Fiji: Playful Plantation

By Helen van Berkel

Helen van Berkel is reminded why Fiji remains a family favourite.

Take an island-hopper tour from Malolo Lailai (Plantation Island) to find new places to swim and sunbathe all day.
Take an island-hopper tour from Malolo Lailai (Plantation Island) to find new places to swim and sunbathe all day.

Personally, I blame the shuttle driver at Denarau Island. When I said we were staying at Nadi's Tanoa Hotel he merely nodded and loaded our baggage into the bus.

Another Kiwi couple climbed aboard, also bound for the Tanoa. Once in our hotel rooms, we unpacked and had a quick shower - surprised there were no towels - and went to the hotel restaurant for dinner.

We were tucking into our food when the receptionist hurried over to our table and announced that we were in the wrong hotel and had to leave. Turns out there's a Tanoa Skylodge, which is where we were, and a Tanoa International, where we were supposed to be.

Our second shuttle trip of the day took us to the much posher International - but what most amused my daughter was that we had already taken the toiletries from the Skylodge.


It hadn't taken too many days of Auckland's wet, dreary autumn weather for me to start fantasising of sunny days on a tropical beach somewhere.

So when I spotted a good deal in the pages of Herald Travel, I grabbed it and a few days later my daughter and I were on a flight to Fiji's Plantation Island.

My heart sank on arrival in Nadi: peering out of the plane windows I could see the runway lights reflecting on a runway wet with rain. Had we arrived to even worse weather? But despite the light drizzle, it was warm enough to raise a sweat. We were due to leave by ferry for the resort the next day, so we checked in at Raffles Hotel and swam under the stars.

Excited Kiwi accents surrounded us in the bar as we waited for the ferry. Most turned out to be Southlanders - a group of 60, one of them informed us, heading to Plantation Island for a wedding.

Again, my heart sank: were we to spend the next week with a crowd of Southlanders who spoke of Speight's with the same reverence Aucklanders used for a Central Otago pinot noir? But I needn't have worried: Plantation Island is spread out enough that we didn't see - or hear - the Southlanders for the entire week.

It seems every second Kiwi has been to Fiji and everyone has an opinion: some love Plantation for its family-friendly vibe, others dismiss it as rundown and in major need of an upgrade. Both are true.

Our bure was clean, spacious and a cool retreat when the heat got too much. It wasn't Fiji's peak tourist season and we often had the pool, right outside our door, to ourselves for a pre-breakfast dip - as well as for our post-breakfast dip. Even our post-dinner dip.

Although we spent hours in that pool, we took advantage of the many activities at Plantation: on the first day we took to the seas on little kayaks. Plantation's local name is Malolo Lailai, and it's part of the Mamanuca Group of Islands, a 50-minute ferry ride from the Fiji mainland.

The 215ha island was once a copra plantation, but is now a playground for mainly Kiwi and Australian families. It also has a landing strip for small planes and another resort, Musket Cove, further along the coastline.

We spent the week paddling, playing tennis at the resort's courts, walking around its cultivated acreage or reading in hammocks. We tried stand-up paddleboarding with some trepidation: I'd read about how difficult it was. But even my 11-year-old did it with little effort.

On day four we took an island-hopper tour to visit other islands and snorkel off the Brigham Reef.

Lunch was at Mana Island, also part of the Mamanuca group. The big draw for the kids was three large and two small turtles swimming languidly in a tank. Food on Mana was considerably more expensive than on Plantation, at FJD$10.60 ($6.80) for an icecream. But the tour was a good opportunity to properly meet our fellow Plantation Islanders and we bonded with two Australian families in the traditional Anzac way - over chilled beers in the sun.

We all agreed the pool bar on Castaway Island, our next destination, only needed to be transplanted to Plantation for our happiness to be complete.

I was exhausted after a day of such activity and planned to use the (free) kids' club and sneak an early night. But my plans were hijacked by the arrival of the fire dancers.

The three men and three women put on a display from which we couldn't tear our eyes. Just watching those young women twitch their hips made my back ache. The fire dance was incredible although the smell of the kerosene gave me a little headache. Their bodies were completely unmarked by any kind of scars; muscular and oiled men whirled, danced and leaped, their batons ablaze, streaks of blue flame snaking along the floor.

There's some kind of entertainment most evenings - a disco, limbo dancing and the like - but we were usually so tired after a day of sunshine and water that we were both in bed earlier than we would have been at home.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand and Fiji Airways fly daily from Auckland to Nadi.It wasn't Fiji's peak tourist season and we often had the pool, right outside our door, to ourselves for a pre-breakfast dip.

- NZ Herald

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