CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH

Fiji

The Fiji archipelago has it all: windsurfing, sailing, ocean kayaking, whitewater rafting, or simple basking in the glorious sun

The centrally located Coral Coast is an ideal base, from which you can visit Suva for a day, then overnight on the historic island of Ovalau (a $27 one-way flight from Suva). International flights arrive at the Nadi (pronounced "NAN-dee") airport, usually in the middle of the night. At the airport's tiny tourist office, helpful staffers provide recommendations, even make calls; brochure racks climb like ivy up the walls, containing all conceivable information on lodging, sight-seeing, dining, and car rentals (including a few coupons). Regrettably, the town of Nadi is a bustling, congested, grubby bazaar of handicraft shops, Fijian fast-food joints, and markets; the main "sight" is its extraordinary multicolor temple. Still, it's best to decompress at an airport motel, then get a fresh start the next day. The best value is the New Nadi Bay Hotel (723-599, fax 720-092)*, with 24 snug rooms and apartments decorated in soft pastels; doubles with fans are $34 ($42 with air-conditioning). The area does boast attractions (and comparatively pricier beachfront lodgings for the severely jet-lagged) worth visiting before leaving.

Fortunately, Viti Levu is easy to negotiate. The island is ringed by one main drag, called King's Road in the north, Queen's in the south. The southern shoreline runs from Nadi past the Coral Coast to Suva. The northern coast is unspoiled but far less accessible (roads are frequently rained out); though there are numerous hotel bargains, they're generally shabbier than their southern counterparts, and restaurants scarcer. The cheapest way to navigate the southern coast is via bus, which is also a perfect introduction to the friendly locals (expect village invitations and an endearing curiosity manifested in often ingenuously personal questions). You could circumnavigate Viti Levu for $5; service is slow but regular throughout the day and evening hours. Every village has a bus stop (though you can hail the glorified safari vans from the highway); Nadi and Suva have mini-depots. Rental cars offer more freedom and can go as low as $10 per day plus 17 per mile for a small car without air-conditioning, up to $35 for a Toyota Corolla. Gas is expensive-approximately $3 a gallon-figure $30 for the Nadi/Suva round trip. A valid U.S. drivers' license is required and driving is on the left. The usual names - Avis, Hertz, Budget - have Nadi and Suva airport offices.

Singatoka/Coral Coast, Viti Levu: Sandy, low-cost catches

Some of Viti Levu's finest beaches lie southeast of Nadi, accessible only via dirt tracks from Queens Road, including the gorgeous Natadola ("nah-tahn-DOH-lah"), where tour operators offer day trips, including lunch and horseback riding, for about $25. Buses are infrequent; a rental car is advisable. The next major town, Singatoka ("sing-a-TOH-kah"), marks the beginning of the Coral Coast, an almost unbroken scimitar of palm-shadowed sand running to Pacific Harbour, a modern development with an 18-hole golf course, resorts, condos, a cultural center, and little genuine appeal.

Several properties and eateries cluster across the street from the sand in the next village, Korotogo ("koh-roh-TONG-oh"), whose beach could be better maintained. The best buy is the Casablanca Hotel (520-600, fax 520-616), halfheartedly Moorish and sitting atop a hill overlooking the sea amid two acres of overgrown gardens. Immaculate if narrow efficiencies-tiled, fully equipped, and modern, with local touches like bark-cloth wall hangings-are $29. Waratah Lodge (500-278) is composed of three A-frames in Christmas colors crawling with hibiscus and bougainvillea; $30 duplexes with fans and aging kitchens sleep six to nine. Both have pools, BBQs, and bike rentals. A half block away, Le Caf, (520-877) and Sinbad Pizzahouse (520-600) both offer unusual pizzas as well as curries, grilled chicken, and seafood for $3-$8.

This area is more memorable for its side attractions. The fertile, meandering Singatoka Valley is nicknamed the "Salad Bowl" of Fiji; take a cruise along the Singatoka River under a canopy of lush, sun-filtered vegetation or haggle with a spearfisherman to take you out on a traditional bilibili, a bamboo raft. The villages along the river are renowned for their pottery, fashioned from the rich red earth, while the tawny, 100-foot-high Sigatoka Sand Dunes comprise Fiji's first national park.

The beach widens as you approach Suva, with excellent offshore snorkeling. Tubukula Beach Bungalows (500-097, fax 340-236) provides clean if spartan lodgings, from dorms ($7.25) to fully equipped multi-bedroom units ($28-$44, depending on size and beach proximity), as well as activities and a mini-mart. This is one of the properties, ranging from beach bungalows to air-conditioned hotels, endorsed by the Fiji For Less organization (340-211, fax 340-236; or in the U.S. fax 310/362-8493; fiji4less.com), affiliated with several backpacker and hosteling associations.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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