Twenty reasons to visit Suva
1 FIJI BUT NOT AS YOU KNOW IT
When it comes to Fijian urban life, most visitors never make it past Nadi, the city in which international planes land. From there, they quickly head to any number of resorts on Denarau Island or Viti Levu's Coral Coast, or to outer islands.
Suva is the capital and quite unlike Nadi, which at its centre is a ramshackle series of basic provision and souvenir shops. Suva has pockets of grandeur, beauty and history. You can't really say you know a place till you know its capital. Suva reveals much about this island nation.
2 SPORTING LIFE
On any given day there'll be a high standard rugby union game being played at Albert Park, a fine green strip in the centre of the city with the Grand Pacific Hotel at one end and a hill at the other. Sometimes, you might also see the national team training.
Union is religion in Fiji and Albert Park is home to the oldest provincial league in the country. At the end of a hot day, sitting on the grass under a tree, the grounds bathed in golden light, watching the locals play with unbridled enthusiasm is about as Fiji as it gets.
3 THE HINTERLAND
The Princes Road runs inland to the Colo-I-Suva State Forest and provides an easy loop back into Suva, as it connects with the Kings Road. There's a different feel to life up here; the air is cooler, the vegetation more rain forest-suited and the vistas are not of ocean, but of deep valleys with rivers and creeks running through them and houses and farms terraced up the steep rises.
On Sunday, you'll see families walking to and from church dressed in their best. There's a road into Colo-I-Suva (pronounced tholo-ee-Suva) with an entry booth and guard. Inside, there are nature walks through rainforest and cool, deep swimming holes where people dive off rocks and swim off ropes. Be sure not to leave valuables in the car. (You can leave them with the park guard.)
4 FIVE PRINCES
Suva is home to a fabulous heritage hotel, the Five Princes. It's a great place to stay and get in touch with some Fiji history. Originally the home of the Australian Gatty family who founded the national airline, it features Suva's first swimming pool in extensive grounds of well maintained lawn and manicured garden. The 1920-built manor has a few elegant guest rooms, and the property includes garden bures and a villa.
There's an onsite restaurant which serves a tasty and convivial dinner for overnight guests and walk up visitors. The owners, Tarei and Roderic, are warm and charming hosts. See fiveprinceshotel.com. (The Grand Pacific Hotel is undergoing extensive renovation and will reopen in 2014 in time for its centenary.)
If the weekend comes around and you've had your fill of lazing on a beach, Suva has some fun clubs. The crowd is generally a mix of locals, expats, backpackers and other travellers.
Traps nightclub, O'Reilly's, Onyx and Rectangles are the picks. Don't expect anything fancy or too sophisticated, but do expect some dancing, pool-playing and decent cocktails.
Some fine remnants of colonial architecture remain in the capital. Narrow Cumming Street has a history as colourful as its rainbow-hued wooden buildings. It was the colonial social hub (including the red light district) until a fire destroyed it in the early 20th century and it became a market square.
Today's verandah-shaded street is one of the city's most popular shopping strips. You can't get into Government House, the president of Fiji's official residence, but it's a grand old building to look at and there's always a statue-still guard at the gate resplendent in red coat and fancy white sulu.
You can visit the Suva Municipal Library, though. It dates back to the early 20th century when the American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie was funding the construction of libraries around the world.
The Fiji Museum doubles as a place documenting Fiji's archaeological, linguistic, political and cultural history as well as a contemporary Fijian art gallery.
Kids will love getting grossed out by the impressive displays of Fijian tribal weapons and cannibal forks. There are fishing displays, arts and crafts and documents relating to colonial life. Head upstairs to see some fine examples of Fijian contemporary art. See fijimuseum.org.fj.
8 YACHT CLUB
The Royal Suva Yacht Club was founded in 1940 and is an atmospheric place for a meal or a sundowner. The club is fronted by a large lawn beer garden right on the harbour offering beautiful tropical sunset views. Inside, memorabilia abounds.
Fiji's oldest pilot boat, possibly the oldest Fiji-made sailboat, is moored at the RYSC. It's also terrific to drop in here when there's rugby on.
The club has big screen TVs and the cheering gets boisterous. Oh, and there's sailing. The club provides safe harbour and 24-hour security for visiting boats. See rsyc.org.fj.
Every night you'll hear somewhere, the sweet sounds of boisterous Christian choirs clapping out their faith. On Sunday mornings the singing reaches fever pitch at the Centenary Methodist Church. Sacred Heart Catholic Cathedral is less happy-clappy, but it's worth a walk around even when it's closed - its gracious colonnades and elegant facade are constructed in sandstone brought from Sydney.
