First stop after touchdown is the Hilton Fiji Beach Resort & Spa at Denarau, a classy way to start the trip before heading further afield to the Mamanuca Islands to the west of Nadi and the Yasawa Islands to the north. Renowned as a “flop and drop” destination, Fiji offers this style of holiday in expert style, but there are also plenty of other layers to a visitor experience. As a self-confessed lover of mainland Fiji I was looking forward to seeing a bit more of the island nation beyond the popular hubs of Denarau and Nadi. Before leaving Denarau, a taste of local food was definitely called for at Tu’s Place, a cheerful establishment on the main road between Nadi Airport and Nadi Town. Frequented by locals and visitors alike and open for all-day dining, the restaurant is co-owned by Fijian Tu and his Kiwi partner Ian, and the menu is a fusion of Fijian and international dishes with more than a taste bud tickler of spicy, locally grown chillies – don’t be fooled by their size! Some of the highlights on the menu include kokoda (marinated raw fish, Fijian-style), Thai curries and local favourites such as rourou (taro leaves) and lolo (fish cooked in coconut milk). All are best washed down with a refreshing “Fiji baby” – locally brewed Fiji Bitter beer.

The drive from Nadi Town towards the Coral Coast takes you into the countryside past fields of sugar cane to Natadola Beach, a popular spot with surfers and voted one of the best beaches in the world. Once you set eyes on it you will see why: its curve of white sand offers a tranquil escape from the busy pace of Denarau. With just two hotels to choose from, Yatule Resort & Spa at Natadola Beach is a small, secluded resort with Fijianstyle bure accommodation either overlooking the beach or lagoon-style pool. Nearby Natadola Bay Championship Golf Course is very popular with guests, its sea views providing a stunning backdrop to every game.

A short helicopter island-hop lands you in Musket Cove in the Mamanuca Islands, a chain of 20 islands not far offshore from Nadi and Denarau that can also be reached easily by boat. Musket Cove Island Resort is an all-time Kiwi favourite with holidaymakers as well as yachties, its marina bustling with boats mooring for a few days to stock up on supplies – and of course for a drink or two at the famous Musket Cove Yacht Club Island Bar which sits proudly on its own little island. It’s the perfect place for a sunset drink. Swimming in the crystal-clear waters in the Mamanucas is always a treat and at low tide the sand bar just off the resort is a spectacular snorkelling and sunbathing spot. There is always ample time to get to know the colourful reef fish and enjoy a picnic on the sand.

On the move and in the air again, a short seaplane transfer glides you right onto the beach at Paradise Cove Resort in the Yasawa Islands. Coral reefs, swaying palm trees and islands unfurl beneath the plane as it approaches and circles the island to spot turtles basking along the shoreline. It’s a perfect welcome to the outer islands. The Yasawas offer a true slice of Fijian culture and hospitality. While they’re a bit of a boat trip away from the mainland they are also easily reached by seaplane or helicopter and well worth it. Paradise Cove Resort certainly lives up to its name. Nestled along a white sandy bay, the accommodation bures are spacious and feature open-air bathrooms set amongst leafy tropical vegetation that make for a magical outdoor shower experience. Some oceanfront bures also feature their own luxurious plunge pools overlooking the sea. There are activities and sightseeing aplenty: a visit to nearby Soso Village is colourful, fun and bursting with singing, clapping and lots of smiles. Most of the resort’s staff live at the village and travel to and from work by boat. Paradise Cove’s head chef crafts his menu around the available seasonal fruit and produce, most of which is grown locally. The “catch of the day” is purchased exclusively from the villagers every day. The food here is some of the best in the Yasawas. For sightseeing, the gigantic manta rays are a highlight. Seasonal visitors to the islands, these gliding planktoneaters drift in the channels between the islands to feed, and swimming amongst them is an unforgettable spectacle. If you are not keen to do that, they can also be seen just below the surface from above the water. For a perfect close to the day, grab an inner tube and a cold bevvy for a relaxing bob around on the ocean as the sun slips below the horizon.

My time of exploring Fiji and some of its lesser-known secrets draws to a close and it’s time to head back to the mainland for one last night. It’s been a bit of whirlwind trip, but a true taste of Fiji beyond its usual flop and drop persona. I’ll definitely be back for more.

Have you been to Fiji before? What would you recommend doing when on holiday there? Let other readers know in the comment section below.

Read the full edition of Explore magazine here.