Is Suva an overlooked slomad destination? Our 2 months in Fiji's capital city
Updated: Jul 1
We are nearing the end of a little more than two months in Suva, Fiji, the nation's capital. As we prepare to leave for our next stop along our journey, we have been thinking about the upsides and downsides of our stay here. Overall, there have been more upsides than down. The people are wonderful, the lodgings have been spacious, and we've been able to relax and work on projects we enjoy. We hosted our son and daughter-in-law for a lovely visit. We've met a lot of great people. We can't help but feel that Suva is overlooked as a slomad destination. A quick search of the various nomad sites I'm a member of on Facebook reveals no mention of Suva, other than our own posts. In this post, we'll talk about the plusses and minuses of Suva as a slow travel destination.
Cost of living:
Suva is much less expensive than other places we've been so far, but not as inexpensive as Malaysia, Thailand, or Vietnam, from what we've heard. Compared to other places we've been, though, money goes a long way here. For example, we spent 22% less on groceries in June than we did in April, when we were in Auckland. We spent 63% less eating out in June than we did in April. This means overall we spent 47% less on food the month we lived in Suva compared to the month we lived in Auckland. Included in our groceries both places were nice bottles of wine, good coffee, and some other pricey staples we enjoy. We did eat out more in Auckland, probably due to the incredible variety of extremely good restaurants near our flat there, and a larger kitchen in Suva.
We saw the biggest price difference in our housing. In Auckland, for example, we paid $90USD per night for a small one-bedroom apartment in a good location, near transit and many restaurants and shops. In Suva, we paid $53USD for a very spacious two-bedroom, 1 1/2 bathroom townhouse-style serviced apartment. Our Suva apartment was a bit farther from town - it was about a 25-minute walk to the city center - and our street had no coffee shop (but did have one restaurant, several small convenience stores and a wine shop). Apparently there used to be a coffee shop next door, but it closed during the COVID lockdown. We were on a bus line, but we took taxis because they were so plentiful and so cheap. A ride into the center of town in a cab cost about $5FJD, which is about $2USD, and there was a taxi stand across the street from our flat. We were told the equivalent bus fare is 92 Fiji cents (about 40 cents USD). Additionally, the apartment was serviced, meaning staff cleaned regularly. The apartment staff were extremely nice and accommodating.
There were some downsides to the apartment. While extremely roomy both upstairs and down, it tended to be very dark. All of the windows were equipped with shutters, and when open there were screens. But that meant when the air conditioner needed to be on, the shutters had to be closed. While people here seemed to think 77F was cold, we found it warm, and it often was warmer than that, and humid. So we tended to use the air conditioner a lot. Additionally, the place had high walls, which was great for privacy but didn’t let in much light. So it was kind of like living in a cave – one with lots of lights, but still a cave. If we wanted to have breakfast or coffee out, or generally go to the center of the city, we had to either take a taxi or walk about 25 minutes.
So, on the upside, Suva offers very affordable housing with lots of space, but housing stock appears very limited. At least using the common apps such as Airbnb, VRBO, Booking dot com and Agoda, there was almost nothing available in May and June, when we were here. There might be local sites we were unaware of; in fact, if we return, we’ll probably post a query to the Suva Expats Facebook group for some leads. Below are some photos of our apartment and also a few of the immediate neighborhood.
I did a previous blog post about dining in Suva. After that post, we ate at Tiko’s Floating Restaurant in the harbour. It was terrific – lobster in red curry and grilled salmon, with a nice salad bar. Great atmosphere and good & drinks, but on the higher side. Still we spent $124USD for two that included lobster, a bottle of wine, and dessert. The salmon was perfectly cooked and everything was delicious. There are small grocery stores everywhere, but you have to take a taxi to get to the larger ones. They have mostly what you would want, with some exceptions. The only meat we got that tasted good to us was chicken. And, we had to get used to the idea that just because a grocery might have a particular item several weeks in a row didn’t mean they would have it every time you went. This is an island, and when things run out, they run out. But, there might be new, but different, products the next time. We learned to cook around what we could find.
