Colonial Levuka: A Peek into Fiji’s Heritage and Local Life

Posted on April 15, 2013 by

Bula from Fiji! We’re here in Fiji, just back on the mainland, after a week of sailing with Captain Cook Cruises around Fiji’s Northern Islands. We’ve got plenty of stories to share, here’s a story about the colonial town of Levuka and its warm, friendly people.

Our voyage with Captain Cook Cruises was named the Heritage Cruise for good reasons — we would be venturing beyond the beautiful beaches and digger deeper into Fiji’s history and local culture. On the third day of our voyage, we did just that. We went back in time, to the colonial days of Fiji in the old capital of Levuka on Ovalau Island.

It was here where the Europeans first settled in Fiji. Because of its safe anchorage (protected by the Lekaleka Reef) and central location, Levuka was originally chosen as the capital of Fiji. Soon it became the center of British colonial administration and trade. Traders began arriving in the 1830s, and they were a lawless collection of fugitives, whalers, pioneers and missionaries. At its peak over 50 hotels catered to the thirst of sailors in port and the town gained a wild reputation. It also became the first seat of power of the “King of Fiji”, Ratu Seru Cakabau in 1871. But Levuka was unable to develop further as a capital as the green hills that rise behind the town made it impossible to expand. In 1894, the capital of Fiji was moved to Suva on the main island of Viti Levu.

Levuka from above

Walking into Fiji’s Past

Today, Levuka is a quirky conglomeration of colorful 19th century colonial houses and waterfront promenades. Over 2,000 people live in town and 6,000 others are scattered across the entire island. Along Beach Street, we found ourselves wandering through remnants of the bygone era. At the start of the street, we found the sea wall that was constructed by the royal engineers in 1874. The sea wall plays an important part in protecting the people against the pounding waves that come with cyclones-  and yet we found this one at Levuka in less than desirable conditions.

Beach Street in Levuka

Our next stop was the Levuka Historical Museum, with a small and eclectic collection of old photographs from Levuka- featuring local tribes, heroes and important events. The museum was established by the Levuka Historical Society in the former Morris Hedstrom building which now oozes vintage and  historical charm. It’s now managed by the National Trust of Fiji and is opened to the public for a small donation.

Levuka Museum

We then passed a small kava market right by the seafront, where vendors had set up their stalls under a large mango tree. Clusters of dark brown kava (the root of pepper plant commonly consumed in Fiji and other parts of the South Pacific) laid out on the cardboard stands. Bright green dalo (taro) leaves and sweet potatoes were on offer, as were long beans and green plantains. We stopped for a chat with these friendly ladies, who all warmly welcomed us with “Bula!” Across the street was a myriad of grocery stores, mostly managed by Fijian Indians, who make up around 35% of the population.

Vegetable vendors

Further down the street, we found ourselves staring at the grey coral stone facade of the Sacred Heart Church. The most impressive feature of the church was surely the clock tower that pokes above its rooftop. Every hour, the clock strikes, sending echoes through the hills of Levuka. Built by the French Marist priests around 1858, the church is a testimony of the work that missionaries did back in those days. Since their arrival in the 1800s, they not only converted most Fijians to Christianity but also put a stop to the old cannibalism traditions.

Sacred Heart Church

A few blocks parallel to the Beach Street is the Town Hall erected in 1898 in honor of Queen Victoria’s jubilee. These days it houses the offices of the Levuka town council, Fiji’s oldest municipality. Next to it was the remains of the Masonic Lodge, home of the Lodge Polynesia where the Masonic Order was founded in 1875. The building was sadly torched during the July 2000 coup by a mob from the mountain village. It’s yet to be restored and its charred structure still stands.

Masonic Lodge

Learning About the Present

Towards the end of our walk in Levuka, we had the opportunity to visit Delana Primary School along with the crew of Captain Cook Cruises. Constructed by the Methodist missionaries in 1851, this was where public education in Fiji began. Now there are over 100 students, ranging from age 5 to 14.

We watched the children dance, wiggle, and laugh — and also got to speak to them, asking them about life in school and on the island.  It was an incredible experience for both us and the children – they had the chance to practice English and interact with foreigners, while we enjoyed the company of the children while learning about local life on the island.

Children at Delana Primary School performing for us

Children performing traditional dances

The cruise company has worked with the school for over 10 years, donating $5 for every passenger on board. There have been tremendous improvements in the school — with new fences, partitioned staffroom, better equipped toilets and cement pavement. Their next plan is to buy a computer for the school.

This collaboration between the cruise company and the school first came about thanks to John Milesi, an Australian who owns Levuka Homestay and a long-term resident on the island. “We wanted to let visitors get to meet locals and find a way for children to benefit too,” he told us, “Captain Cook has since made a huge improvement to their lives.”

That day, we said goodbye to the adorable children and left the school, contented that we had helped – albeit just a little – to make a difference.

children singing
Boys performing
Delana Primary School classroom

Extra Info:

This visit to Delana Primary School was organized by Captain Cook Cruise during our heritage cruise on board the MV Reef Endeavour. Each time the cruise calls on the Levuka port, it offers a free visit to the school for passengers of the cruise, to give them an opportunity to interact with local children and understand how they learn and live. We found it to be a great experience and highly recommend it to anyone who goes to Fiji.

Disclaimer: Our trip was made possible by Captain Cook Cruises, Air Pacific and Tourism Fiji, but all opinions expressed above are our own.

About Nellie Huang

Nellie Huang is a professional travel writer and blogger with a special interest in off-grid destinations and adventure travel. Her mission is to visit every country in the world. In her quest, she's climbed an active volcano in Iceland, swam with sealions in the Galapagos, built a school in Tanzania, waddled with penguins in Antarctica, crossed into North Korea and drank beer in Palestine.

4 Responses to “Colonial Levuka: A Peek into Fiji’s Heritage and Local Life”

  1. andiperullo April 17, 2013 7:10 am #

    I love that the cruise donates money — that is amazing!!! Fiji's history really fascinates me. I tried to learn a bit of it when I was there myself, but the beaches kept calling out to me!!!

  2. Robyn Mortimer October 6, 2013 2:27 pm #

    Hi Nellie …. enjoyed your travel spin on Levuka… efforts are being made to move the Museum section from its present home to a new site in the old ruined Masonic Lodge… Levuka has been named as a World Heritage Site and this would help celebrate this honor and provide a larger showcase the town's incredible history. At the same time provide more room in the library for a children's section.

    Right now the committee organising this huge project needs help both monetary and with publicity… perhaps when next you visit you could touch on this… Regards, Robyn … [email protected]

    • Nellie October 18, 2013 8:41 am #

      I sure will get in touch when I visit next. Levuka definitely made an impression and we cant wait to get back. Thanks for all the information, glad the committee is improving things in Levuka!


  1. 2013: Our Year in Photos | Travel Junket - April 27, 2015

    […] on the Heritage Cruise brought us from Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, around to its west coast to the old colonial capital of Levuka and up to the northern islands – Vanua Levu and Taveuni. What I loved about this heritage […]

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