The island nation of Fiji is made up of an archipelago of 322 breathtaking islands. Some of the best beaches in the South Pacific can be found here, whether one is looking for luxurious resorts or secluded lagoons and solitary stretches. The islands are a true paradise, with the iconic palm trees waving against a backdrop of emerald rainforest under the perpetual sun. Sunbathers may watch a Pacific sunset with pod of dolphins silhouetted on the horizon, or enjoy a warm sunrise to the music of Fiji’s exotic birds. The islands have a rich native culture, from cuisine to the arts, which renders a cruise to Fiji unique.
Fiji's First Arrivals
The first people to come to the islands that are now Fiji settled as long ago as 8,000 years. These first peoples possessed considerable navigation and canoe-building skills that enabled their passage across the seas from Southeast Asia, specifically from Melanesia and Polynesia. A second wave of settlers arrived about 3,500 years ago, and brought with them an ancient pottery called Lapita ware, the distinctive style of which has helped to date their first inhabitance of the islands.
Some groups of the ancient Fijians were known to be cannibalistic, engaging in fierce localized warfare; they lived in fortified villages and formed clans by marriage.
More Recent Events
Fijians came into contact with European explorers in 1634 when Dutch explorer Abel Tasman visited the islands on his search for the “Great Southern Continent”. Further contact was slow, but trade was established, as well as friendships and rivalries that sometimes turned violent. As Europeans permanently settled the islands in the nineteenth century, King Cakabau surrendered his kingdom in an effort to end the warfare and bloodshed; he ceded his peoples’ islands to the British in 1974 in the historic capital of Levuka on Ovalau. The British imposed colonial rule on the islands, developing sugar plantations and bringing Indian laborers to work on them.
Fiji gained its independence in 1970. Stability came slowly, hindered by two military coups spurred by the perception that the government was run by the Indo-Fijian community. The second coup replaced the Governor-General and the British monarchy by a non-executive President. These upheavals resulted in outpouring of Indian emigration that restored Melanesians to the majority but resulted in economic difficulties due significant population loss.
Stability continued to be out of reach. A third coup occurred in 2000, when President Mara resigned (under suspected force) and Commodore Frank Bainimarama assumed executive power. Rebel soldiers instigated two mutinies at Suva’s Queen Elizabeth Barracks. A High Court Order restored the constitution and called a general election in 2001.
The democratically-elected government found itself under fire from the military, and Bainimarama instigated the 2006 coup d'état which succeeded in dissolving Parliament.
The official political system of Fiji is a parliamentary representative democratic republic; the Prime Minister acts as head of government, the President as head of state, within a multi-party system with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. However, the military has essentially been ruling the country since 1987.
After dissolving the Parliament in 2006, Bainimarama assumed presidential powers and proceeded with a military takeover. Fiji’s membership in the Commonwealth of Nations was suspended. On January 4th, 2007, the military restored power to President Iloilo, who publicly endorsed military actions. He named Bainimarama as Prime Minister, leaving the military still essentially in control. Most recently, the New Zealand High Commissioner was expelled from Fiji. Military rulers declared a state of emergency as ousted Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase returned from exile and engaged in “destabilization” actions.
Democratic elections have tentatively been set for March of 2009.
Fiji’s population is made up of mostly native Fijians of Polynesian and Melanesian descent. Indo-Fijians make up a minority, although their number has been reduced. This population make-up combined with the influence of British colonization has created a rich cultural mosaic. No matter the ethnicity, travelers will find that locals exude a palpable pride in their country and identity as Fijians.
A visitor to Fiji may be surprised to hear English spoken as the national language. Although it has a little twist to it that makes it its own dialect. The indigenous language, Bauan, is also spoken in some areas.
Fiji boasts a beautiful style of arts and crafts that have evolved from Polynesian and Melanesian roots. Women’s pottery is particularly famous, as it is traditional and still governed by strict rituals. Some Fijian women also make tapa, which are charcoal symbols and cultural drawings made on mulberry bark. The art of canoe-building is particularly important in Fijian culture; travelers to Fiji may be lucky enough to ride in a traditional wooden canoe.
