“There are fewer and fewer places left on our planet as beautiful as Fiji”
– Jean-Michel Cousteau
Reveling in Barefoot Luxury:
GRAB YOUR MASK, FINS AND SUNBLOCK AND PLACE YOUR BETS ON WHO SEES THE FIRST MANTA RAY. Over the years, the world’s best reefs have beckoned to me like a siren’s song. When I was single I dove in Hawaii, the Maldives, the Palancar Reef off Cozumel, Mexico, Tahiti, New Caledonia and along Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. On our honeymoon, and in the years before we had children, my husband and I explored the tropical waters of Palau, the Seychelles and the Indonesian waters around Komodo Island. Whenever we could do a day of diving on a vacation we jumped at the chance. Alas, day-to-day demands have forced my “surface” time to last a lot longer than my wanderlust would prefer.
For years I have yearned to return to the South Pacific and explore the technicolor coral reefs of Fiji. Another review from Jean-Michel Cousteau echoed in my mind, “Fiji’s three hundred islands offer an unparalleled range of quality dive sites. The Fijian coral communities are among the most luxurious I have ever encountered anywhere”. So, last February, I made it happen. After a smooth ten-hour flight from Los Angeles, my sixteen-year-old daughter and I touched down on Viti Levu, Fiji’s big island for a week of barefoot luxury, snorkeling and diving.
We entered the terminal, where a smiling Fijian woman graciously handed each guest a white gardenia, and three handsome Fijian men, fresh flowers tucked behind their ears, serenaded us with guitars, ukuleles and traditional welcome songs. This was our first taste of the Fijian’s genuine warmth and friendliness.
Perhaps Fiji is best known for honeymooning, diving and lavish islands with romantic five-star hideaways. Although we weren’t looking for romance, I was with my 16-year-old daughter after all, we saw honeymooners and anniversary celebrants everywhere — from candlelit dinners for two on the beach to couples soaking up romance in hammocks built for two outside beachside bungalows.
Families and groups of friends will also find that Fiji’s modern resorts, back-packer friendly bungalows, timeshare properties and simple hotels offer something to fit everyone’s vacation dreams and budget.
Fiji is composed of more than 300 islands set in crystal clear waters with 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. You can fill several days’ worth of vacation time with amazing snorkeling, diving, jet skiing, white water rafting, swimming with manta rays or visiting local villages.
Island hopping is easy, thanks to private boat services and flights between islands and islets — some crowned with a single resort, others uninhabited. We hopped aboard an air-conditioned boat and cruised four hours north to the remote Yasawa, a chain of about 20 volcanic islands, en route to our final destination: Navutu Stars Resort and Spa, an exclusive and stunningly beautiful property on an uninhabited island. Six smiling staff members greeted us from the beach with songs, fresh fruit cocktails and leis of pink hibiscus.
Nine sumptuous and spacious bungalows, built in the traditional Fijian architectural style, dotted the property. Glass walls opened onto a shaded porch and a pair of hammocks hung in front of each bungalow, mere yards from the water at high tide. The roofs of each “bure,” or Fijian bungalow, were woven in intricate and artful designs made from coconut leaves. The carpenters’ handiwork was exquisite. Every morning fresh pink hibiscus flowers would appear in the meditative hands of the numerous stone Buddhas that dotted the grounds.
Navutu Stars was tastefully designed by Maddalena and Manfredi Morandi, and Maddalena’s sister, Giovanna. The threesome has dedicated the last few years of their lives to building and managing the resort. Their warm hospitality amplifies the warmth of the property.
Twenty-five employees, from two local villages, provide superb service, spa options and a sophisticated cuisine. Many staff members arrive by boat every morning. While the resort was being constructed, Giovanna and Maddalena lived in a village on a neighboring island and now they’re giving back to that community; funding a kindergarten, and arranging for medical visits from international physicians. My daughter and I visited the village, met the chief and the children, the wives and husbands of the hotel staff.
Never Enough Time in Paradise…
The cuisine was as exciting as the snorkeling and the décor. A cornucopia of tropical fruits, including papaya, mangos, watermelon and 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 Navutu’s organic garden. It’s an eco-friendly resort, so you won’t see turtle soup on the menu. If you ask, you’ll be shown the solar heating system, two desalination machines and a staff member will take you out snorkeling to see the reef restoration project in the shallows of the lagoon.
