By Shahida Sakeri on May 15, 2018
Imagine having sunlight that brightly warms up the nape of your neck as it sparkles on the surface of the sea against the crystal blue waters of the South Pacific Ocean; and sea birds swoop and dip over the gentle waves while sea breeze brings with it the sound of a four-stringed guitar as you walk barefoot over sun-heated sands of beautiful white shores with swaying palm trees – a splendid vision of a tropical paradise, don’t you agree? And that paradise is to be found in… Fiji.
Such scenery is common in Fiji, an exotic ultra-seductive destination that is seemingly off-limits to most travellers from South East Asia until Fiji Airways decided to offer direct flights connecting Singapore Changi Airport to the country’s main hub, Nadi International Airport. This South Pacific Island nation is made up of 333 spectacular islands in the South Pacific, in which only 110 of them are inhabited. Vitu Levu is the largest island covering more than half of the nation, and hosts various cities and towns including its capital, Suva, and Nadi, where the international airport is located.
Both culturally and geographically, Fiji is on the dividing line between Polynesia and Melanesia, midway between Tahiti and Australia. Today (at the point of writing), the country still has fewer than one million permanent residents with two main ethnicities: native Fijians and Indo-Fijians. The latter were brought in from India by the British to work on the sugarcane plantations. English is the official language here; however, the indigenous language Bauan is still spoken in some areas.
The First Fijian Taste
Upon arrival at Nadi, travellers could either proceed to their chosen idyllic sun-drenched retreat straight away since getting around is relatively easy with plenty of domestic flights and cruises available either at Nadi airport or Port Denarau Marina respectively; or, they could make the town as a first base and get started in exploring the country’s best offerings. In case travellers prefer to begin their tours in Nadi, then they are welcome to opt for Tour Managers Fiji (www.tourmanagersfiji.com), a well-established specialist tour operator that brings travellers around to popular attractions, including The Garden of The Sleeping Giant, Sabeto Hot Springs and Mud Pool, and Viseisei Village.
I found my way through the timeworn yet charming Nadi. Outside the window of our taxi, the varying landscapes from broad fields and green farms to delightful small shops, slower traffic and laidback residences managed to push my relax button almost instantly. Somehow, the landscape also made me feel nostalgic as the town reminds me of my grandparents’ hometown in Kelantan where I grew up.
There are plenty of great accommodation options to stay when in Nadi, including Novotel Nadi that is situated merely three to five minutes’ drive away from the airport and ten minutes to the town. The hotel possesses its own charming character while the rooms are all facing either a golf course or a tropical garden. Should travellers prefer a beachfront property, then Denarau Island – 30 minutes’ drive from the town – also features popular chain resorts.
Distinctively inspired by Fiji, The Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa presents Fijian heritage with indigenous touches through its design and weekly cultural nights, taking place every Wednesday and Saturday. The neighbouring sister property Sheraton Fiji Resort, on the other hand, offers more contemporary luxurious look with the addition of uber-popular restaurant called the Flying Fish Fiji by Peter Kuruvita. Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa provides off-the-charts service levels and escapism comes easily here thanks to the swanky adults-only beach club.
However, for travellers who long for a more secluded paradise but are tied to the main island, they could always opt for a day tour to Malamala Beach Club, located on its very own island just 25 minutes from Port Denarau. A day pass to the club has seven-day validity, in which visitors can enjoy return trips with discounted transfer fees on South Sea Cruises. At the beach club, expect to experience white sand beaches, beachside cabanas, a resort style infinity edge pool and revolutionary gastronomic offerings curated by the Fiji’s very own celebrity chef, Lance Seeto. Before him, eating out in Fiji used to be a stodgy and heavily salted experience. Nowadays, Lance has set the local culinary standard high with his continuous innovation and sophisticated flair, making the food scene more exciting.
Digital Detox in the Mamanuca
When seclusion is paramount, Castaway Fiji is the ideal hideaway. Stepping into this resort is like entering a world frozen in time, a dreamscape where days go by slowly as guests detach themselves from the outside world and become a modern Robinson Crusoe. The resort takes pride in the ability to immerse guests into the local culture, underwater explorations and tropical native island forest with simple yet delightful indulgences and activities.
The resort nestles in the heart of stunning Mamanuca Islands group, accessible by seaplanes or cruises that leave Port Denarau daily. Upon arrival, my group and I were serenaded with joyful acoustic welcoming songs. Check-in process was done casually at its Sundowner Bar, which also serves up amazing wood fired pizzas and cocktails (or mocktails). I was thereafter escorted to my beach bure (bungalow), an Eden of rustic design only steps away from the shoreline. Integrating clean lines and replete with motifs that remind guests that they are in Fiji, my room is simple, yet oozes comfort and style at its best. It is furnished with wooden interiors of earthy tones, cosy daybeds and floor-to-ceiling glass doors that allow ample of natural light into the room and poetry-inspiring views of the brilliant blue lagoon.
