Yasawa Island Hopping

The Yasawa island group starts just a few hours’ boat ride from Nadi, and extends for 135km out to the north west of Fiji. This stunning set of tropical islands makes it onto lots of backpacker itineraries. Our month in Fiji was between Indonesia via Sydney, and Cuba via LA, which put us in a complete minority compared to other travellers we met, who all seemed to be between travels through New Zealand in a camper van, and driving down the east coast of Australia. Before we’d even set off for the Yasawas we had two awesome road trip holidays added to our bucket list.

Five days of full-board resorts and a package deal on transport was definitely a new way to travel for us and, despite doing a fair amount of research beforehand, we weren’t sure what to expect. The scenery would undoubtedly be amazing, but in the back of our minds there was a small nagging fear that the ‘spoon-fed fun’ of resorts could end up being a bit Butlins. We needn’t have worried. Although we were very glad to have seen a more authentic Fijian way of life at our amazing homestay on Waya island just before, the week of back-to-basics living in the village had set us up nicely to get the most out of the relative luxury in these unique resorts.

Just like the rest of the country, things in the Yasawas tend to run on ‘Fiji time’. People are happy for things to just to happen a little more slowly (walking, driving, pouring pints), and nobody’s ever in a rush. Don’t let that fool you into thinking things don’t run smoothly, though. Everything, from the marina and the Yasawa Flyer boat, to the motorboat transfers and island resorts, all ran like clockwork. Slightly delayed clockwork, but clockwork none the less.

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Transferring from Nadi
Close to Nadi (and Fiji’s main international airport) there are two main areas people use as a base before heading out to the islands; the expensive resorts near the shops and bars at Denarau Marina, and – more in our price range – a cluster of about five hostels on a stretch of coast behind the airport. These hostels are apparently all owned by the same guy, and there’s not a lot to choose between them. Our dorm beds at Bamboo Backpackers were basic, but fine, and it was the free airport pick-up that swung it for us.

Awesome Adventures, who run the Yasawa Flyer island hopping boat, filled the gap between the hostel and the marina, with their free daily pick-up service at 7:30am from Bamboo Backpackers or any of the other hostels on that road. If the bus arrives at 8, no worries – the flyer will just leave half an hour late too. The only time this laid back system didn’t work out so well was when, at the end of our trip, there was a mad rush of people running off boat to make flight connections.

The Yasawa Flyer
Every day, one of Awesome Adventures’s 5 large catamarans leaves Denarau Marina to make the 9 hour round-trip up and down the Mamanuca and Yasawa island chains. We took the Flyer four times, and, although never coinciding with the famous ‘Big Yellow Boat’, each boat was comfortable, never overcrowded, had air-conditioned indoor seating with a bar, outdoor seating at the back, and a sun-deck on top.

As we had seen and heard Cyclone Zena pass during the night before we left Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, we’d decided to upgrade to the Captain’s Lounge (just £10 each), to try and take the edge off some of the 3m swells we were expecting. The huge amount of space, comfy seats and AC helped a little with the seasickness, but not enough that we could make the most of our free beer, wine, and snack service. It still paid off though; because of the storms, the Flyer was taking an alternative route, so our stop was 7 hours away, rather than the usual 2.

Awesome Adventures have two types of tickets; point-to-point trips and a Bula Pass for multi-day island hopping. Once we’d recovered from the initial shock at the pricing online (realising that the ‘$’ sign is for Fijian Dollars – about half a USD), we opted for a 5 day Bula Pass. We started island hopping from our homestay on Waya Island, so picked up our passes at the boat’s on-board travel desk, but normally they’re given out at Denarau Marina before boarding.

The Flyer stops 13 times through the Yasawa islands, near a handful of different island resorts, whose small (free) shuttle boats come out to transfer you to the resort. A well-oiled system of coloured luggage tags ensures your bag follows you to your chosen island.

Choosing Resorts
There are 27 resorts to choose from in the Yasawa islands – plus the stunning 5-star Turtle Island Resort that we glimpsed on our way up the island group, which is almost exclusively reached by private seaplane. Another one for the bucket list…

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Resorts can either be booked directly (some are also on Agoda and Hostelworld), or through Awesome Adventures with their Bula Combo Pass – a package deal combining island hopping and accommodation. Their ‘coconut rating’ system tiers resorts into 1-, 2-, or 3-coconut categories and determines which resorts you can access with your pass. What they don’t tell you, is that resorts given 2 coconuts rather than 1 are not necessarily much more expensive if you book directly with the resort.

Obviously the resorts all sounded great when we read about them on Awesome Adventures’ website, but, despite the similar descriptions, we found that the resorts did vary quite a bit in terms of accommodation, food, and facilities, so were glad to have done some extra research. Even more glad to have booked directly; at Manta Ray Island we met people who, by using the Bula Combo Pass, had priced themselves out of staying at Blue Lagoon, which was a much better resort but not that much more expensive.

