If you’re headed to Fiji’s Yasawa Islands you’ll notice there are a LOT of resorts to choose from. The Yasawa Islands are a popular destination for adventure travelers to Fiji, and for good reason – they’re remote and beautiful. Once completely closed to tourists, resorts have now sprung up on most of islands. But which resorts are the best?
Overwhelmed with choices, our decision came down to what was best-rated on TripAdvisor and within our budget. We decided to visit one island in the middle of the Yasawas, and one at the far northern end of the chain.
Our first choice was the Barefoot Island Lodge which had excellent TripAdvisor reviews, but it was full. We wanted to stay in the area because of its famed manta ray channel where it’s possible to swim with the manta rays and watch them feed in the mornings, so we booked three nights at the Mantaray, which is next door to the Barefoot.
Now, I’m a discerning traveler and I always want my first choice – it’s my first choice for a reason! So I wasn’t expecting much from the Mantaray Resort, which lagged the Barefoot in TripAdvisor reviews, but in the end…
I was blown away by what a great time I had. Looking back it was my favorite out of the two resorts I stayed at in the Yasawas.
Like most resorts in the Yasawa Islands, the best way to get here is by taking the Yasawa Flyer ferry from the main island of Fiji. It’s a 3.5 hour ride on sometimes rough seas but the journey is worth it. A one-way ticket to Mantaray Island Resort from the mainland will set you back FJ$160 (~US$88) .
The Yasawa Flyer ferry makes a stop near the Mantaray Island Resort, where smaller boats arrive to transfer you from the ferry to the resort. As you arrive at the island, staff are on hand to sing you a jingle and welcome you with a loud “Bula!”
We waited around for what seemed like half an hour while everyone checked in one-by-one. The impatient part of me wanted to head straight to our bure, unpack and start snorkeling. We’d endured 12 hours on a plane and a vomit-inducing boat ride to be here and we had only 3 days. I wanted to get going! “Hey, just relax,” a staff member muttered, waving his hand as though patting an 8-year-old boy on the head. “Fiji Time!” And so our time on the island began.
Most people book the Mantaray Island Resort through Awesome Adventures Fiji, the same company that runs South Sea Cruises and the Yasawa Flyer ferry. As a near monopoly on travel to/from the Yasawa Islands, they also dominate the resort booking business, selling pre-packaged resort+ferry deals that allow you to “island hop” between the various resorts. I highly recommend NOT buying these packages as prices are more expensive than if you book everything separately, and you’re not guaranteed availability at any particular resort. Many people are thus under the illusion that they can island hop anytime, when the reality is that popular resorts are often booked full well in advance, in which case they’re often stuck with a more downmarket resort than they paid for.
You can book the Mantaray Island Resort directly online. There are 3 room options:
- The “Paradise Dorm“, which is basically your typical backpacker dorm accommodation. The dorm itself was in a large building a short walk from the beach. FJ$41 (US$22) a night. Showers are cold water only.
- The “Treehouse Bure“, a private hut for 2-4 people but shares bathroom facilities with the dorm. The Treehouse bures are the closest accommodations to the main beach hut and bar, which means they’re close to the action but noise might be an issue. FJ$150 (US$83) a night for 2 people. Extra beds FJ$61 (US$36) a night for adults, FJ$26 (US$14) for children.
- The “Jungle Bure“, a private hut with its own bathroom facilities and hot water. On top of that, you’re directly on the beach and get your own private lounge chairs and hammock. These are often all booked up as they’re a comparatively good value at FJ$285 (US$156) a night for 2 people, with extra beds costing the same as for Treehouse Bures above.
No matter which room option you choose, you still have to pay FJ$87 (~US$48) a day per person (half price for kids <12) for the mandatory meal package. I don’t like being a captive customer but the resort is the only show on the island so this is a time to suck it up.
Like most businesses in Fiji, the Mantaray charges 3.5% extra for paying by credit card and accepts only Visa and MC. You can avoid this surcharge by booking and paying online, but I recommend bringing some cash to the island to pay for activities and settle your bar tab.
We stayed in a “Treehouse Bure” (pronounced “boo-ray”), which we thought was a good value compromise. As a couple we wanted our own space but we were OK with sharing bathroom facilities. You hardly spend any time in those, unless something goes wrong with the food 😉
The Treehouse Bures were basic but very adequate, featuring screen doors and screened windows that kept bugs out. Our bure smelled strongly of industrial chemicals, which we suspect were pesticides employed in a relentless uphill battle against tropical pests.
Bure #4 was less than 50 feet from the beach and only a few steps from the bar, from which loud music emanated till 1 am every night. I was jetlagged and slept like a log every night with the help of earplugs but the noise really bothered my boyfriend. Ask for a bure set back further from the beach if the noise might bother you. Treehouse Bures sleep 2 adults comfortably, although they can be configured as bunk beds for up to 4 people.