The interior of the Holy Trinity church is a lovely mix of Fijian and western religious decoration. Shree Laxmi Narayan Temple is a technicolour home to some fervent Hindi celebrations and the Mariamma Temple hosts a fire-walking festival around August.
10 SUVA MUNICIPAL MARKET
Suva's fresh produce and flower market is as social as it is colourful. Ladies come in from the villages to sell their flowers under the shady exterior awnings, while inside burgeoning trestles of tropical fruits and vegetables are a photographer's dream. The market stretches out further under blue tarps where fish and meat are sold.
Just across from the fresh produce market is the Suva Flea Market, a terrific place to buy souvenirs and local handicrafts. Pick up wood carvings, weaving and traditional tapa cloth paintings here, as well as some fun kitsch: painted ukuleles and colourful rattan grass skirts for little girls.
12 HARBOUR CITY
Stroll along Suva Harbour's waterfront (just be wary in some less populated stretches if on your own) and you'll see the fishermen coming in to sell their catch directly to jostling crowds of locals seeking a bargain.
Or if you'd rather have your fish cooked for you, Tiko's Floating Restaurant in a moored old cruiser serves fresh lobster, scallops and whole fish to hungry hoards. There's entertainment from Fijian musicians and a generally fun vibe.
13 RIVER RAFTING
The section of the Upper Navua River in the central highlands is home to a stunning gorge, pretty waterfalls and important protected wilderness. Rafting operators take day trips through the area, picking up from Suva hotels. Rivers Fiji offers day trips suitable for experienced kayakers and novices. See riversfiji.com.
14 TRADITIONAL FOOD
Housed (as the name suggests) in a lovely old timber cottage, the Old Mill Cottage is the city's best spot for traditional Fijian food for lunch. A lot of the menu is cooked in a lovo. Office workers cram the joint so get in early. Likewise, Singh's Curry House, famous for its hot, spicy, cheap and plentiful meals and a testament to the huge Indian population of Fiji.
15 THE CLIMB
Mount Korobaba is only a few kilometres out of town, with a hiking trail beginning at the old cement works. It's a steep ascent through jungle and notoriously treacherous coming down, particularly in the (frequent) rain when it gets slippery. But the views from the top of the harbour and city are glorious. And among expats, it's somewhat of a badge of honour to say you've climbed it.
16 MILITARY HISTORY
Suva was hugely important to the allies as a naval and air base during World War II. The headquarters of the Fiji garrison and a military hospital were here as was a flying-boat base. The military cemetery on a hill overlooking the harbour is a poignant reminder of that.
There are 66 Commonwealth war graves there, with 31 of those New Zealanders. Nearly 150 US service people who were buried there were repatriated, and the gaps where they were interred remain. The cemetery is the site of the Suva Memorial commemorating the Fijians who fell elsewhere.
17 PURE FIJI
Many Fiji hotels put Pure Fiji products in the bathroom. Smart move. Once tried, the user is usually sold on the soft, sublime soaps, body washes, shampoos, conditioners and lotions.
The Pure Fiji HQ factory is in Suva. You can stock up here. Also in the complex is a day spa and health and wellness centre, where yoga and pilates classes are held. Pure Fiji is the only cosmetic manufacturing company in the South Pacific, uses natural products when possible, sustainable practice and donates to local schools, health care, nutrition and basic infrastructure. See purefiji.com.
18 GARDENS AND PARKS
Suva has around 80 parks. The Takashi Suzuki Garden opposite the Suva Theological College is a popular spot for waterside quiet contemplation and for watching the sunset.
Thurston Gardens, which surround the museum, comprise a lovely 1913-laid out space for a quiet picnic or respite from the heat. The plants and trees here are collected from all around the South Pacific.
19 CAMPUS LIFE
The University of the South Pacific campus in Suva is jointly owned by 12 South Pacific governments and as such, attracts students from all over, including New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
The grounds are beautiful, as is the Oceania Centre for Arts & Culture, which hosts exhibitions, theatrical performances, seminars, lectures and classes in dance and other disciplines. This is USP's biggest campus and a walk through reveals it's a happy place of friendship and exuberance, much like Fiji itself. See usp.ac.fj.
20 DUTY FREE
There's a lot of so-called duty free shopping in Suva. The best, sure bet is to buy somewhere legit. Tappoo City, beside Suva Harbour, is a four-storey department store offering true tax-free retail and is aimed strongly at tourists.
It's the largest department store in Fiji and sells sportswear, shoes, perfumes, handbags, wallets, locally made clothes, jewellery, home furnishings and kitchenware and of course, cosmetics. It's a popular spot for cruise ship passengers. See tappoo.com.fj.
The writer was a guest of Holiday Specialists and Fiji Airways.