However, there was no television set. I instantly checked for phone coverage – nada. As a person who constantly scrolls her Instagram feed and checks up for messages on WhatsApp, this situation honestly did make me panic. What if something happened to my family? What if there’s an earthquake nearby and I won’t know for days? What if Ed Sheeran got married secretly in a far-flung country? Shuddered by my own thoughts, I went outside and took a stroll on the lovely sweep of beachfront. Minutes afterwards, all my worries seemed to fade away…
One thing that often frustrates me when I am on an island getaway is the fact that I am a poor swimmer. Fortunately, Castaway Fiji is surrounded by a clear but shallow and safe lagoon with plenty of fish that are easy to spot without having to venture further. For those who do, especially during high tide, there’s a stunning coral reef nearby for them to explore.
In between swims and beachside reading, I enjoyed scrumptious fare at the resort’s main food and beverage venue, Water’s Edge Restaurant, serving international and local delicacies buffet-style – their coconut cookies are just to die for. Restaurant 1808 is an adults-only epicurean escape serving Asian Fijian fusion while the poolside cafe, Nuku Marau, offers a la carte items like chips and burgers. Oh by the way, the water in the resort is safe to drink.
On Wednesday, Castaway Fiji celebrates the traditional iTaukei culture with special activities on offer throughout the day. I managed to join in a cooking class with Executive Chef Markus Nufer, who taught us how to do the Fiji’s national dish, kokoda: citrus-cured local fish, sea grapes and ferns in smoked coconut milk. At night, we were treated to a Meke show of action dance and songs and special cultural performance by the children who had been cared by the resort’s meimei (nannies) at the children club. On top of these, a lovo buffet dinner is also served at Water’s Edge, featuring meats, fishes and vegetables slow-cooked in an underground pit.
Besides water activities, Castaway Fiji offers educational experiences through its weekly environmental awareness presentation in collaboration with the Mamanuca Environment Society. I also had the chance to help out the resort’s activities attendant Kolinio Mataiyaga during one of the resort’s monthly coral planting programmes. I could listen to Kolinio inspiringly talking about the environment all day because he has deep understanding on the importance of preserving the marine life, developed since his days attached to Mamanuca Environment Society before joining Castaway. He believes that when one does good to nature, then nature will be good to them in return.
The resort also offers various excursions including a day trip to the uninhabited Modriki Island where Tom Hanks filmed the movie Castaway or the coolest floating bar, Cloud 9, that has unrivalled privacy and incredible, uninterrupted views of pristine waters of the Mamanuca Islands at Ro Ro Reef. On my last few days at the resort, I found my body completely relaxed – thanks to snoozing on the daybeds during the day and dreaming deeply at night. No wonder after over 50 years in operation, Castaway Fiji is still an ultimate favourite among holiday-makers who make return trips year after year.
Feeling Local at the Coral Coast
The moment I heard the loud Bula (hello) greeting from the man at the resort’s guard post when we first arrived, I knew I was in for a grand retreat. I was taken to the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort, Fiji’s first five-star resort that still sets a high benchmark since its inception in October 2000. The resort sits within the world-famous Coral Coast area, home to many other world-class beachfront resorts, yet all located far from each other to ensure guests’ utmost privacy. But more interestingly, Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort showcases a unique architectural blend of modern conveniences with traditional Fijian waterfront village style, characterised by rustic looking bures (traditional thatched-roof bungalows) complete with hand-painted tapa ceilings.
Blessed with a private sandy shorefront and a safe and gorgeous turquoise lagoon, the resort boasts a pure tropical bliss that make guests immediately fall in love. It is packed with enough romance and fast becoming one of the region’s popular spots for honeymooners and the soon-to-be-betrothed. But after having said that, the resort is clearly a favourite among well-heeled families too since it comes with an inviting children’s club and attentive mei mei (nanny) service. There are plenty of activities for guests of all ages to take part such as beach volleyball, crab-hunting, snorkelling and diving. But if those are not enough, there are also fitness centre, tennis courts, golf training facility and one of Nadi’s biggest swimming pools on site for sheer pleasure.
