile and wave.
It was obvious that the Seapray’s regular visits were a highlight of their day and they truly enjoyed interacting with visitors to their village. (A few future South Sea Cruises crew members among them, no doubt.)
After leaving the village (my faith in humanity temporarily restored), it was time to hit the high seas again for the cruise back to Mana Island to rejoin the Tiger IV for the ride back to Denarau. Cold beverages flowed and the crew again brought out the guitars and ukuleles to serenade us as we cruised through the picturesque Mamanuca island group.
At Mana Island we rejoined Ma and some of the other friends we’d made earlier on the Tiger IV (who’d been going on various other island day trips) and compared notes on our fabulous days over a chilled bottle of wine in the Captain’s Lounge. It was a completely wonderful day and we couldn’t wait to get back out to the islands again later in the week.
Day 3 – Resort R&R
Since we knew our exciting day aboard Seaspray might leave us in need of a rest day between island adventures, Angela and I didn’t plan anything at all for Day 3. The sun was again shining and the plan was to enjoy the many amenities of the Westin Denarau Resort complex which also includes the neighboring Sheraton Fiji Resort and the Sheraton Denarau Villas (guests of all properties can enjoy the amenities of each). Of course, if we were going to cover all three pools in one day, efficiency was key.
After breakfast, I had a little work to do so Ang kicked things off by grabbing us shady lounge chairs at the Westin’s pool while I went back to the room to do some writing and photo editing. We both had gotten a little too much sun the day before on Seaspray despite the fact that we were constantly re-applying sunscreen and careful about choosing seats in the shade on the boat when possible. Fijian sun doesn’t seem to care about SPF factors, fair warning.
By mid-morning, I was done working and we decided to walk down the beach and check out the Sheraton Fiji’s pool for a while. Later that afternoon we stopped for lunch at the Sheraton Denarau Villas on the walk back and then spent a little more time on our home turf at the Westin’s pool. It was a perfectly lazy day and exactly what the doctor ordered.
That night we had our first decent sunset since it was raining the first night we arrived and cloudy by sunset time the night before. We walked back down to the Sheraton with a bottle of wine and a couple of glasses and parked ourselves in beachside lounge chairs to watch the show before heading down to the marina for dinner.
South Sea Island
Day 4 in Fiji dawned with a brilliant blue sky and would prove to be the sunniest yet. The closest island to Denarau, uninhabited South Sea Island seemed a perfect choice for our 2nd day trip, one in which we were looking to simply relax on a beach somewhere gorgeous (that may sound difficult but the only actual difficult part about that in Fiji is narrowing it down to just one island). There’s no resort on tiny South Sea Island, just a 32-room dorm for those wishing to spend the night but at only 30-minutes by boat from Port Denarau it’s an ideal place for a day trip.
The island has a pool, shady lounge chairs, a dive center and any number of water sports activities available. There’s even a semi-submersible for those who want to experience the coral reef surrounding the island without getting wet. And most importantly, there were half a dozen hammocks scattered around the island and strung lazily between sturdy palms. (I was operating under a severe hammock-deficit so far on this trip so I found that especially enticing.)
We arrived on the island with 40 or so other day-trippers and were again welcomed in song before being given a brief overview of the island and the schedule for the day. You were free to participate in as many activities as you liked or simply take up residence in a lounge chair for the day.
We decided to split the difference. The semi-submersible would make two morning trips, Angela took the first and I took the second. Though snorkeling was possible right from the shore, later that morning I decided to join the organized snorkeling trip to a reef a little farther out. Again the recent rains had reduced the visibility so there wasn’t much to see but I could tell that the reef must be a stunning sight when the water is clear.
When I returned from the snorkeling trip, the island staff began serving lunch and as we ate they serenaded us with more Fijian music. The entertainment had been so terrific on our two day trips I was beginning to wonder if it was a job requirement to be a talented musician or singer to work for South Sea Cruises. But when I casually mentioned it to one of the staff members he just smiled and said they all grow up singing and playing music in the villages, it’s just how they’re raised. Amazing, really.
That afternoon I took relaxation to a whole new level by setting up camp in a hammock for a solid 4 hours with a good book on my iPad. Angela was kind enough to make the occasional drink run to the bar as getting into the hammock the first time proved a bit dodgy (I won’t go into details) and I didn’t want to take the chance of trying it while balancing both an adult beverage and electronics.
I realized that I hadn’t spent nearly enough time on this trip just enjoying the beauty around me. I’m always on the move, trying to catch a flight here or boat there, dodging wayward goats or volcanic eruptions. Fiji was the perfect place to right that wrong on my last full day of Round-the-World #9.
As the ocean breeze soothed my lingering Seaspray sunburn and the island music played softly I looked up at the swaying palms above – cold beer in hand – and thought back to a conversation Ang and I had the day before while walking amongst the barrage of palm trees lining the Westin Resort…what is it about a palm tree, she asked, that screams, “Relax, you’re somewhere fabulous!” And it really was fabulous. Simply, South Pacific fabulous.
It was a brilliant day and we capped it off back at the hotel with an awe-inspiring sunset and a chilled bottle of champagne. Absolute perfection.
I have to say my four nights in Fiji just might be the best ending yet to a RTW trip. I don’t know how I’ll top it next year (Spoiler Alert: I managed to top it in spectacular fashion the following year!). Perhaps the Yasawa Islands are calling my name?
But for now, it’s a 28-hour travel day back to reality. Tomorrow, we’ll wrap up this global extravaganza but for now…
Next stop…Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Dateline: Winter.