When we are traveling slow, we don’t need tons of activities to keep us busy. We enjoy walking around, visiting beautiful spots, and doing an occasional tourist thing or two. For that, Suva is great. While the city is a little "gritty" - you see things floating up in high tide, sometimes things like seaweed and coconuts, but sometimes bottles and debris. In low tide, the smell of fish is sometimes very strong when you walk along the shore. You can't swim here because it is a port and does not have nice, clean, sandy beaches. And, to be sure, this is a tropical climate so there are bugs (tiny ants that come inside) and we even saw a big centipede in our kitchen! But, there are sidewalks along much of the ocean, and the natural beauty is stunning.
The Fiji Museum is located in the heart of town, inside a beautiful garden with an outdoor café. The museum is not big, but the exhibits are very interesting. The Grand Pacific Hotel, which has been beautifully restored, has live music, a Saturday evening buffet and a Sunday afternoon high tea. The owner of Victoria Wines and some downtown pubs hosts monthly wine tastings. The one we attended in May was lots of fun, and apparently the first one post-COVID. The Suva Expats Facebook group advertises lots of activities, including ones hosted by the Alliance Francaise, which has cinema nights, trivia nights, and concerts. Because Suva is the capital city, when there are public holidays, there tend to be large celebrations downtown (we were here for two such holidays: Girmit Day and Ratu Sukuna Day, which I wrote about here). There were parades, floats, dances and other activities (although we missed them both holidays - it was raining hard on the days the events were scheduled, and we didn't realize they would take place the following sunny day). There is also an Olympic size pool downtown, which I used, that costs $3FJD per visit, plus an additional $5FJD if you want a locker. ($8FJD is about $3.50USD) There is another Olympic pool near the University of the South Pacific campus but that was closed for renovations while we were here. People said it is a little more modern in facilities.
If you want to venture a bit farther, you can take a taxi to Pacific Harbour, a bit under an hour drive. There, you can swim at beautiful beaches, rent jet skis, or take a boat to Baqa Island where there is snorkeling and cultural activities. A taxi will take you to Pacific Harbour for about $50FJD (about $20USD). There are also tours you can book along the Navua River, in villages or on the river itself to waterfalls. The Colo-i-Suva park is near Suva. We didn’t go because we were told without a guide you can get lost in the trails, which can be challenging. If you do go, I’d recommend you hire a guide. Some people do mountain biking as well, but we did not do that either.
Like a lot of Asian countries where it is hot and humid, Suva has a fair number of indoor malls – several downtown (Tapoo City being the nicest) and some a bit further out. Damodar City has nice restaurants, stores, and a great food court. Laucala Beach has a nice Extra Supermarket and some restaurants, as does Flagstaff. Finally, the downtown market near the port is amazing – so many vendors selling fruits, vegetables, and more fish than I’ve ever seen in one place. Nearby is a local handicraft market. I bought some beautiful Fijian pearls from there. The ones I bought were about $65USD for a necklace and pair of earrings - they are not the super high-grade Fijian pearls you'll pay a couple of thousand for, but I really like the uneven natural look and colors, and the lustre is beautiful. The local tourism board has people who sometimes offer to take you to local shops – which is fine. But beware when one of them brings out ceremonial carved sticks and offers them as a gift. The next thing you know, they’re carving your name and the date on them and asking for some money. That is actually the only scam we witnessed, but it was attempted with us several times.
We had 4G internet most of the time here. You do need to make sure you arrange in advance to purchase the internet. Most landlords only offer it if you arrange to pay for it separately. I overlooked that, and it took a couple of days to get it connected. Ours was $70FJD per month (about $30USD). The speed was plenty fast for both of us to work on our computer projects with few issues, although there were occasions when things were slow. We also streamed movies from our computer to watch on our bigger TV screen with only rare slow-downs. As for the phone, we bought a data-only sim card from Vodafone for $70FJD for both of us combined, which needed to be topped up at the end of the month. I bought an additional 7 days at the end for $8FJD. You can also buy packages for phone use, but our carrier (Google Fi) offers unlimited texts and calls at 20cents (US) per minute, but no data if you are out of the country more than 90 days, so we only bought the data.
