Island Hopping Budget Resorts Through the Yasawa Archipelago, Fiji
When I think of Fiji I picture palm-fringed islands, with white-sand beaches, dotting deep azure waters, abundant with bright coral and tropical fish — and after not getting my perfect South Pacific escape on Robinson Crusoe Island, I was Yasawa-bound and on the hunt for my ultimate dream island.
The Yasawa Island archipelago comprises of twenty ancient volcanic islands spanning 135 kilometers in the North-Western division of Fiji. Four of the islands have dramatic summits as high as 600 meters above sea level and provide panoramic views of the area. The Yasawas are picture-perfect, boasting beautiful beaches and bright blue waters, with plenty of sport and cultural activities to partake in.
Visiting and staying on the islands is possible through Awesome Fiji, via their bright yellow ferry-boat named the ‘Yasawa Flyer’. It departs daily from the marina in Denarau and makes a daily round-trip to the end of the archipelago and back. Tickets can be purchased through travel agents in Nadi or directly from Awesome Fiji at the port in Denarau.
Awesome Fiji provides different combos and packages depending on your budget and can last anywhere from 5-21 days. There are plenty of options with over thirty resorts to choose from, whether you’re on a tight backpacker budget, or looking for a luxurious stay on a private island.
We were thrilled at the idea of hopping island-to-island as we pleased, so we purchased one of their Bula passes. They have two options; the Bula pass which includes transfers on the Yasawa Flyer only (ideal if you’re going to the more upscale resorts), or the Bula Combo pass―the one we purchased―includes your accommodation (at select resorts) and meals as well.
All of the resorts vary from 1-coconut to 5-coconuts ― cocounuts being the equivalent to ‘star ratings’ ― and their combo passes are available for either the 1 or 2 coconut resorts (I went with 2), leaving you with a handful to chose from. The lower rated resorts have dorm rooms, but also the option to stay in a private bure. Since we were two people, we chose to stay in a bure for a little bit more money.
It has changed a little bit since I was there, some resorts have moved up or down a notch, but the concept remains the same. On the Bula combo pass you have the option to upgrade to any of the higher rated resorts if you want to splurge on a slightly more luxurious evening. You’re able to book your hotel stays on board the Flyer as you go, though it’s suggested that you pre-book your first couple night’s stay ahead of time.
Day 1: A Long Bumpy Journey and Some New Friends
We chose to ride the ferry all the way to the end of the chain, giving us the opportunity to check out the other islands and chat with other island-hoppers to scope out the best resorts to visit.
It was a long five-hour ride to the end of the line, given that you have to stop at every island for passengers to transfer on and off via taxi boats. We hit a tropical storm about three-quarters of the way there and were crashing against massive waves for half an hour before it cleared up to sun-shiny skies and calm waters. It got a bit rough there for a while ― it may not be suitable for the weak-stomached ― but at long last, we were welcomed to Coral View Resort on Tavewa Island with a lunch prepared and waiting for us.
We sat with Teresia and Karle, a Finnish couple who had taken five months off life to honeymoon around the world, and became fast friends. We spent the evening chatting and playing a Swedish card game named Triumph. I came out on top beating the Fins, a Scottish girl and even the Swede. It was a fun evening, the staff did some dancing and games to entertain everyone, though I noticed this isn’t an everyday occurrence on the islands.
Day 2: Visiting Sawa-I-Lau Limestone Cave
We stayed at Coral View on Tavewa Island for two nights. The name pretty much explains the highlight of this resort, it sits on a beautiful patch of coral, which they are very careful not to disturb when approaching by boat. Lucky for me, I was carrying around snorkeling gear (’cause who doesn’t?) in my backpack and spent hours each day following their buoyed pathway, swimming with the fish and admiring the colours and shapes of the sea life.
There are plenty of activities you can do from Coral View, we chose to pay $10 for a visit to Sawa-I-Lau limestone cave. A Fijian man picked us up, along with our new Finnish friends and taxied us over on his speed boat. I would have gone just for the boat ride, it lasted a good twenty minutes, zipping over sparkling water, passing a spectacular scenery of islands, some of which are home to the most exclusive resorts and remote island villages.
