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Does Fiji live up to the hype? The truth about this Pacific island country

Even though Fiji is quite close to Australia, I’d never been drawn to it.

To be honest, I’d been turned off the country from my days as a travel agent when I realised it was a luxury island destination for upper-middle class families (ie. the opposite of me, a young and frugal backpacker).

Still, when we were invited to visit the country for a friend’s wedding, Robert and I decided to give it a go. We planned to spend 4 days in the country before our trip to Latin America.

Even though the tropical wedding and post-wedding cruise looked like they’d be a lot of fun, my expectations for Fiji were fairly low. What I knew about the country was this:

  • Almost all of the people who booked flights through me as a travel agent were Australian families with young kids
  • Most people who visit spend 1-2 weeks staying in just one luxury hotel, maybe heading out for 1 or 2 activities during their stay
  • Most of the hotels in Fiji are luxury and all inclusive
  • 4 out of 5 people I know who have visited Fiji seem to think it’s fairly average

To me, it didn’t sound all that great, and yet some people keep travelling there time and time again. Curious to see why people are drawn to Fiji, I made it my mission to discover the source of the island’s appeal.


Fiji Airways

Our flight to Nadi Airport

Getting there

We arrived in Sydney airport at some ungodly hour of the morning. As we waited at the gate for our flight, my fears that Fiji was primarily a family destination were confirmed.

Boarding was called for families with children under 2 years old, and promptly 50% of the passengers stood up to embark our flight. Another 45% seemed to have children that were slightly older than 2, and the remaining 5% were young couples like ourselves. We felt rather out of place.

The entire flight ended up being a chorus of at least three children crying nearby at any one time. As I mentioned in Why I won’t be flying Fiji Airways again, it was not a pleasant flight.

Still, I respectfully reserved my judgement of Fiji until I actually landed on the island.

Nadi, Fiji

Enjoying a beer by the beach in Nadi

the backpackers, nadi

Seeing as this was the beginning of 7 weeks of travel, we needed to keep costs as low as possible. The backpackers area of Nadi was going to be our best option for cheap accommodation.

Our taxi took us the area where a number of budget hostels lined the beach, just a few minutes drive from the international airport. Upon finding our room, the reason this hostel had been cheap became obvious – the cracked toilet was being held together with copious amounts of duct tape, the bunk beds felt as though they might collapse on top of us at any second, and the sheets looked less than clean.

Oh well, we’d been in shitty hostels before. Plus, we were only staying 4 days. We could deal.

We wandered about to explore the area. The beach was ok, not the nicest I’ve seen and it wasn’t really appealing to jump in the ocean, but there were hammocks and sun chairs available for us to sit and watch the sunset, and a beach bar at the hostel next door where we could get our hands on some pints of Fijian beer.

Nadi, Fiji

My favourite spot in Nadi

Hoping that we might be able to use the local grocery store to save some money on food, we quickly realised that this wasn’t an option. Aside from the fact that many of the hostels in Nadi don’t have a communal kitchen, there is also very little food produced on the island, meaning many of the groceries you’d normally take for granted are imported and therefore expensive.

Most of the time we were eating at the Smugglers Cove hostel restaurant, by far the best option nearby… but the food was fairly bland and westernised. The best meal we had was soup (a Fijian Rou Rou and a Pumpkin), but even the bread roll that came with it was average.

There wasn’t much else to do around the backpackers area. As someone who usually explores a new place by foot, it was hard for me to comprehend the need to take a taxi every time I wanted to leave the hostel. The closest area of interest (Nadi’s town centre) was about 10 minutes drive away, and one trip in had us content that there wasn’t much worth seeing there.

Never mind, I thought, surely the luxury hotel areas will be nicer.

Fiji Wedding

The wedding location in Natadola Bay

The coral coast

The wedding we were attending was at Natadola Bay on the Coral Coast, a good 45-minute taxi ride from Nadi. On arrival at the Intercontinental Hotel, we were guided through the appallingly huge hotel lobby by one of the hundreds of well-dressed hotel staff (a rather awkward experience for a couple of cheap-ass backpackers) to get to the area where the wedding would be held.

Our eyes fell upon the beach, where a picturesque selection of palm trees and garden beds lined the sand. The beach in Nadi seemed like a soppy brown mess in comparison.

