Perfectly private slice of paradise in Fiji

By Jim Eagles

It was a bit of a shock to get back to the beach after a snorkelling expedition and find a single large footprint marring the smooth, white sand. My wife and I had Dolphin Island to ourselves, and she was still sleeping in the sun lounger, so who had been messing up our beach?

Since we were having what I thought of as a Robinson Crusoe experience - alone on a tropical island - did this mark the arrival of Man Friday (though it was actually Saturday)? Unlikely. We already had a whole team of Person Fridays catering to our every whim.

Or could the footprint signal the arrival of one of the dastardly Fijian soldiers our Government had warned us about? Even less likely. From our perspective as tourists the Army was almost invisible and all the locals we met seemed completely relaxed - in fact happy - about the military coup.

Fortunately the mystery of the footprint was easily solved. I soon realised it was my own, part of the trail of footprints left on the way into the water, but the rest had been washed away by the waves.

I mention it only because that was the only scary thing that happened during a five-day visit to Fiji. Otherwise, it was just one long, sweet, serene unwind under the palm trees with not a care, a cloud or a gun on the horizon.

The most stressful decisions were about weighty matters like, should we opt for a swim, a sail in the Hoby Cat or a paddle in the kayaks before lunch; have a snooze or read a book during the hottest time of the day; a glass of champagne, a coconut cocktail or a Fiji Gold beer while watching the beautiful sunset; mud crabs, river prawns or painted lobsters, with a nicely chilled Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, for dinner; and should we sleep tonight in the main bure on the beach or the sleepout on the clifftop with its views of the rising sun?

Really, it wasn't the sort of Crusoe experience described by Daniel Defoe in his classic 1719 novel, rather what might have happened had Crusoe been a multi-millionaire who had the good fortune to be marooned on an idyllic island with all his comforts.

Dolphin Island is, in fact, the private Fijian hideaway of Alex van Heeren, best known as the owner of Huka Lodge, which regularly wins awards as the best resort hotel in New Zealand, so as you can imagine it is beautifully set up.

Van Heeren bought the island in 1985 and kept it very much for himself until about five years ago when he started allowing paying guests to stay. Needless to say this is not budget accommodation - there's a special offer at present of $2000 plus taxes a night for a couple - but the price includes all food, drink, entertainment and activities, and you have the island to yourselves, so your paying for a unique experience.

So what were we doing there? Well, to be absolutely upfront, it was a sort of bribe.

I got a phone call from the Fiji Visitors Bureau asking, basically, "Would you and your good lady like to go to Fiji for a few days, stay somewhere very nice - Dolphin Island maybe - and write about it ... and we'll hope you are able to tell people that you can go to Fiji without being put up against a wall and shot."

This proposal fell on fertile ground as I've never been in favour of travel boycotts because they only hurt the ordinary people working in the tourist industry. I also reckon that if you start choosing your travel destinations on the basis of what you think of their politics you could eliminate most of the world and, anyway, I like to see things for myself.

Furthermore, we had nothing organised for Auckland's anniversary weekend, I hadn't been to Fiji for about 20 years and was interested to discover how it had changed and, to be honest again, a few days on Dolphin Island sounded fantastic.

But clearly not everyone feels that way. Prime Minister Helen Clark reckons going to Fiji would be "the equivalent of a holiday in hell".

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade's current travel advice is that there is "a high risk to your security in Suva ... some risk ... in the rest of Fiji and we advise caution".

The impact of such statements was apparent in the number of empty seats on our Air Pacific flight. In spite of the amazing special offers on trips to Fiji since the coup there has obviously been a sharp drop-off in visitor numbers.

The effects of the coup are less obvious in the country itself. The only sign of anything military was a couple of checkpoints either side of the sugar city of Lautoka, and they were pretty low-key affairs.

South of the city a soldier was standing in the middle of the road with a gun slung over his shoulder but he had a grin on his face, his uniformed colleagues were sitting in the shade of a tent on the roadside laughing at something, and the traffic didn't slow. On the north side all the soldiers were snoozing under a corrugated iron shelter taking no notice of the passing vehicles.

