|The minute you walk off the plane into Nadi International Airport, you know youve arrived somewhere special. Someone from the tourist board nearly always welcomes you with a garland of flowers and a big smile - sometimes they are even singing.
The people of Fiji are among the friendliest folk in the world - its the only way they know. Wherever you go in Fiji, youll receive the same smile and friendly welcome.
But its not only the people that are special - so is the diving. Fiji is known as the soft coral capital of the world, and its underwater vistas are the stuff of fantasy. Walls, reefs, canyons and tunnels festooned in vibrantly coloured soft corals, seafans and featherstars await you. There are mazes, caves, swimthroughs and spectacular coral gardens. Dive sites here actually manage to live up to their extravagant names.
Fiji lies to the north-east of Australia and New Zealand. There are 300 islands in all, spread over a vast area of ocean. Most are uninhabited and the two largest, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, are home to 90 percent of the population.
Since Fiji was discovered as a dive destination, resorts have sprung up everywhere. The Pacific Harbour area on Viti Levus south coast is the most developed, with golf courses, shopping centres and many hotels and dive centres offering day trips to the famous Beqa Island lagoon.
Beqa lies right in the passage of the western currents, which bring rich nutrients from the volcanoes of the Tonga Trench. As a result, its reefs and walls boast incredible soft corals and lots of fish life. In recent years this area has seen a dramatic increase in the number of divers who come from the Pacific Harbour resorts in day boats, and the reefs are beginning to suffer a little.
Still, there are some fantastic sites such as Side Street 3, where a series of coral pinnacles lie festooned in soft coral and clouds of fairy basslets. Its overhangs are covered in brilliant red seafans.
At Nasithi Rocks there are scenic swim-throughs adorned with more fans and soft corals of every colour you could imagine, and at a place called Seafan Ledge you will struggle to see the bottom, its so seething with life.
If you fancy somewhere a little quieter than the busy resorts of Pacific Harbour but with equally good diving, try the islands of Nananui-I-Ra and Mokusiga, just two hours drive north from Nadi Airport. This area is still relatively unknown.
Nananui-I-Ra Island has been popular with backpackers for some time but more recently the luxury resort of Wananavu, just a short boat-ride away on the main island, and the Mokusigas resorts on Mokusiga Island, have opened up. The diving around this area is refreshing, with mazes, caves and swim-throughs all adorned in spectacular soft corals and seafans of many colours. Sites with names such as Breathtaker, Golden Dreams, Magic Mountain and Dream Maker hardly need describing. Picture your fantasy dive site and youll find it here.
To the south lie the islands of Vatulele and Kadavu, both with excellent diving. Vatulele has one of Fijis few wrecks, the 500 ton Island Trader sunk in 1993 just 500m from the islands all-inclusive luxury resort. It also has a dive site called Shark Point, where grey and whitetip reef sharks are often seen, and occasionally silvertips and hammerheads.
YELLOW WALL, BLUE TANG
Kadavu is the more remote island, and the furthest south. Reaching it involves an hours plane ride, followed by a good 20- or 40-minute boat trip to your resort, depending which end of the island you want! It has two reef systems and a wide range of sites. The Namalata Reef in the north (closest to the airport) offers Yellow Wall, so-called because of its golden-yellow soft corals, and Blue Tang, good for seeing lionfish and schooling pelagics.
The Great Astrolabe Reef to the south has some great sites. At Purple Wall, a sheer drop-off adorned in soft corals is a good place to find reef sharks and tuna. Split Rock and Broken Stone have magical mazes of tunnels and swim-throughs, with pink soft corals and red seafans growing everywhere. Big fish are not that common here but there are plenty of smaller species such as the beautiful little fire goby, and sharks are occasionally seen.
To the north of Viti Levu, on Fijis second largest island Vanua Levu, a number of good dive resorts are located within an hour of the airport at Savu Savu. The Jean-Michel Cousteau resort is the furthest away but worth checking out. It is dedicated to conservation and has its own on-site naturalist and marine biologist, who will take you on nature hikes, bird-watching or to a nearby village.
INTO THE DREAMHOUSE
The diving is reasonable inshore but best if you can get to the outlying barrier reefs that run parallel to the island. Popular sites include Hole in the Wall, with its sensational drop-off into the abyss, and Dreamhouse, a deep undersea mountain with beautiful corals and peaks, where shoals of barracuda and jack play.
But the best experience comes on a day trip to Namenalala, 12 miles offshore. Here you find 18 or so miles of outstanding unspoilt barrier reef and some of the best diving in the world. The soft corals and seafans along the walls here are simply awesome.
Another great place for walls is off the garden island of Taveuni, with its wonderful rainforests and waterfalls above the surface and high-voltage diving underneath. Currents tend to be strong here but they attract many fish species and support great gardens of corals and seafans. Names of sites, especially along the famous Rainbow Reef - Barracuda Point, Fish Factory and the Zoo - say it all, while Great White Wall will leave you wanting to stay under water forever, though you need to be a strong swimmer, as the current rips along here.
There are plenty of places to stay on Taveuni. If you can afford it and want to get away from its relatively busy sites, the little luxury family-run islands of Matangi and Fiji Forbes Lucala are the place for you. They have a separate range of outstanding dive sites. Shark and pelagic sightings are more common especially at Noels Wall off Matangi Island and Roberts Reef, which has everything from anemonefish to a resident shoal of barracuda.
GETTING THERE: Air New Zealand (0171 930 1662) flies several times a week via Los Angeles and Hawaii from around£700, including a free stop-over. It also flies via Australia and New Zealand and has a baggage allowance of 64kg.
DIVING DETAILS : Most dive centres hire equipment. Some offer just two dives a day, others three, and some have 24-hour shore diving available. There are several live-aboards, including the Aggressor and the Naia, bookable through UK agents, which include Divequest (01254 826 322), Hayes & Jarvis (0181 748 5050) and Sure Dive (01704 573 714). Accommodation: Many dive resorts, especially away from the main islands, offer luxurious accommodation, such as Dive Taveuni or the Fiji Forbes Laucala Island Resort. Others such as Garden Island Resort and Rainbow Reef Divers on Taveuni or the Astrolabe Hideaway or Dive Kadavu on Kadavu are comfortable but less expensive. Further information from the Tourism South Pacific Council (0181 3921 838) or the Dive Fiji website (firstname.lastname@example.org)
MONEY: Fiji dollar.
FOR NON-DIVERS: Rainforest hiking, sightseeing, watersports.
An excess of excess.
BEST TIME TO GO: Any time, though best in late winter. Good weather for most of the year but warmest and wettest from November to April, averaging 30C in summer and 26C in winter. Cyclones are rare but watch out during El Niño years.
Water Temperature: Between 25-29C, so 3mm wetsuits should be fine.
DIVING SUITABLE FOR: All levels.
COST: Typical costs for a 10-day trip to a comfortable resort, including flights,£1800. You can pay a lot more or, if you go backpacking, do it for a lot less!
PROS: Varied and colourful diving on sites rich in marine life, hospitable islanders, often-luxurious accommodation, sensational views topside, diving at all levels but plenty for non-divers to do.
CONS: A long journey and Fiji is an experience you have to pay for. Much of the best diving is on offshore islands so best suited to those willing to travel internally. Some sites within easy reach of Pacific Harbour over-dived.
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