The first branch of my journey began on Tuesday, November 30, when I arrived at Newark Airport at noon to board my cross-country flight to LAX, where the inaugural departure for Fiji was scheduled for that evening. Of course, my plane was delayed. At first, it seemed like it would be 20 minutes. Then technical issues suggested an hour. By the time the third hour rolled around. I was beginning to worry I’d miss my connection. Luckily, I boarded just in time and made my connecting flight, with printed copies of my vaccination status, hotel stays, and copies of my negative COVID test.
I, for one, was more than willing to comply with said restrictions and would have inconvenienced myself much further to finally visit this island nation that I’d longed to experience for quite some time. I just wish I’d slept a bit more on the trip over, as I had no idea what awaited me when I landed. When I landed that morning of December 2, I was one of the first visitors to arrive in Fiji in nearly two years, since the borders first closed to foreign nations in March 2020.
I experienced my first Fijian welcome — dancers, singers, musicians, and more awaited us in the airport. I shared the welcome embrace on my Instagram story and began receiving DMs from strangers announcing that the people in my video were relatives, welcoming me to their country. Tourism is a major part of the economy in Fiji, and it has been extremely difficult the past couple of years for people to maintain their livelihoods and the economy to withstand such a shutdown. To say that everyone seemed happy to see us would be an understatement.
The only time I’d ever experienced a reception so enthusiastic was when I flew on the first direct flight from New York City to Nairobi — an undertaking that had been decades in the making. But in retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This kindness, openness, and joy are the signature of a traditional Fijian welcome — there is a reason Fiji is one of the happiest nations on earth. I simply hadn’t been to Fiji before, or I’d have expected such generosity and enthusiasm. The crowds of people were everyday Fijians excited to see tourists return to the island after such a long hiatus from tourism. Performers and musicians accompanied the masses in their warm welcome.
Fiji Coastline (Adobe Stock)
I departed from the airport to drive 45 minutes to our first resort on the southwest coast — also known as the Coral Coast — of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island.
I departed at noon for the Newark airport on Tuesday, November 30, and when I checked into my hotel room at the Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay, it was 3 pm on Thursday, December 2. December 1 was spent up in the air, a day lost. (Which would become a day gained upon my return.) But it was all worth it once I landed.
During the flight itself, as well, I found the trip to be meditative. Additionally, the upside to a 17-hour time difference is virtually no jet lag. I’d felt more worn down over a weekend trip to Europe — it’s like they say, one long-haul flight is a tragedy, but two is a statistic (and a biological one, too.) Plus, as you’ll see, it’s well worth the journey to get there once you arrive.
My first hotel was on Viti Levu, a beachfront bure (a Fijian wood and straw hut) overlooking the lagoon at Fiji Marriott Resort Momi Bay (where every room boasts water views.)
During my visit to Momi Bay, I embarked on a catamaran cruise with South Sea Sailing and explored the Mamanuca island chain. I sailed to the island of Malolo Lailai and sunbathed upon a vanishing sandbar as the tides rose in Musket Cove. My first hotel was located on Viti Levu, which is the main island, though I would discover the outer islands are the places to experience more authentic Fijian culture.
Sunset in Vanua Levu, Fiji (Adobe Stock)
Next, I headed northeast to the island of Vanua Levu to discover the seaside town of Savusavu, also known as the ‘hidden paradise of Fiji.’
To get there, I took a 45-minute ride with Rosie Holidays Fiji to the airport in Nadi and headed on a 50-minute FijiLink flight north to arrive in Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort in Fiji's friendly north. The northern islands are more rustic and remote, and Savusavu is considered to embody Fiji’s essence. It’s considered that the further you get out from the main islands, the more you access the real Fiji.
Though the beachfront bure at Jean-Michel Cousteau was somewhat similar to my previous accommodations in Momi Bay — the bure is a trademark in Fiji — the setting was entirely different. The water in the northeast was more silvery blue, almost like the Atlantic off Cape Cod, and the landscape was mountainous and lush.
Fiji consists of 300 islands, and of these only 100 are inhabited. But where you stay in Fiji drastically impacts the landscape, culture, and weather, as well. While the western side of the archipelago is sunnier with bluer waters, the eastern coast is a bit rainier. Of course, whenever you visit the South Pacific, even on a rainier island, SPF is mandatory. When I landed in Savusavu, my host, Kitty, gave me the nickname ‘Katie the Palm,’ after the skinny, red-brown, palm trees towering above us across the property.
