The Wizardess of Oz

An American's Adventures in Australia and Beyond

Category: Fiji

Nacula Hike

Sweat poured down my back and trickled into my eyes.

One step. Next step. Next step. I wanted to quit, I wanted to turn back around the way I came and plop myself on the silky white sand with a huge, cold glass of water.

‘Isn’t this what you wanted?’ I chided myself, ‘Isn’t this what you railed about not getting enough of, working indoors in an office all day? Didn’t you say you wanted swim in the ocean and climb mountains instead of atrophy at a desk for 9+ hours per day? Well, here you go!’

I angrily wiped the sweat off my forehead and focused on the shoes of the German guy in front of me.

One step. Next step. Next step.

“Okay!” Our guide called to us, almost sounding gleeful with his smooth island accent. “We are here!”

And I trudged up the last few steps, turned around, and lost the breath I was desperately trying to regain. Nacula Island spread out below me in every direction, jagged rocks carpeted with lime green velvet, sloping down to vivid aquamarine and cerulean seas. Palm trees jutted up from golden beaches on one end, and forest green reef spread out under the crystalline water from the other.

This. This was worth huffing and puffing for 30 minutes up the steep spine of a mountain. I turned around and around, 360 degrees of pure natural splendor shooting out like a sunburst beneath my feet, the wind picked up and lifted me… and for a moment I swore I would fly.

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Tips for Fijian Island Hopping on a Budget

So you want to visit Fiji and island hop the Yasawa Islands? Awesome! It’s totally possible to do it without completely breaking the bank. While it may not be Southeast Asia-level budgets, you can still access amazing resorts for a steal. Here are some tips on how to do it.

Transportation:

  • There is no ‘cheap option’ for boat transfers thanks to a monopoly on the ferry system by Awesome Adventures. Our ferry costs were the highest single cost of our entire trip – about $215 USD for four transfers in total. We did go to the ‘end of the line’ to get to Nacula, so if you stayed closer to the main island you may be able to get costs down. But Blue Lagoon is worth it!
  • You can get a Bula Pass if you plan to visit more than 3 islands, which is usually the cheaper option. Three islands or less, its usually cheaper to just book each segment.

Accommodation:

  • The Bula Pass also comes with accommodation options. After extensive research, we opted to simply book our accommodation independent of Awesome Adventures so we could stay at whichever resort we wanted without having to worry about how many “Coconuts” we had. We found their package a little too confining, but it could work for people who don’t want to be bothered with researching the resorts.
  • Our favorite places to stay were Blue Lagoon and Octopus (actually, my favorite was Blue Lagoon and my sister’s was Octopus), but we only tried three places in total and there are dozens and dozens of options that have a budget/dorm component. We wouldn’t recommend Manta Ray unless you are a diver, and even then we’d suggest just one night if you’re staying in the dorms. If you’re going to be there in January like we were, air conditioning is a MUST!

Food:

  • This part is easy, since each resort provides you three meals a day for a set cost per day. My recommendation is to take advantage of these meals and eat until you are full, and you can get away with not needing to snack in between (and thus not spend any more money than you have to!).

Activities:

  • Most activities at the resorts are at an incremental cost. Each resort offers different things free of charge; for example, SUP at Blue Lagoon was free, and kayaking at Manta Ray was free. Just ask what you can do free of charge at the dive shop or front desk to find out.

Etiquette:

  • Tipping isn’t necessary or expected at the resorts in the Yasawas, but a big smile, a ‘Thank You,’ and remembering staff names goes a long way with these gorgeous people.
  • Otherwise, kick back, relax, and enjoy! The resorts really do take care of everything so you can just reeeeelax.

Our trip breakdown (cost is for one person as of January 2015):

Ferry: $214
Stay at Blue Lagoon (including food and additional activities): $180
Additional Activities at Blue Lagoon: Underwater Cave tour, Village Visit
Stay at Manta Ray (including food): $168
Additional Activities at Manta Ray: Cost for Snorkel equipment, Sunset Cruise
Stay at Octopus: $148
Additional Activities at Octopus: Nada! Beach Lounging only.