The ceremony was in a beautifully manicured grassy spot overlooking the ocean, and that evening at the wedding reception we sampled the best food we’d eaten in Fiji. This is what Fiji should be like, we thought…

…except that it would have cost us no less than $360 AUD per night to stay there. Absurd! Even if we went for one of the two cheaper nearby hotels, we still would have paid over $170 AUD per night. Way beyond our backpackers budget.

It was as though Fiji was teasing us by what we could have had, if only we were rolling in the dough.

Fiji

Our ocean cruise out to the reef

Denerau, the reef, and the islands

On the way to the port for our ocean cruise, I pressed my nose up against the bus window to try and get a perspective of Denerau. From what I could see through the glass, it looked to be an area of rich people’s houses with some more luxury hotels thrown in. Go figure.

From Port Denerau we jumped on a boat and head out to the reef for some snorkelling. Even though I was somewhat hungover for much of it (free alcohol at weddings is my kryptonite), I really enjoyed the cruise.

Fiji’s appeal really lies with the surrounding ocean, and it delivers. The snorkelling is great, there are sandbars you can swim out to, and jumping off the boat into the turquoise blue water is every bit as fun as it looks.

With this in mind, I wondered whether Fiji’s smaller islands would be more enjoyable than the mainland. I asked a few people at our hostel what their thoughts were, and their response was consistently that the islands are beautiful, but expensive. Even the island with a hostel had pricey food and drinks, making it not so affordable after all.

Nadi, Fiji

my final thoughts on fiji

I’ve put off completing this post for a long time as I was wary about coming across as a tropical island hater, which is totally not the case – right now I’m in Barbados and loving every second of it.

But with Fiji, my original expectations were pretty much spot on. My days were spent much like how I thought they would be; eating overpriced food, staying at shitty hostels, and wondering why people went there.

Sure, Fiji is a nice country, but I felt like most of it was just a show for tourists. In the end, I think there are a million other places in the world with better beaches, better food, better prices, and a more prominent local culture.

So after seeing this island country for myself, I have determined whether it lives up to the hype, and my answer is…

…no. It doesn’t. At least not for people like me.

I know there are going to be some people that disagree with me on this one, but I just couldn’t love Fiji. The readers of this blog are mostly backpackers or young couples, so if you fit into this category, I’d highly recommend a trip to South East Asia instead where you can get everything Fiji offers plus more.

If you’re a family with young kids and a fuckload of money, then Fiji is for you.


What do you think? Does Fiji live up to the hype? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!

Ashlea Wheeler

This post was written by Ashlea, a colourfully clothed and excitable vegetarian who loves photography and exploring the world. Find out more about me.

33 Responses to “Does Fiji live up to the hype? The truth about this Pacific island country”

  1. Leonie

    I loved my time in Fiji, was an amazing time, specially doing the Island hopping. Would love to go back one day

    Leonie ♥ IkonikBeauty

    Reply
  2. Ashley Tippins

    Fiji has never really appealed to me either for most of the reasons you listed. I don’t know if this is any consolation, but in my travels through Micronesia (which are decidedly not touristy like Fiji) I experienced the same high prices for food, drinks and accommodation. The major challenge is import prices and limited transportation out to those islands. You would think things like seafood would be cheap given the abundance but, at least in the FSM states, the fisherman fish primarily for their families and villages and not to sell commercially, so the few restaurants have to charge a premium. I love FSM – great diving, unique culture – but it’s not feasible for budget travelers, and it definitely doesn’t have the luxury traveler appeal either, so it’s kind of in a travel no-man’s land.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      I think the high prices for food and drinks is a trend on smaller tropical islands. We’re experiencing a little of it here in Barbados too with the foods that are imported, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it was it Fiji! So glad you’ve found such a good spot in Micronesia – travelling in those in-between places are sometimes the best as you get to experience something that no-one else does 🙂

      Reply
  3. Katie

    You definitely made a mistake not staying on one of the islands as the main island is nothing special. We stayed in the Yasawa Islands on Nacula and Barefoot Island. The beaches were some of the best I have ever seen, hostels were around $25-$30 per night and we went snorkeling off the beach on incredible reefs, kayaking and SUPing all very cheaply ($5-$15) the only expensive thing was the food which we paid about $60-$80 a day for but was incredible on Nacula, I don’t think I have ever eaten so well. It’s of course not as cheap as SE Asia but depending where you go it can be very beautiful and traditional. The islands I went to had traditional villages, no roads, shops or cell service. I wrote about my Fiji experience on my blog if you want to read more /see pics