Each place we stayed had 3 room categories: Beach front bures (rhymes with ‘hooray’, not ‘cure’) were the most upmarket, with private bathrooms and sun loungers off-limits for the rest of us. Treehouse or garden bures were a cheaper private room option, but shared the bathrooms with people staying in dorms. The dorms at Octopus and Blue Lagoon were the poshest dorms we’ve ever stayed in; no bunkbeds, just seven single beds (each with a towel sculpture and flower arrangement waiting at check-in), AC, bath towel, beach towel and daily housekeeping.

All resorts charge an extra fee for mandatory full board meals, as there is nothing else accessible on the island. The costs seemed high before we arrived (95-109 FJD pp/d), but working out at about £35 we were really happy with what we got for our money.

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We put together an overly complex trade-off analysis, and decided on Octopus, towards the south of the island group, Blue Lagoon, in the far north, and Manta Ray Island, about half way up.

Overall, Octopus had the best human-to-hammock ratio, the best yoga and pretty good snorkelling. Blue Lagoon had the most picture-perfect turquoise water, free kayaking, and equally great food and facilities as Octopus. Manta Ray was slightly worse on facilities, dorms and food, but better marine life; with swimming-in-an-aquarium levels of snorkelling, and the chance to swim with manta rays.

Resort Life
So, was it all a bit Butlins? No! All three resorts were really laid-back, there were always activities on offer if you felt like leaving your hammock, but zero high-energy reps bounding around pressuring you to join poolside games.

We made the most of the free activities; dawn hilltop yoga and sunset beachfront yoga, volleyball, kayaking and some incredible snorkelling. There were tiara bat fish, angel fish and anemone fish near Octopus and Blue Lagoon, but Manta Ray had the best snorkelling with huge shoals of fish just metres from the shore and, though we didn’t see them, black-tip reef sharks. Crab racing wasn’t technically a free activity (the $3 entry fee goes to the local school), but if your crab wins like ours did then the $30 bar tab more than cancels out the cost!

Octopus and Blue Lagoon (run by the same people) offered paid activities like diving and cave trips, which we skipped as they were a bit out of our price range, and a village visit which we skipped as we’d spent the last 5 days in Yalobi. Manta Ray Island’s manta ray swim wasn’t free, but was also one of the main reasons we chose that resort. When the wooden lali drum sounded, just 30 minutes before we were due to board the Flyer, indicating mantas had been spotted nearby, we took the chance and joined the snorkelling trip to try and spot them. Costing $42 each and potentially cutting it very fine to make the Flyer, what seemed like a bit of a gamble worked out in our favour. Everything in the Yasawa islands is connected – the trip used the same boat used to transfer people to the Flyer, so there was no way it could leave without us. We only caught a few short glimpses of the imposingly huge, dark ray gliding effortlessly below us, against the rip tide that dragged us the other way. It was long enough to get a sense of how eery and menacing they look, but brief enough that the resort decided not to charge us for the trip.

It’s a good job we spent so much time snorkelling, kayaking, yogaing and hill walking, because much of the rest of our time was spent enjoying the 3 full meals a day! Breakfast was a big buffet with egg and crepe stations, lunch was a la carte, and dinner a three course meal, even accompanied by amuse bouche and palette cleanser sorbets at Octopus and Blue Lagoon.

Although these are tourist resorts, things are still done in a Fijian way. Boat arrivals and departures are announced either by the pounding of the lali drum (the traditional hollowed out wooden log drum we’d seen at the church in Yalobi village), or the davui shell horn (traditionally a turtle fisherman’s trumpet). All the resort staff are exceptionally talented singers; getting off the shuttle boat we were greeted with the welcome Bula Maleya song in pitch perfect 8-part harmony, and were waved off with the Isa Lei farewell song, each time customised with the resort’s name. Learning some Fijian was also encouraged; “come on guys, no “Bula”, no dinner!

It wouldn’t be a trip to Fiji without trying the national drink, kava. All resorts offered a kava ceremony for new arrivals. We had hoped to join a kava session at the village, but some religious visitors meant a week-long pause on all alcohol and kava drinking, so we took the opportunity at the resorts. Apparently mixing pounded kava root with water originated in Tonga, and was brought to Fijians by Missionaries as an alternative to their cannibalist tradition of blood drinking. The kava is passed around, accompanied with claps and “bulas“, in a hollowed out coconut shell – no photos as we were concentrating on getting our claps and our bulas in the right order. It didn’t taste as bad as we were expecting, slightly earthy, slightly peppery, but also had disappointingly little effect beyond a slightly numb tongue. Apparently it has the inverse effect to alcohol in that the more often you drink it, the more you are affected by small amounts. Judging by the grimaces on the faces of the musicians who lead the ceremony each day, that sounds about right.

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