Total cost for one person to spend 7 days in the Yasawa Islands: $710
*Note that you will likely need to spend a day or two on the main island depending on your flight arrival/departure times. We stayed at Bamboo Travellers for cheap – it’s a good place if you’re passing through. 

Add your flight costs to this, and you should have a pretty accurate budget for your own trip to beautiful Fiji.

Waya Island: Octopus Resort

Octopus Resort was a breath of fresh air (literally) after the hot, sleepless nights at Manta Ray. The air conditioning in our room had the entire space down to an icy 60F, and Beth and I both gave each other a look of pure gratitude as we put down our bags next to our beds. The resort itself was also very nice, clean and well laid out, similar to Blue Lagoon. The difference here was that the resort was facing the west, which meant a front-row seat to spectacular sunsets.

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We had already decided (for our budgets mostly) that we would use these last two days in the Yasawas purely for relaxation – no hiking, no boating, just books and the beach. And we made good on our promise, with a little time in the pool thrown in for good measure.

The proximity to the main island of Fiji meant that Octopus was a little busier than Blue Lagoon had been, but this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the second night, we joined 6 other Germans in a rousing game of trivia, which scored us a free bottle of bubbly and nearly the victory (though until the day I die I will claim we were the victors and that shit was rigged). Because we kept tying with another team, we were required to do a dance-off, which had my sister and I twerking in front of the resort guests. Mama would be proud.

Though we ultimately lost, it was the highlight of our time on the island, and were able to save a couple of the German girls from a horrible fate when they casually mentioned they were planning to hitchhike from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. I could already see the news headlines as I gave them the names of budget airlines and told them Greyhound was always an option.

We indulged in a little bit of wine, and Waya kept serving up those sunsets as our ultimate evening entertainment. We left the next day amongst the farewell song of the resort staff, relaxed and ready for our next adventure.
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Naviti Island: Manta Ray Resort

Manta Ray Resort was a bit of a disappointment.

First, the good:

The one saving grace of our experience on Manta Ray was the absolutely incredible snorkeling available directly in front of the resort. From the moment you put your mask into the water, another world teeming with life of all kinds greeted you. Thin, zippy, trumpetfish flashed past, curious zebrafish swam up close enough to touch, turning themselves onto their sides so they could eyeball you, and giant, fluorescent parrotfish bobbed toward the bottom, their thick lips gaping at everything in sight. So many varieties of fish I couldn’t name darted amongst an equally staggering variety of coral. Lavender flowers snuggled up to chartreuse bulbs (I had never seen chartreuse in nature before this day, but it’s actually a real color!), bursts of reddish-brown tendrils looked like pom poms waving in the current, and everywhere was azure, turquoise, cerulean. Sea cucumbers and cobalt starfish lazed on the sandy sea bottom between plumes of coral, with a few large and lazy mottled brown bottom feeders, mourning their plain appearance in contrast to the beauties that danced over their heads. The reef was alive with sound – little snaps and pops to accompany the ever-present silvery thrum.

On my last day out, the tide was low. Inexperienced swimmers (read: people who don’t appreciate a reef and would touch, stand, or otherwise kill it if they were allowed too close) were expressly forbidden to snorkel at low tide, but I sweet talked the dive shop guys into letting me go before the ferry arrived. After getting out, I was so lost in the world below me that I hadn’t realized I was nearly at the farthest buoy, the point which I wasn’t to swim past. As I turned to head closer to land, a 2.5 foot reef shark lazily slid from her place 8 feet below me and headed out for some privacy beyond the buoy while I was paralyzed with fear. She was gone within a moment, but it was the first time I’d swam by a shark I could actually see. I considered heading back to shore (sharks can smell fear, right?), and as I kept one eye on the murky place where the shark has disappeared, a 3.5 foot reef shark entered from nearer shore and passed just beneath me, entirely unconcerned by my presence. I was both terrified and awestruck – it was so close, so beautiful, and I was SO unprotected from sharp shark teeth. I headed closer to shore and stayed there for the rest of the morning.