You arrive at a beach with a staircase leading up and into the limestone islet where you jump into a pool of water with sunlight pouring in through a sky-lit opening. The guide goes through first, disappearing underneath the water then illuminates the passage as you dive down about 30cm, depending on the tide, and 1.5m along to enter the dark cavern where only the guide’s flashlight provides minimal visibility.
We swam along behind him to the end of the narrowing tunnel before making our way back to the pool we came from. He teases you about eels, which gave me the heebie-jeebies, I get really uncomfortable swimming in water when I can’t see anything! Who knows what is waiting to bite your toes off…
Emerging from the cave, we were met with the most inviting water and sunshine, among the fifteen or so people on the excursion, not one could resist from plunging immediately into the ocean and swimming around until our boat drivers whisked us away. There were a few Fijian women on the beach selling handicrafts, but I was too distracted by the warm, bathtub-like water that I didn’t get a chance to shop.
Day 3: the Blue Lagoon That Wasn’t
The next day we checked out, but decided to buy a $5 ticket to go visit the blue lagoon in the morning as a short little excursion. At the time I wasn’t aware of the famous “Blue Lagoon” movie set in Fiji and didn’t realize that we had actually paid to visit another island with an upscale resort which had been named after the movie. Albeit beautiful; white powdery sand on a long curving beach and deeply saturated blue water, twasn’t a lagoon, AND ― the movie wasn’t even filmed there! It was actually filmed on the neighbouring private island, Nanuya Levu.
Can you understand my befuzzlement here? I was expecting a lagoon.
And, so, our driver dropped us off, the few who had partaken in the excursion, before taking off and leaving us on a deserted island with a closed resort. Save for a few maintenance staff, the beach was ours.
It felt like paradise ― that is, until it started to pour rain and we all huddled under the sole palm tree providing any shade, along with our backpacks because we had checked out of our hotel earlier that morning ― until we all eventually surrendered our soaking wet selves into the water. We swam and snorkeled around in the hard tropical rainfall, embracing the warm water and ignoring the inconvenience of our now drenched luggage.
It was a shame to see that since this resort is more upscale, they’ve destroyed their reef while hauling in tourists on fancy cruise ships. In that way the one and two coconut-rated hotels were better for their dedication to being eco-conscious and taking care to preserve their island and beach’s well-being.
Back at Coral View, we laid the contents of our backpacks out on the grass while waiting for the Flyer to arrive, only for it to get rained on again by the unpredictable storms that seem to appear out of nowhere. Our speed boat had to taxi us to the Flyer in the rain ― and, with all the commotion of people coming and going, coupled with us trying to book our evening’s stay ― our new Finnish friends were gone at the snap of a finger, and we never got to bid them farewell.
Such is the reality of travel: people come in and out of your life at the drop of a hat, and you have some of your greatest memories with folk you hardly know. You blink and they’re gone, never to be seen again ― or sometimes you do see them, and then it’s just awesome!
Day 4: Coral at Korovou and the Chief’s Son
Apart from lazing on beaches and in hammocks, a large portion of my time in the Yasawas was spent snorkeling and subsequently attempting to remove the buckets of water that seeped into my ears and flooded my head. Many of the resorts offer added excursions such as shark dives and swimming with manta rays, but I felt the need to carry snorkel gear around the world with me, so I took the opportunity to use it and not spend the extra cash on activities. Some of the resorts offer snorkeling gear free of charge or for a very small rental fee, so you don’t need to be like me and carry your own around.
Our third night’s stay was a bit of a splurge, spending ten dollars extra (whoa!) to stay at a 3-cocounut resort called Korovou Eco-Tour Resort on Naviti Island, towards the middle of the chain. I loved this resort because it sits in a vast bay surrounded by high cliffs. The island chief’s son, Nick, takes guests out in the water and guides them through the maze of coral sitting in their bay. Nobody was around when I wanted to go, so he took me out alone, showing me all the best spots, and teaching me to dive a few meters down for primo viewing.
