CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH
The Fiji archipelago has it all: windsurfing, sailing, ocean kayaking, whitewater rafting, or simple basking in the glorious sun
Standing outside the village of Romuna, I bear the traditional sevu sevu (offering): a bundle of kava or yaqona root (pulverized and mixed with water, both look and taste like mud to outsiders but are nectar to Fijians). The beverage is an integral ingredient of any ceremony-indeed, of daily life - and a means of bonding with newcomers. A local, Simon, whom I'd met at my hotel, acts as my mana (advocate), initiating a ritualistic dialogue with the chief in the main bure (typical hut, with bamboo walls, woven mats, and classic - and increasingly rare-cathedral thatching). Cups of kava are served from a bowl beautifully carved from tanoa, a native dark wood. I clap once, drink, clap three times again according to custom, then watch a meke, a joyous folkloric song and dance accompanied by the percussive lali (a hollowed tree trunk). I'm asked to join in, and an unlikely, sweatily vigorous line dance ensues. Cost of the experience for our group of six: US$10 for the pound of kava (the price had just doubled, since herbal pharmaceutical companies are now exporting it hand over fist as a stress reliever). That tradition of hospitality prevails throughout Fiji, an archipelago of more than 300 islands (only one third inhabited), covering 426,000 square miles. A century-old British colony that became independent in 1970, its culture has remained intact, which helps account for its affordability. TV didn't arrive until 1990 (and McDonald's in 1996), so the islands attracted either backpackers or fabulously wealthy people to a few get-away-from-it-all private resorts. Traditional chiefs still own most of the land, and international companies must enter into a legal agreement with a local resident - meaning fewer sprawling deluxe properties. Instead, cheaper facilities - many appealing to cost-conscious divers-sprang up, in marked contrast to destinations like Hawaii and Tahiti. The ten-hour flight from Los Angeles discourages many Americans, leaving Fiji more to rambunctious Aussies and restrained young Japanese on low-cost package deals.
This hospitality also made Fiji legendary among the international grunge set, some of whom took advantage of the Fijian concept of kere kere, or shared property: what's mine is yours. If when visiting a village you express interest, the chief may invite you to attend a lovo feast (tubers, fish, and meats swaddled in banana leaves and cooked in an underground pit) or even to stay with a family, sleeping on a bark-cloth mattress stuffed with dried coconut fibers. "Going native" remains an honored form of travel, and amazingly cheap: many locals still feel uncomfortable accepting money, because the entire village is an extended home and you're their guest. Be careful admiring something, as many Fijians will feel obligated to give it to you; rather than offering cash for your stay, buy a T-shirt, groceries, or ask the family what they would like. But you can just as easily "rough it" in contemporary or colonial-era hotels for as little as US$15 (one greenback is worth roughly two Fiji dollars; prices below are U.S.) or stay in your own fully equipped modern if basic home for $25-right on or near a beach. Dorm-style digs run as little as $5 per person ($12 including meals).
Although the people who arrived on these shores first are Melanesian, approximately half the population is East Indian (Hindu and Moslem). Their ancestors were brought in as forced labor for the sugarcane fields in the nineteenth century. Political turmoil, as the Indians demanded greater self-determination, scared off many travelers in the 1980s - another reason Fiji remains low on the tourism radar for Americans-but a new constitution has fostered peace and stability. Many towns have elaborate Hindu temples and onion-domed mosques with minarets, exotic contrasts to typical Fijian bures. That diversity is also reflected in the cuisine: curry shacks are common (as are inexpensive Chinese and pizza restaurants). At these lowest-cost eateries, full meals average $4-$8; Fijian dishes are slightly more expensive, though worth sampling, especially kokoda (seafood marinated in coconut, lime, and coriander) and wahoo steamed in lolo (coconut cream).
Veni, Vidi, Viti Levu
The easiest way to vacation in Fiji is to stay on the main island of Viti Levu. Roughly 10,000 square miles, it provides a microcosm of the archipelago's appeal: pristine beaches along the Coral Coast, the teeming colonial capital of Suva, a jumping-off point for exploring nearby islands on day trips, and a range of eco-adventures from trekking in mountains that tower to 5,000 feet to white-water kayaking down surprisingly fierce rivers to diving the renowned Beqa Lagoon with its currents, dramatic drop-offs, and riotously colored soft corals.