Moon Handbooks FIJI
by David Stanley
Seventh Edition. Emeryville (CA): Avalon Travel Publishing. 2004. xviii, 356pp. (Maps, B&W photos, colour frontispiece.) US$17.95. Paperback. ISBN 1-56691-497-3.
[See UPDATE at the end of this review, pointing out that the Ninth Edition was published in 2011]
The niche market for travel handbooks is a competitive one. A quick keyword search of Amazon.com turns up over 9,000 titles with some mention of Fiji, with at least four current publications dedicated exclusively to Fiji. Two of these were published in 2002, one in 2003, and now in late 2004, there is David Stanley's 7th edition of Moon Handbooks' popular Fiji travel guides. Earlier states of this were "Fiji Handbooks and Travel Guide" and even earlier "Finding Fiji". As well as being the most recent of the four on offer, it is also the most expensive. But in the scale of a Fiji holiday or business trip, the few dollars' difference in price is neither here nor there. Rather, the focus should be on the book's content and emphasis. The task of such books is to go beyond providing merely a list of addresses and prices, and to provide the reader with some knowledge about the place they are visiting. Since the writer can not have any idea of the interests or intellectual capacities of his/her readers, they must try to at the same time provide quite a lot of information, and keep the tone light and style easy. No easy task.
Readers of my website will realise that it is unusual for me to comment publicly on anything that is not either a research information source or an academic publication. Certainly Fiji travel guides (at least those post-World War 2) have never been of great interest to me. As one born and raised in Fiji in the 1940s and 50s, and who has made frequent trips back there since the early 1970s, I feel pretty confident that I know where to look for what I want to find, and that has very seldom included a "tourist experience". However, as an inveterate world traveller, I have regularly had recourse to guidebooks for other countries. Hopefully I fit Donald Horne's definition of an "Intelligent Tourist"  as well as a Fijian. So when I was approached to review this book, I agreed, though not without some misgivings. A background in rigorous academic discipline is not necessarily best suited to reviewing something aimed at the masses who have neither pretension to, not interest in, painstaking accuracy, but want to be intrigued and entertained. I have tried to keep those possible disjunctures in mind while writing what follows.
The first thing that took my attention on opening the book was a good double-page map of Vitilevu, Ovalau and the Mamanuca and Yasawa Groups. There is useful stuff on this map most tourist maps of Fiji are dreadful affairs, often in lurid colours and with information that is minimal in quantity and accuracy. Here towns, some geographical landmark hotels and 3 major airports are noted, but so are major roads, rivers and major rural settlements throughout the island the last feature unique on such maps, as far as I know, and no doubt useful for someone that has hired a 4WD and is cruising off the beaten track.
There are two other double-page spreads, maps of the Fiji Group, which unfortunately aren't as good. Curiously, the Key to Map Symbols (which you finally come to realise is meant to relate to all three spreads) is on the last map clearly it should be on the first. As well, the actual intent of the maps is not immediately clear. The problems could be easily resolved, by giving each map a clear caption explaining its intent, and by placing a Key on each map, with only the relevant features for that particular map.
The Introduction, that starts with a geographical overview of the Group, is well handled. The language is pitched well, easy to read and not too "dumbed down", with a lot of information packed into a relatively few pages. The inset box on Climate Change (global warming) is good to see here, and the Climate Chart (temperatures and rainfalls by month and location) is great the sort of information I have spent hours scouring the Internet for before booking a trip or setting off for a place will it be wet, hot, mild etc? This is separated from the "what to wear" section that occurs a fair bit later in the book, though some sort of cross-reference here could be useful. The "Hurricane" inset box is a good idea too, though it is a bit vague to really give you a rule of thumb if in January your rented bure gets blown away (along with all your luggage), you might reasonably feel that you weren't sufficiently warned that it is THE prime danger month! Pointing out that hurricanes can on rare occasions occur from October to May is sensibly cautious on the author's part, but really doesn't do it if you are trying to decide when and where to go!
The section on sharks is also good to see. This is always a hard call. A lot of shark attacks in Fiji never get recorded people with missing limbs are not uncommon in remote villages, some of them the result of attacks way upstream in rivers. Also, even in recent years there have been inter-island ship sinkings with many shark deaths resulting. But with Fiji's dependence on its tourist trade, such things are certainly not given media prominence. Reasonably enough, Stanley points out there have been very few attacks on skindivers or tourists, but the warnings and precautions he suggests are sensible not sensationalist but not dismissive of the dangers either.
The History and Government section will also be useful to anyone who wants to know a lot more about the country than they will get in brochures (or many newspaper or magazine articles). However, one problem I inevitably do encounter in such works is the reiteration of urban myths, presented as fact. To take just one example, I would refer the writer to Fergus Clunie's Yalo-i-Viti  for an accurate statement about the use of so-called "cannibal forks". It is time the myth about Fijians not wanting to touch human flesh was finally scotched it seems to be the one thing everyone remembers about Fijian cannibalism, and it is wrong! The truth about the use of forks is actually far more intriguing, though a little more complicated, so telling it won't wreck the livelihood of handicraft carvers of souvenir "cannibal forks" overnight! Sadly, it probably won't affect the power of the old urban myths either, but one can only try. There are more of such items scattered through the text.
