Fantastical Fiji

This is a traveler’s destination in the true sense of the phrase, a country long regarded as the most colorful and appealing South Pacific island nation.

Imagine a chunk of land as massive as New Jersey. Break it into more than 300 pieces and scatter them over more than 125,000 sq. miles of the South Pacific and you have Fiji—a nation of islands, the majority being islets made up of coral or limestone and crowned with palm trees. A good portion of the islands are ringed with incredibly white sands and refreshed by trade winds; the others are astounding volcanic peaks blanketed with rainforests and sugar cane fields.

It’s difficult to file Fiji under the label of “…just another South Seas archipelago,” because its sheer beauty has astounded visitors since Captain William Bligh, of mutiny on the Bounty fame, became the first European to see it. Then, as now, Fiji’s most treasured asset is its intrinsic beauty, a potent draw for those who come to bask in its grand natural wonders.

This is where the sea is as warm as its people, where resorts sparkle in simple but elegant charm and where visitors invariably fall under the spell of the soothing South Pacific tranquility that’s Fiji’s trademark.

It’s not surprising that Fiji is one of the most favored vacation spots in the world, an easy destination for travel agents to sell, especially when sun-starved travelers from the Northern Latitudes come looking for warm, tropical vacation retreats.

According to Tourism Fiji, the number of international visitors rose to record heights, making 2010 the best year in history for tourism. Figures show that almost 400,000 visitors came to the islands between January and July alone, a boost of more than 11 percent. While most hailed from the Antipodes, American tourism rose by an impressive 5 percent.

Josefa Tuamoto, Tourism Fiji’s CEO, credits a cooperation between “the national tourist office and its travel industry partners for the build-up of Fiji’s profile in emerging markets.” It also doesn’t hurt that as a destination Fiji offers so much in such a superb setting.

This country overflows with extraordinary attractions, friendly locals, magnificent scenery and a vast number of activities. Nadi, the gateway city, has excellent shopping and delightful restaurants. The main island, Viti Levu, is dotted with towns accented by colorful open-air markets, cafes, clubs and landmarks and its interior offers some of the best kayaking, diving, fishing and whitewater rafting in the South Pacific.

Indeed, Fiji is where one can be pampered in five-star resorts; surf, swim, snorkel or dive in crystal waters; trek to outer islands; raft in wild rivers; experience island life as it was a few hundred years ago; taste the delights of exotic cuisine, or just loll in a hammock surrounded by astonishing tropical beauty.

Most Americans will first set foot on the majestic isles when landing in Nadi, a large city that’s home to Fiji’s international airport and is serviced by 15 international airlines. Air Pacific and Continental Airlines have direct flights from the U.S. mainland.

This is where a traveler first gets a taste of the hits to come. Since Nadi sits on Viti Levu, it is rather cosmopolitan in flavor. It’s not as urbane as Suva, the capital that lies on the other side of Viti Levu, but it reflects the atmosphere of the island.

Viti Levu suffers from a climatic dual personality. The eastern slope is a vast and hilly rainforest covered with mist. A few miles leeward, the country is arid and rocky, with a landscape that uncannily resembles Southern California.

About 15 miles off Viti Levu’s western shore in the Mamamuca Island group, Qalito (also known as Castaway) Island from a distance looks like a backdrop for a Gauguin painting or the setting for a Robert Louis Stevenson South Seas story.

There are different ways to reach it from Viti Levu: split-decked catamarans (about $55 pp), amphibious plane ($170 pp) from Nadi International Airport, or 6-passenger helicopters ($190 pp).

The island is home to the aptly named Castaway Island Resort, and even a brief stay there gives the sense of being on a private island.

The 174-acre resort is dotted with 66 bures, the thatched bungalows typical to the South Pacific. Although not all offer ocean views, the grounds resemble a tropical garden. Rates range from approximately $430 per night dbl for what’s called an Island Bure, to about $1,300 for a seafront family bure accommodating six.