Viti Levu: What to know before you go

American writer Roff Smith, who makes his home in Australia"s Barossa Valley, had visited Fiji only once before, during a brief stopover on Viti Levu about 15 years ago. "If I remember correctly, I was penniless at the time, so I walked, took a bus - and never really got beyond Nadi, where the international airport is."

This assignment took him well beyond Nadi into Viti Levu"s green highlands, a place that"s so untouched by the outside world that the local guides had never seen kayaking gear, lifejackets - or peanut butter. Says Smith, "It was hard to believe you were even on the same island as Nadi and Suva - Viti Levu"s other large city."

Renowned surf photographer Art Brewer, though, had already been to Fiji a couple of times during more than two decades of often hard-scrabble travel to remote islands. So he knew his way around a kava ceremony. But this story took him to new territory, which he would like to explore further, starting first with the Yasawas.

"It was beautiful there," he said. "I"d like to hire a boat and check out some of the other islands."

After that, he added, a return trip to the Namosi Highlands would be nice. "To me, that was the real Fiji," he says.

DOLLAR WISE There are very few banks outside the main tourist centers (and not a single bank or post office in the Yasawas), so stop at an ATM in one of the cities before heading in- to the bush.

ROOM KEY A room can cost $1,000 or more a day at some of Fiji"s super-luxe private islands, but Ovalau is not one of them. There, the leading hotel (and the oldest in Fiji) is the Royal, where a double room starts at around $17 per night ($40 with air-conditioning). One of the most popular areas to stay on Viti Levu is the Coral Coast. Beginning near Nadi - which is the jumping-off point for the Yasawa chain - the Coral Coast and the rest of the island offer a wide range of lodgings, from $40-a-night budget hotels to major resorts where rooms top out at around $350 a night. To set up a stay at Devokula Village on Ovalau, call 011-679-440-147, fax 011-679-440-405, or E-mail ottours@is.com.fj. To book a stay at Abaca Village in Koroyanitu National Heritage Park on Viti Levu, phone or fax 011-679-651-168 or E-mail: semilotawa@is.com.fj. For other village stays, have your travel agent contact one of the "in-bound" tour operators in Fiji.

WHAT"S TO EAT The cuisine in Levuka tends toward food that is precooked and/or deep-fried. But Nadi is another story. Brewer and Smith agreed that the hot ticket there was a red-curry goat dish at Maharaj, an Indian restaurant located on the highway between the airport and town. ("When-ever things got tough," Brewer says, "looking forward to another meal there kept us going.")

THIS WAY TO ADVENTURE Whitewater kayaking may be old hat in the States, but Eskimo rolls are about as common in Fiji as Eskimo Pies. To book a trip, try Riversfiji, which is run by an American couple both of whom are experienced river guides; Call 011-679-450-147, fax 011-679-450-148 or E-mail riversfiji@is.com.fj

If you plan to do any serious bike touring, bring your own bicycle. Local rentals (about F$5 per day) tend to be cheap dime-store models in indifferent states of repair. Pack a helmet, water bottles, a patch kit, and a pump. Most important: Carry - and drink - lots of water.

ON THE ROAD The track into Viti Levu"s Namosi Highlands is very rough. ("You need a truck," says Smith. "The reward is a landscape that looks like a tropical Yosemite.") For more conventional travel elsewhere on the island, taxis cost about $15 per day; a Toyota Corolla rents for about $30 per day. For a touch of true local color, board one of the open-air buses that run along the coast, say, from Nadi to Sigatoka. (Says Smith, "They are noisy, grimy, and hot, but they meander into fishing villages and bustling markets and may well provide the most interest and entertainment you can get for a couple of bucks.")

READ IT AND LEAP Whenever their "organized" travel plans went astray, Brewer and Smith fell back on Lonely Planet"s reliable Fiji: A Travel Survival Kit. One of the most entertaining reads about old Fiji is Life in Feejee: Five Years Among The Cannibals, written "By A Lady" and published in 1851. The lady in question was Mary Wallis, wife of Benjamin Wallis, captain of the ship Zotoff, which sailed out of Salem, Massachusetts. Wallis"s writing is lively and humorous and paints a colorful tableau of the traders, sea captains, beachcombers, and warring chieftains in the wild days of the South Pacific. It"s available in paperback from the Fiji Museum in Suva, where you can also get Elsie Stephenson"s Fiji"s Past on Picture Postcards. It features reprints of some amazing old South Sea postcards and an engaging history of the towns, streets, and buildings pictured in them.