So many tourists visit the beaches and islands of Fiji without diving into the local culture on the mainland. This is such a shame because the Fijian way of life is fascinating.

As a family, we set out to explore Viti Levu, Fiji’s mainland, and learn about life in the rural villages. It became one of the highlights of our round the world trip. If you have time, don’t forget the mainland – you’ll find a welcoming and beautiful world packed with wonderful people.

Chris exploring the Yasawa Islands, Fiji | Travel Nation

Travelling through rural Fiji

We had 10 days to explore Viti Levu, the largest island in Fiji, and it felt like a real adventure from the get-go. After arriving at the airport, we started with a 3-hour car transfer along bumpy, dusty dirt tracks climbing into the interior mountains and rainforest. We were mesmerised by the fabulous scenery as we drove along the central ridge.

We made this trip with our local guide, Jake, as visitors are not allowed into Nabutautau traditional village alone. Due to COVID, we were the first guests to the village in 20 months and, to be honest, we weren’t sure what to expect. However, what followed over the next couple of days was a brilliant, memorable experience. Our time on Viti Levu became a real highlight of our five-month trip.

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Arriving at Nabutautau traditional village

When we arrived at the village, we presented the chief with a traditional gift of SevuSevu (the vegetable that Kava is made from) and took part in a Kava ceremony. Kava is Fiji’s national drink and it holds a very special place in Fijian culture. Sharing kava is a way of establishing a bond and welcoming visitors to traditional villages.

In the village, we stayed in a traditional bure with thin mattresses on the floor of our thatched room. We had lovely cushioning made of soft dried grasses and floor mats made of woven banana leaves – this was proper Fiji style. Up in the mountains, the temperature dropped dramatically during the night and we were needing extra layers on our coldest night in 10 weeks.

Experience a local kava ceremony in Fiji | Travel Nation

Exploring Fiji’s wild interior

The following day, we headed off on a 6-mile very steep and hilly circular hike with Jake and the village second in command, Mr Rocco. This included riding a very fun natural rock waterslide into freezing water and crossing the Sigatoka river twice (Fiji's longest river).

After some swimming and a bite for lunch, we explored some old village remains, including human bones, at an ancient burial site. Finally, we scrambled up a steep slope to return to the village. Our girls, aged 6 and 7, did great on such a strenuous, hot hike. We felt very proud of them both!

Chris and his family hiking on Viti Levu | Travel Nation

Learning about local history

Back at Nabutautau, we learnt a little history of the village, infamous for an incident in 1873 when Reverend Thomas Baker, and his British missionary helpers, were killed and eaten by the chief - even his sandals! This was one of the last known acts of cannibalism in Fiji, which was practised until the mid-19th century.

Today, the village is hugely inviting and welcoming. We felt like members of the family and the local children played really well with our kids, which was lovely to see. We were all very sad to say goodbye, but it was to time for us to head back to the coast.

Chris and his family with the locals in Fiji | Travel Nation

Staying at RakiRaki

After another very bumpy dirt track journey, dropping off Jake along the way, we headed to RakiRaki, up in the northeast corner of Viti Levu. Here, we stayed at a homestay along with a local family and a mixture of their children, nieces, and nephews.

After another Kava ceremony with the village chief, we were again welcomed into the fold like old friends. Everywhere you go in Fiji, the spirit of hospitality is out of this world.

Chris's kids on the beach in Fiji | Travel Nation

We had a brilliant day fishing and snorkelling at RakiRaki. Some of our host family’s children joined us and, fortunately, the older one caught several fish by a spear for lunch. Next, we headed to a deserted island to cook the fish on a bonfire and enjoy a little more snorkelling and swimming. 

It was a fabulous day out and another very memorable experience. In the afternoon we spent more time with local villagers and chatted with fellow travellers at the homestay. After dinner, there was even a dance show from the local kids.

