During a blissful week in Fiji, Emily Brown discovers there's more to these islands than meets the eye.

Stepping off Fiji Airways flight FJ415 in Nadi, I'm expecting little more than a week of watching sunsets from the comfort of my sun lounger, cocktails in hand.

Luckily, a chance encounter with an island local and his Kiwi wife on the plane made this trip is anything but typical.

It's under the wing of our new friends, Boon and Sandra, that my partner and I discover an island gem thriving with culture and generosity, rugged beauty, fresh food, and people that charm.

As a first-timer to the island paradise of Fiji, I'm keen to absorb as much of this rich culture as I possibly can - and so start a trip packed full of experiences, memorable for all the right reasons.


As our first stop, we're lucky enough to be invited as special guests to Boon's home village, which is nestled in the Mamanuca Islands group. Boon's cousin Tooks tells us that as kids they used to swim between the three islands to collect firewood for the village. Looking at the deep and threateningly moody channel on this fairly overcast day, I'm impressed. Monuriki, the island on which Tom Hanks' Castaway was filmed, is right next door, and we spend a fleeting half hour on its brilliantly white sand, marvelling at the untouched beauty of its wild cliff-faces, aquamarine waters and haphazard rows of coconut palms. I'm reluctant to leave.

After arriving at the village, we take part in a traditional sevusevu ceremony and are welcomed by the chief. We explore dusty paths underneath breadfruit trees straining with fruit, ducking under washing lines to peek into homes. The local kids have the day off from school while a fundraising event takes place, and they spend it playfully showing us around their homes. They're all svelte tanned limbs, glowing teeth and kind eyes that gleam with happiness that can only come from a life focused on the best values: family and community.

On the parched school field, we join the village men and church minister for a barbecue lunch. We drink kava from a plastic container jammed in an old car tyre and eat rich cassava, sweet pineapple and chicken cooked on hot open coals.

On the beach, the kids entertain themselves by bringing me a live starfish in a bowl, bright eyes seeking approval - when I smile, there are squeals of delight. My boyfriend kicks a rugby ball with the boys and talks about the All Blacks. One girl shyly gifts us with a carefully hand-picked shell, and before long a whole tribe of kids are sprinting up and down the beach with shell gifts for us, dashing in and out of the water with skirts trailing, the hems sopping wet. I wish I had thought to bring something to give in return.

A guided tourist group disembarks on to the beach and as we play with the local kids, I feel privileged that we're experiencing the place as insiders.

With a village visit under our belts, I now want a taste of Fiji's postcard-perfect island scenery. Aboard the Yasawa Flyer, we cruise the coastline and head toward Barefoot Kuata Island. It's one of the first islands in the gorgeous Yasawa Islands group, and as we arrive, I'm feeling satisfied that we made the right choice.

Straight off the boat, we are welcomed with open arms, hugs, singing and a warm hospitality that becomes customary during our seven-night stay. The island is stunning - when the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, it illuminates the turquoise expanse of brilliant blue water, mapped with dark patches of coral. The village communities on these islands have come to an agreement to refrain from fishing along with any activities that might damage the reef and the ecosystem has flourished. We spend the day snorkelling in the sparkling water, and I'm thrilled when a baby blacktip reef shark cruises unperturbed in the shallows.

I'm not completely distracted from my mission of a typical tropical getaway. We visit the floating bar and pizzeria, Cloud 9; drink too many local rum pina coladas under blood-red sunsets; gorge ourselves on buffet breakfasts; walk the Denarau hotel strip on balmy evenings; and happily exchange a fiver for a fresh coconut, prepared using a machete right in front of us.

Most nights we dine at Port Denarau on fish so fresh you can still taste the salt water.

On our final evening, we venture into Nadi town aboard the red bus, which costs a bank-breaking $1 each. Our destination is the New Nadi Farmer's Club, where Boon and Sandra celebrated their wedding several years ago. We enjoy a Fiji Gold lager with the owner, eating coconut prawns. For my main, I choose the chilli prawn linguine - it's rich, spicy and everything it should be. The prawns, gathered from the river alongside which we're sitting are among the plumpest and juiciest I've ever had - rounding out a week of satisfyingly indulgent feeding and watering.

I leave Fiji with my eyes a little wider, my mind a little more open and my heart thoroughly warmed. These islands are intoxicating; whether you stick to the glorious sunsets, cocktails and comfort of its five-star resorts, or choose to delve a little deeper into its roots, you'll leave feeling utterly embraced by its culture and people. I'll be back.



Fiji Airways has a special fare from Auckland to Nadi starting from $669 return for adults, and $199 return for children. Both fares are inclusive of taxes. fijiairways.co.nz