Fiji: Bula to real relaxation

By Phil Parker

Phil Parker keeps a running total - in Kiwi dollars - of a fun-packed family trip to Fiji.

Phil Parker had a few concerns about holidaying in a country run by repressive military dictatorship, that is, until he zoned out having dined on 'fab food and expensive wine.' Photo / Thinkstock
Phil Parker had a few concerns about holidaying in a country run by repressive military dictatorship, that is, until he zoned out having dined on 'fab food and expensive wine.' Photo / Thinkstock

Fiji as a holiday destination did present somewhat of a moral dilemma to me. Should I holiday in a country which is run by a repressive military dictatorship? On the other hand, as I often hear in these cases, the last thing the low-paid locals need is a tourism industry collapse on top of political turmoil. And I had always been curious about Fiji, having previously had some enjoyable trips to Rarotonga, Tonga and Tahiti.

So, spurred on by a good package deal for the three of us (airfares and four nights' accommodation at the Sofitel for $1198 each for Mia and me, plus a cheap airfare and free meals for nine-year-old Phoebe), we booked and took the three-hour flight with Air Pacific.

Three hours is just enough time to do a bit of reading, have a glass of something, and eat your simple-but-adequate boxed lunch before touching down in 30C humid Nadi. The airport is pretty basic, but you still have to present no less than three arrival documents and passports to stern-faced officials in crisp uniforms with epaulets.

Given the military's loathing of a free press, I was grateful that my passport said tourism operator rather than journalist. Having said that, in the entire time in Fiji, I saw just one military policeman. He looked grim, with a beret and attitude. That was it.

You could be whisked from the airport straight to the Fantasy Island ambience of Denarau's international hotel strip, and think you're in the "real" Fiji.

Denarau Island really is an exclusive tourist compound, with security guards on the causeway screening all traffic and visitors. But on the way from the airport, you can't fail to notice run-down, tired and dirty looking shops and homes. It is obvious that few locals enjoy an affluent lifestyle, and that our friendly and polite hotel staff likely lived in more basic homes.

The Sofitel is a large luxury hotel complex on the beachfront and boasts a spa, three restaurants, great kids' club (9am to 9pm), two bars and a cafe. I got lost many times. Sofitel is run by a French hotel chain and this shows in the high standard of food, from the cafe (with bloody good coffee) through to a fine-dining restaurant.

Value-wise it was about the same as New Zealand, but alcohol was generally over-priced. A bottle of basic New Zealand Monkey Bay Merlot goes for about $42. I recommend the very good local Fiji Gold ale at about $5 a bottle, or bring your own alcohol with you on the plane.

Staff are immaculately dressed and are very attentive and friendly. At night, the second-floor Breeze lounge bar plays retro jazz and faces the beach, with views across the under-lit blue pool. And they do a mean margarita for about $15.

We spent two evenings there, in very laid-back mode, with drinks and affordable pizza and light snacks for the three of us. Though Miss Nine announced that her fruit mocktail was "yuck", I thought it was fine - can't please everyone.

It could be very tempting to stay at the hotel and never leave. You can loaf by the pool, work on that trophy holiday tan and plan your next meal, which we did for a few days.

However, we did venture out to Denarau Port on the cheap Bula Bus which does a regular circuit of the hotels.

At the port, yachties moor at the marina and there is a slightly run-down touristy atmosphere. But the food and wine in the restaurant and bar quarter was cheaper than the hotel - and pretty good value - the three of us had dinner with wine for about $70.

Our other venture out was a day trip to Robinson Crusoe Island.The cost was $114 per person, with half price for kids under 11. Essentially, it's a full day of good-hearted, unpretentious Fijian culture and fun.

It was an 8.45am pick-up, then a journey on a basic river boat down the long estuary and finally out to sea with arrival at the island at 10.30am. The scenery from the boat is green and lush and it's a relaxing putter away from the mainland.

Once there, the staff were friendly, helpful, good-humoured, informative and enthusiastic, offering a variety of free activities including snorkelling, weaving, a medicine man bush walk, coconut-tree climbing (them, not us), and kayaking.

If you want to pay extra, there are options for fishing, massage, a tube ride, stand-up paddle boarding, plus a bar. The Lovo - a traditionally cooked lunch - was healthy, varied and tasty with plenty of food on offer, even for our vegetarian 9-year-old.

After lunch, there was a dazzling show that included fire and machete dancing, and crab racing. The day presents as a genuine and non-touristy experience and the staff multi-task as dancers, waiters, fire walkers and boat drivers.

The sheer foreignness of any destination is what I love - the different smells and unusual animals or flora. I enjoyed the coconut trees, toads, frangipani blossoms, white coral sand, little red and grey birds, tiny geckoes, and little stripy fish that race around your legs in the shallow water.

Four nights in Fiji was great. I zoned out and had fab food and expensive wine.

Phoebe loved the Kids' Club. Mia and I had some quality time together. It was exotic, relaxing and very enjoyable.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Getting there: SeeAir Pacific's website.

Where to stay: Try the Sofitel Fiji.

What to do: Visit Robinson Crusoe Island.

Phil Parker and family paid their own way to Fiji. All up, for two adults and a nine-year-old for four nights' accommodation, airfares, other meals and excursions, the bill came to $4295.31.

- Herald on Sunday

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