We know of its superb white sand beaches, reputation as the soft coral capital of the world, friendly locals and swaying palm trees, but first time visitors will find Fiji packs plenty of surprises – especially if you venture beyond the resort confines.
1 Fiji time is a thing
Things happen in Fiji, but with no particular urgency. Fiji time is used to explain away everything from unexpected delays, to when things don't quite go as planned. Your tour didn't start on time? Ah, Fiji time. Your snorkel trip was meant to leave at 10, but it's now closer to 11? You got it - Fiji time. To westerners, Fiji time can be frustrating and baffling. If you can, try and embrace it. Before you know it, you'll have slowed down a notch or two, will leave your watch on your bedside table, and will see what the day brings. As the Fijians say, "no hurry, no worries".
2 You'll never feel so welcomed at an airport anywhere in the world
How many airports in the world employ a band of smiling locals in floral shirts to serenade you on guitar and ukulele as you pass through immigration, or as you sadly depart for home? What a great way to start (and end) your holiday.
3 You'll say Bula a lot
Bula (pronounced Boo-lah) is the national greeting. Wherever you go, locals will holler Bula in welcome. Its literal meaning is "life," and means anything from hello, goodbye, welcome, love and more. Fijians also say "bula" when someone sneezes in the same way we say bless you. Say it with gusto, just like the Fijians.
4 Fijians are amazing with children.
Fijians adore children and will love them as their own. Often Fijians are like big kids themselves. There's nothing more endearing than hearing a grown Fijian man giggle. Make use of the resort's fabulous kid's clubs and nannies; you can feel confident your kids are in the best of hands. Or just enjoy the interaction between Fijians and kids - it's heart warming.
5 Machete wielding men are no threat
The first time you see it, you will do a double take, as my friend Sharon did on her first visit to Fiji. I'm talking about large, muscly men casually carrying a machete as they amble down the road. In many destinations, understandably, this would be incredibly disconcerting, but in Fiji there's no need to feel threatened or scared. The man walking with the machete is typically a farmer (like the man we came across), or worker who has been slashing the lush vegetation. So simply smile and say Bula. We ended up taking a photograph of our machete-carrying farmer and his dog. Likewise in Fiji, many houses don't have doors, buses don't have windows and police don't carry guns. You're literally safe as houses.
6 He, she? Same, same but different
There is no gender specific word in Fijian so often they say "he" when referring to a woman and vice versa. It is very confusing. Fijians also pronounce an 'n' or 'm' in words that aren't spelt with one. Nadi, the main entry point for travelers arriving into Fiji, is for example pronounced "Nandi', Toberua is "Tom-barua". Likewise, some words spelt with a 'c' are pronounced as 'th'. For example, moce (goodbye) is pronounced "mo-they".
7 Is it this way?
Be warned when asking Fijians for directions. If a Fijian indicates it's "that side", it means vaguely in that direction with no clue to the actual distance. "That side" could mean 50 metres away, or 10 kilometres away. Fijians are typically ambiguous communicators, and it can be difficult to get a straight answer. This is believed to be due the fact there is only 10,000 odd words in the Fijian language. Non verbal communication plays a much larger part in daily life. Raising your eyebrows once can hail a taxi from the other side of the road, a single eyebrow raise has a different meaning altogether; while raising your eyebrows twice is different again!
8 If it's Sunday, everyone's in church
In Fiji, the number of churches along any one road is staggering. Sundays are a day of rest and subsequently it's also the quietest time of the week. Locals tend to dress up to go to church, and services can go on for hours. Most people sit on large grass woven mats on the floor inside open air buildings. The singing is impressive and heart felt. One time when visiting a church with a Fijian friend, I witnessed a public confession. A young couple stood at the front of the church and confessed their sin (living together before marriage). The pastor then prayed for the couple, and they were accepted back into the flock.
9 Rugby is also a religion
It doesn't matter what's going on, if Fiji are playing an international game of rugby, you'll think the Apocalypse has happened. I wouldn't be surprised to see a tumble weed roll down the main street. Men, women and children will gather in one location to watch the game together. Many shops will close, tools will be downed, people will call in sick. And if Fiji wins the rugby sevens (Fiji are reigning world champions), the celebrations will continue well into the next day.
10 Fiji really is incredibly beautiful
Swaying palm trees, white sand beaches, crystal clear waters, beautiful coral and fish filled lagoons, Fiji really is postcard perfect. The cities themselves are not particularly attractive (give Nadi a wide berth; the capital Suva, while not particularly beautiful, has more to offer), and the mainland beaches are hit and miss. Set sail for the outer islands however and the scenery is gob smackingly beautiful.
11 Cousins are not encouraged to speak to one another
While it's acceptable for cousins to interact when they are young, as they get older they are expected to restrain from speaking with one another. Many of Fiji's older generation adamantly believe cousins of the opposite sex should not speak at all. In some parts of Fiji brothers and sisters do not associate socially, have limited interaction, and only speak to each other indirectly (i.e. through someone else). These customs were introduced to prevent inbreeding.
