With over 300 islands set in crystal-clear waters, palm-fringed white sand beaches, lagoons and coral reefs, relaxation is big in Fiji–although there are loads of activities when you’re in the mood: amazing snorkeling, diving, jet skiing, white water rafting, swimming with manta rays or visiting local villages.
I traveled to Fiji with my 16-year-old daughter for a week of barefoot luxury, swimming and diving. At the airport, following a smooth 10-hour flight from Los Angeles, we had our first taste of local hospitality: a smiling Fijian woman graciously handed each guest a white gardenia while three handsome Fijian men, fresh flowers tucked behind their ears, serenaded us with guitars, ukuleles and traditional welcome songs.
Fiji is a famous honeymoon destination, full of five-star islands with romantic hideaways. We saw honeymooners and anniversary celebrants everywhere, at candlelit dinners for two on the beach under a sky of brilliant stars and in the hammocks outside beachside bungalows. It’s also a popular destination for families and groups of friends–modern resorts, backpackers’ bungalows, timeshares and simple hotels offer something to fit everyone’s vacation dreams and budget. Island hopping is easy, thanks to private boat services and flights between islands and the idyllic islets, often uninhabited and crowned with a single resort.
Hopping aboard an air-conditioned boat, we cruised four hours north to the remote Yasawa, a chain of 20 volcanic islands to our final destination: Navatu Stars, a small boutique property located on an uninhabited island. Six smiling staff members greeted us from the sand beach with songs, fresh fruit cocktails and flower leis of pink hibiscus.
Nine sumptuous, spacious bungalows, built in the traditional Fijian architectural style, dotted the property. Glass walls opened onto a shaded porch; two hammocks hung under trees in front of each bungalow, mere yards from the water at high tide. The roofs of each “bure” (Fijian bungalow) were woven in intricate and artful designs from coconut leaves. The carpenters’ handiwork was exquisite. Every morning fresh pink hibiscus flowers were placed in the meditative hands of the numerous stone Buddhas on the grounds.
The cuisine was as exciting as the snorkeling and the décor. A cornucopia of tropical fruits –papaya, mangos, watermelon, coconuts–was the sweetest I’ve tasted. Our sunset dinners, overlooking the water, were feasts of freshly caught fish, lobster, vegetables, fruit and herbs from their organic garden. (Navatu is an eco-friendly resort, so you won’t see turtle soup on the menu.)
One afternoon we watched the staff weave baskets of banana leaves and fill them with fish, chicken, pork, spinach, vegetables and coconut milk. Then they were placed on hot embers, covered with more leaves and left to steam for several hours. At sunset we sampled the delicious “Lovo,” the traditional Fijian feast prepared for weddings and parties.
Twenty-five employees from two local villages provide superb service, spa options and a sophisticated cuisine. Many of them arrive by boat every morning. While the resort was being constructed, directors Maddalena and Manfredi Morandi lived in a village on a neighboring island; now they’re giving back to that community, funding a kindergarten, and arranging for medical visits from American physicians. My daughter and I visited the village, met the chief and the children, wives and husbands of the hotel staff.
It’s often said that nowhere on earth will you find as friendly a people as the Fijians. We were touched by the sincerity, warmth and hospitality of the staff at Navutu Stars, and it was hard to leave an island that felt like our own little paradise. When the small boat arrived to carry us to the larger ferry, the staff serenaded us with a traditional goodbye song. We hugged and promised to return…maybe someday!