A few other highlights: the super fun sunset floating cruise and free kayaking.
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Now, the bad: 

On paper, Manta Ray was the least expensive of the three resorts we stayed in, but the lack of quality far outstripped the savings. And when we totaled up the costs, they had managed to charge so much for things that other resorts offered for free (i.e. snorkel gear), that it wasn’t even the cheapest place we stayed.

The fact that there was no real beach, I could deal with. A tradeoff for the incredible marine reserve just offshore. But it was a letdown after the gorgeous sand of Blue Lagoon. The fact that the food wasn’t amazing, I could also deal with – it was edible and didn’t poison me, and that’s all I really ask for in a meal in a foreign country.

What I couldn’t deal with was the sleeping situation.

The dorms were stiflingly hot long after the breeze had cooled down the evening due to poor ventilation and no air conditioning units, and the one paltry wall fan that was meant to service two sets of bunk beds was more torture than relief. The moment you got a tiny bit of a breeze on your sweaty forehead, it was gone into another rotation, leaving you desperate and irate. When you’re marinating in 90 degrees at 10 p.m., all you want is a damn steady stream of air.

Add to this the fact that the sheets smelled like DEET, which immediately brought to mind visions of bedbugs. I have two fears while traveling on the cheap: Dengue Fever and Bedbugs. I sat up late, paranoid that every little tickle on my skin was a bug chomping on me. The mosquito nets that hung over each bed to make up for the lack of window screens kept tangling up into my arms and legs whenever I rolled over, and were hung so close to the beds that if I sat up, I’d be playing an adult version of my brother’s favorite childhood game, Caper. The one where he smothers me.

When I compare what we got for our money from Manta Ray to the other two resorts we stayed in, it just doesn’t measure up.

My recommendation: If you are a diver or very avid snorkeler, stay here for only night and snorkel your little ass off the entire time. Then get out, get far away, and get yourself into a resort where they have screens and an AC unit on the wall. Fortunately, our stay at Octopus Resort more than made up for it.

Nacula Island: Blue Lagoon Resort

After a particularly rough start, we ended up in the most beautiful resort: Blue Lagoon Resort on Nacula Island, at the northernmost point of the the Yasawa Island chain, west of the main island of Fiji. A white sandy beach stretched out in either direction, hammocks beckoned from nearly every tree, and palm trees swayed in welcome. We managed to sleep off the rest of the hangover in aforementioned hammocks before sitting down to a delicious dinner and enjoying the native dancing, fire show and bonfire on the beach.

The Fire Show

The Fire Show

Only Way to Cure a Hangover

Only Way to Cure a Hangover

I Mean, Really?!

I Mean, Really?!

We woke early the next morning to catch the boat ride to the underwater caves on Yasawa Island, just next door. My pre-trip research told me this was not to be missed, an experience we could only have in this part of the Yasawas. After marveling at the turquoise water, we hiked down a precarious rusting staircase straight into the lagoon that served as a former movie set for the film Blue Lagoon. Thanks to an open ‘window’ on the ceiling of this cave, we could swim freely and see everything around us, which included the rock where Brooke Shields got her first of her monthly visits from Aunt Flo in the film (our guide told us this almost with pride, and we giggled like 7 year olds).

Inside this large cave there was a conspicuous dark hole just under the water line. We’d heard that part of the tour included navigating a fully submerged passageway to a smaller cave that had no sunlight. Have I mentioned yet that I’m claustrophobic? Let me sidebar for a moment here then: When I was young, my older brother LOVED a game he called ‘Caper.’ Caper involved him getting the thickest blanket he could find, holding myself or my sister down, and wrapping the blanket around us tightly so we couldn’t see (or breathe), and not letting us move. So yeah, claustrophobia.

Though I don’t think my baby sister suffered through too many games of Caper as a child, we both looked at this 3 foot, dark chasm with trepidation. I was peppering one of our guides with questions: “How wide is it? How long? How long will I be under water?” but I was speaking too fast for him to quite understand what I was asking. And of course, I somehow was the first in line when it came time to swim through. But they posted one guide on one side of the cave, and another guide on the other, and in about 3 seconds I had whooshed through into the darkness. We swam through passageways that were definitely large enough to prevent hyperventilation, and going back through was a piece of cake.

