A small tranquil island that is a little over 1km in length, with numerous white sand beaches, offshore snorkelling, numerous palm trees and a small back to basics resort. When I heard about Barefoot Island it sounded like my kind of place.
After experiencing paradise at the more upmarket Blue Lagoon Resort on Nacula Island, our next stop in Fiji was tiny Barefoot Island, about half way up the Yasawa Island chain.
There are no villages on the island so most of the staff live on the larger neighbouring island, Naviti, and arrive to work by boat every day. Only a few staff members live on the island, in staff quarters.
Barefoot Island Lodge is located on the southern tip of the island, surrounded by three pristine beaches, while the rest of the island has been left untouched and uninhabited. There is only one hiking path, that reaches the summit of the island, and you can only access the island’s other beaches by water. It is rugged and pristine, practically epitomising the deserted island dream.
We arrived on the Island after transferring into a smaller boat from the Yasawa Flyer and were greeted enthusiastically by staff on the beach with traditional song. The warm Fijian welcomes never get old!
After checking in and being given a welcome talk we were taken on a short tour of Barefoot Island Lodge. We were briefly shown the three beaches that make up the Resort, Sunset beach on one side of the island, Sunrise beach on the other then Mantaray beach, a v-shaped beach at the tip of the island. The toilets and cold water showers were connected shacks with the sink and mirrors outside and open to the elements. The food hall was open on one side with a dirt floor and large tables for communal eating. A simple bar stood in the corner made up of foldaway tables. The dive shop was housed in a small shack at the end of Sunset beach and the beautiful sunset deck with small bar jutted out above the rocks nearby. It was rustic but it was really all we needed. We weren’t planning to spend much time inside. The beaches were calling us.
I fell in love with our simple beach front bure as soon as I saw it. We were lucky enough to be situated on the less windy Sunset beach where we could see and hear the ocean from our bed. FROM OUR BED!! Pretty magical, I can tell you.
Our bure (pronounced boo-ray and meaning ‘house’ in Fijian) was a simple wooden and flax walled hut with a tin roof. Inside there was a double bed and a ceiling fan, with a couple of hooks to hang our stuff. Simple and clean and we even had a small front yard with a couple of chairs and a handmade wooden drying rack to hang our wet togs and towels on. Staying there reminded me of our nights in our beach shack in Tulum, falling asleep to the sound of the ocean.
We spent our first afternoon on the sloping white sands of Sunset beach. It became my favourite of the three beaches because it was on the side of the island sheltered from the prevailing winds so the water was always calm, and it caught the sun for most of the day. It was the perfect place to relax in the island’s peace and tranquillity, with only the sound of small waves lapping the shore and the palm trees being rustled gently by the cool ocean breeze.
I only walked over to Manta ray beach once during our three days on Barefoot Island. I looked for shells then walked around the rocks to Sunrise beach. There was no one was around. It was a beautiful beach but it dropped off quite quickly into the channel and I preferred the shallower waters of the other beaches.
Sunrise beach was also stunning but was in the shade by the afternoon and it could get quite windy on that side of the island.
My first snorkelling experience on the island was out to the reef off Sunset beach. I was disappointed in the lack of coral and fish compared to the incredible reef I snorkelled on Nacula Island, although I did see some brilliant blue starfish and a baby triggerfish, which looked exactly like an adult but in miniature. I decided to try snorkelling off Sunrise beach, hoping it would be a better reef but not expecting too much.
It ended up being more than just a better reef.
The reef off Sunrise was the most amazing reef I have ever snorkelled and I was completely enthralled by this underwater city of coral. Just metres off shore, this colourful forest of corals is home to a huge array of tropical fish. Large domed coral mountains rose out of the sea bed in spongy clusters. More than any other time, I wished I had an underwater camera. The memory of its beauty will have to stay hidden in my mind.
Another snorkeler told me that they had seen a clown fish with a baby earlier, and that the mother had bitten him when he got too close, so I went searching for them. I snorkelled through a warren of coral alleys but couldn’t find them. I will have to put off being bitten by Nemo for another time.
There was once type of fish that didn’t mind you getting close. Silver fish with black stripes swam close to the shore and if you sat still for a while, they would swim right up to you.