My boyfriend and I travel the world as a gay couple but we’re conscious about not making our relationship too obvious in conservative, religious countries like Fiji. The Mantaray resort assumed we were buddies and made up our room as two single beds, but for straight couples they join the beds into a King-sized bed. This suited us quite well as we tend to sleep better in our own beds and didn’t feel like drawing attention to ourselves.
The Mantaray Island Resort straddles the northern end of Nanuya Balavu Island, in the middle of the Yasawa Island chain. The main beach is on the east side of the island, while beautiful sunsets can be enjoyed from the beach on the other side. Full Map via Google
The main beach has crystal clear waters and a coral reef begins about 100 feet offshore. Snorkeling was amazing right off the beach, but the water is only deep enough to snorkel at high tide, which was usually in the mornings and late afternoons. There’s a strong current sweeping from south to north, so we had to start snorkeling at the southern end of the beach.
By mid-day, the water would recede, revealing a pebbly beach that hurt like hell to walk on in bare feet. It was impossible to swim as the water was barely a foot deep, but the heat made it so tempting…
The resort was well laid-out, with most of the action centered around the main beach bure, surrounded by a bar, hammocks and a volleyball court.
Food can make or break your trip. The food was generally good although nothing fancy and for US$48 a day I was happy. My main complaint about the food was that lunch portions were paltry. My boyfriend and I had to share an extra lunch every day, at a cost of FJ$15 (US$8), so not a big deal, but why serve puny lunches in the first place?
The meal plan starts with lunch the day of your arrival and includes up to breakfast the day of departure. You can buy an add-on lunch if you’re taking the afternoon ferry. All meals were served at the restaurant bure at the top of the hill, with picnic tables that sit 8 people. It’s not the most romantic setting for couples who want a private time together, but it does suit young backpackers looking to make friends and families with kids.
The resort supplies free drinking water during meals in big dispensers in the restaurant. The drinking water is desalinated seawater, which I thought tasted just fine, but my boyfriend didn’t like it. We brought 4 big bottles of water with us from the mainland not expecting the resort water to be drinkable. If you’re picky, I suggest you do the same. If you want to save a few $, bring a water bottle to fill up from the dispenser at meal times. Otherwise, they sell Fiji water at the bar for FJ$5.50 for a large bottle, which is more than twice as expensive as on the mainland.
Breakfasts, served between 8am and 9am, were “continental” with the addition of a few hot items – beans, porridge and eggs. Self-serve coffee, tea and toast were also available along with jam and “Vegemite”, a funky tasting yeast by product intended to be used as a spread (I was told it’s popular in Australia where the resort owner is from). I recommend arriving as close to 8am as possible for breakfast if you want the freshest and best selection, since some items don’t get refilled after about 8:30am.
Lunch, served from noon to 1pm, was a la carte, featuring the same menu everyday. At first glance the menu is overwhelming with 14 items but I soon figured out the dishes I liked and stuck to those. My favorites were the bake fish, lasagna and satay (even though it doesn’t really resemble the Malaysian variety). The fish curry was too dry for my liking, and the kokoda (Spanish mackerel) was such a small portion it was almost a joke.
Dinners were the most variable meals, with different menus on different days of the week, but also the most hit and miss in terms of quality. Dinner is served from 7-8pm, and it’s in your best interest to get there right at 7 if it’s buffet-style. I loved the Sunday night roast, a veritable feast of comfort foods that gave me extra motivation to be active the next day. The other two nights were 4-course meals with an appetizer, soup/salad, entree and dessert, with 2-3 entree choices. If you’re American you might find it weird that in Fiji they use the term “entree” to refer to appetizers, and “main” to refer to an entree, so watch out for this.
I heard the most complaints from other guests about the dinners – some found the food too spicy, others found the choices too few and none of them were appealing. One guest had issues communicating with the staff, who didn’t seem to understand what “lactose tolerant” and “free of cheese” meant. They brought her an entree covered with cheese despite her pleas for something dairy-free. She was too shy at first to send it back, but her boyfriend intervened and walked it back to the kitchen, where the staff promptly made her a dairy-free replacement.
Then again, “dietary restrictions” aren’t as familiar a concept in third world countries where the average income is a few dollars a day, so some patience with the staff is warranted. I think the resort has trained its staff well, but they can’t cover every possible base and the staff really are quite accommodating once they understand what you mean. Keep in mind that although Fiji’s official language is English it’s still a second language to most native Fijians.
We found the servers to be incredibly warm and friendly, but service at times was inconsistent, with some tables having their entire meals served before others have even seen an appetizer, despite ordering at the same time. Sometimes it’s helpful to keep the “Fiji Time” mantra close at heart 😉
I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the shared bathroom facilities. The toilets are composting, so everything falls into tanks below to decompose. They do stink, but just a little bit.
Personally, I prefer composting toilets over the flush variety as I think it’s so much more sanitary to have waste fall several feet away than to have water and waste occasionally splash back at me. The bathroom areas were cleaned throughout the day and well-stocked with toilet paper and paper towels. There were 8 toilets and 3 sinks. I never had issues finding an unoccupied toilet but the sinks felt congested in the mornings.
