Ovalau Island is Fiji as it used to be in days gone by - an unspoiled paradise with friendly locals, the rare tourist, and an incredibly interesting h
Ovalau Island is Fiji as it used to be in days gone by – an unspoiled paradise with friendly locals, the rare tourist, and an incredibly interesting history. With its unhurried lifestyle, most things are still done ‘on Fiji time’. Everyone knows everyone else on this lush tropical volcanic island and has time to stop for a chat. The former capital of Fiji, Levuka historical port town, is a highlight to any trip to the island.
Ovalau is the sixth largest island in Fiji, about 13 kilometers (eight miles) long, 10 kilometers (six miles) wide, and covers a total area of 106.4 square kilometers (66.1 square miles). The population of less than ten thousand people is surrounded by large coral reefs, as Ovalau and the other Lomaiviti Group of islands, are the peaks of deep-sea volcanoes that became extinct eons ago.
At least a quarter of the population live in Levuka, a small town on the eastern coast of Ovalau. Levuka historical port town and the island of Ovalau achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in June 2013.
History of Levuka, the Historical Port Town
Levuka was founded by traders and settlers in around 1820 and became a vital port and trading post. A mixed group of merchants and businessmen initially made up Levuka’s European population. The island flourished, attracting cotton and coconut farmers, sandalwood and Bêche-de-Mer (sea cucumber) traders. Soon others arrived to set up shops, bars, and hotels. By 1870, the town had a population of more than 800.
The US Exploring Expedition visited in 1840 while on an expedition of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands. The expedition was of major importance to the growth of science in the United States and many of the finds made by the expedition helped form the basis of collections at the new Smithsonian Institution. During the trip, however, armed conflict between Pacific islanders and the expedition was common, and many natives were killed, as well as a few Americans.
The Colonization of Fiji
When the first modern nation state of Fiji was founded in 1871, Seru Epenisa Cakobau was crowned king at Levuka. Cakobau, a former cannibal, was converted to Christianity by a missionary and renounced cannibalism in 1854.
By claiming that he was King of Fiji, he engaged in constant warfare for almost two decades to unify the islands under his authority – since his claim was not accepted by other chiefs. Supported by foreign settlers, he united Fiji in 1871 and established Levuka as his capital. Both the legislature and the cabinet were dominated by foreigners.
King Seru Epenisa Cakobau. ( Public Domain )
His kingship was recognized by the United States before being accepted by his fellow chiefs, although this did not count in his favor. The American government held him responsible for an arson attack against the home of the American Consul in 1849, before Cakobau was king, and demanded compensation. Unable to pay the debt caused by other chiefs and fearing an American invasion, Cakobau ceded the islands to the United Kingdom in 1874. Formally relinquishing the highest title to Queen Victoria , Cakobau retained his position as Fiji’s second most senior chief until his death in 1883.
After becoming a British colony, Levuka remained the capital until 1877, but, as lack of space hindered further expansion, the administration was moved to the town of Suva, on the island of Viti Levu, the largest island in the Republic of Fiji. Businesses and many people left the old capital and Levuka seemed doomed to be forgotten.
In the 1950s, Levuka ceased to be used as a stopover port for vessels crossing the Pacific, which threatened the town with economic extinction; but a fishing company and a cannery opened and are now the largest employers on Ovalau. Tourism plays only a minor role in Ovalau’s economy, owing largely to its isolation.
Continuing Fire Hazards and Arson of the Levuka Heritage Site
At the northern end of the modern town of Levuka is the original and traditional village. The village chief is a direct descendant of the chief who welcomed the first European settlers. In memory of his ancestor, he is known as ‘Father of the Europeans’.
Much of Levuka’s heritage is in its wooden architecture. The Masonic Lodge , the oldest in the South Pacific, was established in Levuka in 1875. This Romanesque building was set alight following Fiji’s coup in 2000, taking with it the priceless historical artifacts and records of Levuka’s history. In 2008, Levuka’s Cold Storage Plant was destroyed by a fire caused during welding maintenance. The old Mavida Guest House and the General Store, which was over 100 years old, have also burnt down.
Remains of the Masonic Lodge. (Zielcke, J / CC BY 2.0 )
A well-known landmark and legacy of the Marist Fathers which is part of the World Heritage Site is the Sacred Heart Church. The church’s clock tower serves as a lighthouse to guide ships to the port through an opening in the reef.
The Ovalau Club, one of the oldest social organizations in the Pacific, and Levuka Town Hall, which houses the Levuka Town Council, were built in 1898 in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Accommodation and Sightseeing around Ovalau
Levuka has a good infrastructure and all accommodation is owner operated. For a day out, take a trip to Caqalai or Leleuvia Islands. Both are known for their beauty, white sandy beaches, and great snorkeling.
Lost Island is located nearby on the island of Yanuca Lailai, south of Ovalau. It’s an uninhabited 72- acre, volcanic rock with a coastline of mangrove, volcanic rock cliffs and beaches surrounding a thriving jungle. It’s off the tourist track and an exquisite place to get away.
The iconic white beaches of Fiji. ( Martin Valigursky / Adobe Stock)
Levuka and its neighboring islands aren’t top tourist destinations… yet, although it’s bound to happen soon. For now, Levuka historical port town is relatively unknown, but if you are lucky enough to go, ask the locals how to find ‘the secret pool’.
Top image: Main Street, Levuka historical port town. Source: Zielcke, J / CC BY 2.0