12 You'll try kava and probably won't like it
When visiting Fiji, you will have the opportunity to take part in a traditional kava ceremony – an important cultural and social custom. When receiving kava, a drink made from the bare root of a pepper tree, you clap once with a cupped hand, drink in one gulp and then clap three times. Typically to partake of kava you sit on the ground. Kava frankly tastes like muddy dish water, and produces a mild tingly sensation in the mouth. Give it a go though; it's lots of fun to try.
13 Winter? What winter?
The lowest the temperature drops to in Fiji is to about 18 degrees at night. Fiji has a mild tropical climate throughout the year. From May to October the weather is considered the best, with little rain. From November through to April the weather can be hot and humid with the occasional tropical downpour. This is also cyclone season. Having said that, I've visited Fiji many, many times in cyclone season and never experienced more than rain. In winter, the dry season, I've seen Fijians wearing beanies, layered in jumpers, shivering and complaining about the cold. This is the busiest time of the year (July and August) tourist wise, when Australians and Kiwis escape the worst of our cold weather back home. The waves and diving are also considered the best in the dry season.
14 You can be in two time zones at once
Fiji is spread across the international date line and on the island of Taveuni, you can actually place one foot in one time zone, and one foot in the other. Also on the lush island of Taveuni, aptly named the "Garden Island" you can slide down a gushing waterfall. It's heaps of fun.
15 They used to eat people
They really did. Located in Suva's Botanical Gardens, the Suva Museum houses an archaeological collection dating back 3,700 years and cultural objects such as war clubs, cannibal forks and the remains of Reverend Baker's boots - the only non-Fijian missionary known to have been killed and eaten along with seven others in what was Fiji's last act of cannibalism (1867). Reverend Baker made the mistake of removing a comb from a Fijian chief's head (touching a chief's head, or any Fijian's head, is still a big no no, but thankfully no longer punishable by becoming dinner). At village craft and souvenir stalls it's still possible to buy four-pronged wooden forks – a nod to Fiji's cannibalistic past.
See also: Fiji's restaurant revolution
16 Village people
Most Fijians (aside from Indo Fijians) still live in traditional villages in a multicultural society that hasn't been neutralised by mass tourism. When visiting a village, it is customary to present a gift of yaqona (kava root), and you should dress conservatively with shoulders and knees covered (also remove your hat or sunglasses from your head as per #15 above). Expect traditional dancing and to learn about the customs and villager's way of life. Fijians rely on the village to support each other. If a couple cannot conceive, it's not uncommon for a cousin or another member of the extended family to give one of their children to raise as their own. Large families with four or five children, are also common.
17 Tinder hasn't caught on
Fijians have a much more charming way of letting others know whether they're single or spoken for. The ubiquitous frangipani is worn by both burly men and graceful Fijian women tucked behind the ear to let others know their relationship status - right side if you're married, left if you're unattached. Men also often wear sulus (basically a skirt) and yet still manage to look incredible manly.
18 The people are the happiest on earth
Fijians are the happiest people on earth and there are statistics to prove it. In a 2014 global poll, Fiji was by far the happiest country in the world with 93 per cent of respondents saying that they were either happy or very happy. Analysts believe Fijians are happy because they have strong social connections, with life revolving around an extended family unit and a chieftain. Fijians are also surrounded by natural beauty, have an abundance of fresh food and clean water, and they love to sing and dance. Hang around them for a while and all that happiness is sure to rub off on you.
19 The 'real' Fiji can still be found
Venture off the well worn tourist trail and the real Fiji still exists in small villages and on far flung islands. Even on the main island of Viti Levu, or on popular tourist islands, Fijians still live a traditional life. Heading north, the Vanua Levu islands of Qamea, Rabi and Kioa are smaller, less populated and more in touch with their traditional roots. On the volcanic island of Rabi (pronounced Rumbi) the Micronesian population even speak their own language.
20 It will get under your skin
Pristine and postcard perfect, Fiji's 330 islands are made up of one thousand miles of unspoiled white sand beaches, fabulous coral gardens and azure lagoons. Many are uninhabited. Think wide smiles, soothing melodies on string guitars, incredible snorkeling and diving in world renowned reefs, or simply snoozing away the afternoon in a hammock. Many Australians, myself included, return annually for their Fiji fix. Sure it's a tropical utopia, but it's the people themselves that keep me coming back. When you do return, they will say "welcome home", and you will honestly feel like you are.
*Sheriden Rhodes is a confessed 'Fijiphile' and has visited the islands some 20 odd times. She loves it so much she and her husband married there; barefoot on a deserted beach at sunset. Her family and friends recently helped rebuild a village at Savusavu that was largely destroyed in Cyclone Winston. She considers it her second home.