Levuka: The Changing Faces of Fiji’s First Capital
To truly understand Fiji’s past, head to Levuka, a colonial seaside town on the rugged eastern coast of Ovalau that was once Fiji’s first capital and now, the only UNESCO World Heritage site.
Levuka’s history reads like some fictional South Sea adventure novel set on a tiny island outpost world away from Europe’s stately castles, vast cities and broad boulevards.
The quaint weatherboard buildings that line main street today mask a wilder era when copra laden cutters crowded the bay and rowdy patrons packed into noisy saloons. But the old-world atmosphere remains thick and a walk down the town’s quiet lanes easily transports you back in time.
Levuka’s roots trace European settlement in Fiji, stretching back to the 1820s, when beche-de-mer traders and whalers established a small trading post on Ovalau island in central Fiji.
The town’s early settlers were a mixed lot of traders, castaways, convicts and deserters who drifted in with the tides and mingled with planters, missionaries and merchants.
Despite having no official government to settle their disputes, the town flourished. By the 1870s Levuka was the region’s most important trading post with over 3000 European residents and 52 bars and boarding houses crowding the small stretch of coastline.
When the powerful Bauan chief Ratu Seru Cakobau ceded Fiji to Great Britain in 1874, Levuka was the new nation’s natural choice for Fiji’s first capital.
But fate – in the form of 600m cliffs - had other plans for the burgeoning town. Confined to a narrow coastal strip, Levuka’s time in the sun only lasted 8 years but not before it had established a number of Fiji’s firsts –the first school, post office, hospital, newspaper.
With little flat land to accommodate the rapidly expanding town, the Capital was moved to Suva in 1882. When many businesses followed suit, Levuka’s political and economic importance dwindled even further.
Levuka joined the illustrious list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2013. Its cited as “a rare example of a late colonial port town, which illustrates the cultural hybridity of non-settler communities in the Pacific…’
The numerous bars and boarding houses of Levuka’s heyday have largely disappeared - lost to the ravages of time, hurricanes and repeated raids by highland tribes. But some of the boom-time buildings are still intact, thanks in part to Levuka’s isolation and the pride that locals have in their historic town.
If you’re the sort of traveler that seeks out places with a unique story, simple charm and buckets of character, then it’s worth checking out this small corner of Fiji.
Northern Air runs a daily 15min flight from Suva’s Nausori Airport to Bureta Airstrip on Ovalau (40 minutes outside Levuka town). There are no flights on Sundays. Booking Contact: (+679) 347 5005
Patterson Shipping has a daily bus and ferry service that leaves the Suva bus depot at 1.30pm. It’s a much longer trip but an excellent way to see more of Ovalau island and chat with the locals. Booking Contact: Ph: (+679) 331 5644
Start your tour of Levuka at the old Morris Hedstrom building on Beach Street. It houses the museum and community centre who can answer your questions and help set you up with historical tours and guided treks.
See more: https://levukafiji.com/