Traveling to Fiji from the U.S. for the first time? Here’s some tips you need to know.
The welcoming Fijian society is known for their hospitality and even after two weeks it felt like there was so much more to see and do. Here are some tips for your journey to these Islands Down Under. Although it is nice to enjoy the Fiji waters, there’s still lots of other things to do and see.
1. Learn To Enthusiastically Say, “Bula!” when you visit Fiji
As soon as you leave the plane and enter the Fiji airport or by port in the capital Suva, you will be greeted with “Bula!” which is pronounced, Boo’-lah, and simply means Life. Friends often greet one another with, “Bula, Bula!” Say it loud, say it proud! You’ll have a hard time stopping the habit when you return home.
2. Be Properly Prepared for Village Tours in Fiji
If you’re going to take in the real culture and tradition of Fiji, you will likely end up on at least one excursion that includes a village tour. The main island of Fiji (Viti Levu, meaning Big Island) is more or less an oval, and most of the resorts and common tourist attractions are along the coast on the southern side of the island, from Nadi to Suva. There are small towns in-between, but the villages offering tours are off the beaten path and reached by a tour bus or even a boat.
Here, life is more traditionally Fijian than in the tourist areas, and there are some things you should be prepared for before visiting. The first is attire. For both adult men and women, shoulders are covered as well as legs to below the knee. Take a towel, wrap, or sarong that can be wrapped around the waist if you’re in shorts or swim trunks, and a regular t-shirt if you’re wearing a tank top. You will notice men and women wearing something called a sulu, which is a gender-neutral garment usually in black and sometimes with pinstripes. Men often wear these with a jacket and tie for more formal occasions. Men, if you want the full Fijian experience, stop at a Jack’s – one of the island’s biggest gift shop chains – and splurge the $20 FJD (about $10 USD). I wish I had done this the day we arrived. NOTE: this is not an endorsement of Jack’s. You can do better for your souvenir shopping, but it’s a good place to get a sulu.
The second is to come bearing a gift. Your resort personnel can coach you if you choose to bring a gift, but one of the best things you can do is to pick up (or bring from home) school supplies. One of the villages’ schools we visited, below, was destroyed in the 2016 Typhoon resulting in a loss of nearly everything. School supplies were very well received.
3. Fiji Is Way Bigger Than You Think
Fiji is made up of over 330 islands. One of our guides said his home island was a 3-day ferry ride. At just over 7,000 square miles, the Fiji Islands total land area is slightly smaller than New Jersey, but is spread across an area wider than Pennsylvania. I you want to see some of the other amazing vistas Fiji has to offer, you’ll need to resort-hop. Some of the highest-rated sightseeing in Fiji is found on the island of Taveuni, which is right next to the second biggest island in Fiji, Vanua Levu.
Getting there from the big island is too much for a day trip, at least if you want to accomplish much. You’ll also find that several of the islands are entirely a single resort; ours was in one resort in Pacific Harbour, which is a good middle-point between Nadi and Suva. However, when we go back, we plan on booking a few days each on several of the islands we want to see.
4. Everyone Knows Everyone in Fiji
I walked into the Arts Village area of Pacific Harbour, and asked one of the taxi drivers how much a half-day Suva tour would cost. The next day, one of our resort’s restaurant staff members asked me, “Did you ask about a half-day trip to Suva?” A little surprised, I said, “Yes.” She said, “That was my Dad.”
While on the village tour mentioned above, I was talking with our tour guide about music. I mentioned seeing a guitarist playing at one of the resort restaurants we visited who was playing his right-handed guitar left-handed, not unlike Jimi Hendrix was famous for doing. However, unlike Jimi, this man didn’t re-string it! He played it with the strings in reverse order. I had never seen anyone do this. He just chuckled and said, “That’s my wife’s uncle.”
5. When To Haggle, and By How Much in Fiji
Haggling for price is common in Fiji, in some stores more than others. In gift shops, expect their initial price to be up to double what they’ll take for it. These shops can also be very, very pushy. In one, the staff started rounding up all the souvenirs they thought I should buy. Before I can even say, “I don’t want that” one of them is clacking away on his calculator to give me a good deal. “The total is $300, but for you, I’ll take $250.”
Don’t be bullied into buying something you don’t want. Our favorite store was Baravi Handicrafts just outside Sigatoka, with a sign out front tgatsays, “Browse in Peace”. The staff was friendly and helpful without being pushy.
