Levuka is just as laid-back today as it was when the first traders and whalers arrived in the 18th century, finds Kelly Lynch.
Every Saturday morning on the seaward side of Levuka's main road, families spanning three generations sit under the wide, leafy shade of baka trees, waiting to sell food to passers-by. Laid out on a blanket of taro leaves and groundsheets are colourful limes, eggplants, coconuts, cabbages, ginger and okra, neatly stacked in piles.
When leafy greens such as lettuce arrive on the scene, arms and plastic bags flurry about until they're soon sold out. Prawns and crabs are also popular, passing quickly through hands while some are sold directly to the town's shops across the road.
Standing in a tight row, the shops look like a set from a Hollywood western with their overhanging balconies, faded paint and names stencilled in block letters above the doors. These shops, which add so much to this town's funky character, once sold goods to unruly white traders, but now sell to a friendly, mainly Fijian clientele.
Levuka, the main town of Ovalau, an oval island in the Lomaiviti group, was established in the early 18th century by whalers and traders on the scent of sandalwood oil. They were followed by seekers of beche-de-mer, a sea cucumber reputed to be an aphrodisiac and highly desired by the Chinese. When cotton production came to a halt in America, Ovalau helped fill the gap.
Schooners soon packed the harbour, bringing with them traders but adventurers, runaways, convicts and all manner of scallywags. A bottle of gin sold for a shilling and rum was distilled from the country's endless supply of sugar cane. The town became riotous. The story goes that ships' captains arriving in Levuka navigated through the reef by following a line of gin bottles floating out to sea.
Fijians, unimpressed by their visitors' antics, attempted to establish Fiji's first government and capital in Levuka, in 1871. Failing from lack of support, debts and inexperience, chiefs gathered in Nasora, a 10-minute walk from town and signed Fiji over to Queen Victoria, marking the beginning of British colonialism in Fiji. It soon became apparent that Levuka's physical location between mountain ranges and deep ocean restricted its growth, so eight years later the capital was strategically shifted to Suva. The large businesses followed, leaving the town in economic strife.
Pafco, a Japanese fishing company, set up near the wharf in the 1960s, and today the occasional hum of machinery and whiff of fish, like a freshly opened tin of tuna, wafts from the edge of town; a reminder of its financial backbone.
In the South Pacific's oldest continuously run hotel, The Royal, we meet humble barman, Meli, a faithful employee at the pub for more than 60 years. Between watching rugby games at Nasau Park, seen through the bar window, he explains the history of the hotel from black and white photographs on the walls. The hotel is the last of 52 bars that operated during the unruly days.
Short walks also reveal the past. You can stroll past the Marist Convent school (est. 1880), the old men's-only club and Mission Hill, its 195 steps leading up to give expansive views of the harbour, houses and shops.
Ovalau's laid-back atmosphere and charming past appeals to visitors, as does its marine life.
Fishing, snorkelling and deep-sea diving with turtles, hammer-head sharks and manta rays are popular.
A trip to one of the nearby palm-fringed islands, like Caqalai Island, (pronounced Thangali) is a short boat ride away.
It is women from Lovoni village who bring fresh, ripe vegetables to town's Saturday morning market. They trade just as their forefathers did over 150 years ago. Not much has changed in Levuka, and that's why I like it.
Getting there: There are direct flights from Auckland to Suva and 12-minute scenic flights from Suva to Ovalau from Monday-Saturday. On arrival at Ovalau, a 45-minute van ride takes passengers to Levuka. See airpacific.com and phone Northern Air Services for flights to Ovalau, ph +679 995 8162.
Where to stay: The Royal has basic colonial-style rooms. Single rooms start at F$32 ($21). A modern option is The Royal's self-contained bungalows. A one-bedroom cottage starts at F$85.
Where to eat: Whale's Tale, on Beach St, makes tasty dishes.