Paul Holmes on New Zealand

Paul Holmes is an award-winning Herald columnist

Paul Holmes: Fantasies for all on these islands

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Qamea Resort and Spa is the perfect setting for a winter getaway. Photo / Supplied
Qamea Resort and Spa is the perfect setting for a winter getaway. Photo / Supplied

Good morning. I'm writing from Fiji in a glorious heat. We've taken a week off and have escaped what is shaping up to be a rather aggressive winter and have come here for a treat.

Yes, I know a week off generally means a week off, but the whip-cracking, sadistic, acting editor of this newspaper demanded a column for this week. Actually, he pleaded and, compassion overwhelming me, I gave in.

We're here with my two oldest school friends and their wives. It's kind of a final "Paul turns 60" birthday treat. We're 70 minutes by turbo-prop aircraft north of Nadi.

The aircraft had a very tired appearance. It had certainly done some miles. The dishevelled sight of it caused great alarm to my wife and to my friend Peter Beaven, who are both terrified of flying. Even I felt some unease.

It was a Twin Otter, I told them, a mainstay of Canadian aviation. Made by de Havilland.

I assured them the Canadians make great aircraft, but this particular machine seemed to be dilapidated.

Eventually, after an hour or so, we landed in a strong cross wind. Just before touchdown, the wind lifted the left wing and threw us to the right hand side of the runway, well off the centre line. This gave everyone, including the young Fijian pilot, I imagine, the sudden heebie-jeebies.

Then it was a half-hour drive on a cyclone-ravaged dirt road to catch a boat across to our resort.

The resort is called Qamea. It is small, peaceful, tasteful and heavenly, set in a small bay looking out to the west. There are 17 bures. The only sounds are the chirrup of the birds, the whirr of the fans and the odd outboard motor. The bed is super-comfortable, the bure beautifully appointed.

The place is owned by Aucklander Bryce Earwaker and his partner. They found it for sale on Google about eight years ago. It had sunk financially and they picked it up, refurbished it and turned it round.

The place has a pleasing scale about it. It is effortless, not overwhelming, not over-designed, if you know what I mean.

Round the bay are several very poor villages. They were ravaged by the cyclone a couple of months back. Some of the houses are mangled and wrecked.

During the cyclone the villagers crawled under them and waited the storm out. Bryce tells us the cyclone was horrendous. He ordered everything put into storage that wasn't tied down.

The place was full of guests. Normally, says Bryce, a cyclone lasts an hour-and-a-half or so, then there's the calm of the eye, then you get another hour-and-a-half and it's gone. This one went at full force for a day-and-a-half with winds of 280km/h.

Bryce's sister and brother-in-law were staying. During the night Bryce heard banging on his door and opened it to find them standing there, their eyes like saucers, terrified.

Next day, the clean-up started. Giant trees, hundreds of years old, were down. The guests all pitched in to help.

One of them, a former Iraqi military man now based in the US , appeared with protective goggles, leather gloves and leg protectors for chainsawing and threw himself into the task. Bryce asked him where he got all the protective gear. The Iraqi said he never travelled without it.

It is in these poor, local villages where Bryce finds his staff and trains them. He is, I think, a very enlightened employer. Bryce noticed that when the staff got paid and went back to the village every senior relative laid claim to their wages. So the worker was getting nowhere.

Bryce went to the bank and tried to sign the staff up for bank accounts, Trouble was the bank needed birth certificates. Most of Bryce's workers do not have birth certificates and, officially, I guess, don't exist.

Somehow he got round that and now his staff are paid straight into the bank and have some privacy to their money. Now, there are fridges and washing machines in the villages, household utilities to improve the quality of life.

Bryce allows no tipping at the resort, but if guests want to leave something at the end of their stay he has a Christmas fund. Seventy-five per cent of this is paid out to all of the 80-odd staff just before Christmas and the rest is paid mid-January when school fees are due. The staff are bright and warm, energetic and prompt. They seem to adore Bryce.

