I have visited Taveuni, the third largest Fijian island, five times. First with a group of volunteers for an Easter vacation, next with my sister to visit Bouma Falls, again with my mom to swim beneath the waterfalls in Lavena village, and two more times in a single week, once with my brother and sister on their vacation from America, and again with my girlfriend and some other volunteers to dive the famous Rainbow Reef. Because the latter two were the most recent, they are the ones I will focus on in this two-part travel guide to the island.
Locals refer to Taveuni as the “Garden Island of Fiji” due to its fertile soil and abundance of farmers making a living growing and selling fruits, vegetables, and kava. Despite this, the produce is very expensive in the town markets. The farmers sell their crops to the main island to make money, so the fruits and vegetables for locals must then be imported. Of course, this is often but not always the case. Sometimes pickup trucks filled with pineapples will pull up offering the delicious fruit for only a dollar.
The main town, Naqara, is tiny and unimpressive. There are only six market stalls set along the street selling fresh foods. There is a new supermarket, built in December 2015, that sits at the end of town, only a three minute walk from the beginning of town. A couple of eateries serve dishes that leave me wanting, such as bad fish and chips and unappealing fried rice. A caged parrot hung on a porch above the bus repair garage, longing to get out of town and into the jungle. I felt the same way.
Kara’s homestay/hostel is one of two places I have taken up quarters in Taveuni and there are many reasons I continue to return. On her compound she grows just about every fruit and vegetable imaginable. Parrots squawk and flutter between trees, sometimes landing on the passion fruit vines for a juicy snack. Their green backs, blue wings, and red bellies hold my attention for hours. There is a pool on the compound made with large stones cemented around a small stream. The passage which allows the stream to flow can be stopped up so the pool fills and creates a semi-natural swimming pond complete with fish and shrimp.
Kara’s place is on a large plot of land just outside a village called Lovonivonu (“turtle cooked in an underground oven,” in English). On the compound is her house and the hostel, a single room building with two bathrooms, a sink, one bed, and three mattresses on the floor. Although this sounds strange, the sheets are clean, the mattresses are comfortable, and I have never had any problems.
Outside, connected by a large front porch, is a kitchen with a gas stove, sink, and all the utensils, plates, and pans you could need. Around the side are two more bathrooms with showers and a large sink for handwashing laundry.
Kara usually provides fruits for breakfast in the mornings and she will cook for her guests for a small fee (about USD$7/day) if they ask. She charges FJD$25/person/night (USD$12) to stay in the hostel. She is one of the kindest people I have ever met and I highly recommend her accommodation. To get there from the ferry, just walk south until you see the second sign for Lovonivonu and make a left. From the airport, a taxi is necessary and will cost about FJD$20 (USD$10). Tell the taxi driver to take you to Waimakare. If they are unsure where that is, most locals know it as “rock pool.”
It is possible other guests will share the accommodation with you, but Kara will usually ask if this is alright. However, I have only shared once in my five times there, as it is not well advertised and very few tourists find out about it. It is truly a hidden paradise.
On my last trip to Taveuni, I dove the Rainbow Reef. The Somosomo strait, an ocean passage between Vanua Levu and Taveuni, is one of the most beautiful dive spots in Fiji. The Pacific Ocean feeds through and creates more soft coral than exists anywhere else in the world. This is why Fiji is often referred to by divers as the “Soft Coral Capital of the World”.
I dove with Taveuni Ocean Sports and I would highly recommend them. On top of being professional and safe (not extremely common when diving in Fiji) they are fun and provide amazing snacks. Owned by an American named Julie, they are really good to US Peace Corps Volunteers. They picked three other volunteers and me up from Kara’s, which would have been a $15 cab ride, each of the two mornings we dove and dropped us off each afternoon. They also provided all of our gear and took us out on very new and reliable boats.
The first day the weather was bad and we were with an inexperienced diver from Japan who spoke little English. She held us up. Once down on the ocean floor, we waited for some time for her to get the hang of swimming. She was up and down and all around the whole time, unable to control her movement and flailing her limbs. Due to this, we spent a lot of time on that first dive sitting on dead coral looking at a few fish and one White Tip Reef Shark.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are always on the lookout for good food. The snacks we were given on the boat between dives were some of the best I’ve had in Fiji. The dive shop provided homemade hummus, not too thick and not too thin, fresh vegetables, crackers, fruits, fresh squeezed fruit juice, chai tea, and home-baked desserts. I felt bad for the Japanese girl as we swarmed and devoured every crumb before the dive master finished talking to us about fish species found on the reef.
The second dive on that first day started out better. We went to Fish Factory, a dive site I had heard amazing things about. People had told me schools of fish surround divers in thick clouds that make it difficult to see. I had big expectations.
