CHEAPEST PLACES ON EARTH

Fiji

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

Gorgeous landscaping and beach; warm Aussie owners; lively clientele; free bikes, bush walks, and canoes; and cheap meals ($1.50 breakfast, $1.50-$4 buffet and full meals like lasagna or tuna fettucine) are the lure of Beach House (530-500, fax 530-450). Lodgings are adequate, with cramped, shared-bath loft doubles $19, dorms $8.25, and camping $5. For a splurge, the local-style bures of intimate yet full-service Tambua Sands Beach Resort (500-399, fax 520-265) are cheerful, with fridges and ceiling fans; oceanview bures are $45 (two meals daily cost $11 per person extra). The grounds and beach are lovely; the restaurant-decorated with local crafts-offers nightly entertainment; and activities range from coconut husking (free) to horseback riding ($4.50).

Suva, Viti Levu: A really capital mishmash

Fiji's steamy capital of Suva (population 120,000) is a bizarre mix of colonial and contemporary, of traffic jams and tranquil gardens, with the appealingly tatty air of an old-time sailor's port of call and ethnic crossroads (the disco and clubs lined up on the main drag tell it all: Bourbon and Blues, O'Reillys, Bad Dog Cafe, Traps). Graceful Victorian government edifices alternate with cinder-block office buildings and hotels. It's not necessarily worth an overnight, but you can take in the sights during the day and catch the 5 p.m. flight for Ovalau. Some might enjoy checking out Suva's slightly seedy but colorful nightlife, then grabbing the 7:45 a.m. early bird or a ferry/cargo boat. Patterson Brothers Shipping (315-644) is reliable and comfortable; most boats have VCRs and refreshments, and one-way fares start at $12 (they run car ferries, too).

Stop by the bustling public market, with produce from around the islands. Then visit the excellent Fiji Museum, nestled in the impeccably landscaped Thurston Gardens. It provides a superb glimpse into the origins and culture of Fiji, from a great oceangoing war canoe to traditional native costumes and more gruesome historic relics (Fijians were considered the world's fiercest cannibals a mere century ago). There are also galleries celebrating Indian culture, rotating crafts exhibits, and artisans engaged in demonstrations.

Prices are lower and quality higher for authentic crafts at actual villages. But you'll find the widest selection in the bustling Handicraft Centre (really just a place to gather aggressive pushcart peddlers) by the waterfront. Bargaining is expected, but beware "sword sellers," who will ask your name, then instantly carve it on a wooden sword or tanoa bowl and expect you to buy it. Also, even some genuine pieces are often emblazoned "FIJI."

Local restaurants run the gamut, but the best are Asian; try Sichuan Pavilion (corner of Pier and Thompson streets, 314-865), elegant in lacquer and mirrors but quite reasonable, with entrees starting at $4. To lay down your head, the South Seas Private Hotel (312-296, fax 340-236) is a turn-of-the-century wooden building in a peaceful residential area within walking distance of city center; plain rooms with fans and private baths are $19.

Ovalau: Old-time offshore charm

Just a few miles and a hundred years offshore from Suva lies Ovalau, site of Fiji's first capital, Levuka. An official candidate for designation as UNESCO World Heritage Site in honor of its cultural and historic importance, it's an indescribably charming town of peeling clapboard houses and crooked sidewalks. The oldest (1850s) hotel and drinking club in the South Pacific - and straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel - the Royal Hotel (440-024, fax 440-174) has doubles with bath, ceiling fan, enclosed patio, uneven hardwood floors, and four-poster or brass beds for $14-$17. Nearby, the dilapidated but atmospheric Ovalau Club (440-507), founded in 1904, sports yellowed photos of royal coronations and weddings, and nautical banners from around the world.

Beach Street, Levuka's restored waterfront, is now practically a promenade, where kids play soccer with coconut husks while women sell fruit under banyan trees circled by squawking mynah birds. Also here are three marvelous restaurants. Caf, Levuka (no phone) prepares full dinners like papaya prawns or chili and garlic pork for $5; breakfasts and lunches are even less. Kim's (440-059) is harshly lit but gussied up with Chinese New Year's dragon wall hangings and Christmas lights year-round, and serves up sumptuous Chinese/Fijian/Indian/European buffets Sunday nights for $5.50, all you can eat. The "gourmet" spot is Whale's Tale (440-235), with a nautical theme (driftwood, whale photos, dried sea fans, thatch-and-bamboo bar) and Fiji-tinged Continental fare-$6.50 for a three-course dinner (delicious chicken in kumquat sauce with garlic bread). The owner's Australian husband, Arnold Ditrich, is the island's self-professed kava "dealer"; a bowl is always being emptied at the back table.

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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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