Gia Garrick escapes winter for four balmy Fiji nights, and finds the quirks of the islands are just as charming as the view

Fiji is one of those destinations you see on a postcard, or while watching the World Surf League. You think it's probably not like that in real life because anybody can enhance a photo, and those guys surfing Cloudbreak at Tavarua are the best in the world — they make any wave look easy to ride.

But the place is very real and the beauty of it isn't just its abundance of palm trees and hibiscus flowers.

1. Local appreciation for the environment

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It's a place that has an incredible contrast of wealth and poverty, but unlike islands such as those in Indonesia, the locals are extremely environmentally conscious. Rubbish is put in bins, not merely swept to the outer edges of resorts. Businesses are considering ways of using renewables for power. At the moment the cities are partly powered by fuel, and fuel is expensive as it has to be imported.

On the outskirts of Nadi, home to an international airport due to the flat lie of the land, is a power plant mid-way to being built. It's set to burn the waste from sugar-cane farming to create power. And solar, although the panels are expensive at the moment, is considered the way forward as the country has sun all year round. It's not summer/winter in Fiji. You get seasons of wet and dry — and winter is the dry season.

Gia Garrick off a boat in the channel at Cloudbreak, near Tavarua Island. Photo / Gia Garrick
Gia Garrick off a boat in the channel at Cloudbreak, near Tavarua Island. Photo / Gia Garrick

2. You can hitch-hike like you're taking the bus

Many people don't own a car in Fiji because of the expense, and the average vehicle would be pushing its life limit. The buses aren't any newer and are relatively few and far between, particularly outside of the major cities. So hitch-hiking is the norm.

People are extremely friendly and the hiker always pitches in for gas, a few dollars — I'm told: "What you'd pay to take the bus". It's innate in the local culture to help each other out. Fiji is easy to get around too, as there's one major road that runs right around the main island. You could drive the whole thing in a day — about 500km. The maximum speed limit is 80km/h, which adds to the feeling you're on island time.

Nobody's in a rush in Fiji, yet everything gets done with time to spare.

3. It really is the best place in the world for surf

Think water temperatures in the mid-20s (in Fiji's "winter") and dotted with picturesque waves. It's so perfect when the swell and winds line up, that you can go out in waves more sizeable than you'd ever dare attempt at home. And there is so much more to surfing Fiji than just Cloudbreak and the waves around Tavarua.

Take the Coral Coast; there are some of the best waves on Earth on its outer reefs and you won't be crowded out of the line-up.

Matanivusi beach. Photo / Gia Garrick
Matanivusi beach. Photo / Gia Garrick

Through one of the surf resorts, find yourself a local to show you the ropes and you'll find yourself frothing inside a barrel before you can say vinaka.

4. You can complement that surf by spending the rest of the day fishing

Or snorkelling, diving, spearfishing. There is nowhere in the world with waters this clear. Not even the Abel Tasman comes close.

5. It's a smorgasbord of fresh fish and tropical fruits

If you don't eat a papaya or banana from the tree or drink from a green coconut you're not in Fiji. Fruit trees are everywhere. And if you can't get it yourself, locals are selling it for next to nothing on the side of the road, and they'll boil you up some hot corn too.

You have to order a Pina Colada; they are made with fresh pineapple juice and coconut cream and are the tropics in a glass. The seafood is grilled to perfection wherever you go.

Kokoda (pronounced "ko-konda") is a standard Fijian dish made with fresh fish, marinated in lime and coconut, and served chilled with cucumber and coriander.
If miraculously you get to your last days and haven't tried it — there's a great place near Nadi International Airport called Tu's Restaurant, where the meals are gigantic and the kokoda is superb.

6. Fiji time

Fiji is so easy to travel as there is no time difference, plugs are the same and locals are multi-lingual.

It's the perfect place for a shorter getaway, the plane ride is just over three hours and you barely miss half a day travelling to and from the islands. You won't miss a super rugby game as every bar will be playing it — and if there's a test on that bar will be full to the brim, with the majority backing the All Blacks. It's warm, the surf's good, the food is simple and superb.

7. And finally, they're rugby mad

The country has a $7 note that was introduced after Fiji won its first gold medal in the Sevens at the Rio Olympics. And the entire country was given a day off work in celebration.

You can travel alone, in a pack, with your other half or the kids and you won't ever feel unsafe. One absolute guarantee is you'll leave with more mates than you came with, a tan, and more barrel time than the rest of your surfing holidays put together.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Fiji Airways flies daily from Auckland to Nadi, with return Economy Class adult fares starting from $680 for travel until December 14 (kids' fares $340). Fares on sale until September 27 and subject to blackout dates.