You might think that once you arrive in Fiji - you'll find some reasonable way to get out to the islands (of which there are many) other than the one or two pricey options you've found online.
The unfortunate truth is that is not the case. It might be possible, if you know someone who's local and has a boat that you might be able to get out to the islands in some other way - or if you have enough disposable cash for the trip that finding some other charter might be a possibility. But for the bulk of travellers you are stuck with the pricey and less than pleasant options of the Malolo Cat and the Yasawa Flyer.
For certain islands you also have the option of a small flight out. And though I never took this options, the stories I did hear about it from other travellers didn't leave me regretting that decision. It seemed they were largely very uncertain in when and even if they would fly - several people I spoke to had ended up all but stranded on remote islands. And the other issue almost everyone I spoke to had was that they were frightening and uncomfortable planes to fly on.
However - if you're not keen on the idea of an hour rammed on to a boat full of tourists and have the cash - the views flying over the Fijian islands would be outstanding. That, too, was something that everyone who flew agreed on.
For myself, I was left going by boat. And though I had desperately hoped to find a cheaper, more local way to get out to any part of the islands, it really didn't seem that that was the case. For most travellers, the choice boils down to
1. Malolo Cat
2. Yasawa Flyer.
The Malolo Cat, a 16 meter catamaran which holds 60 people departs three times a day from Denarau on Viti Levu heading out to the Mamanuca Islands. Because of the lack of options to the Mamanucas, getting on is madness. The docks fill with hot, annoyed tourists and very quickly what was a nice little harbour area becomes like the cattle pens at a farm auction.
The boat itself is fine. They boast it's comfort - and it really isn't bad. It's always cramped - but not insanely so - and you do have the option of sitting out in the sun or inside some shade for the hour ride out to the Mamanucas.
The boat goes from Port Denarau to Malolo Lailai island in the Mamanuca chain. This is something you can use as a day trip (the first boat of the day leaves Denarau at 10:30 and the last boat leaves Malolo Lailai at 15:15.) to check out Musket Cove - or as the only option to transfer to a resort in the Mamanucas.
This will cost $55 per person each way. Be sure to have everything arranged before you go - as it is difficult to impossible to arrange from island to island once you are there. And if you do manage it, it will be Very expensive.
When we had issues with one of our bookings and wanted to leave the Mamanucas to catch the Yasawa Flyer out to the Yasawas, the resort we were at was going to have to take us out on a flat boat to try to catch it and charge us $75.
I recommend you prearrange as much as possible and arrive as early as you can.
To get to the Yasawa Islands, your only option other than flying is The Yasawa Flyer.
Though the boat itself is very nice - quite spacious with indoor seating and upper deck seating - I found it incredibly depressing. It is the only water transport out to the Yasawas, and is in conjunction with Awesome Adventures, a backpacker tour company which sets up touristy student tours of Fiji. It meant that we were crammed on a boat for many hours (2 to the nearest island of Waya and 4 1/2 to the farthest stopping point of Nacula) with loads of island hopping students. All of whom had been travelling from spot to spot, with the same people. It was New Zealand travel all over again.
It's a large catamaran which holds up to 270 people - and you really feel that when you are on it. Especially on the trip back, it seems especially filled with tourists.
It also only makes one loop a day so you have one shot to get on and off at your stop. If you miss the Yasawa Flyer - your there for another day.
The cost of this is $120 per person each way - so to get to and from just one island you are looking at almost $300.(Fijian) Which does of course have a major impact on the value of whatever resort you stay at.
I highly recommend that if you do go this route - (and you should - the Yasawa islands are what Fiji is all about) then get a 'Bula pass' This allows you one return trip from Denarau to the Yasawas, and you can hop on and off as much as you like between islands in the Yasawas. It's a 7 day pass and this could end up being invaluable if you have any issues with the resort you have booked and want to change resorts. It's also very good if you want to stay more than one place in the Yasawas.
As we had many booking issues we had only booked a normal return trip, and regretted it immensely. Everyone who was on the Bula pass was very glad that they were. If means you can even go from island to island just to sight see if you like.
The cost for the Bula Pass is $299 for 7 days (you can purchase them for as many as 21 days) And though that had seemed like a lot when we were first looking at the costs, it works out as only very slightly more than a normal return. Even if you are only planning one stop in the Yasawas I would recommend this option.
It's not ideal that there is so little option and that is it pricey and highly used - but to make the most of it is a nice boat that you are riding on, you certainly feel safe motoring your way through the Pacific. The seating is comfortable, however if you are at all worried about too much sun exposure get an indoor cabin early. I myself - with my Irish skin - ended up getting fried on the way back because all the indoor seats were taken.
And the views are amazing. I've never had too much problem with sea sickness, but even on the two and half our trip I didn't have any problems at all, and one of the journeys was quite rough.
They certainly could be worse - just take some music and try to ignore all the backpackers and enjoy the view!