Fiji is not just one island, but an archipelago of 333 islands that spiral outward like a rotating galaxy, accompanied by hundreds of even smaller uninhabited islets.
In the super ecosystem of the Pacific Ocean, Fiji is a mere speck, and just part of the wider constellation of Melanesia, consisting of 2,000 islands. Fiji lies to the south east of this chain; 1,600 miles above the northerly tip of New Zealand and 2,300 miles east of the coast of Australia and the Great Barrier Reef. The total distance from chillier climes in the UK is 9,800 miles.
Renowned for its white, palm-fringed shores leading to azure blue waters, however Fiji is much more than beaches, reefs and rainforest. Of course, these are all very good reasons to experience this island paradise, but it's the country's unique culture and warm hospitality of the Fijians that makes Fiji stand out from the (Melanesian) crowd.
Let's take a look at Fiji's cultural highlights and reveal some of the unknowns of this South Pacific gem:
Let’s start with the important bit first – the people.
This sea-faring race is part of the Austronesian strain whose influence is felt across the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Although they appear to occupy similar regions, they have little in common genetically with their Polynesian neighbours on Samoa, New Zealand or the Cook Islands. It also has to be noted that while blond hair is rare outside of Europe - Melanesians are one of the few non-white races to have both blond and brown coloured hair. Blue eyes are also found among the islanders.
As a population, Fijians are regarded as some of the happiest people in the world. You'll be hard-pressed to find a warmer, more hospitable folk and the welcome greeting 'BULA!' will be hurled at you from all angles the moment you step off the plane.
Fiji islanders are called iTaukei in their own native tongue. They were said to have arrived in Fiji 3,500 years ago and fanned out to the surrounding islands. Legend has it that the great Chief Lutunasobasoba first arrived in Fiji in a canoe and brought his people with him.
The first language is Bau Fijian, which is a part of the Malayo-Polynesian family. Other languages widely spoken here are English and Hindustani. There is a vibrant Indian contingency on the islands due to the arrival of indentured plantation labourers in the late 19th century. Vijay Singh, championship golfer is of Fijian descent.
Regardless of subsequent migration of Chinese and South East Asian workers, Fiji still maintains strong traditions, with customs such as the Meke (dance) and the bure (house) building ceremonies still very much a part of modern life.
As western visitors, it's always good to understand the customs and traditions of a country before holidaying there. As mentioned, Fijians are extremely friendly but here are some of the do's and don'ts to show your respect when in their company:
● Take your sunglasses off when meeting locals.
● Dress conservatively when attending local gatherings.
● It is better to be invited to a traditional village that to turn up unannounced.
● Come bearings gifts – it's traditional to bring a sevusevu (root crop).
● Accept invitations to eat.
● Take your shoes off when entering a traditional house.
● Do not touch Fijians hair because hair is sacred.
● Ask permission before taking photographs.
Fiji is a delicious melting pot of Indian, Chinese, South East Asian and Fijian fare, where the focus is on fresh seafood and tropical fruit such as mangos, papayas, pineapples, bananas and jackfruit. Yellow fin tuna will often appear on the menu of a well-appointed resort and tasty Indian curries are regularly served up.
Traditionally, fish takes centre stage at any Fijian feast, particularly mahi-mahi, snapper and unicorn fish. One of Fiji's most popular dishes is kokoda; a recipe featuring white fish with coconut cream, lime, onions and tomatoes.
Taro is possibly the most important root crop across the South Pacific. Where there is taro, there is life and the Fijians love it so much, they celebrate it with a national Taro Day in May. The root crop is incredibly versatile and can be mashed, chipped, boiled or curried, much like our staple, the potato.
Music is of great importance to iTaukei people, who favour the guitar, the mandolin and the ubiquitous ukulele (aka the ‘jumping flea’; the short stringed guitar originally from Hawaii via Madeira and brought to these islands by Portuguese traders).
Traditional lali drums can be heard over five miles away when conditions are perfect (which of course they always are in these parts). As a religious nation (primarily Christian and Hindu), voices from village choirs and church ceremonies send rolling harmonies winding between the palm trees. The unmistakable South Pacific melodies provide an eerily beautiful soundtrack to island life.
Fiji has a strong track record in conservation and their coral reefs are some of the most intact in the world. There are over 1,200 species of tropical fish living in this marine environment alone and much of island life depends upon the ocean diversity that surrounds it.
Endemic to Fiji, 27 species of bird are found on these islands and nowhere. This includes the fabulous golden and orange fruit doves, as well as three species of shining parrot. There are also active breeding projects to conserve incredibly rare species such as the Monuriki crested iguana.
With a focus on preserving its breathtaking natural beauty and protecting all island inhabitants, Fiji is full of outdoor, eco-friendly activities including rainforest safaris, jungle treks and some of the best diving in the world.
Whatever kind of holiday you are looking for, Fiji deserves to be firmly on your wish list. With fascinating culture, delicious food, rare wildlife and of course, the friendliest people you'll likely ever meet, Fiji is the full package.