We passed through the checkpoints during a relaxing two-and-a-half hour drive from Nadi Airport up the west coast of the big island of Viti Levu, past vast areas of sugar plantation, tidy traditional villages, busy towns, green hills and forests, tidal flats covered with mangroves and glorious coastal vistas, to the northern town of Rakiraki. Compared with our memories from two decades back, Fiji looked more orderly, prosperous and contented.

At Rakiraki we boarded a boat and 10 minutes later we were on the island and entering a twinkling fairytale world where 52 lamps were hung from the trees outside our bure every night, the water was warm and full of pretty little fish, the sunrises and sunsets were spectacular, the sand was white and - almost - unmarked, the silence was broken only by the singing of the birds and the plopping of fish, and it seemed we had only to express a wish for it to be granted.

My only difficulty was that given my reason for being here I thought I should make an honest attempt to look for signs of risk or stress or firing squads and on Dolphin Island there just weren't any.

One night a group came over from the village of Nakorokula, on Viti Levu, and performed traditional songs, dances and a kava ceremony just for us, so I thought I'd check if they were worried about the coup.

But the muscular, tattooed leader, seemed hardly to have noticed it. "We don't know much about it," he said, in between plying me with coconut shell cups of kava. "We're only a little village. It hasn't made any difference to us."

After a few kavas they asked us to join in the dances. My unco-ordinated efforts soon earned me a respite but my wife did so well that the cheerful grandmother in charge asked her, "You teach me how to dance?"

Next morning the same matriarch turned up to give my wife a two-hour traditional massage so I gently inquired if she felt threatened by the coup.

On the contrary, it turned out she was all in favour, and forthright about saying so. "Someone had to sort out that crowd in Suva."

That afternoon I went out to the reef for a few hours' fishing. I didn't need to ask the boat's skipper because he made it clear he thought the change of Government was a good thing.

"The old Government," he said, "were only interested in grabbing what they could for themselves and their friends."

On our final night on the island a dignified elder arrived on the island to preside over a traditional lovo - or Fijian hangi - full of fish, beef, lamb, pork, sweet potato, breadfruit and coconut cream wrapped in taro leaves and he, too, took time out from passing round more bowls of kava to nod his head in agreement. "It needed to be done."

Back in Nadi, after a spectacular flight down the coast in a seaplane, the Fijian-Indian driver who collected us wanted to know if we had been scared off by the coup, nodded his approval when we indicated there didn't seem anything to be scared of.

The country was a safer place thanks to the military intervention, he said, because not only was the new military-backed Government sorting out the economy, "the Army has clamped down on the illegal drinking places that the police just took no notice of".

In preparation for an early-morning flight home we spent our final night at the Hilton chain's plush Fiji Beach Resort, near Nadi, where there was a chance to chat with some of the expats who manage the cluster of resorts on Denerau Island.

As far as they were concerned, any distaste at the idea of a military coup was clearly outweighed by relief at the demise of a Government seen - rightly or wrongly -as corrupt and incompetent.

Even worry about the post-coup downturn was outweighed by delight at the scrapping of "crazy policies", like a sharp increase in sales tax and legislation to allow indigenous Fijians to claim payments from other ethnic groups using coastal waters.

In fact, in five days in Fiji, I didn't find one person - on or off the record, indigenous Fijian, Fijian India or expat European - who was opposed to the regime change or worried it would lead to violence.

Of course, that doesn't make it right to depose an elected Government at the point of a gun. But the consensus in Fiji at least seems to be that if military chief Frank Bainimarama has done the wrong thing he has done it for the right reasons and the country is the better for it.

And I certainly didn't feel at risk ... except of finding it hard to return to the noise, traffic, erratic weather and cold water of New Zealand.

CHECKLIST

Getting there

Information about Air Pacific's Service to Fiji is on the web at airpacific.com or ring 0800 800 178.

Where to stay

Dolphin Island is on the web at dolphinislandfiji.com or ring (07) 378 5791.

Fiji Beach Resort is at hiltonfiji.com.

Further information

General information on Fiji is available from Fiji Visitor Bureau at bulafiji.co.nz or (09) 376 2533

* Jim Eagles travelled to Fiji as guest of the Fiji Visitor Bureau and Air Pacific.

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 29 Dec 2014 04:52:57 Processing Time: 1139ms