Chris's family visiting a local village in Fiji | Travel Nation

Visiting Wailotua Cave

Leaving RakiRaki, we headed south, stopping at Wailotua cave. A local guide took us through the huge cave, where the village ancestors lived over 100 years ago. We saw an amazing stalactite known as the 6-headed snake, as well as an area where they kept prisoners in jail (basically, in a hole), and where they were killed and eaten. We also visited a strange marriage ritual site and a large cavern where village meetings used to happen.

Staying at a rainforest lodge

Driving further south, we spent one night in Colo-i-Suva Forest Park at a lakeside rainforest lodge. We hiked through the forest on a beautiful 3-mile loop next to a river, that passed waterfalls and natural pools. Along the way, we spotted tropical wildlife including fish, dragonflies, butterflies, and parrots.

Relaxing on the Coral Coast

We spent our final 3 nights at the Beach House on the Coral Coast in the south of the island. This involved our first public bus journey of the trip, and we were the only Westerners on a packed bus from the capital Suva.

The hotel had a very chilled-out, laid-back vibe with a relaxed mixture of young travellers and families that don’t want a ‘big resort feel’. We did some kayaking, snorkelling, and horse riding along the beach, as well as playing in the pool with friends.

Relax on Fiji's Coral Coast, Viti Levu | Travel Nation

Diving with sharks – and no cage!

On our penultimate day, I headed off on my own for an early 40th birthday present, advertised as the greatest shark dive in the world. At Pacific Harbour, I checked in to Beqa Adventure Divers for the most memorable dive EVER. Along with my fellow divers, I boarded the boat and headed out to the dive site. I won’t lie, I was a little nervous.

After a 25-minute boat journey, we jumped in the water and, with 30-metre visibility, we could immediately see our first sharks below. We descended to 30 metres and then sat behind an old coral wall facing 'The Arena'. This is where we saw more than 50 sharks, mainly bull sharks (about 3m big) but also lemon sharks, nurse sharks, whitetip sharks, blacktip sharks and silvertip reef sharks.

We had about 7 staff with us feeding the sharks tuna heads out of a dustbin and holding metal poking sticks to keep the sharks away from us. This was all without a cage! Considering that bull sharks kill most humans worldwide, primarily from being able to go in freshwater and up rivers, this was a truly amazing experience. We were so close to them and strangely, it all felt very calm and gentle. I almost wanted to reach out and touch them.

Dive with sharks in Fiji | Travel Nation

Unbelievably, on our second dive, we got even closer to the sharks. This time we practically had to lie on the ocean floor. Many of these bull sharks were over 3 metres long and, at one point, I was even slapped around the head by a tail! It’s not every day you get to say that you were slapped by a shark!

The experience was truly incredible and oddly I felt very safe, calm, serene and almost peaceful. You could just be in awe as they swam gracefully through the water, occasionally showing their brutal power when needed. As we ascended, we stopped at 10 metres and then 4 metres, where we saw more reef sharks and moray eels on the coral reef.

See incredible coral on Fiji's Coral Coast | Travel Nation

Seeing both sides of Fiji

Everywhere we went on Viti Levu, the people were friendly, the scenery was gorgeous and there was so much to do. On the coast, you’ll find all the classic water-based activities like snorkelling, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing and diving. The water visibility is wonderful, with great reefs and marine life. Inland, you'll find beautiful forest hikes with waterfalls and natural pools.

I most definitely recommend heading for some of the lesser-visited areas on Viti Levu as well as Fiji’s famous tropical islands. If you experience village homestays and inland hikes on Viti Levu, you’ll see so much more of Fiji’s personality and appreciate the country even more.

Watching a traditional kava ceremony

Overall, Fiji was truly amazing, and it has jumped very high into our list of favourite countries. After exploring the mainland, we set off to sail between the dreamy Yasawa Islands and we felt that this was the perfect combination. I would advise anyone travelling to Fiji to spend some time on the mainland as well as the islands. This will really allow you to see both sides of Fiji, and they are equally brilliant in contrasting ways.

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