As well as Barefoot Island’s abundant marine life, I noticed that there were a lot more birds on the Island than there had been on Nacula. A flock of tiny, electric green birds eating seeds off the sand. A small red bird spellbound by its reflection in the bathroom mirror. I never used to notice birds but bird watching has become a bit of a hobby of mine in the past couple of years. I love their melodic trilling and their beauty in flight. And I love the colours and patterns of their feathers.
After days spent in and around the warm waters of the Pacific, we began our evenings with Pina Coladas (or beers for Trav) on the sunset deck, looking out to sea. It was a quiet time to reflect on the day, before a communal dinner with the other guests. I love meeting new people when I am travelling, and we met some fantastic people during our time on Barefoot, but I also like having the time to be quiet and relax.
Like Blue Lagoon Resort, after dinner there were nightly activities that you could choose to take part in. On our first night the activity was coconut bowling. Notoriously bad at anything sports related, I was reluctant to participate but Trav convinced me. We were split into teams of the country we are from. As the only New Zealander and South African, we were teams unto ourselves. Coconut Bowling involved bowling a coconut and trying to get it into a circle that was drawn in the sand, or as close as possible. It turned out to be fun and incredibly I even won one of the rounds. Miracles do happen! On another night there were fireworks and a bonfire. There was always something going on to entertain the guests.
My stand out experience of our time on Barefoot was something that we almost didn’t get a chance to do: Snorkelling with Manta rays.
Manta rays are the largest species of ray in the world and although they have a tail like a sting ray, it has lost its stinger so are harmless to humans. Their wing span can reach up to 6 metres wide but the ones we saw were about 3 metres, which is still pretty massive!
The manta ray season typically runs from around May through to September in Fiji, but sometimes they can be seen as late as October. There is a dedicated Marine Biologist that works on Barefoot Island for about 6 months of the year, studying the mantas. What an incredible job. He sat with us during lunch one day and it was interesting to talk to him about the mantas of Fiji.
We were told that they had thought the season was over as the manta rays hadn’t been seen for about ten days, then the day that we arrived they reappeared, to the surprise of the dive staff. So there was a chance that they would be swimming in the channel early the next morning but there were no guarantees. We went to bed on the first night after being told to listen out for a bell ringing at around 6.30am the next morning. If we heard the bell ringing then there were manta rays about.
We were lucky, we heard the bells.
Quickly we got changed and ran to the dive shop where we were given flippers, snorkel and mask then a small boat ferried us the short distance to the channel, just off the northern end of the island. We were in the water within 15 minutes of waking up. The air was charged with excitement and anticipation.
The current pulled us swiftly through the channel and our eyes were peeled for manta rays that would be swimming against the current, collecting plankton in their cavernous mouths. The visibility wasn’t great. Suddenly we could see a dark shadow moving towards us.
It was a Manta!
As it got closer we could see it in more detail. It was a bit scary at first because of its sheer size but they are gentle giants, graceful and slow moving. One came straight for us and we managed to get out of its way as it slowly moved deeper, unfazed, to avoid us. We saw a couple more as we moved down the channel then the boat picked us up and took us back to the other end of the channel to start all over again.
We had three runs through the Manta ray channel and saw them each time. They were the same ones moving up and down the channel to feed, but in the opposite direction to us.
I feel so privileged to witness these majestic creatures and to be able to swim with them, and all before we even had breakfast.
The day we swam with mantas also happened to be Fiji Day, marking the date that Fiji gained its independence from British Colonial rule in 1970. The staff had a whole day of activities planned out for us and after breakfast, we were split into four teams. Trav and I were in different teams from each other which was a good thing, as it was easier to meet new people. I was in the Blue team and Trav was in the Green.
Before the activities started there was a flag raising ceremony followed by a speech from a staff member. She had been at the ceremony in Suva in 1970 when Fiji became independent and even got to shake Prince Charles’ hand.
After the formalities, the activities began. First up was a Kayak race, where we nominated a couple of team members to kayak out to a fixed buoy and back again. We also did a tug of war, a coconut tunnel, coconut spearing, apple bobbing and passing apples from person to person without using our hands. I don’t think I have done any activities like this since I was at primary school and it was surprisingly fun, although my team came last!