The culture varies from island to island, as well — in fact, while every Fijian speaks the Fijian language, there are entirely different dialects that make it so that they can occasionally not understand one another from one region of Fiji to the next.
In the morning, I boated out to an uninhabited private island of Naviavia for breakfast. Then dove at the soft coral capital of the world. Popular wisdom may advise against chasing waterfalls, but I swam beneath Nakawaga Waterfall and learned about the medicinal properties of the plants from local healers.
Afterward, I visited a local village that is being supported by the Savusavu Community Foundation, of which Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort is a partner. I met the local children and families at the site where a dining hall is currently being built, and every visitor to the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort has the option to donate a portion of their room fee (as little as $5 USD) to help the proceeds. That night, I participated in a hermit crab race (a popular pastime throughout Fiji) to raise money for the Foundation, and named my crab after my sister, as we had hermit crabs growing up at home.
Though my crab lost, I still won because I was giving back to the local community. The exchange rate from US Dollars to Fijian dollars is more than 2 to 1, and you can truly find that your money goes a long way on the island, particularly in regards to local philanthropy and giving back.
Fiji is not much of a tipping culture, so rather than leaving money in your room, each hotel or resort tends to have either a donation box for all staff or a foundation that they support, that you can donate money to during your stay. So, rather than leave cash on the bedside table, you can bring it to the front desk — they usually take credit cards, as well. While USD is accepted at most hotels, you will want to use the ATMs to exchange your currency to Fijian when you go shopping in town, as it speeds up the entire transaction.
Additionally, when shopping, much of the art and crafts are made by local artisans, and if you purchase goods created by Rise Beyond the Reef, you will be supporting local craftsmanship and economic opportunities for women and children in remote communities. Additionally, you can focus on purchasing local, hand-made items and Fijian handicrafts at the popular shop, Jack’s of Fiji. I purchased two sets of pearl bracelets, and couldn’t be more thrilled.
Kokomo Private Island
Unusual Rock Formation in Kadavu Islands, Fiji (Adobe Stock)
My next stop was to the south: to Kokomo Private Island, in the Kadavu islands. The Kadavu Islands are famous for the diversity of its underwater corals and sea life, hence its reputation as one of the best dive sites on the planet. But the flourishing marine life is replicated on-land, as the island was an explosion of tropical flowers. I stayed at Kokomo Private Island, a luxury resort that’s considered one of the best in all of Australia and the South Pacific. Every detail was divine, including the dining at Walker D’ Plank, Beach Shack, and Kokocabana. Even the simplest ingredients taste better and the brightness of the fruit makes you ponder the trauma our fruit in America has to survive to make it to our home country.
The next day, I went on a two-tank dive at one of the best and most exclusive dive sites in the world, the Great Astrolabe Reef. The reef is located on the northeast of the Kadavu Group and extends for over 62 miles and I was so entranced by the lush underwater mountain I’d discovered that I almost followed my bliss to the watery depths of the ocean — my diving guide had to instruct me to come up for air. I was rewarded by having my ears pressurized, but luckily the sensation went away after a couple of days. I spotted several black and white-tip reef sharks and spent the afternoon deep sea reef fishing — the perfect adventures out on the water.
Mangroves at Port Denarau, Fiji (Adobe Stock)
After Kokomo, I boarded a 45-minute seaplane back to Nadi and spent the night drinking rum at Suka Bar in the Sofitel Fiji, in Port Denarau. The hotel is perfectly located for travelers interested in taking day trips to and from the outer islands and keeping a home base near to the airport and the main island.
Aside from the four long-haul flights (transpacific and transcontinental each way), my twelve-day trip would require four water taxis, three Fiji Link planes, three speedboats, two high-speed catamarans, one seaplane, and a helicopter to navigate across the 300+ islands of the Fijian archipelago. But don’t be discouraged — flying upon those planes is actually part of the fun, as you get a greater perspective on where you are.
And you will come to rely on Rosie Holidays for your transfers on the main island — booking your reservations through them is the major traveler's tip I can offer. That, and don’t carry hard-shell luggage. Per the aforementioned seaplanes, prop planes, and helicopters, you and your luggage will be weighed nearly every other day (and will feel a sense of shame as the weight gets heavier thanks to rum and souvenirs acquired.) I speak from experience. Travel light, with canvas luggage—essentially pack like you’re heading out on safari.
The one thing you should remember to bring? Adapters, as I found them less easily accessible in hotel rooms, and fewer USB chargers were provided across Fiji. If you consider that the South Pacific is to Australia and New Zealand as the Caribbean is to the US, then this shouldn’t be surprising — we are not the target audience. And don’t worry if you lose something bopping around the many islands on your trip — I had hair clips and travel kits returned to me on every island. “The turtle will always come back home someday” is an old Fijian saying for a reason.
