The criteria for the holiday were simple; it must be kid friendly (I was travelling with my eight and four-year-old), warm, close to home and with great food. I started whittling down the options and the obvious choice was Denarau, a short hop from Nadi airport, an easy three-hour flight from Auckland. But I'd heard less than complimentary things about the food in the resorts, that it was overpriced and average in quality. Not to be deterred I decided that would be our destination. The trip couldn't be easier, one film later and we were there, with barely a whimper from the kids.
We were staying at the Fiji Beach Resort and Spa which is managed by the Hilton.
Without exception, all the resorts on Denarau are good, with their own distinct feel and offering. What I love about the Hilton is the wide expanse of grass sweeping down to the beach, great for kids to play on, and a real a feeling of space and privacy from our incredibly well appointed two bedroom apartment. It is completely set up for self catering, but let's be honest, I had no intention of doing that.
The first night we experienced the Hilton's famous private beach dining. A stunning table was set up on the beach in front of our apartment, underneath a gazebo draped with billowing white curtains, flickering lanterns, candles and fairy lights. The food was prepared by a chef in a mobile kitchen set up beside us. We started with some delicious and fiery Harissa tiger prawns with a fresh sweetcorn salsa, followed by snapper grilled in a banana leaf served alongside a mussel and prawn curry. The flavours were clean and fresh and very apt for the setting, not to mention impressive given the beach side kitchen! The kids were also well catered for, on the whole the kids menus across all the resorts we visited were excellent. A long way past the standard fish and chips and burgers, with plenty of fresh fish, fruit and veges.
The executive chef at the Hilton is New Zealander Clinton Webber. Surprisingly, he is one of the only kiwi ex pats living and working on Denarau. It is his second stint working in Fiji and he is passionate about changing the way resort food is viewed especially by the predominantly New Zealand and Australian tourists who visit.
"Everyone has this perception that Fiji is a non foodie destination. I came here determined to change that. I'm not sure if I will do that, but this time I want to make my stamp on it." He says he tries to avoid following trends back home, but rather work with the produce he can access to make the best meals possible. Clinton first worked in Fiji almost ten years ago and says the big difference is how the rest of the world has opened up to them.
"We are now able to access ingredients we could never get our hands on before. We are incredibly limited in what we can grow here and so most of the things I need I have to bring in." Where possible those suppliers are Kiwi, they have Mac's drinks for sale across the resort and will soon be the only stockists of Kapiti products in Fiji.
Clinton says a lot of his work hours are consumed with training. Almost all the staff in his kitchens are local and many have very little cooking experience. "If I am not in the kitchens all the time the standard can drop really fast and consistency has to be there, it is very important."
At the Hilton we also dined at the Asian inspired restaurant Maravu where I had the best Pad Thai I have ever had. The restaurant has become Clinton's baby after he spent time working in South East Asia and he wanted to replicate those flavours he fell in love with best he could in Fiji. On a Wednesday night they also offer a seafood platter on the beach which features an incredible array of local and imported seafood.
The next resort along from the Hilton, is the Sofitel, famed for its buffet breakfast and for the waterslide (not to be enjoyed simultaneously!) Don't be afraid of the buffet, far from there being cold, congealed eggs and stale cereals, it offers an incredible range of fresh fruit, delicious bircher muesli, cooked breakfasts and pastries. Thanks to their French chef, the bread and pastries are standout, and are also served in the hotel's lobby café.
Night two and we headed to the stunning Westin hotel. The most Fijian in feel of all the resorts, it is incredibly tranquil and with plenty of dark wood, traditional furniture and art and water features throughout the complex. Their newest restaurant is the Steakhouse set up by acclaimed Australian chef Peter Kuruvita. At the helm is another Australian, Michael White. The young, confident chef ordered for us. They pride themselves particularly on their beef dishes and they lived up to the hype.
We sampled a surf and turf with locally caught lobster, a Wagyu hanger steak and 48-hour slow cooked beef rib with Chimichurri. It was some of the best food I have eaten, anywhere. Michael says he is increasingly able to use solely local ingredients, much of it coming from their own farm where the farmer has had to educate himself on nurturing crops including rocket, cauliflower and asparagus, not traditionally grown in Fiji. "I did ask him to look into growing white asparagus, but that was just a step too far," laughs Michael. The local produce is complimented by the best of imported food including beef from Australian producer Darling Downs. Michael suggested washing it down with a pinot noir from Nelson and dessert was also faultless, especially a perfectly cooked chocolate fondant with a salted caramel ice cream and a Fijian fruit salad.
On our final evening we headed for The Radisson and dined outside overlooking the waterfall at Water Court, their Asian restaurant. There is a healthy dose of Asian influences in the Fijian cuisine and it works. The flavours are fresh, a little spicy and light, perfect given the warm temperatures all year round. My two favourite dishes were a Indonesian beef rendang, which was standout with the addition of fresh coconut in the curry and a crispy, stuffed local eggplant with tofu, garlic, onion, cashews and black pepper sauce.
It was here I also sampled one of my favourite desserts, a lychee ice cream cake served with a papaya and ginger salsa. A self confessed chocaholic, it is not something I ever would have ordered unprompted, but it was the perfect ending to the meal. The Radisson offers a number of other dining options, including the fine dining restaurant Cross and Lomani Wai where tables are set up for dining in the water. The hotel is consistently ranked highly on the travel website Trip Advisor for its high standards of cuisine and deservedly so.
Special mention needs to be made of the Fijian service and hospitality, there is simply no comparison. They manage to combine an efficient and professional service with a warmth and charm you don't find anywhere else. Travelling with children you are made to feel completely welcome, even in the most fine dining of restaurants and with the noisiest of four-year-olds!
For those who have heard and believed the bad rap about resort food in Fiji, I urge you to try it for yourself. I can assure you, you will be pleasantly surprised. I was, and I will certainly be back.
Belinda Henley flew to Fiji courtesy of Air New Zealand.