The Yasawa Islands in Fiji has to be one of the most stunning places in the world. The archipelago of volcanic islands arcs away from Fiji’s mainland in a graceful curve to the north-west. The Islands lie in bluer-than-blue waters, ringed by yellow and white sandy beaches shaded by bright green palms. Under the surface lies some of the world’s best coral reefs where a thousand species of fish, crustaceans, molluscs and things I simply can’t name are waiting to be discovered.
And the best part? Getting there couldn’t be simpler. The Yasawas is not only one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s also one of the easiest places to travel.
The really amazing thing about island hopping in the Yasawas is that it combines all the best parts of independent travel – freedom to explore, setting your own pace, meeting fascinating people, doing whatever strikes your fancy – with the wonderful convenience of all-inclusive package tours – transport that doesn’t take a second thought, helpful staff who can organise anything for you, seriously, you don’t even have to carry your own bag. And it manages to boast all of this while retaining a pristine natural environment, not feeling overcrowded, and with hardly a whisper of modern commercialisation.
Um, sign me up please?
I spent a week island hopping in the Yasawas at the start of last month. Admittedly I have a bit of a head start on most people getting there, because I’m actually residing in Fiji at the moment, so getting to the departure port was a simple matter of four hours on a public bus one Friday evening after work. But if you’re coming from further afield, it’s almost as simple – the boat leaves from Nadi, which also hosts Fiji’s main international airport.
So bright and early Saturday morning, I rocked up at Port Denerau ready to board the Yasawa Flyer, a big yellow catamaran that does daily trips up and down the Yasawa archipelago. In fact, the company who runs the Yasawa Flyer, Awesome Adventures, actually picked me up from my hostel and took me to the port as part of my ticket – like I said, this could not be simpler. I checked my bag and grabbed a roti parcel (my favourite Fijian street food) while we waited to board, enjoying the sunshine and the variety of sailing ships docked at port – there was even a 1920s vintage wooden sailing ship!
Before long, we were cruising out into the Pacific. The Yasawa Flyer route goes through the Mamanuca Islands first, then heads north-west to the Yasawas. This means that your transport is basically a beautiful sight-seeing tour as well. The gorgeous sand atolls of Beachcomber, Bounty and South Sea Islands are emerald specks in a turquoise ocean, and the blue water all around looks so inviting you almost want to dive in from the sight-seeing deck. As you head north to the more mountainous Yasawas, the terrain gets more rugged, with jagged, volcanic hills reaching up towards the sky. Depending on the season, these will either be jewel green, or an interesting dry brown as the deciduous trees shed their leaves for winter, ringed by the evergreen palms just behind the many pristine beaches. I was there during (southern hemisphere) winter, and though the brown landscape wasn’t what I had expected, there was a rough, rugged beauty to it that I fell in love with.
Before I knew it, two and half hours had passed and it was time for me to disembark. There are resorts scattered right along the archipelago, and the boat stops at all of them. At each one, a small flock of water taxis greet the big yellow catamaran, offloading passengers and their luggage, collecting supplies, and accepting new guests in a well-ordered, almost clockwork fashion. All you have to do is point your luggage out to a crew member, and they’ll make sure it gets on the right boat – no worries about trying to swing your backpack out over the ocean! (Admittedly they do occasionally leave a bag behind, but they’ll get it back to you when they come back past in the afternoon.)
Now at this point, let me say: if the idea of a resort brings forth ideas of screaming kids, plastic mini-golf, sitting by the artificial pool, and you can’t work out why I’d be advocating such an inauthentic experience, relax. The resorts in the Yasawas are nothing like this.
My first stop was Barefoot Island resort, on Drawaqa island about half way up the archipelago. We boarded into our little tinny and the captain expertly steered us through the shallow reefs around the corner to a gorgeous yellow-white sandy beach. Half a dozen staff members stood front and centre, flowers in their hair, grinning and singing us the Fijian welcome song. On instructions from our captain, when the song was finished we all yelled, “BULA!” to delighted expressions from the group serenading us.
I was assigned to a dorm room in a basic but gorgeous little beachside bure (cottage) on the Sunrise Beach. The other two girls in my room were both staying on the island for a few weeks volunteering with the Vinaka Fiji voluntourism project. Voluntourism is a topic with mixed reviews, but I think Vinaka Fiji seem to be one of the groups doing it right. The volunteers and staff I met were certainly great people with a great attitude. (I’m planning on a voluntourism post in the future explaining exactly what I think “doing it right” means and offering tips on how to avoid operators that exploit local communities and volunteers alike and do far more harm than good. But that’s another story.)