After the cyclone, Bryce sent an email to former guests asking for a contribution to restore the villages. He received $30,000, which they've used to buy sheets of corrugated iron.

As for Commodore Frank Bainimarama? Well, on the odd occasion when his name has come up, and it hasn't very often, I hear nothing but good. People seem to feel that he is doing well, rooting out corruption in the army and the police.

There is consternation at the attitude of Australia and New Zealand. Bainimarama has made transport to schools free. This is particularly good for people on outer islands such as this one, where going to school involved a boat ride and then a bus, twice a day. And with us turning up our noses at Bainimarama, the Chinese money is pouring in, wouldn't you know.

Anyway, Bryce told us about a magnificent resort on another island to the near north of here. It was owned and built originally by Malcolm Forbes. In the 60s the guests included Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.

Now, it's owned by the founder of the Red Bull empire, who also owns a Formula One team. This man, in the past few years, spent $500 million building an extraordinary resort, 22 bures, an 18-hole golf course and a sealed airstrip for corporate jets. There are nine restaurants, stocked up, staffed up, ready to open every night.

Bryce was invited over to take a look late last year. While he was there he spotted Arnie Schwarzenegger and his wife, Maria.

The luxury bures were all bamboo. Bryce asked if the buildings were reinforced by steel. No, was the answer. "But we have cyclones here ..." said Bryce.

Bryce thought the lack of steel very odd and foolish.

Sure enough, the cyclone swept through on its murderous path and Mr Red Bull's resort lies now in ruination. The cyclone devastated it and it will be closed for at least a year for repairs.

I was told some of this by Matt, who hired us the boat for a day out fishing for we three boys. Matt is a Kiwi, mid-30s and grew up in Fiji. He speaks fluent Fijian.

He has just come back from about 10 years in Colorado. His parents have owned one of the first Fijian resorts for, I gather, nearly 40 years. Matt knows this area, its islands, its seas and its people, backwards.

It was a vigorous day on the ocean. Just outside the reefs, for five hours, we were heaved round by round by giant swells. After an hour, I landed a barracuda.

An hour later, Peter landed another one, its twin. Action barracuda barbies. Two hours later, as we turned for home in the heaving, exhausting sea, one of the lines went mad. Mike got on the rod, having never fished before ("I've never liked to disturb them," he said).

We all agreed this was a big fish. Mike struggled with the procedure with the rod. At times I thought the fish would exhaust Mike. Mike and the fish battled on. Eventually he landed the beast, a 15kg walu, a wonderful fish.

At some stage on that fishing trip, Matt pointed out the top of a mast just above the horizon. Matt said it was the mast of an amazing superyacht, owned by a Spanish fashion designer based in Barcelona, creator of the Mango label. Mango is huge in Europe and the States, apparently. Matt knows the guy.

The Spaniard comes often. Later we will find the yacht moored in our bay, a magnificent machine with a black hull, unbelievably wide beam, low-slung and sleek with the two tallest masts you ever saw. It flies a huge bright yellow and red Spanish or Catalan flag from its stern, but I cannot be sure because it's anchored too far out.

Matt tells us the yacht cost $499 million (€280m) to build. Matt says it is stunning. He says it has crystal staircases. I can't quite figure why you would build a crystal staircase, but the guy is a super-rich fashionista. If it chips, he can replace it. Matt says replacing the masts and rigging on this yacht costs $30m (€17m). Matt says the guy has a Monet and other great masters on board.

Ah yes. Plenty of money makes its way round here. Matt says they have a Russian who comes to stay at his parents' resort once a year, a young oil baron, late 30s, early 40s.

He hires the entire place. He installs himself in the luxury bure with its own chef, butler and service staff. He brings his mate and half a dozen spectacularly-beautiful young Russian women. Matt says the women walk round all day wearing only G-strings and high heels. But, he says, they do cover themselves for dinner.

I wondered, as we listened to Matt and stared out to sea, pictures forming in our minds, if Mike and Peter and I were pleased to hear that. Or just a little disappointed.

- Herald on Sunday

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