Kayaking in the Mamanuca Islands, Fiji (Adobe Stock)
The next morning, I headed out to the Port Denarau Marina to board a 50-minute South Sea Sailing high-speed catamaran to deliver me to my next destination: Castaway Island, in the Mamanuca island chain. The South Sea Sailing company distributes visitors and the trip is exciting and builds a sense of camaraderie. My beach bure in Castaway was right on the white-sand beach, and I found the island to be a perfect mix of natural beauty, inviting Fijian culture, and exciting revelry.
I couldn’t surf at Cloudbreak, so I swam and sunbathed at Cloud 9, a floating beach bar known as ‘Fiji’s Floating Paradise’, instead. Fiji’s west side is sunnier and famous for its blue water and white-sand beaches — not to mention its surfing. The famous surf spot, Cloudbreak, is available off in the distance, and though I’d been eager to surf in Fiji, the timing never quite worked out — unlike in other destinations where you can surf along the beach, the waves in Fiji crash upon the reefs.
As a result, it requires a boat trip to access and is not super accessible for beginners, as I certainly am. So, if it’s an activity you want to do, I suggest planning a couple of days around the event — plan for the chance that the wind will be too strong, or for logistical difficulties, to hinder at least a part of your adventure, as you are heading out into some of the wildest surfing on the planet.
Luckily, I discovered Cloud 9 and jumped from the top. I befriended more surfers, visitors, and guests from near and far. We commemorated our newfound friendship by jumping off the top of the deck. Cloud 9: Come as a stranger, leave as a friend.
I bonded with a black tip reef shark while diving the Malolo Barrier Reef. My instructor, Craig, explained that people used to feed sharks at this site, but have since discontinued the practice. The idea of a Supermarket Reef brought to mind sharks dining on reef fish as if it were Whole Foods, and indeed sharks were likely to be encountered — white tip, blacktip, and gray reef sharks were a possibility
I was waiting for my instructor and a fellow diver. When I looked up, a blacktip reef shark was coming right at me. Though I’d seen sharks diving in the Great Astrolabe Reef, the enormous drop-off of the mountainous coral meant that they were not quite eye-to-eye, as this shark was beside me. I was entranced. To paraphrase the popular saying, one shark is majestic, a dozen is a statistic. Underwater, I could see how the dorsal fin allows the shark to move like a sail in the currents, and I sensed its friendly, curious energy.
He followed us for the rest of our 45-minute dive and even came up towards the surface with us for our safety stop. I felt such a profound connection and love for this playful, not-so-fearsome creature, and can say quite simply it was the best dive experience of my life. Castaway is Fiji’s only resort-owned dive center, and guests can get their PADI scuba diving certification during their vacation. (Highly, highly recommended.)
Turtle Island beachfront, Fiji (Provided by Tourism Fiji)
My final stop was Turtle Island, located in the Yasawa Islands of northwest Fiji. My journey was by sea, with two boat rides from the Mamanucas up to the north. The beauty of the beaches of Turtle Island is almost beyond words. “The sand is so fine and soft, you’ll feel you are walking on flowers,” are words I was told at Castaway, and honestly I can think of no better descriptor. It was the perfect magical place to finish my trip.
It was during my stay at Turtle Island that I decided that perhaps Fijians really do know the secret to happiness. The natural beauty and wildness of the islands combined with the warmth and kindness of my Fijian hosts made it impossible to feel uptight, or stressed out—you quickly adapt to Fiji time. And, as the time-zone difference would suggest, it’s easy to feel you’re in a totally different world. Relaxing on the private beach at Turtle Island that was the setting for Blue Lagoon, I felt millions of miles away from regular life. And, of course, part of that was the luxurious serenity of my current accommodations, but this blissful far-away feeling was enhanced by the travel itself: Bopping from one island to the next with minimal cell service or Wi-Fi, looking down upon aquamarine waters from helicopters above, or exploring lush, mountainous islands scattered across the sea.
Boarding the flight home, I was reluctant to return to the claustrophobia and anxiety of tracking the 24-7 news cycle back in New York. Fiji was the perfect antidote to the miseries of the past couple of years — I knew I wouldn’t soon forget the lessons learned from my trip to paradise across the South Pacific. In Fiji, Bula is more than just hello, it’s a wish for energy, health, and happiness. And I’ve resolved to bring that ‘Bula Spirit’ back with me to New York.