6. Should I Get a Car when I visit Fiji?
Full-week rental cars from the airport were very expensive; far more expensive than I’ve paid in any other country. Instead, for the few days we needed one, we chose to get single or two-day rentals from one of the companies in our resort’s town. They’ll even pick you up and return you to the resort. For all the warnings about Fiji driving (rough, gravel roads), it’s easy to get around because most likely you’re only going to be on the main paved road that goes around the circumference of the island. Incidentally, since everyone knows everyone, a car’s honking horn may just mean ‘hello”.
7. Fiji is Not Necessarily for the Party Crowd
If your perfect vacation is beach by day, party by night, Fiji may not be for you. Yes, there are plenty of beaches, crystal clear waters, and drinks with umbrellas. However, most places are closed by midnight at the latest. The locals are not big drinkers. Instead, they prefer to relax with their kava. If you’re having a big night out, you’re probably hanging with other tourists. Fijians typically get to bed early and get up early.
8. Our Summer is the Fijian Winter
Here in the northern hemisphere, August is one of our hottest months, but the Fijians are often in jackets this time of year. If they aren’t in jackets, they are shivering anytime the temperature got below 70º F. We didn’t have much rain, but I would guess the sun shone for less than 50% of our trip. The weather was enjoyable, but it just wasn’t the sunny-sky utopia you might imagine. We had plenty of cloud cover, and night-time breezes can make it on the cool side. Be prepared with a sweater or light jacket if you go during our summer.
9. Be Wary of “Helpful” People in the Fijian Cities
One of our drivers warned me of “car men.” Within one minute of walking down the street I found out what he meant as a local tried to help me, an obvious tourist, by taking me somewhere to shop. Called “car men” because they’ll even go so far as to offer you a ride to the best deals, but will then expect you to pay $50 in return. I assume if you refuse to pay, you’ll have to find your own way back. There’s also the Kava Ceremony, which would be followed by the high-pressure sales tactics mentioned above. If you’re a tourist, you will be easily spotted as a mark, or more bluntly, prey. A quick, firm, “No, thank you” usually does the trick.
10. You Will Be Reminded of Fiji Time Every Day
Fijians love to mention “Fiji Time”. The expression is akin to saying “Island Time” meaning, No hurries, no worries. The pace is more laid back in Fiji so it’s not unusual for things to start a little late, or run a little long. Time is more abstract here, you might say. In general, we found that the excursions we booked ran rather promptly, so Fiji Time was never a bad thing.
11. Nearly Everyone Speaks English in Fiji
Though children in Fiji are taught English, Fiji has over 300 local, verbal-only, dialects that would prevent people in one province or island from understanding people in another province or island. Fortunately, there is one common written Fijian language as well as English so that everyone is able to understand each other.
12. All Merchants in Fiji Charge 3% for Credit Card Purchases
Credit card surcharges are passed on directly to the customer by adding 3% to any transaction. This is true for the touring companies (i.e. excursions), restaurants, resorts, and gift shops. I can’t recall one merchant who didn’t include the surcharge. Most of the time, they will remind you of it when you hand over the plastic.
13. Cannibalism Jokes are OK
Fiji’s history of brutal tribal violence and ceremonial cannibalism is well documented. The Fiji Museum in Suva, a must-see if you are on Viti Levu, provides many of the horrifying details. Some of the most popular souvenirs are ornately decorated war clubs and most remarkably, cannibal forks: a ceremonial tool used by chiefs for eating the brains of their foes. The kids are going to love this stuff!
Before going, I expected that this could be a touchy subject, even to the point of taboo, but it really isn’t. Guides made many jokes about eating people and shop attendants explained any of the war clubs’ specific uses in grisly detail. In Fiji, history is just that… history. The savageness of the island’s past is interesting to learn about, but ultimately serves as the starkest of contrasts to the people they are today: those who are as warm, kind, friendly, and hospitable as we’ve ever met.
In fact, our departure-day driver to the airport made sure I had his number for when we return. We have an open invitation to join his family for an authentic Fijian meal in their home, and we can’t wait!
Racism in Fiji
In the 1800s, the English offered Indians an indentured servitude deal: we’ll take you to Fiji where you can work the sugar cane fields for five years. What they didn’t tell them is that they were on their own to return to India. Since most couldn’t afford return passage, another deal was offered, work five more years and we’ll take you back. After ten years, many Indians just stayed in Fiji and have since become multi-generational families. Unfortunately, an evident racism has developed between Fijians and Indo-Fijians. We were glad to see a billboard campaign from the Fijian government in the cities designed to reduce racism, and I hope this and other efforts have a positive effect.