‘Better than Bali’: The tiny, tourist-free island everyone must visit

Sarah Pollok
Sarah Pollok

Multimedia Journalist

If you want beautiful sights and heartwarming cultural experiences without crowds of fellow tourists, travellers must go further afield, writes Sarah Pollok.

I have many treasured memories of Bali travels but one image I can’t scrub from my mind is of a waterfall, or more accurately, the winding line of tourists (some clutching full camera-tripod setups) queuing for a turn in the spray.

The waterfall was one of those viral-on-Instagram spots but seemed to me, a nature-spoiled Kiwi, pretty mediocre; a verdict not helped by the 15-minute wait required to enjoy a moment or two before being shuffled along.

It wasn’t the only place in Bali overwhelmed by photo-obsessed sightseers, and Bali isn’t the only country facing this issue. So, what’s a traveller to do? I don’t recommend dismissing entire countries or cities (these places are famous for good reason), but it is worth setting aside time to travel further afield, to destinations crowds don’t bother venturing to.

Taveuni Island, in Fiji, is one such place. Located 300km northeast of Denerau, one can fly or ferry there or, for optimum ease, board a small expedition cruise ship for a seven-night journey around Fiji’s most remote and remarkable northern islands.

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The quiet streets of Taveuni Island are different to the more touristy parts of Fiji. Photo / Sarah Pollok
The quiet streets of Taveuni Island are different to the more touristy parts of Fiji. Photo / Sarah Pollok

After enjoying the view of the island from the cruise ship, our group of 20 board a fleet of little black Zodiacs and zoom to shore. There, an open-air bus waits to take us through stretches of lush greenery - Taveuni’s nickname (Garden Island) makes perfect sense. Elbow hanging out the window, I grin into the cool wind that rushes deliciously against my sweaty face. Looking out, vignettes of island life zip past; children playing in a stream while a mother washes clothes, untethered horses hiding between trees, elderly men sitting around the porch of a wooden fale. A quick 40 minutes later, we arrive at a sign for Bouma National Heritage Park and step down onto the dusty dirt road.

To our right, a suggestion of a path leads into the trees and two of our all-knowing guides Cello and Timoci lead us through the thick, warm air in search of Tavoro waterfall. Wandering along, Cello plucks two hibiscus flowers from one of the many bushes lining the trail for me and a girlfriend to tuck into our ears. “Left if you’re married, right if you’re single” we’re instructed.

Looking for a tourist-free taste of Fiji? Make your way to Taveuni Island. Photo / Sarah Pollok
Looking for a tourist-free taste of Fiji? Make your way to Taveuni Island. Photo / Sarah Pollok

We hear the fall before we see it; the unmistakable rush of water hitting water that echoes between the leafy surrounds. Turning a corner, it comes into view: the stony shallow estuary, the massive pool of water, the amphitheatre of mossy rock walls over which water tumbles - and not a single other person in sight.

The sight is postcard-perfect, the kind of view one sees on Instagram but this time there is no crowd hiding behind the photographer. Aside from the 28-degree heat and balmy water, it’s not far off the mountain waterfalls one finds in the Waitākere ranges, with a wall of dense ferns, clear water and, owing to its distance from other “hotspots”, blissfully empty.

After savouring the sight, we quickly strip down to our swimwear and wade into the water. One of the guides suggests clambering up the rocks, around behind the falls where we can three, two, one, jump into the water below. Again and again, we climb and leap, until everyone drops off to bake in the sunny shallows and watch the guides take turns.

Time elasticises under the sun and sometime later we pack up and return to the park entrance, where a complete picnic lunch awaits on two tables under a large wooden gazebo. Accompanied by the acoustic melodies of Manasa, the cruise entertainer and human jukebox, we plate up bread rolls, curries, salads and sweet treats and sit back on benches to enjoy the delicious blend of warm air, fresh food and live music.

Lunch was much needed after a morning exploring the waterfalls. Photo / Sarah Pollok
Lunch was much needed after a morning exploring the waterfalls. Photo / Sarah Pollok

Full and sleepy in the heat, I would be content to end the day here but there’s more to see on this little island. So, we climb back onto the open-air bus. Our next stop involves a touch of time travel as we head towards the International Date Line. It’s also called the 180th Meridian, and two concrete blocks mark the exact spot that the line runs through Taveuni (although Fiji later nudged the line so all islands shared a time zone).

Located far from an already little-used track, beside an empty field-turned-football field, the attraction is, -like the Tovoro Waterfall - totally deserted, meaning we are free to take our time reading the information sign and posing for pictures, with one foot in today and the other in tomorrow.

En route back to our Zodiacs, we stop by Wairiki Catholic Mission to explore a 134-year-old church established by the Marist Fathers in 1889. Like most Catholic churches, the Roman-style building is decorated with dozens of biblical scenes and figures as statues and stained glass windows, paintings and wooden carvings. But, unlike most Catholic churches, there is not a single pew in sight; in Fiji, congregations sit cross-legged on the floor.

It’s dim, cool and quiet, and we linger inside until the sound of a bell releases a wave of yells and chatter. Through the open doors, we watch a line of little uniforms and oversized bags cross the grass as students from the on-site secondary school rush to their next class.

Inside Wairiki Catholic Mission's 134-year-old church. Photo / Sarah Pollok
Inside Wairiki Catholic Mission's 134-year-old church. Photo / Sarah Pollok

Back on the ship, we shower off the sweat of the day, dress up in our most colourful outfits and Zodiac back to the island, this time bound for Naselesele, a small coastal village where we’ve been invited for an evening of dance, food and, of course, kava.

The sky melts from blue to orange and dark, dusty pink as we pull onto a soccer field, bordered by a large barn-like building where a crowd of children have gathered, giggling and waving. Slipping off sandals, we walk inside and take a seat facing the children as well as older men and women from the village and, most importantly, the chiefs.

The evening unfolds in a blur of songs and dance, lovo (Fiji’s take on a hangi, which uses a pit of fiery coals, banana leaves and soil) and traditionally-made kava, drunk while sitting in a circle from one shared coconut shell cup. Beside me, Meli, a Naselesele local, drains his kava in one gulp, claps once (as is custom) then offers the refilled shell to me. Nodding, I take the rough bowl to my lips and glup the lukewarm liquid. It tastes ashy and earthy and while it wouldn’t be my new drink of choice, one couldn’t deny it was different, unfiltered for visitors. A moment far more real and rewarding than even the most stunning of Instagram pictures.




Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand fly directly from Auckland to Nadi.


Captain Cook Cruises Fiji’s seven-night Remote North Discovery cruise is set to sail every one to two months in 2024. Prices start at $8221.49 per person for a two-person standard suite or $12,332.78 for a single standard suite.