From den of iniquity to history-buff's heaven, Levuka has many interesting tales to tell, as Jim Eagles discovers.

The colourful old Fijian town of Levuka - which may once have rivalled New Zealand's Kororareka for the title of hellhole of the Pacific - looks much the same today as it must have done when it was founded nearly 200 years ago ... except in one crucial respect.

In its heyday, when it was the first capital of a united Fiji, Levuka had 40 or 50 hotels and was a byword for boozing. But these days it's tough to get a beer at 2pm.

I discovered this after a hot day exploring the town's extraordinary collection of firsts - Fiji's first bank, hospital, post office, newspaper (the Fiji Times), electricity system, library and so on - when I called in at the grand old Royal Hotel, said to be the oldest operating hotel in the South Pacific, in search of a cold bottle of Fiji Bitter.

A sign on the bar door referred visitors to the office. There a young woman explained that the bar was closed and she couldn't say when it might be open (though locals later suggested it would almost certainly be in full swing that evening).

Instead I had to settle for a delicious glass of cumquat juice at the excellent Whales Tail Restaurant. Can you imagine the reaction of some thirsty South Seas trader back in the 1860s when the hotel first opened if he had to rely on cumquat juice?

I was just a bit disappointed. I've had a bottle of ale on the spot in Dusky Sound where Captain James Cook brewed the first beer in New Zealand. I've had a few pints at what is probably the oldest pub in England. And there have been a few other similar alcoholic milestones over the years. It would have been nice to add the oldest hotel in the South Pacific to my tally.

Fortunately the other firsts seem to be in full working order (though these days the Fiji Times is published in Suva).

The first school in Fiji, Levuka Public School, is still going strong, the original three-storey wooden structure now surrounded by a cluster of single-storey classrooms.

At the head of the bay, next to the traditional Fijian village of Levuka, the first Methodist Church in Fiji, founded in 1869, was holding a service of hymns and prayers when I was invited in to examine how its walls had been built of crushed coral.

In the middle of town, the Sacred Heart Church, built by the Marist Fathers who established a mission here in 1858, now serves not only as a church, but also as the town clock tower and provides light for ships entering the gap in the reef opposite. John Milesi, a stalwart of the Levuka Tourism Association, explained that "until the beacons went up, ship captains apparently used to wait for the outgoing tide, when a line of empty gin bottles would come bobbing out through the reef, and they'd follow the line in".

The impressive town hall, built in 1898, still houses the Levuka Town Council, Fiji's first foray into local government, though the councillors themselves - like all the country's elected councillors - have been suspended by the government of Commodore Frank Bainimarama and replaced with an administrator.

The oldest private members club in the South Pacific, the Ovalau Club, is still open for business, its foyer lined with pictures of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. I could even have gotten a beer in the bar, which is decorated with the flags of many nations, had I known that the Royal would let me down.

Down on the waterfront, the colourfully painted shops lined up in a row facing the sea, many dating back to when the town was founded in 1820, are still open for business and selling an interesting mix of groceries, ethnic food, spices - the locally made chilli salt is fantastic - sulus and sandals, ropes and machetes, bread and kava.

Across the road, on the beachfront reserve, Fijians from the villages inland sit selling their bundles of taro and piles of breadfruit, just as you'd imagine their ancestors would have done a century or more ago. It's almost as though you'd taken a journey by time machine back two centuries to the beginnings of colonial government in the Pacific.

Levuka is on the small island of Ovalau, off the coast of Viti Levu, about 70km east of Suva.

You can fly there these days but, in the spirit of this quaint old town, I did the hour-and-a-half drive down the coast road to Natovi Landing and then travelled by boat.

The town was founded around 1820, when the local chief agreed to let the eager traders flocking south in search of sandalwood and sea cucumbers set up a base in his territory.

A disparate crowd of traders, missionaries, shipwrights, speculators, shopkeepers, gun dealers and vagabonds gathered to take advantage of his hospitality, and created the first modern town in Fiji.

One reason the buildings have lasted so well is that most of them were built of good Oregon pine and red cedar brought from the United States as ballast on the trading ships (the wood was replaced with sandalwood and sea cucumbers destined mainly for the Philippines).

By 1871, when the warlord Seru Epenisa Cakobau had himself crowned king - though, as Fjians from outside his little island of Bau are quick to point out, he had by no means conquered the whole country - Levuka was by far the biggest town in Fiji so he named it as his capital.

And, in 1874, when Cakobau sought to prop up his shaky regime by ceding the islands to Britain, the agreement was signed in Levuka.

Today, the spot is marked by a large rock and a plaque with the modern Fijian flag flying from a flagpole overhead.

Initially, Levuka continued as capital of the new colony but, in 1874, concerns about the lack of room for expansion caused the centre of administration to be moved to Suva on the big island of Viti Levu. Still, when Fiji became independent in 1970, Prince Charles came to Levuka on behalf of the Queen to acknowledge the change of status (his visit is recorded by another plaque).

A short distance away, the Prince of Wales' bure, where Charles met the traditional chiefs, looks rather sad at the moment because its cladding has fallen off and most of the tapa cloth lining the inside is falling down. However, Akulla Lovo, chairman of the tourist association, told me there were plans to restore it.

That may be because after 20 years of lobbying to be declared a World Heritage site, the town has finally sent a draft submission off to Unesco. "We might hear back next November," he said. "Hopefully, it will be good news."

In preparation for that happening, there are strict controls on all the old buildings to preserve the town's historic atmosphere. However, those rules will come a little late for another of Levuka's firsts, the oldest Masonic Lodge in the South Pacific, established in 1875 by a ship's captain named Alexander Barrack, and since 1913 housed in an ornate lodge built in a classic Grecian style. In 2000, after the coup led by George Speight, a group of locals from a village in the interior of Ovalau marched into town protesting about devil worship at the lodge and burned it down.

"Apparently," according to a local, "they thought there were human sacrifices in the temple and tunnels underneath going all the way to Scotland."

Still, if you don't mind living a bit dangerously, it is now possible to wander under the pillars which still stand grandly out front, under the masonic emblem emblazoned on the pediment above and into the rooms - now open to the sky - where the lodge once met in secret. That was more than I was able to do at the Royal Hotel.

Getting there: Air Pacific flies from New Zealand to both Nadi and Suva.

Where to stay: Naigani Resort shares a peaceful island off the south coast of Viti Levu with a single village.

What to do: Naigani Resort runs regular trips to Levuka. Or you can fly to Ovalau and stay in Levuka itself.

Further information: See Tourism Fiji's website.

Jim Eagles visited Levuka as guest of Tourism Fiji.