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We spent the afternoon lounging by the beach before we made our way to the local village and school. The school children sang songs and danced for us, which was absolutely adorable. I wanted to smooch all of their cute little faces but I wasn’t sure what the cultural decorum was, so I just gave them big smiles and lots of applause instead.

We proceeded to the village, where most of the resort staff lived. We were lucky enough to witness a huge ceremony that included the Chief of Police of Fiji, who was visiting the island that day. We stayed on the fringes and watched as the men, kitted out in their finest traditional garb, showed their respect and honor to the Police Chief.

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NaculaVillageOn our last morning on Nacula, we hiked up the massive mountain behind the resort and were treated to incredible 360 degree views of the entire island. It was work, but it was worth it. Then, we were back on the ferry and off to Manta Ray!

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Island Hopping the Yasawas

My stomach roiled, and a cold sweat broke out on the back of my neck. I hunched over, leaning my forehead against the bus seat in front of me, and starting feverishly making deals with myself.

‘Just hang on until we’re off the bus. Just make it through the bus ride, then you can upchuck to your little heart’s content.’

My problem wasn’t that I drank the water. It was that I drank Fireball. Lots and lots of Fireball. I glanced over at my sister and she didn’t look to be faring much better than me. She was as white as a sheet, and had her head tilted back against the headrest with her eyes screwed shut. It was 7 a.m., and we were on a crowded bus heading to the Denarau Marina. Not six hours earlier, we had been drinking and swimming in the pool with a few American guys who happened to be pilots for Fiji Airways, as well as a French couple and Dutch girl. It was all fun and games, until we woke up for our ferry.

As we pulled up to the marina, I pushed past the people getting up (so SLOW!), dashed off the bus and immediately was sick in some bushes a couple of feet away, much to the amusement of our bus driver. I looked up at him in between episodes, thinking, ‘This could have been your bus, buddy. Would you have been laughing then?’

With that over and done with, I located my sister (she had managed to make it to a bathroom, classy little thing) and trudged into line to pay for our ferry tickets and prepare myself for five hours on the open seas. In the meantime, my hangover started skyrocketing into ‘Top 10 Worst Hangovers I’ve Ever Had in  My Entire Life’ territory, and didn’t stop until it reached the Top 3.

Our first sunset - before the Fireball

Our first sunset – before the Fireball

My only consolation was our itinerary for the next six nights: Two nights in Nacula at Blue Lagoon Resort, Two Nights in Naviti at Manta Ray Resort, and Two Nights in Waya at Octopus Resort.

The Resorts within the Yasawas have the tourism game down pat. Each resort has a range of accommodation from dorm rooms through to oceanfront, multi-room bures. Since there are no shopping centers or grocery stores on these small islands, you are obligated to purchase the meal packages, which range from $35 – $50/day, depending on the resort. This may seem steep (and did to our budgets!), but at least you get three solid, delicious meals that are beautifully cooked. Since we were staying in dorms, we still managed to keep costs pretty low, and felt no need to purchase additional food between meals. There is a ferry that shuttles people between islands at regular intervals each day called the Yasawa Flyer, and you can either purchase a pass on this boat or simply book one-way tickets between the islands.

Because I wanted to keep this particular blog short-ish and used most of my word count describing that truly horrendous hangover, I’ve linked to other posts that I’ve written about each island and resort that we stayed at, if you are interested in visiting Fiji yourself one day. My only tip: Stay away from the Fireball.

Nacula Island:

The northernmost point of the the Yasawa Island chain, west of the main island of Fiji. A wonderful start to the journey, which included a hike of spiritual proportions.

Naviti Island:

The best underwater experiences I’ve ever had, but a terrible sleeping experience.

Waya Island:

Closer to the main island and thus a bit busier, but a phenomenal end to our Fijian adventure.

I’ve wrapped up the Fijian experience with a budget breakdown, so you can understand exactly how ‘budget’ Fiji is in 2015.

Happy reading, xoxoxo!

Flying into Fiji, that Reef Break!

Flying into Fiji, that Reef Break!

 

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