Each morning we welcomed another idyllic day with a few yoga exercises on the deck listening to a symphony of doves and lapping waves, before a stroll down the deserted beach, followed by a swim in the warm waters, and then an hour or more of snorkeling.
One afternoon we watched the staff weave baskets of banana leaves and fill them with fish, chicken, pork, spinach, vegetables and coconut. 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.
It has been said that nowhere on earth will you find people as friendly as the Fijians. Anyone who has been to Fiji will agree. We were touched by the sincerity, warmth and hospitality of the staff at Navutu Stars. 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 and we hugged and promised to return…someday!
The best way to experience the islands is to divide your time between a larger coastal resort and one or two of the single-island resorts. So, we returned to the big island of Viti Levu, drove along the coast for 25 miles, and from Nadi International Airport, we hopped aboard a small boat to cross a lagoon to Sonaisali Island Resort. This four-and-a-half-star property, with 123 rooms is located on a man-made island filled with lush gardens of tropical plants and coconut trees that shade large, comfortable, air-conditioned bungalows, many with ocean views.
Sonaisali Island Resort makes a great base for many activities; Hobie Cat sailing, wind surfing, introduction scuba or dives for the experienced, jet ski adventures to nearby islands, volleyball, paintball, coconut tree climbing or nightly entertainment. One night we indulged ourselves at the Plantation Restaurant, a fine dining experience; other evenings we enjoyed live music, complete with limbo and Macarena dance contests.
Before we left Fiji, I wanted to dive once more and to snorkel until my hands and feet wrinkled into prunes. So for the grand finale we flew by helicopter, just 30 minutes from the Nandi Airport, to Royal Davui Island; a quiet, exclusive retreat on another tiny, perfect island, surrounded by a marine sanctuary. White sand beaches, turquoise waters and tall palms are the setting for spectacular sunsets. We immediately felt like we were millions of miles away from all civilization, drenched in an ambience that was unhurried and stress-free.
For well-healed vacationers, honeymooners, or for a splurge, the Royal Davui Resort is “over the top.” Known among discerning travelers, it has won numerous awards as a luxury hideaway. Sixteen private villas with stunning sea views of Beqa Lagoon were nestled amid lush vegetation. With a staff of 60 and a maximum of 32 guests, the resort ensures that your every need is met. Our spacious three-level villa was elegantly appointed with its own private plunge-pool, spa, adjoining lounge, sundeck and bar. At the touch of a button, the bathroom ceiling opened to the night sky. One dark, rainy night I opened the roof while I was taking warm shower. Cold raindrops splashed my shoulders and head. Each villa had a similar layout with luxury trappings.
Meals may be taken on the deck of your bungalow or in the open-air dining room suspended among the branches of a 270-year-old banyan tree. Robinson Crusoe never had it this good! A team of award-winning chefs uses the freshest local fish, fruit and flavors to create an innovative cuisine of Pacific fusion. One memorable breakfast we enjoyed apple and cashew nut pancakes with cinnamon ice cream and maple syrup, shrimp and parsley scrambled eggs, smoked marlin, and cassawa hash browns. And we ate it all!
Activities are tailored to each guest’s wishes. We discovered you may dive, snorkel, kayak or have a massage anytime. Although we walked around the island at low tide, which took just 45 minutes, we spent blissful hours, face planted in the clear water of the lagoon, snorkeling in the kaleidoscopic world of the marine sanctuary that extends 500 meters from the shore. We saw a rainbow of fish. The reef and corals appeared to be in pristine condition; from large lacey gorgonian sea fans, to soft and willowy feather stars, yellow sponges, pink mushroom coral and brain coral.
It’s no secret that global warming and human activity have destroyed coral reefs in some of the world’s prime vacation destinations. During my dives in the Yasawa Island group and off the islet of Davui, as well as during countless hours of snorkeling, I breathed a sigh of relief, seeing little damage to Fiji’s underwater treasures. It’s a precious setting I’m thankful to have shared with my equally adventurous daughter, creating memories that are sure to rise in value as the years pass.
For more information about Fiji, visit the official Fiji Tourism site at: http://www.bulafiji.com