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Unfortunately I didn’t really have the option to head out to the islands due to our tight time schedule, but I’m glad you did! I see that you did some hiking and tours to the villages too – seems like you did a lot more than most people bother doing in Fiji 🙂 I guess my main gripe (aside from the exorbitant prices!) is that in the areas where most tourists stay, there’s no easy way of getting involved with the local culture. I only came across a handful of Fijians on my trip and the ones I did see were there to service the hoards of tourists, not going about their daily business like you might see elsewhere. For me, it was disappointing in comparison to somewhere like SE Asia which is teeming with culture, but I’m glad you enjoyed it anyway 🙂

      Reply
  4. Kate

    Sorry to hear your time in Fiji wasn’t the best. I had absolutely no clue that the island was that expensive; very eyeopening and definitely something to keep in mind.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks Kate! Maybe someone who is travelling there on more than a backpackers budget would be ok with the prices, but for me it was so unaffordable!

      Reply
  5. Rachel

    I have never been to Fiji – but I appreciate the insight. I think people will always have to check things out to get their own perspectives on places, but its always nice to hear other’s opinions! Also, I agree with you on the free alcohol at weddings thing 🙂

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      That’s very true – everyone will have a different perspective on it. I just wanted to share my views as I think Fiji is often hyped up, which makes it disappointing for people like me!

      Reply
  6. Polly

    Oh man, I feel like this about so many of the places that Russians traditionally visit. They wax poetic about Egyptian and Turkish resorts and I’m just like… no way am I paying to stay in a resort!

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh, I feel ya! When people start talking to me about some fancy resort that they stayed in… such a waste of money, when for the same price you could stay somewhere nearby for three times as long. Seriously people, priorities!

      Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh I remember reading this post of yours earlier! Seems like you guys had a very similar experience to mine. Like sure, Fiji can be great… if you’re ok with paying literally hundreds of dollars per night. My money would be way better spent elsewhere, thank you very much!

      Reply
  7. Rocio

    Great post Ashlea, it’s nice to see a take on Fiji that doesn’t involve the perks of luxury travel. I have the same feeling about Maldives, maybe because of all the all-inclusive packages offering here in Europe. Will have to wait to visit the island(s) to have a more concrete opinion about it.
    I was wondering if the boat rides and snorkeling activities are expensive? I agree with you, in South Asia there is all that and more, love that I can still choose a medium-range price accomodation and don’t have to invest my whole-life savings to have an exceptional time.
    Until next time,
    Rocio
    http://runawaybabe.com

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thanks for your comment, Rocio! I imagine the Maldives are similar in a lot of ways – maybe even more expensive as my guess is that absolutely everything (except seafood maybe) is imported?

      I’m not actually sure about the price of the cruise as it was included in the wedding for us. Couldn’t agree more with you on SE Asia, last time we were in Thailand we were staying in a 4-star resort on the beach for $50 a night – same price as the shitty hostel dorm in Fiji!

      Reply
  8. Elen

    Very interesting post. Good on you for writing against the grain! I haven’t been to Fiji, but my partner did for a work trip a couple of years ago. He liked it well enough because he got a bit of an insight into the culture (he was there working with a university department), but he certainly didn’t come back with the impression that it’s stunning. He enjoyed going into the hills and playing around waterfalls in his spare time, but thought the beaches weren’t that clean, the weather not especially warm, the food pretty bad, and very few ‘sights’ to speak of. He was based around Suva, though. We come from far northern New Zealand, and he felt Suva was very much like his hometown, Whangarei, but with coconut palms. That is, a bit drab, rather poor but in a naturally-gorgeous location if you can look past the deterioration.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Thank Elen! I totally agree on the lack of sights, unclean beaches, and bad food. I’m sure there are some decent parts of Fiji (such as the waterfalls and villages) but the sad thing is that not many people choose to visit those areas, choosing instead to stay at the luxury all-inclusive resorts and therefore experiencing none of the culture. It’s sad that it has to be that way, when I’m sure the Fijians could embrace the combination of tourism and culture instead of concentrating on just the tourism.

      Reply
  9. Courtney {Alkeks Abroad}

    We spent Christmas in Fiji last year and had a similar experience during our time in Nadi. We had to spend our first and last night there due to the ferry schedule. We stayed at Smugglers the first night and you were pretty much spot on, very disappointing and the beach (especially compared to Australia) was nothing special. We spent the rest of our trip on Mantaray Island at a resort but it was mostly backpackers staying there. We stayed in our own Bure and it was extremely reasonable but they had dorm options too. You are right about the culture aspect, they offered a day trip to a nearby village to see the traditional culture but we were the only people interested in going and they said they needed at least 4 people to go.