That said, the summary of history, people, and customs that is provided is actually a lot better than most such offerings I have seen. Indeed, the section "Since Independence" is really extremely good, well-researched, accurate and uncompromising. I would be happy to commend this section to anyone wanting a very brief summary of the events in that turbulent period. "The shadow of May 19, 2000 continues to hang over Fiji" is the final comment, and that shadow is darker and more frightening today than when the author wrote it, presumably in 2004.
The inclusion of "Conduct" (Dress, Questions, Dangers and annoyances" in this Introductory section seems rather odd. It is a very important section, but its very importance suggests it should kick off the next section on "Exploring the Islands", rather than getting lost at the end of a long information section that many may not bother to read. And let's face it, those least likely to read such information are the very ones most likely to need the lecture about conduct!
The "Exploring the Islands" section has a lot of the useful stuff for planning a trip that is to be found in all travel guides. It includes: a listing of "10 Top Sights of Fiji" (I think he means "Sites", and listing them as though their status is a fact rather than the author's opinion is questionable "David Stanley's Top 10 Sites" would be preferable); where Fiji Tourist and Diplomatic Offices are in overseas countries; Health and Safety; Getting there; finding Internet cafés; booking packages, tours, cruises, cars; and so on and on. The data that is assembled here appears very comprehensive and will no doubt prove very useful particularly at an early stage in planning a trip.
My principal suggestion would be that the logistical material (what, how and where) should be separated from the cultural information such as "Fijian Dancing (Meke)", "Arts and Crafts (Pottery, Weaving, Tapa)". Again, this stuff seems to get a bit lost in amongst the lists of sports available, public holidays and Accommodation Categories. As a specialist researcher in Fijian art I winced at some of the over-confident generalisations about pottery, weaving and "tapa", and I would again suggest that a reading of Clunie or my own Fijian Artefacts  might help improve this stuff.The bits about "Staying in Villages" and "Village etiquette" are very good to see, and are sensible and helpful. Perhaps putting them all together along with the lonely little piece on "Conduct" mentioned above, in a distinct sub-section of "Getting Around", would give these important sections greater impact.
The rest of the book is devoted to the sections that are really the best value in this guide the detailed sections on various regional groupings such as Nadi and the Mamanucas, The Coral Coast, Pacific Harbour (here erroneously spelt Harbor in the US manner), and so on. Each of the areas is dealt with in detail, there are remarkably good maps of each area and settlements/towns in it, accommodation, transport, shopping and so on. A quite remarkable amount of information has been assembled on each place, and this would be a very useful resource for anyone either planning a trip or while they are actually staying in any of the places concerned. Here also, the writing seems to change up a gear from that in the "general information" section, becoming more animated and involving for the reader. This is less so in at least some of the information about some of the resorts, hotels etc. The author has a disclaimer about brochures, but I felt that some of this does read as though it was provided by the establishment itself. Of course, it is hard to imagine anyone being able to stay at all of the great array of places listed, and in many cases the places themselves are probably the only source of some of the information. That said, however, what actually is surprising is how much does come across as first-hand experience, and that is both enjoyable reading and very valuable.
The book concludes with a glossary, word lists of a few Fijian and Hindi terms, a reading list (strong on history, weak on culture and society particularly arts), internet resources, and finally a good index that is very necessary given that the various topics, as mentioned several times above, tend to be a bit jumbled up in places. That, in fact, would be my principal reservation having read through the whole guide. The "general" information in the first two sections of the book could use a rigorous re-organization by an independent editor to make it more structured and easier to navigate. This is far less of an issue for the subsequent "regional" sections, where it is safe to surmise that readers will focus on the area in which they are going to stay. They will tend to want to know all about that area, so will read everything carefully, in whatever order it is presented. Indeed, in those sections the blend of tourist information (what, when, where) is nicely leavened by historical and anecdotal inserts throughout. As I said above, these sections are the best in the book, and it is here that the author's real engagement with Fiji comes across.
Indeed, what I found most positive about this guide is the feeling of the author's personal involvement. It is easy to believe his claim at the beginning of the book that the South Pacific is his favourite area, and Fiji appears to have a special meaning to him. There is an enthusiasm about the places described that is infectious, and coupled with a lot of generally-well-researched information, it makes for a handbook that is both interesting and quite packed with information of various sorts. Probably the most significant feeling I was left with is one of astonishment that someone so peripatetic, who has written guides to so many places all over the globe, and who, for all his enthusiasm, is neither a specialist researcher nor a permanent resident of any of them, has been able to do such a good job of putting together what is, overall, an impressive little document about Fiji. I have not compared it with its competitors, but it actually did leave me with the feeling that maybe I should have a look at them too. If I do, I will put a review of them on this website at a later stage.
 Horne, D. (1992). The intelligent tourist. Sydney, Margaret Gee Publishing.
 Ewins, R. (1982). Fijian Artefacts: the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Collection. Hobart, Tasmanian Museum & Art Gallery. Available by direct order (payment by PayPal) from http://www.justpacific.com/fiji/sale.html
© Rod Ewins 2005-2011. Not to be cited or excerpted without specific permission from the author.
UPDATE (Jan 2011): The ninth edition of Moon Fiji was published by Avalon Travel Publishing,Berkeley (CA), in January, 2011. 419pp. Paperback. ISBN 1598807374 or 978-1598807370. It is available from the publisher and other outlets for US$19.95.