Guests staying at the Deluxe Ocean View rooms, bures or suites receive complimentary talai (butler) service who delivers champagne or soft drinks and canapés to the rooms every afternoon. If needed, the butlers would also help guests unpack and iron their wrinkled clothes. They could also help in making restaurant reservations and recommending tours and activities. Speaking of which, Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort has a great activities desk run by Rosie Tours where guests can book excursions to explore surrounding areas.
One experience that guests should never miss is to indulge themselves at the award-winning Bebe Spa Sanctuary at least once during their stay. Nestled on a hilltop known as the ‘Heavenly Hill’ that affords endless views of the South Pacific Ocean seascape, Bebe Spa Sanctuary dispenses personalised treatments from the heart using fresh local ingredients and highly skilled massage techniques amidst lush green compound, all of which resulting in a sublime spa experience that leaves guests feeling totally renewed. I also must add that my masseuse of the day, Vola, had a loving motherly touch in her every stroke she made onto my body, making the entire experience more pampered and personal.
On top of the gratifying spa experience, guests must savour Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort’s satiating gastronomic offerings dished out by Fiji’s first Fijian Executive Chef Shailesh Naidu’s that set guests’ heart aflutter. The Outrigger’s award-winning Ivi Restaurant brings guests on a journey of refined South Pacific dishes in an elegant setting – interestingly, most of the items on the menu are prepared fresh in front of guests’ next to their tables. Guests also have the choice of four other enticing dining outlets that possess their own unique personalities and special delicacies, including three cool-looking bars. Adults-only zones Vahavu and Kalokalo Bar, for example, are oasis for adults seeking peace of mind.
Vale Ni Kana presents an extensive and international buffet spread of tantalising flavours with live cooking stations, seasonal themed menus and cultural performances every night. Being a Muslim guest, I was deeply touched when the staff at this dining outlet demonstrated their attentiveness towards me by specially prepared my meals by leaving out non-halal ingredients and using separate sets of utensils. Similarly, my dinner at another outlet called the Sundowner Bar & Grill – an oceanfront restaurant with the dramatic panorama of the sea – was equally remarkable.
My best moment in Fiji, personally, was during a half-day outing with Sigatoka River Safari that was conferred as ‘Australasia’s Leading Adventure Tour Operator’ during the 24th annual World Travel Awards. The tour works with 15 local villages located deep in remote areas to share authentic cultural experiences with interested travellers. But the best thing about this particular tour is that Sigatoka River Safari strives to strike a balance between tourism and the villagers’ traditional ways, meaning participating guests can witness and mingle with the villagers only according to the villages’ own customs and terms, not at guests’ whims.
The trip started with the participants choosing a ‘leader’ or ‘chief ’ to carry a kava root and represent the group when meeting the village’s male clan leaders. Our group then boarded on a bright-red safari jet boat with a captain and cruised along Fiji’s longest river. As we sailed along Sigatoka River, we saw what could have been the first glimpse of the area’s communities’ daily life: women washing up clothes; giggling children swimming and bathing in the river together; and patient fishermen on small boats waiting for their catches, all waved to us warmly when they saw us.
Once we arrived at the village, we were then ushered to a small meeting hall where the male clan leaders awaited us. Prior to entering the hall, women were instructed to put on sulu (wrap skirt) before taking seats behind the male guests in the hall. A local guide then began introducing our ‘leader’ or ‘chief ’ and members of our group to the leaders. We then proceeded to a greeting ceremony where our ‘leader’ or ‘chief ’ presented the kava root to the chief of the village. That same kava root was then pounded in a large wooden bowl and made into a drink.
One of the villagers then scooped the kava drink using a coconut shell in either ‘high tide’ (full serving) or ‘low tide’ (small serving) and offered it to the chief, who would then clapped once, drank and clapped again three times. The process was repeated until everyone has been served. Kava has great social and cultural significance to the Fijian natives. It tastes like plain earthy water that made lips and tongue go numb after drinking.
Afterwards, guests were presented with flowery garlands and had our cheeks painted using white baby powder, a nod to Fijian tradition and custom. We then proceeded to a much bigger hall, where traditional Fijian delicacies were served on the floor as lunch. The entire village also seemed to be there, all in their bright colourful attires and smiling. And it was at this precise moment when I saw humanity and harmony at its best: a NASA big-shot sitting on the floor laughing with a local as they tried to guzzle down as much kava as they could; a Christian Israeli dancing to the acoustic beats with a Muslim; and a loving Korean mother hugging and kissing a Fijian child as she missed her own children back home – it was truly refreshing and inspiring to witness everyone was treated equally regardless of their ethnicity, religion, background and social status.
Perhaps, that’s just the power of the Fijians’ truthful existence. I left the land as a changed woman and a huge smile on my face that lasts up till now each time I think about it.