As the day heated up, we stopped between activities for a refreshing dip in the ocean. After lunch, I had to retire to our bure for a nap. I guess the excitement got to me.
The activities continued after lunch but I was too tired to continue. After my nap I spent the rest of the afternoon snorkelling and swimming.
There was a special dinner put on for the guests on Fiji Day, a buffet of Fijian food including a pig cooked in the traditional way: underground. The Food Hall was cleared of tables and flax mats were laid on the floor for us to sit on. Unfortunately the pork was tough and the cassava and taro were dry and overcooked. It’s a shame because it could have been a great meal if it had been cooked properly.
We watched the evening’s entertainment which consisted of traditional dancing, first by some of the male staff then the female. Then we were treated to some fire dancing. It wasn’t done by professionals, just a few male staff members, so they dropped the fire sticks a couple of times and it nearly flying into the crowd at one stage, much to the horror of a girl sitting in the front row who nearly soiled herself.
After dinner, a lot of the staff joined us on the mats and kava was shared around freely. I loved to see everyone mixing and having a good time. One of the friendly staff members was dancing with us and telling us about her life on the island. I never caught her name. Some new friends got carried away with the long island iced teas and kept buying us rounds. Things quickly turned debaucherous. I was nursing a definite hangover the next day, but it was worth it.
On our last morning we decided to kayak around the island. As the island was less than two kilometres long, surely it would be easy right?
Not so much.
As soon as we set off from Sunset beach, a very strong wind made it hard to paddle. I’m certainly not known for my upper body strength and I was silently cursing Trav for making us take single kayaks rather than the double one. I can’t really blame him though, as I have slacked off in the past when we have been in a double kayak and he ended up doing most of the paddling. I would have made me take out my own kayak too.
Exhausted by the time we reached the first beach, we braved the small but violent waves created by the wind to stop for a rest. We decided to walk the kayaks in knee deep water to the other end of the beach to cut down on our paddling time. It was actually a lot faster to do this than actually paddle as the wind was making our progress painfully slow.
After what felt like forever (but was likely only about 10-15 minutes), we reached Barbecue beach on the northern tip of the island. We stopped there for about an hour to recover. Barbecue beach turned out to be a bit of a hermit crab metropolis; there were thousands of them. I find them to be such fascinating creatures and spent at least half an hour watching them crawl across their sand with their temporary shell homes on their backs. Apparently there was good snorkelling off the beach but a lady I had been talking to had said that she saw a white pointer shark near Barbecue beach the day before so that turned me right off. I have a deathly fear of sharks…. and bears…. and orcas in captivity (since watching ‘Blackfish’) – basically anything that could eat me. I don’t like snorkelling by myself anyway and Trav’s mask had broken. So I just played with the hermit crabs on the safety of the beach.
We repeated our earlier lazy person trick and walked the kayaks to the other end of the beach again before pushing off. We thought that once we had gotten around the end of the island and weren’t paddling against the wind anymore would mean it would get easier. It didn’t.
There was one more beach to stop at before we got back to Barefoot Lodge so we walked the kayaks for the last time. When we finally got to Sunrise beach, and only 5 minutes’ walk to the Dive Shop where we had to return the kayaks, we were very sore and glad it was over. I collapsed on the beach and didn’t move for about an hour.
Next time if there is a strong wind blowing, I will definitely give the kayaking a miss.
So this long rambling tale sums up our experiences on Barefoot Island. There were many highlights including the fantastic staff, the awesome people we met, the best snorkelling of my life, getting to experience Fiji Day celebrations and of course, swimming with the majestic Manta rays.
There weren’t many downsides to the island: Basic coffin-like showers, dirty sand that made our feet black and lots of flies were some minor ones, but the main disappointment for me was the food. Generally it was bland, overcooked and the portion size was too small, although the food drastically improved from the inedible chicken a la king on the first night to the delicious curries we were given for our last two meals. Perhaps if we hadn’t been to the island with arguably the best food in the Yasawas first, then the average food at Barefoot Lodge wouldn’t have seemed so bad. At least we left with a good taste in our mouths.
You really can’t go wrong with curry in Fiji.