A cruise to Fiji may also feature a performance of the traditional meke, which is an art form that incorporates a men’s spear dance and the women’s fan dance while narrating an important event in Fijian cultural history. There are several other forms of dances practiced in Fiji, many with obvious Polynesian influence.
For those travelers looking for the Fijian sports circle, the country is famous for its rugby players. Rugby games are prominent and plentiful, although soccer is becoming increasingly popular on the islands.
A Fijian cruise will feature some traditional island cuisine. Most travelers will be happy to find tropical fruit such as guava, mango, and pineapple in abundance. Breadfruit, taro root, yam, and cassava are staples, as well as meats such as pork, poultry, and a scrumptious array of fresh seafood. Dishes are a fusion of Polynesian, Melanesian, Indian, and Western cuisine. Some typical dishes are not to be missed: kakoda, a local fish steamed in coconut and lime; lovo, a mix of meat, fish, vegetables and fruits cooked in a covered pit; and kassaua, a delicious tapioca with coconut cream and mashed bananas.
International cuisine can be found scattered across the islands, as well as a fantastic fusion of local foods with international influences.
Fiji is a beautiful place to visit, with a tropical climate that renders it a paradise. In summer months, temperatures hover around 88F. In winter, the temperature barely drops to average about 84F.
Although it’s hard to distinguish from the temperatures, Fiji does have two different seasons. The summer months, from November to March, are typically rainy and wet while the winter months are dry.
No matter the season, evening breezes from the ocean can be refreshingly cool, so travelers should bring a light jacket or layers.
Fiji is made up of 322 islands, and over 500 small islets. Only about 100 of these islands are populated, while the rest are designated nature reserves. Although Fiji’s total land area is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of New Jersey, it’s islands offer miles of incredible coastline.
Almost 80% of the population lives on the two largest islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. These two islands, covered by tropical rainforest, are big enough to host a few mountains, with peaks of over 4,000 feet. Viti Levu, while not the best island for sandy beaches, has a breathtaking mangrove coastline. This island is also home to Suva, the nation’s capital city and cosmopolitan hub.
The Mamanuca island group is arguably where the best beaches are located. The waters are a stunning blue set against white sand, and the snorkeling and diving are legendary. This area is more resort-oriented, so those travelers looking for a more secluded spot should head to the Yasawa Islands. The patient traveler will find quiet lagoons and deserted palm beaches that truly live up to the title of island paradise.
Animals of Forest, Air, and Ocean
Because most of Fiji’s islands are small and surrounded by vast oceans, land animals are few. But travelers will most likely see geckos and colorful tree frogs. Visitors to the Yaduataba Island may be lucky enough to see the endemic (found nowhere else in the world) banded Crested Iguana that is able to change its coloring. Another lucky sighting may be the giant boa deep in Fiji’s rainforests. Travelers may also spot a mongoose or a giant toad, both of which were imported to the islands and are not indigenous species.
What the islands lack in terrestrial wildlife, they more than make up for in the air. Fiji is home to over 100 bird species, many of them favoring the big island of Vita Levu. A cruise to Fiji will most likely find several kinds of parrots, lorikeets, fantails, and honeyeaters flying above. Some areas of the islands have been declared as Nature Reserves to protect the rare nesting boobie, a beautiful flightless bird.
Travelers to Fiji should also consider themselves lucky to spot sea turtles, which have been on the decline. There are local programs working to bring the sea turtle population back up, and some beautiful females can be seen laying their eggs on the sandy beaches. Fiji waters are home to an incredible array of other marine life, from dolphins and reef sharks to different species of rays and a rainbow of fish.
Half of Fiji’s landmass is made up natural forest. Rainforest covers the larger islands, although hardwood trees such as sandalwood and kauri are common. Mangroves blanket several coasts; these remarkable trees are able to anchor themselves in tidal estuaries and have an affinity for saltwater. Fiji is home to more than 2,000 indigenous plant species, many of which are medicinal. A cruise to Fiji will also reveal the island chain’s extensive coral reefs which are home to an incredibly diverse array of species.
Fiji’s wealth of natural resources and their endangerment by commercial interests have led pieces its natural environment to be protected by the National Trust. The Trust has established some national parks and reserves to protect unspoiled regions of rainforest and coastline. As of 2001, 64 plant species, four mammal species, nine bird species, and six reptile species were considered endangered.