Long before big jets began bringing visitors to Fiji, many affluent local residents built cottages on the dry southwestern shore of Viti Levu as sunny retreats from the rain and high humidity of Suva. When visitors started arriving in big numbers during the early 1960s, resorts sprang up among the cottages, and promoters gave a new, more appealing name to the 70km stretch of beaches and reef on either side of the town of Sigatoka: the Coral Coast. The appellation was apt, for coral reefs jut out like wide shelves from the white beaches that run between mountain ridges all along this picturesque coastline. In most spots the lagoon just reaches snorkeling depth at high tide, and when the water retreats, you can put on your reef sandals or a pair of old sneakers and walk out nearly to the surf pounding on the outer edge of the shelf.
It has dramatic scenery and some of the country’s better historical sites, and it’s a central location from which to see both the Suva and Nadi sides of Viti Levu. Pacific Harbour’s river rafting and other adventures are relatively close at hand. The Coral Coast is divided into three natural regions. Its only town, Sigatoka serves as both commercial and administrative headquarters. A primarily Indian settlement, it earns its living trading with farmers in the Sigatoka Valley, Fiji’s breadbasket.
Well worth a visit if you’re interested in island life and history, the Kalevu South Pacific Cultural Centre, on the Queen’s Road, presents demonstrations of traditional kava processing, handicraft making, lovo (in a hand-dug pit) cooking, and fishing. The cultural exhibits include not just Fiji but Samoa, Kiribati (in the central Pacific), and New Zealand.
The pine forests on either side of the Queen’s Road soon give way to rolling fields of mission grass before the sea emerges at a viewpoint on Yanuca Island. After you pass the resort, watch on the right for the visitor center for Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. Fiji‘s first national park protects high sand hills, which extend for several kms along the coast. About two-thirds of them are stabilized with grass, but some along the shore are still shifting sand (the surf crashing on them is dangerous). Ancient burial grounds and pieces of pottery dating from 5 B.C. to A.D. 240 have been found among the dunes, but be warned: Removing them is against the law. Exhibits in the visitor center explain the dunes and their history.
About 3 km from the sand dunes visitor center, the Queen’s Road enters Sigatoka, the commercial center of the Coral Coast. This quiet, predominantly Indo-Fijian town is perched along the west bank of the Sigatoka River, Fiji‘s longest waterway. The broad, muddy river lies on one side of the main street; on the other is a row of stores. The river is crossed by the Melrose Bridge, built in 1997 and named in honor of Fiji’s winning the Melrose Cup at the Hong Kong Sevens rugby matches. The old bridge it replaced is now for pedestrians only.
From Sigatoka, you can go inland along the west bank of the meandering river, flanked on both sides by a patchwork of flat green fields of vegetables that give the Sigatoka Valley its nickname: “Fiji’s Salad Bowl.” The pavement ends about 1 km from the town; after that, the road surface is poorly graded and covered with loose stones.
Off the Queen’s Road the Kula Eco Park is Fiji‘s only wildlife park. Along the banks of a stream in a tropical forest, it has a fine collection of rainbow-feathered tropical birds and an aquarium stocked with examples of local sea life. Allow 2 hours here, since this is one of the South Pacific’s best places to view local flora and fauna in a natural setting.