Once in the water, my mask began to fill with water every time I turned against the current. I cleared it a few times by pushing against the top rim and blowing out my nose ,as I had learned to do when I first started diving. It worked, but did not stop it from filling again two minutes later.
During the PADI Open Water Diver certification course, the diver is expected to prove their ability to remove and replace their mask underwater. It is by far the most stressful part of the certification. However, now I am more experienced, I have earned my PADI Adventure Diver certification, and I am more comfortable underwater. So, when my mask would not stop filling up with water, I took it off and readjusted it, seventy feet below the sea’s surface. Three times I did this. No luck. I suffered and saw little. Still, I did not miss much. Fish Factory, at least on this day, did not live up to its name.
At the end of the first day, I was disappointed. All of us were, though we did not want to admit it to the others. I felt as though I had wasted two-hundred dollars. It was not the dive shop’s fault. As with all disappointment, our expectations had been too high. We had heard so many amazing things about diving in Taveuni—many people had told me it was their favorite spot in the world—and it did not live up to the hype. I hoped the next day would be better.
That night we went out for delicious and expensive bacon cheeseburgers at Coconut Grove, another American owned establishment. Hannah and I had a glass of wine and the total for the two of us came to FJD$64 after a Peace Corps discount. Quite an expensive dinner, but I happily threw the money out of my wallet. I was excited for a good meal after spending months in the village eating fish and taro leaves.
The following morning Emily was having problems with her ears. They hurt and had not cleared since the first dive the day before. She called Julie at the dive shop who told her it would be a bad idea to dive. Emily decided to stay home and wished us luck. As we left she said, “You guys better not do the White Wall.”
Julie picked us up just after seven. On the way to the shop she asked how we liked the diving the day before. I lied and said it was excellent. After all, it was not her fault it had sucked.
At the dive shop we grabbed our gear and headed out again, on a newer, nicer boat with two two-hundred horsepower engines. It was fast and brought us to our first dive of the day, a site called Swirling Rainbow due to the rotating current.
This time, us three Peace Corps Volunteers had our own personal dive master so we did not have to wait for anyone else. As soon as we got in the water we descended and began swimming, enjoying the fact that we were in control of our dive. We saw an octopus standing guard above its home, a White Tip Reef Shark resting on the seafloor, schools of fish, a huge Clown Triggerfish, an Oriental Sweetlips hiding in coral, lots of Clown Fish guarded by anemones, and much more. It was a nice dive, more what I had expected from Taveuni, with lots of soft coral and sea fans. And the strong current kept it interesting.
After another delicious hummus snack and one-hour surface interval, the dive masters revealed our next dive site: The Great White Wall. It was the dive we had all been hoping for since we arrived in Taveuni. It is a vertical wall covered in white soft coral and sea life. It seems to be in the middle of an infinite sea, as there is nothing but deep blue see beside and below it. It was truly amazing. Swims through caverns, under coral ceilings, and up through rock holes that looked like portals with the sunny ocean surface above made it even better. It was the best dive I have ever done.
Getting back on the boat was not quite as enjoyable. After we surfaced, our dive master told us the current had brought us too close to the reef and we needed to swim away so the boat could get close enough to pick us up. We kicked as hard as we could as our inflated vests kept us afloat. Shortly, the boat came around and the captain threw out a long rope. The dive master told us to grab hold.
I grabbed on and so did everyone else, including another group of divers that had joined us at the surface. There were about ten of us holding the rope in a single file line. Hannah was in front of me and as the boat started to pick up speed I saw her bobbing in and out of the waves, struggling to breathe without her regulator.
The boat took off and Hannah let go of the rope. She slammed into me and spun off to my left. I let go, not wanting to leave her behind and because it was becoming near impossible to hang on. I quickly realized that no one was still on the rope. The boat had pulled us so hard that everyone had let go or been ripped off.
“What the hell was that?” a middle-aged American woman asked.
All of us Peace Corps Volunteers had learned not to become angry at such things and we all laughed. Eventually we all got back on the rope and struggled to get up on the boat as fast as we could, which is a difficult task with twenty pounds or more of gear on.
At the end of the day we grabbed a beer at the parent resort of the dive shop, Nakia, and talked about what a great time we had and how much better it was than the previous day. I even shirt swapped our dive master for his Taveuni Ocean Sports t-shirt that costs FJD$30 at the shop.
We had dinner at Taveuni Dive Resort, a delicious pizza, and talked mostly about diving.
The earlier trip with my brother and sister to the waterfalls at Bouma will be in Part 2 of this Taveuni series. Look out for it next week or subscribe here to my monthly newsletter.