The heart of Fiji's 333 islands (106 are inhabited) is a 4,020-square-mi island of verdant mountainsides encasing volcanic peaks and lush river valleys running out to barrier reefs. The English-speaking former British colony is home to 75% of the country's population and Fiji's only two cities. The inhabitants are a unique mix of Melanesian Fijians (about 51%), Indo-Fijians, whose ancestors came from India as indentured laborers (about 44%), and a small number of Europeans, Chinese, and other Melanesians. Although not heavily industrialized, Fiji is a nation of "shop-keepers," with an eager, white-collar economy epitomized by storefronts, table service, and taxi cabs. The country as a whole is seeing a trend toward urbanization; cities and larger towns tend to have large Indo-Fijian populations while most Melanesians remain in the same close-knit villages and even the same houses inhabited by their families since long before European contact. Fiji's Melanesians have a strong tradition of hospitality in complement to their communal lifestyle and are considered to be among the friendliest people in the world.
The indigenous people called their land "Viti" but Europeans first learned of the islands from Tongans, who referred to it as "Feejee." Viti Levu translates as "Great Fiji," and as the mainland, it has the economic and intellectual epicenters of the South Pacific in its cosmopolitan capital of Suva and that city's branch of the University of the South Pacific. The sugarcane-and-sugar-train-crossed Lautoka-Ba area is one of the country's two major sugar-producing regions (Fiji's second-largest industry). Fiji's tourism hub rests in quirky Nadi, point of entry for virtually every traveler. A two-lane highway conveys chatty locals on open-air buses between Nadi and Suva and the mellow, inviting villages they call home.
The island's southern half is full of magnificent natural wonders, each within a few hours' drive of every hotel. You can climb millennia-old sand dunes and then surf from the beach, raft, or kayak through a prehistoric setting capped by 300-foot black volcanic rock walls, and swim with sharks as they're fed within one of the world's largest barrier reefs, in Pacific Harbour. You can recount the experience by one of the multiple bars or pools at a huge resort on the Coral Coast. On the urban side, you can have your pick of handicrafts in Nadi, fine-dine on a bevy of cuisines in Suva, feel the local Indo-Fijian vibe by the waterfront in Lautoka, and discover the Melanesian lifestyle around a kava bowl in a village anywhere along the way.
You won't find Fiji's best beaches on Viti Levu, but excursions to the Mamanuca group's lovely sands leave daily from Denarau Island, near Nadi, returning you back in time for Fiji's best restaurants and five-star hotels. Other easy trips are to one of the smaller off-shore islands, where you can watch islanders walk across smoldering coals or just sink your own toes into a warm stretch of sand.