Fiji may attract headlines for its natural beauty, but its culture shouldn't be ignored. From food and drink to village life, there is plenty to explore...
Food is one of the great pleasures of travelling, and while resorts offer up a wide variety of international cuisines, there are plenty of tasty local offerings to enjoy.
When you think Pacific islands, there's a good chance you think of coconut palms and an abundance of fish. Fijian cuisine very sensibly puts these two together with great results. Lolo (coconut cream) is served with a wide variety of dishes as a sauce base. The tastiest of these is kokoda, where fish is marinated in lime and lolo, and given a chilli kick to set things off. Cassava is a popular side dish.
The biggest treat that Fiji offers hungry travellers is a lovo banquet. Lovo is an underground oven; whole chicken, joints of meat, and fish wrapped in banana leaves, are placed over hot coals, then completely covered to steam under the ground. Most resorts offer this.
Fiji has a good line of local brews (beer lovers will enjoy a chilled bottle of Fiji Gold or Fiji Bitter), but if there is one drink that symbolises the nation it has to be yaqona. Grog, as it is often called, is made from the ground yaqona root. But this is not a drink to be simply sipped for refreshment; it is a whole social event with its own ritual culture. Joining a yaqona session is an essential experience for anyone visiting Fiji.
Yaqona drinkers sit on the floor around a wooden bowl called a tanoa, in which the yaqona is mixed with water. A coconut shell cup called a bilo is passed around, and drinkers clap three times before downing the contents in one go (jokes about whether you want your yaqona served 'high tide' or 'low tide' are common). As you pass the bilo back to the server, everyone claps again.
Yaqona has a slightly earthly taste and acts as a mild stimulant in the same way as a strong espresso, though sleepiness can follow after a long session. The grog is drunk until the tanoa is empty, but foreign visitors can be politely excused after accepting at least the first bilo – yaqona drinking can be an all-night affair.
While many visitors to Fiji are happy to enjoy its many resorts, if you want to find the heart of Fijian culture you need to visit its villages, where long-standing cultural traditions are still at their strongest.
There is a definite etiquette to visiting a village, and though locals are very forgiving of accidental faux pas, it's often good to visit with a guide. A first place to start is with sevusevu, a gift offered to the village head for your visit – some good quality yaqona is a good place to start. In traditional villages, both men and women should wear a sarong or sulu (the Fijian wrapped skirt). Take off your hat and sunglasses as the head is regarded as sacred.
While Fijian villages today have plenty of modern buildings, thatched houses (called bures) are still common. The village of Navala, in Viti Levu's Nausori highlands, still consists entirely of thatched bures and is undoubtedly the best place in the country to get a picture of traditional life. Visitors are welcomed.
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