You might roll your eyes when I tell you that we didn’t actually plan on visiting Fiji, and that we went there out of necessity. But it’s true. You see, if you’re using frequent flyer miles it’s cheaper to fly from Asia to Fiji and back than it is to fly to Australia…and in order to fly to Fiji one must stop in Australia anyways. So long story short, we actually saved 80,000 miles by making Fiji the “destination” and stopping over (for a couple of months) in Australia and New Zealand. One of these days Eric will publish that book he’s been writing on using frequent flyer miles, but for now just trust that it made good financial sense.
Anyhoo, we found ourselves in Nadi in early May. Eric had 200,000 Hilton points left over from long-ago employment and the Fiji Beach Resort and Spa seemed like the perfect place to use them. They got us five (almost) free nights there, and we also booked six nights at the cheapest backpacker resort we could find: Ratu Kini’s on Mana Island. We normally don’t write about hotels, and most of this will be apples to oranges. But the juxtaposition between these two seems like it’s worth noting (and plus, it pretty much covers our Fiji experience in one article – see what I did there!).
So here’s the question: Should you splash out on fancy accommodation in Fiji or go for the more authentic experience at a cheaper place? Let’s pull in some criteria to help break it down, shall we?
Had we just gone with the regular studio apartment (no full kitchen) we wouldn’t have paid anything for the Hilton except for Honors points. But we missed cooking and decided to upgrade to the one-bedroom apartment (full kitchen, living room, BBQ, bathtub, washer and dryer, king-sized bed, balcony, two flat screen TVs, ocean view) for $52 USD a night. Normally the beachfront one-bedrooms are $320 USD, so it was a killer deal.
We didn’t get any photos of our rooms at Ratu Kini. They were both 5-bed dorms, and we moved out of the first room after a few nights because it was so depressing (no A/C, very dingy, holes in the window screens, etc.). The first room cost $55 USD a night, and the A/C dorm was $70 USD. Not cheap.
Ratu Kini for the win. For us, the Hilton cost less. But since our readers probably wouldn’t be staying there for free we’ll have to give this one to Ratu Kini.
This one is kind of a given. There’s a reason people stay at fancy resorts: Most budget places aren’t going to offer much outside of a hammock or two. RK had five beach chairs and that was about it, whereas the Hilton had seven pools, a gym, a business center and some nice boutiques. Neither resort offered free wi-fi in the rooms. Grrr.
Hilton for the win.
If we’re honest, most resort performances are going to be cheesy or contrived. That said, the entertainers at both resorts were talented and, well…entertaining. Ratu Kini invites local schoolchildren to dance and sing for the guests, which is practical since many of them will work in hospitality when they grow up. I don’t generally love watching children perform, but I appreciated their efforts to bring in community initiatives (and to collect donations for the island’s school).
How can we say no to children? Ratu Kini for the win.
The Hilton offers constant free activities to guests, so there’s always something to do. Plus they offer free kayak and snorkel rental. Both places have spas, although one was obviously more swanky. You can also dive with either one.
RK does offer several paid outings, like fishing and a visit to the island where they filmed Cast Away. Oh, and I spent a solid two days making jewelry out of coconuts there. It’s amazing what you can do with a saw blade, broken beer bottles, string, and coconut shells.
Hilton for the win.
Food and Drink
Resort food in general is nothing to write home about. The Hilton did have more variety and some fantastic pizzas. Plus we got to cook our own meals, and drinks from the general store cost less than those at RK.
Hilton for the win.
Location and Ambiance
The Hilton may be a short ride in from the airport, but the beaches on the main island are far from the pristine blindingly white sands you’ll see in photographs. RK’s beach isn’t fantastic either, but it would be a shame to go all that way and not do some island hopping.
The grounds of the Hilton resort, in a word, are beautiful. The paths are lined with tropical flowers that are really enjoyable when you aren’t dodging the hundred golf carts that zip around. And they spray for mosquitos, so you don’t have to douse yourself in DEET every time you leave the room. That does tend to make the place feel a little sterile, but I’ll take it.
RK has everything you might expect from a tropical island – mosquitos, geckos, and a salty sea breeze. And many, many stray dogs that certain staff members will kick in the ribs every time they venture inside. Seriously, you guys. It’s an island. How hard could it be to control the animal population?
This one is too subjective. Let’s call it a tie.
We’ve found that staying at upscale places can be a bit isolating – there aren’t that many people in our age group, and everyone’s on holiday instead of traveling long-term. It’s always so easy to meet other backpackers at hostels, and making new friends tends to transform the whole experience.
We also have to put in a good word for the staff at RK. Despite the fact that they work in 12 day shifts they were super friendly, went out of their way to impart knowledge about Fijian language and culture, and played happy island music all the time. Plus they shared their kava with us. Twice.
As our boat left the island, some of the guys got together and sang my favorite song from their lineup.
Ratu Kini for the win.
The bottom line is that while the Hilton guarantees a clean, relaxing place to unwind, you really may as well be at any upscale resort in the world. And at a backpacker’s resort you may have to sacrifice some creature comforts, but you might come away with a more informed perspective on how locals really live.
We couldn’t possibly choose between the two.
What…you didn’t think this would really be an either/or article, did you?