The very word evokes images of sun-kissed beaches and five-star resorts oozing tropical cool. Yet there’s a whole lot more to this South Pacific idyll than what can be seen from the edge of an oasis-themed swimming pool. And there’s no better place to see it than on the main island of Viti Levu – a hyper-fertile body of towering mountains, old-growth rainforests, raging rivers and bat-filled caves – most of which are easily accessible but still very much off the beaten path. It’s only on visiting the highlands that one comes to understand that the ‘real Fiji’ lies not on a map, but in the welcoming hearts and open minds of its village people. From the stern yet welcoming handshake of a village headman, to the open-door policy of Hindu festivals and Sunday mass, to the deep philosophical discussions reserved for the small number of travellers who venture into Viti Levu’s spiritual heartland, Fiji remains an adventurist’s wet dream.

The Sleeping Giant Nowhere in Fiji is the contrast between the interior and the coast more starkly manifest than in the Sabeto Valley. Perched beneath The Sleeping Giant, a thickly forested saw-tooth ridge, which, when viewed from a southerly vector resembles a prostrated human form,this velvet-green basin lies but a 10-minute drive from the airport.

The Sabeto Valley makes for an ideal introduction to the slow, wholesome way of life enjoyed by the friendly villagers and farmers who live and die in the highlands. Comprised of an eclectic mix of Melanesians and the descendents of Girmitiyas – Indian labourers shipped here to cut sugarcane in the 1870s – they love nothing more than to kill time drinking kava, a mildly narcotic pepper-plant around which all Fijians bond.

The highlanders are also kings of hospitality. When I went to see the rainforest at the village of Nagado – an hour-long, 50-cent bus ride up Sabeto Road – I ended up at a traditional Indian wedding where I was afforded the dual title of official photographer and special guest. A similar thing happened to Paul Mueller from Hamburg, the only other Westerner I met during my weekend there. He’d planned to visit the nearby geothermal hot springs, where mud wraps and Fijian bobo massages are offered for a nominal fee, but was instead roped into a game of touch rugby and a swim in the Sabeto River with a group of local kids.

“The villages here are nothing like the pretentious touristy ones where they come out singing and dancing,” says Michelle Khan, co-owner of Stoney Creek Resort, a budget-priced eco-lodge recently listed among the world’s top 10 “Coolest Hostels” by UK newspaper The Guardian. “They have nothing to sell but the organic fruits and vegetables they grow, everything from eggplant to wild bananas to green chilies, spinach and pawpaw.”

The Sabeto Valley is also renowned for its plump juicy mangos, while equatorial orchids are also found in the valley and can be seen in abundance at the Garden of the Sleeping Giant on Wailoko Road. Established in 1977 by the late US actor Raymond Burr of Perry Mason fame, the garden is home to 1,500 varieties of orchids, as well as a jungle boardwalk showcasing indigenous flowering plants and trees. Other attractions include the Lomolomo Gun Battery, built by US marines during WWII to defend Nadi Bay from a Japanese landing that never happened; a whitewashed mosque; and the Shri Ganesh Hindu temple and Masimasi Primary School.

The principal, Ravinesh Narayan, welcomes foreigners to sit in on classes anytime, while Ilisoni Galaga, the headman of neighbouring Nambotini Village, is in the process of establishing a homestay programme.“Our plan is to have foreigners stay with local families, go fishing with them and to do some work in the gardens,” he says.“ They will eat whatever we eat and on their final night we’ll cook them a lovo,” – a traditional Fijian banquet where meat and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves are slow-baked using hot stones packed in a hole underground.

Up in the clouds There are two entry points into the Nasouri Highlands, both offering spectacular ascents into an otherworldly landscape reminiscent of the lower Himalayas or the north of Laos.The first and most dramatic is the aforementioned Sabeto Road. This rocky thoroughfare climbs 1,500m to a summit named Heaven’s Edge, from where you can see both the distant Mamanuca island chain to the west and Vatura Dam to the east. The second route begins in Ba, a laidback Indo-Fijian town on Viti Levu’s north coast. Surrounded by sugarcane plantations, Ba comes to life every September, when thousands rock up for the annual bougainvillea and horseracing carnival.

A two-hour journey from Ba takes travellers through rolling green countryside enveloped in mist to the village of Navala on the banks of the Ba River. Navala is unique in that it’s purported to be the last village in Viti Levu where all the houses are built in the traditional bure palm-thatch style. But the people of Navala have caught on and a bure-themed B&B has opened.

For a less picturesque but more authentic experience, try the village of Bukuya about an hour up road. Housing in Bukuya consists of both bures and corrugated iron boxes, but the views of nearby Mount Mangodro will take your breath away.On arrival, visitors must pay respects to Chief Jo Ratusimiome. A former South Pacific middleweight boxing champion, the chief now spends his time play fighting with his grandchildren.It’s nice to bring a gift of kava or cigarettes but it’s in no way required.

The villagers of Bukuya are equally generous and go out of their way to befriend strangers from abroad. It’s hard to believe that a little more than a century ago the Nasourians were ravenous cannibals who at times dismembered their victims in stages or tossed them into the pot – live!

The introduction of Christianity in the late 19th century put an end to the gruesome spectacle and today Fijians are devout believers in the karmic code. “We changed our life from darkness to light by embracing Jesus Christ and then by going to school to learn and understand everything that is happening in the world,” says Rupeni Namau-ba, a cassava farmer who hosted me for two nights in his family home.

What really impresses in Viti Levu from an ecological perspective is the abundance and quality of water. The Sigatoka River is its second-largest source – a flood-prone vessel that winds its way down the Nasouri Highlands into the Sigatoka Valley like a heavily-coiled snake.Hundreds of archaeological sites showing evidence of cannibalism and ancient drumbeat communication systems have been found along its banks.

To experience Fijian water at its purest, follow the coastal road 30km east from Sigatoka city to the village of Biausevu. There you’ll find Boro Finau, a lifelong Biausevu resident who lives in a stilt house ringed by a crystal clear stream. Boro and his family offer horseback tours to the Savu Na Mete Waterfall – a 10 metre-high cascade that empties into an Edenesque lagoon. ”When people come here they say they know they are in the real Fiji,” Boro says. “The Fiji of my ancestors, the Fiji I know my children will enjoy.”

The damage & the details: Beds at Sabeto Valley’ Stoney Creek Resort (Ph: +679 672 2206,www.stoneycreekfiji.net) cost from NZ$25 a night. Beds at Buluo’s Eco Lodge in Navala (Ph: +679 628 1224) cost from NZ$46 a night.