Stephanie Holmes finds 10 reasons to love Fiji's outer islands.
1. ISLAND HOPPING
There are 40 islands in the Yasawa and Mamanuca chains, so don't restrict yourself to visiting just one. Getting between them is easy with the Yasawa Flyer, a high-speed catamaran operated by Awesome Adventures Fiji. It travels daily from Port Denarau to the top of the Yasawas, and the northernmost resort, Blue Lagoon, before heading back again, picking up and dropping off passengers at 27 resorts, twice daily. Pre-book your journey or buy a Bula Pass (5, 7, 10, 12 and 15-day passes available) which allows you to decide your schedule as you go.
Go to the furthest point north first and work your way back; the initial ferry trip will be a good few hours but after that you'll be looking at trips of an hour at most to get between islands and resorts, so you can hop around without eating into too much of your time on the ground.
Be aware that, although incredibly scenic, the journey can be quite choppy, so consider taking anti-seasickness medication before you travel.
With warm tropical waters, high visibility and an abundance of coral reef systems, the snorkelling here is some of the best in the world. At many resorts, you can just step off the beach and be surrounded by colourful tropical fish before you've even got your flippers on. At Barefoot Manta and Mantaray Island resorts, I was blown away by the snorkelling experience. It felt like I was in a giant tropical aquarium, and the vibrancy of the fish and coral was outstanding. Not to be missed.
3. LEARNING TO DIVE
Most resorts in the Yasawa Chain have on-site dive schools where you can do everything from the most basic introductory dives, right up to becoming fully certified, with highly qualified and experienced instructors.
I'd always wondered what the point of diving was, when you can see amazing things just by snorkelling. But after my two introductory dive sessions at Barefoot Manta and Mantaray, I was hooked. It's a tranquil and awe-inspiring experience.
4. SWIMMING WITH MANTA RAYS
Visit the island chain between May and October and you'll get the chance to swim or dive with manta rays. The graceful giants glide through the channel between Nanuya Balavu and Drawaqa Islands daily during this season, and they are often fascinated with swimmers, giving you the chance to get up close while they flip and feed on plankton beneath you.
Day tours are available from Denarau, or stay on Barefoot Manta and Mantaray Island to be as close to their path as possible.
5. GETTING FACE TO FACE WITH SHARKS
Once you've found Dory and Nemo, graduate on to more adventurous snorkelling excursions. Black and white tip reef sharks can be found around Moua Reef, near Kuata and Waya Lailai Islands, and they're totally safe to get in the water with.
After a 30-minute boat ride from Barefoot Kuata resort, I spent about 40 minutes in the
water above the outer reef, teeming with tropical fish and colourful coral, and it wasn't long before a few sharks were circling below us. I was tentative at first, but after a while I found myself swimming towards the sharks ... as an 80s child traumatised by Jaws, something I never thought I'd say.
For the really brave, Barefoot Kuata offers an intro scuba dive where you're likely to get up close with a 3m bull shark.
Apparently she's friendly…
6. HIKING MOUNTAINS
The volcanic Yasawa Islands also offer great hiking opportunities — climb a summit for sunrise or sunset to get incredible panoramic views of the surrounding islands and out across the South Pacific.
Some resorts offer guided hikes but at Barefoot Kuata I went out on my own before breakfast and though the walk was tough, with steep uphills and rugged terrain, it was a rewarding way to start the day. It also gave me license to lie in a hammock doing nothing for the rest of the day. Which leads me on to my next point ...
Look, even the most active travellers need time to relax too. These islands are just made for gently swinging in a hammock under the shade of a tree, alternating between reading a good book and snoozing; reading, swaying, snoozing, ad infinitum. Remember to wear sunscreen; even on a cloudy day the sun is very strong and you don't want to end up like the European tourists wearing their sunburn like a badge of honour.
Once you've got the relaxing out of your system, how about a late-night party? Keen? Then Beachcomber Island is your next port of call. In the Mamanuca chain, it's about an hour from Denarau and legendary on the backpacker circuit. It has huge dorms, a massive bar and regular activities, and encourages its visitors to have a really good time, at all times. There are four different happy hours throughout the day — the first at midday — and the bar stays open until 2am. After that, guests can bring their own duty-free alcohol to the bar area and keep going for as long as they like.
Though an hour's full body massage for $34 sounds too good to be true, it's really not — that was the blackboard rate at Beachcomber Island. Other resorts offer similar great value beachside massages, where the sound of the waves and breeze in the palms adds to the experience.
On my penultimate night in Fiji, I sat on a rock at Barefoot Kuata, drinking a pina colada and watching the colours of the sky as the sun went down. I took countless photos as the light changed every minute. I couldn't believe the beauty in front of me; it was the best sunset I'd ever seen. What could possibly top that? Well, the next night — the last of my trip — I stepped outside my room at Beachcomber Island, Fiji Gold in hand, and was left speechless by an even more magical sunset. It seems that in Fiji, each day is better than the last.
House of Travel has Fiji holidays, flying with Air New Zealand, on sale now. Get flights, 7 nights and transfers to Sheraton Resort & Spa Tokoriki Island in the Mamanucas from $2435pp twin share, or flights 7 nights, transfers and all meals daily at Yasawa Island Resort & Spa from $5729pp.
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