Nick is a really friendly islander, like most Fijians, and he confessed his deep desire to find a foreigner to be his girlfriend so he could leave. As tempting as the island life is, Nick only gets paid $50/month, and said it’s near impossible for him to escape on that kind of money. He reads all the magazines left behind and lusts, much like us travelers, to go and explore the world. I didn’t only hear this from Nick, many of the staff on Robinson Crusoe shared the same desire to marry a Western woman for this reason.
The grass is never greener on the other side I suppose.
Day 5 & 6: Waya Lailai vs. Kuata, Unwelcome Guests, and A Pleasant Goodbye
The flaw with the island hopping pass is that you can’t book your stays while at the resorts, you have to get back on the Flyer to book your next stay ― unless you’ve planned it ahead of time ― which many people do, and as such, some of the more popular places sell out quickly.
Beachcomber is the most popular ‘party’ island and needs to be booked in advance if you’re into that.
We asked around for suggestions from others as to where to stay, but by the end our options were a little limited and so we ended up staying at Waya Lailai by recommendation. Unfortunately, after the first evening there was no room left so we had to hop across the water to Kuata ― which despite others’ opinions actually turned out to be a more enjoyable stay.
Kuata had private bures, while Waya Lailai had a lodge containing six attached rooms; the food was tastier and more plentiful at Kuata while Waya Lailai served bland, sparse portions; the beach at Kuata was much nicer and bigger, with clear, swimmable waters whereas Waya Lailai had murky, uninviting waters ― it turned out to be all around better, contradicting the suggestions received from other people. We grumbled at first for having to pack everything up and move, consequently taking time out of our day, but in the end were happy for the switch and ended our first evening on Kuata with an excellent beach bonfire, accompanied by a great crowd of people and cold Fijian Bitters.
The last evening on Kuata we were met with an influx of Australian eighteen year-olds on their summer vacation chanting the usual “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – oi, oi, oi!” which put a slight damper on things. There’s no way to really avoid this happening, so there’s no point in complaining about it ― it’s just the reality of the backpacker and budget crowd sometimes. Besides, they can occasionally be fun ― though in this case they were not.
The smart thing about starting at the far end and finishing closer to shore was that we got almost the entire last day to soak up the sun and enjoy a few cocktails before heading back to Viti Levu. The Flyer came an hour earlier than expected and we had to rush into our taxi boat without paying our bar tab. The staff said we could pay on board ― we couldn’t ― and so we still owe Kuata $48. I feel bad about this… but I’ll pay them back someday.
We bid the islanders farewell and were off in our taxi boat to meet the Flyer when suddenly ― as if to come wish us goodbye ― a pod of six dolphins encircled our little boat as we approached the ferry, they were so close we could touch them! My camera was packed away in my backpack so I just embraced the moment rather than fumbling around and missing it. They continued to swim along next to us once on board, until eventually veering off towards the Mamanucas.
A parting gift from the Fijian waters.
Tips & Logistics for Island Hopping
Bring snacks and water; water is not provided, and food is limited so bring extra of both if you don’t want your bar tab going through the roof.
Bring at least $25-30 cash per day; some islands accept credit card, but not all. Bring extra cash for activities, excursions, souvenirs, drinks, and food.
Book your hops ahead of time; as mentioned above, the most popular resorts fill up fast, so if you have your eye on a specific location book it right away.
Internet; take this opportunity to unplug because there is NO internet. At least on the budget islands there wasn’t, the pricier ones might have it. Ask with Adventure Fiji to be certain.
Optional Activities; snorkeling, diving, village visits, hiking, swimming with manta rays, Sunday church (some islands), and more!
Prices and information change frequently; check their website for the most up to date prices and packages. This brochure is current as of December 2013:
A lot of time is spent hassling about to check out and move to a new island that you don’t get the opportunity to partake in all the activities, so I’m wondering:
Would you prefer to hop around or stay put on one island to explore it more thoroughly?