The only issue we had was occasional abrupt termination of services. I think this happened half a dozen times in two months. Each time was only for a couple of minutes except once, when we had no power at all for several hours.
Getting around without a car
There is a bus system, and we saw a lot of buses pass. But we’ve seen more taxis in Suva than anywhere we’ve ever been. We’ve never had to wait more than five minutes to hail a cab anywhere we’ve been in the city. The cost for a taxi to travel about a half mile is about $4.50FJD (about $2USD). The downtown area is very walkable, as is anywhere along the ocean front, but once you get about 10 minutes up the hills, it get’s very sprawling with few sidewalks. If you stayed in the more suburban areas of Suva, you’d definitely need a car or take taxis everywhere, as there are few sidewalks.
Stocking up on things we need
Again, this is a small island. You can get things, but we had to query the local expats group to figure out where. You can't take for granted that you can buy anything, anywhere. I couldn't find a small basic ukelele case, for example, at the music store so I ended up ordering one, sending it to our son, and asking him to bring it.
We came to Fiji in the heart of their winter. At this time of year, the weather ranges from about 77F to the high 80s during the day, and can get as low as 66F at night. Local people think it is freezing and often wear hoodies. For us, the temperature if about perfect. It was never too cold to swim in the outdoor pool for me. It does rain a fair bit in Suva, even in the dry season. Suva is on the rainy side of the island. But it rarely rained all day - usually for an hour and then stopped. And when it is clear and sunny, the beauty is marvelous. Also, when it is overcast, you're more likely to see the giant bats (and how cool is that?)
I can’t imagine there would be nicer people anywhere in the world than there are here. We chose Suva because it is not a tourist locale. Rather, this is where ordinary Fijian people live. But we literally never took a walk where people didn’t smile at us with a heartfelt, “Bula!”, and often engaged in conversation with us. Everyone from shop staff, restaurant workers, taxi drivers – you name it – gave us warm smiles and engaging, enthusiastic interactions. When I asked Paul what he liked most about two months in Suva, he said, “the people”. I totally agree. The expat group was very helpful and nice and we enjoyed time with the Takavesi family who helped us when we first arrived.
We think Suva is a great spot for slomads to spend a month or two. We’ve not heard of others staying here. Usually, when slomads stop by Fiji, they – like most European and American travelers – stay at a tourist resort. That's great for a relaxing vacation, but it’s not the same as living in a place like locals live. So if you’d like to experience a more Fijian experience, consider coming to Suva. After all, one Fijian told me, a third of the country’s population lives here. And, they could use the tourist dollars. I was told by a Fijian friend that over 50,000 Fijians work in the tourism industry. Each of them supports at least 3 other people. When COVID hit, that industry shut down completely overnight. Most of the workers returned to their rural villages, where they lived a subsistence life until the country re-opened. Now that the world is opening back up, Fiji would welcome your support. It couldn’t go to a nicer population.
In Fiji, when you arrive in the country, or at a resort, or a Village, you are often greeted by people playing instruments and singing “Bula Maleya”. The song relates to a joint miliary operation with Fijian and Malaysian troops that occurred in 1941, during the South Pacific WWII battles, when both countries were ruled by the British. It is about friendship and collaboration, and has come to stand for a warm and heartfelt welcome. As we leave this beautiful land, you can see me here singing Bula Maleya!
Bula, Maleya kei Viti talega
Cauravou era yalo qaqa
Vosa na wai e vakalasalasa
Ni bula ni bula kece sara.
Nanumi Viti vanua lailai
Nona sasaga me toro cake mai
Tubu ko Viti me rogo edai
Vuravura Maleya me kilai.
E da sa mai veikune tale
Me noda tu na lagilagi
E da sa cibicibitaka yani
Yaca i Viti vua na ranadi.
Greetings, Malaya and Fiji also
All the young men are very strong
Talking to the sea, gives me happiness
Hello, hello everyone.
Remember Fiji, a small country
With a will to move forward
Fiji will grow to be famous
For Malaya to be known in the world.
We found each other again
We will celebrate gloriously
We patriotically declare
The name of Fiji for the honour of the Queen.