For the next five days, I did whatever I felt like doing. I got my open water diving certificate, swam with manta rays, helped out with marine conservation, walked to the top of the island for an incredible view, partied with new friends, lay on the beach, got an EPIC sunburn, floated in an inner tube across the reef, snorkelled, spent hours talking to people, lay in a hammock and read, and just generally had an absolute ball. When the drums were beaten, I went to the bar and ate. When I wanted a beer or a cocktail, they were always available. When I wanted absolute privacy, all I had to do was choose my own beach.
Seriously, it’s basically heaven.
Life here moves at a different pace. There’s no commercialism or up-sell, no touts or shops or anything. The staff are chatty and friendly, happy to tell you about their village, their families, their plans for the future. The most complicated decisions of the day revolve around choosing a bit of sand to park yourself on, deciding to go with Fiji Bitter or Fiji Gold, picking between another pancake or a big helping of tropical fruit. Meals are set and all included, with special needs happily catered to.
After a few days, I decided I wanted to see the northern Yasawas. Honestly if I could, I would have stayed for a month, but sadly this time I had an office to get back to after my week away. I’d heard the Sawa-i-Lau caves were spectacular (and I really like caves), and people rave about the blue lagoon, so it was time to go see them.
Continuing on my Yasawa island hopping adventure was incredibly simple. I went to reception and asked them to get Blue Lagoon Resort on the phone – they were absolutely happy to. Blue Lagoon were full up, it turned out, so I asked them to call Oarsmans Bay for me instead (which shares the same beach as Blue Lagoon anyway). I booked in over the phone for the following night, then simply boarded the Yasawa Flyer when it arrived the next morning. You can buy tickets on board the Flyer, they just require you to have already booked your next accommodation too (and if you haven’t they can do it for you from the boat).
Can you say easy?
Saying goodbye to Barefoot was actually really sad. Although I’d only been there a few days, it felt like much longer, and it was sad to say goodbye to my new friends. But further adventure awaited me…
The boat ride up to Nacula Island in the northern Yasawas was even more beautiful than the trip to Drawaqa had been. The ocean sparkled, and what people say about the blue lagoon turned out to be entirely true – I have never seen so many shades of blue. It was just incredible.
I boarded my water taxi to Oarsmans – the only new guest arriving this time. I was greeted with a drink, a song, lunch and the news that I had been upgraded to a private bure with my own double bed – sweet! And once again, I had some difficult choices to make – which piece of pristine sand would I relax on first?
Oarsmans was quieter than Barefoot, but with a lovely community vibe. It’s owned and operated by a local village, and the people are absolutely charming. But the real standout here is the beach. Long and white with gently lapping waves, the sand is so soft you almost want to forgo the bure and camp out right there. Kat and Matt, an awesome German couple I met there who had been travelling Fiji for several months, proclaimed it the finest beach in Fiji – and they were comparing it to beaches in more remote places such as Savusavu and even the Lau Group. Pretty high praise – and totally deserved.
Another highlight of my time on Nacula Island was my stop at Traveller’s Tea House. I spent an afternoon hiking up the ridge and over the island to Nabua and Safe Landing resorts, which was a really interesting walk, to find myself at Traveller’s Tea House. It’s the only cafe outside of the resorts in the whole Yasawa archipelago, and it’s utterly charming. It’s run by Bill, who bakes a cake every day sells big slices with mugs of tea and coffee between 3pm and 5pm. The day I visited, it was a banana and chocolate cake – a big slice still warm out of the oven, with gooey chocolate icing. Sitting at the tables under the basic roof, gazing out at the ocean and soaking in the sunlight, it was probably one of my favourite afternoon teas ever.
All too soon, my week island hopping in the Yasawas was drawing to a close and it was time to head south again. Back to the Flyer once again, as it cruised its way down through the islands, past beaches of unsurpassed beauty. To cap off the ease and simplicity of the trip, they even shuttle you back to the hostel or hotel of your choice, saving you the bus fare and the need to think about how to get there. This really is as simple as travel gets, and yet you still never lose the independent, do-it-my-own-way feel.
My top tips for island hopping in the Yasawas:
- Book the first resort and the first leg of your boat trip in advance, then make it up as you go along.
- Don’t bother with a Bula Pass unless you want to change resort every day or two. If you’ll be staying put more than moving around, it’s better value to just pay as you go. (But absolutely do travel with Awesome Adventures on the Yasawa Flyer – it’s a really, really great experience.)
- Talk to everyone – other travellers, but also locals and resort staff. They’re really interesting! (And please, don’t patronise them by speaking overly simplistically as I saw some people do. They may have an accent and speak with different sentence structures, but they understand your English just fine.)
- Enjoy the relaxed pace. Allow time to move slowly, and make the most of it.
Do you have anything to add to the list? Or any questions I could help with? Let me know below! 🙂