Fiji: Learning to unwind on island time

By Janetta Mackay

Two weeks of anticipating my winter escape and two weeks of idiotic wondering what to wear. It's a celebrity escape I've been invited to for heaven's sake, so I'm channelling 1950s Sophia Loren, rather than Paris Hilton in a string bikini. That's because, although I've been invited into a fantasy world, I'm not totally deluded about my present-day assets, so I fancy some womanly cover-up rather than a size 0 show-and-tell.

But we're talking Fiji, not Capri, and there's a 15kg baggage limit for the flight from the mainland across to the Yasawa Island Resort, where Hollywood stars and world leaders have stayed. So I soon snap out of the fantasy and throw in a couple of swimsuits, a few frocks and the old board shorts. Bare feet at lunch is not out of order, I'm told.

On the flight from Auckland to Nadi, I toy with the 21st century celeb idea of just a few days' detox - and not because the only thing you pay for on top of the resort's rate is the alcohol - but my good intentions last less than an hour after landing.

I blame the All Blacks.

There's an overnight stay to be had at the slick Hilton at Denarau before the 35-minute flight in a six-seater up to the Yasawas. Checking in shortly before the start of the deciding Bledisloe Cup test, I'm pointed towards the hotel's outdoor activities centre where a giant screen has been set up on the edge of the beach.

Offered a beer, I quickly succumb and in the company of around 50 guests and a good few staff, enjoy the mighty fine feeling of sand between the toes, a balmy breeze and watching the rain pelt down on Eden Park.

The inevitable "Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi" calls dry up as the game goes on and just minutes after Tony Woodcock touches down, a few of us spot a shooting star. Surely a World Cup omen.

The next day, nature's wonders are again a delight to the eye, as we fly along the coast of Viti Levu and out across reefs towards the strung-out Yasawa chain. We spot a few villages, including one of only two left in Fiji that is solely of traditional thatched bure.

Touching down on the northernmost island's grass runway, guests are greeted with leis, tropical juice and a "Welcome to paradise" from resort manager Mili Vatu. I've heard this one before, so decide to reserve judgment, but I'm quickly seduced by the friendly staff.

It's a short ride through the bush to the resort, where we're told we can kick back and do nothing or take full advantage of complimentary activities. Good snorkelling is a few steps down the beach from the huge handbuilt central dining bure. Picnics can be arranged to isolated islets and beaches. Fishing and sail boats are ready for cast-off and staff will show the way to neighbouring villages or vantage points.

Spa treatments and diving are optional extras.

But first to my very own deluxe bure. Twice the size of many Auckland apartments, the bure has a tiled floor, dark wooden furniture and cream linen drapes that billow as the warm breeze blows in through wooden louvres. Artwork is Fijian, some with a modern twist. There's a giant couch, and up a few steps a giant bed that faces out to sea across a generous deck with daybeds. Further lazing options are provided in a little beach bure dead ahead, with chairs and a hammock. Off the bedroom is a spacious dressing and bathroom area, with a family-sized, pebble-floored shower, opening out to another deck with an outdoor shower.

Meals and snacks can be served in the room or taken in the central restaurant, and if mine was the honeymoon bure with its own plunge pool I might have been tempted to stay firmly in situ.

The suite's residents had other ideas, however, so came the chance to say ciao to the Italian honeymooners and wonder if they'd got a bit mixed up with the Med with their short pink swim shorts (his) and the G-string bikini bottom (rather hers than mine).

A lovely Australian couple made themselves known at the bar and a few drinks later I was joining them for dinner, over which, with another Sydneysider, we polished off a few bottles from a well-chosen, adventurous wine list. By day two we'd drunk the resort out of its best pinot gris and I was introducing the Australians to some fine New Zealand viognier and riesling.

They reciprocated by introducing me to sailing in a four-person catamaran across waters of azure and turquoise and coaching their fellow Australian in snorkelling among colourful corals and fish. This camaraderie seemed to be springing up among other international groups staying at the resort's 18 bures, but there's plenty of room to keep to yourself, with bures spaced along a strip of sand nearly a kilometre long.

Staff, while soon remembering your first name, are not intrusive, but if you're keen to chat they're engaging. Barman Manase is an institution and has been with the resort since day one. He helped hoist the giant central pillar of the dining bure back in 1991 after it was barged over from the mainland and explains how three teams of 10 men levered it into position and applauded a year later when it survived a cyclone.