    Overall we enjoyed Fiji but I don’t think it’s a place we would go back to.

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It’s really good to hear the perspective of someone who stayed on one of the islands, Courtney. That sucks that you weren’t able to do the day trip, I’m sure a visit to the village would have been a great way to get into the Fijian culture. It’s disappointing that no-one seems to be interested in this part of Fiji. I think if the culture was more prominent, I would have enjoyed the place a lot more!

      Reply
  10. Emma

    I found it very easy to do Fiji on a very tight budget. I only spent a very small amount of time on the main island and most of it on the outlying islands. Maybe I found it beautiful and exotic because I’m from the UK but I really enjoyed my time there and found plenty of stuff to do such as the standard watersports and visiting local villages and markets.

    http://www.mytravelbugbite.wordpress.com

    Reply
  11. Emma

    However nice the beaches might be in Fiji, it really doesn’t seem worth the premium when there’s so many amazing island destinations at a fraction of the price. It’s great that you got to enjoy it for a special occasion though!

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Absolutely! I’m glad I got to experience it this one time, but next time I’ll be choosing somewhere different for my beach holiday – somewhere much, much cheaper!

      Reply
  12. Lauren

    You know my best friend LOvES Fiji and is seriously considering moving there. But, lucky for her, her boy owns a small “resort” on one of the little islands. I put it in quites because plenty of people that stay there are backpackers as well. She even got to go shark diving for her birthday (not in a cage!) Ill be going soon and am gonna try to stick with the locals to avoid what you dealt with. Love the honesty!

    L

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Oh wow, lucky her! I think as long as you know what to expect and make an effort to see the cultural and offbeat parts of the island, you won’t be too disappointed. I’d love to know what you thought once you get back!

      Reply
  13. Erika

    I don’t even mind the expensive touristy stuff now and again, as long as I’m planning for it. The problem for me is the families with young kids. If I want to spend a ton of money on a romantic vacation, I don’t want a bunch of screaming kids around!

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      Exactly! And I think if you wanted to spend a lot of money on a romantic getaway (which is totally ok), you can usually do it in your own country. Why bother travelling internationally if you’re just going to stay in a schmancy hotel the whole time?

      Reply
  14. Amy Cherie

    Last year I lived in Fiji for 5 months. I was on a Study Abroad program, however spend the majority of my “studying” time exploring the island. It’s unfortunate that the most accessible way to experience Fiji doesn’t illuminate the true beauty of the country. All the locations mentioned in the article are places that I have been. My friends and I went through the Intercontinental to use their beach break to surf. We surfed a set of gorgeous Pacific waves as the sun set below the horizon directly in front of us. It was here where we met a surf instructor who invited us to stay at his home –treating us as family. My friend and I stopped into Denerau to rent motorbikes to travel around Viti Levu. When we shared our plans with the man renting us the bikes he offered us the car (at an extremely low price) for two days (past the days we would be paying for). We spent the next three days driving around the entire island encountering people we had previously met, making new friends, camping on beaches under the full moon. A magical experience in all. After living in Fiji for as long as I did I was able to dig into the culture, explore beyond the tourism coast, and discover the hidden treasures the island has to offer. I encourage you (if ever given the opportunity again) to return and immerse yourself into the real Fiji. Thank you for sharing your experience and for reading mine. Peaceful blessings. (Ps. I love your travel articles)

    Reply
    • Ashlea Wheeler

      It’s great to know that there’s more to Fiji, if only people would go beyond the tourism hot spots and explore a little more. If I were to go again, I’d definitely rent a car and drive around Viti Levu to see some of the mountains and waterfalls, and try to discover where the elusive culture spots are. Thanks for sharing this, Amy!

      Reply
  15. Diana

    My daughter runs a small B & B. at Savusavu – she will show you the real Fiji at a fraction of the price. Google Naveria Heigjts Lodge and be amazed.

    Reply
  16. Peni Toanikeve

    thank you Ashley for this great post and your blog…..it sure does reflect that some places in Fiji especially hotel/backpackers hostels that needs attention to accommodation. hope to get this info to the right people concerned and hopefully deficiencies which you have highlighted will be identified, improved and rectified.
    vinaka.

    Reply

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