Fiji is not usually at the top of a tourist's list as a foodie destination, but the supporters of a new festival hope to change that. Some big names are behind the inaugural South Pacific Food & Wine Festival to be held on Denarau Island in March.
It will feature a mix of celebrity presentations, master classes, cooking demonstrations, culinary workshops, signature degustation dinners, gourmet lunches and hands-on cooking workshops. Even children are catered for in this traditionally family-friendly holiday spot.
The epicurean traveller will be challenged to "Think global - eat local" while mixing with the likes of distinguished French chef Manu Feildel, festival culinary ambassador Robert Oliver and renowned Australian chef Ben O'Donoghue, as well as award-winning New Zealand chefs Peter Gordon and Michael Meredith.
Samoan-born Meredith still credits his mother and his Samoan upbringing for his no-waste culinary philosophy.
His signature menu, as part of the festival, is for Nuku Restaurant at the Hilton and based on an "energy is everything" philosophy to make food memories a whole experience.
Gordon particularly loves "coconut milk, fresh fish, taro leaves, vanilla, fresh vegetables and the vibrant flavours of South Pacific cuisine".
The fresher the food, the better it tastes, so the dishes on offer will be authentic and like nothing you can taste away from the Islands.
South Pacific culinary ambassador Robert Oliver, author of Me'a Kai which won an international award for cookbook of the year in 2010, will head a Suva Produce Market tour and hold a masterclass on raw fish preparation, among other things.
All three chefs will create signature dishes and participate in a Festival Gala Dinner on the last night. Alongside them are restaurateurs, award-winning chefs from around the world, MasterChef judges and finalists, as well as a chocolatier from London.
Respected New Zealand foodie and Listener columnist Lauraine Jacobs will be the festival's MC.
As well as workshops and classes, and fine dining offered at a fraction of the cost of any of the chef's restaurants in Melbourne, Auckland or London, there are unique opportunities to be enjoyed. Participants can go on a fishing expedition, a plantation trek, and sample wares from boutique wineries, gourmet food producers and suppliers to the hospitality industry.
After all that eating and drinking, there's always the golf courses, pools and spa facilities to restore your appetite for ... even more eating and drinking at the evening events.
As part of the festival, kids can do a cooking class and then host their parents for lunch.
Three Australian MasterChef finalists will judge their masterpieces.
"Mum, Dad and the kids can go to a different cooking class and cook together at home afterwards," says festival organiser Robert Clark.
"My sons help me in the kitchen - a family that cooks together in a kitchen is a happy thing."
"The festival is about the theatre of food, and chefs love to perform," says Clark.
"They do it for the applause, for the love, and to make people happy."
Supporting the locals
The celebrity chefs travelling to Fiji for the festival, including Michael Meredith, pictured, won't just be showing off their skills, they'll also be passing on their knowledge to local counterparts. Running in conjunction with the public festival is a trade conference to encourage the use of local food in the tourism industry.
Event organiser Robert Clark says a long-term objective is to do with sustainability: up-skilling local chefs as well as helping farmers to supply the resorts.
"Ten years ago, 100 per cent of the food at the resorts in Fiji was imported from Australia. Now, I know of a local businessman with organic lettuce who is doing about 70 per cent of the resort's lettuce. Pork and chicken are also bought locally and there's an increase in demand for what grows naturally - local herbs, mangos, etc. Tourists want authentic local food, not just a club sandwich," Clark says.
A free teaching class for emerging Fiji chefs - newly graduated or working sous chefs - will run for two days so visiting chefs can pass on their knowledge.
"The information the 'oldies' can impart is invaluable," says Peter Gordon.
"There will be many experts in various fields, from high-end dining through to the export potential of local ingredients; everyone will learn many things. This event is a summit of Pacific ideas and possibilities with many things worth looking at from a business and hospitality point of view."
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The festival is located on an integrated resort island, which is home to five international resorts on the western coast of Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu. The resorts to choose from are:
* Sheraton Fiji Resort, ph 00 1 679 675 0777.
* The Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa, ph 00 1 679 675 0000.
* Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa, ph 00 1 679 675 1111.
* Fiji Beach Resort & Spa, managed by Hilton, ph 00 1 679 675 6800.
* Radisson Blu Resort, ph 00 1 679 675 6677.
Further information: The inaugural South Pacific Food & Wine Festival runs from March 14-17. Day passes cost FJD$333 (NZ$230); a three-day pass is FJD$777. Three-day passes include a signature lunch, access to all guest chef presentations, culinary workshops and masterclasses, as well as themed coffee breaks and morning teas. Day passes exclude evening social events. For bookings and more information see southpacificfoodandwine.com.
FIJI'S TOP FIVE
Rochelle Cleaver of Meadowbank Flight Centre in Auckland shares her top tips on places to go and things to do in Fiji.
1. If you're travelling in a group the family beach bure at Castaway Island in the Mamanucas is perfect - it sleeps up to 10 people.
2. Head to Beachcomber for some time in their barefoot bar. The floor is completely covered in sand.
3. Try the swim-up bar at Malolo Island Resort - have a cocktail while cooling off in the adults-only pool.
4. Visit the Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple. It's beautifully painted with every colour possible. Remember to cover up your shoulders when you're inside as a sign of cultural respect.
5. The jet boat safari on the Sigatoka River is a must-do. The river is like glass and you can experience a true Fijian village along the way.
* For more information on Fiji, contact Rochelle and the team at Meadowbank Flight Centre on 0800 427 555.