Manase tells an interesting story of the resort's creation in partnership with local villagers. He worked in Australia with the resort's founder and introduced him to his own Bukama village, where the men lived while an airstrip was hacked from the jungle and a road built over the hill to the resort site. The standard of construction was so high that, within a few years, the resort was in financial trouble, which is where current owner Garth Downey stepped in.

At peak times, he employs about 100 staff, mostly from Bukama. This provides valuable income for the islanders, who supplement their subsistence lifestyle with selling extra fruit and vegetables to the resort.

Boats call in the mornings to deliver freshly caught reef fish and rock lobster, so grilled crays for lunch are a regular feature, as are crab scrambled eggs for breakfast.

Downey is a game-fishing enthusiast and has attracted one of the world's top charter boat captains from the Caribbean to the relatively virgin Fijian waters where blue marlin and tuna are regular catches. The drop-dead gorgeous boat may not be the size of a super yacht, but it's every bit as beautifully crafted.

Maggie Downey confides that, despite having Ernesto Bertarelli pop in for lunch, the Yasawa team were cheering for Team New Zealand in the America's Cup, hoping they'd bring the cup back down under as last time round plenty of sailors had some R&R at the resort.

My Australian friends, Rob and Victoria, are Yasawa returnees and keen to help out the village school by sending some unwanted office computers. It doesn't have a lot, but it does have a teacher with passion and a bunch of bright-eyed children.

There ensues a discussion about upsetting the balance of life, but somehow in Fiji, where the local papers are full of news of strikes after post-coup pay cuts and sombre reports of lower-than-expected visitor numbers, Yasawa at least seems to be a model that delivers a reasonable rate of return to its people.

This is something of a relief in a country that New Zealanders are cautioned about visiting but still flock to when the rock-bottom prices outweigh any reservations, not so much for their safety, but for its future.

On Yasawa, where some children walk several hours each day to school and have to leave their traditional life for high school on the mainland, visitors see a simpler side of Fiji.

The so-called must-see, the Blue Lagoon - made famous by a young Brooke Shields in the movie of that name - is, while a stunning natural cavern worth checking out, also a reminder that you're really just another paying customer. Boats ferry backpackers from other islands in the group, the entry way is gated, the souvenirs laid out - even in this relatively untouched spot.

The idyll of days snoozing in a hammock in your own personal spot of paradise is thus temporarily interrupted.

But when you don't need to sully yourself with carrying cash; when you can just waft in the waters well above your head but still see the sand well below your toes; when you can mix up the menu at any time of the day - then you're a guest.

When your two-therapist absolute waterfront massage comes with real waves, not dolphin music, as a soundtrack; and when you're gazing up at the little white shells lashed into the timber framework of your bure's ceiling, imagining they're stars - until you gaze out at the constellation-heavy sky - then you're really on a better class of borrowed time.

But at what cost? I was so thoroughly pampered that I decided I was so over hotels.

Give me a luxury tropical resort. Anytime.

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GETTING THERE
House of Travel is offering a special twin destination package to Yasawa Island Resort and Spa and the Fiji beach Resort and Spa managed by Hilton. Five nights from $3399 per person share twin/double flying Air New Zealand from Auckland, including three nights at Yasawa Island Resort and Spa (bure suite) and one night pre- and post- at the Hilton. Includes transfers (normally $298 per person one-way inter-island). Add two extra nights at Yasawa for $999 per person share twin. Valid for travel until December 13 and from January 15 to March 31, 2008. House of Travel 0800 838 747 or visit www.houseoftravel.co.nz

Yasawa Island Resort regular prices range from $1200 a night for a double bure suite, with the honeymoon bure at $2100. Children under 12 may only stay in December, January and mid-June to mid-July. Under two, no charge, 2-12 $240, 12 and over, $380.

WHILE YOU'RE THERE
Rates at Yasawa include meals and snacks, non-alcoholic beverages and many activities, excluding game fishing, scuba diving and spa treatments. Game-fishing expeditions must be booked in advance.

MORE INFORMATION
See www.yasawa.com or www.diveyasawa.com

Janetta Mackay visited Fiji as a guest of Yasawa Island Resort

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