The shared showers were cold. Not ice cold, but cold like tropical seawater that hasn’t been heated. That said, I’m not expecting there to be hot water available at my convenience on a remote island resort. It takes tons of energy to heat water especially at the amounts some Westerners use when they shower. It’s much cheaper and environmentally friendly to suck it up and deal with cold water 5 minutes a day.
After the first night, I figured out a system to cope with the cold water – wet your body quickly, apply soap, then start washing one limb at a time. First, I’d wash one leg, then the other, then one arm, etc. After washing my limbs I was accustomed to the temperature and I could wash my core, the more sensitive part.
Note there are no toiletries provided in the showers, so bring your own shampoo and body wash. Peak times for showers are right before dinner and there’s often a line when the sunset cruise guests return.
Electricity & WiFi
Electricity is available 24 hours a day in the bures and dorms thanks to diesel generators that run around the clock. There’s even paid WiFi available in the common areas: FJ$20 for one day, FJ$40 for 3 days and FJ$50 for 5 days.
An alternative to the WiFi is to get a prepaid Vodafone SIM card at Nadi airport, which for FJ$70 will provides 4GB of data over 30 days anywhere in Fiji, and reception is often excellent in the Yasawa Islands. You’ll need an unlocked phone to do this. You can tether other devices like laptops and iPads to your phone and share the data. The best spot for cell phone reception at the Mantaray Island Resort is in the restaurant.
Activities and Bar
Although neither my boyfriend nor I drink, the resort has a full bar. The bar and activities menu are below:
Our most memorable activity at the Mantaray was… you guessed it, the Manta Ray Swim! We stayed during manta ray season, which meant that most mornings there were manta rays feeding in the nearby channel. The three resorts in the area apparently have a mutual signaling agreement when manta rays are spotted.
At about 9:30am, the drums sounded, and resort staff rallied guests to join the manta ray swim. For FJ$25 (US$13), it’s probably the best value activity on offer. Snorkels and fins are included. You hop on a boat and head out to the channel where the manta rays swim back and forth filter feeding. If you’re not comfortable swimming in deep water, grab a life jacket from the kayak rack before getting on the boat.
Unfortunately I didn’t have an underwater camera so I couldn’t take any pictures of the amazing sights. I saw at least 7 large manta rays, sometimes passing quite close to me. This picture from the resort’s own website might give you an idea of what it’s like:
Besides the manta ray swim, we didn’t do any of the other paid activities. Snorkeling was excellent right off the beach and you can rent snorkel gear for your entire stay for a one time FJ$20 (US$11).
The resort also offers village tours, guided snorkeling (off the island), a free guided kayak tour, and diving, although the latter is quite expensive and we didn’t see many takers. The FJ$35 (US$19) sunset tube cruise, where you’re dragged by boat out into the ocean to watch the sunset from the comfort of an inflatable tube, was quite popular.
Much of the time, we were just happy to sit in a hammock and daydream or read, although being able to swim during mid-day would have been nice, if not for the low tide. Kayaks were free to use, and are a great way to enjoy the reef and visit other nearby beaches.
I loved the atmosphere at the Mantaray Island Resort. Most of the other guests were in their 20s, so it had an energetic, college dorm/frat house atmosphere. There were a few older couples and families with kids, but they were in the minority. Guests hailed from all over the world, including some who were on around-the-world tickets with interesting tales to tell.
The resort never felt crowded. With two large beaches, you rarely saw large groups of people except at meal times. There was even an official resort goat which was extremely entertaining to play with when he wasn’t sleeping…
Despite the young crowd, there wasn’t excessive drinking or partying going on. Perhaps the high cost of alcohol was a factor. The resort staff organized games from 8-9pm which were fun to play but hilarious to watch.
My boyfriend and I had a great time at the Mantaray Island Resort. It’s hard to fault any particular aspect of it – it’s a well-run resort in a nice setting with a great atmosphere. The price was reasonable for what we got, the staff were incredibly warm and friendly and some knew our names after a day. I would definitely recommend the Mantaray as a stop in the Yasawa Islands, especially if you’re in your 20s, as this resort caters so well to this demographic. That being said, the families there had a great time too, but older adults might find the company more limited.
If I return to the Yasawa Islands, I wouldn’t hesitate to stay again, although with 30 other resorts to choose from, I’d be curious to see what other islands are like.
Take TripAdvisor’s ratings with a pound of salt
In hindsight, I gave too much credence to TripAdvisor’s ratings of Fiji resorts. The thing with TripAdvisor is that most gripes of them are focused on the lack of Western creature comforts on remote Fijian resorts. People seemed genuinely bothered by the lack of gourmet grass fed steaks, WiFi coverage on the beach, or steaming hot water on demand from a faucet. They forget that there are compromises to be made on remote islands in third world countries.
If you let your hair down, you’ll really enjoy yourself in the Yasawa Islands, some of the most beautiful yet affordable places in the world to visit.