Fiji: Coladas and cabanas

By Courtney Whitaker

Ditch the rat race and join Courtney Whitaker poolside as she sips cocktails and marvels at a glorious Fijian sunset.
The Sofitel Hotel in Fiji.
The Sofitel Hotel in Fiji.

"Now family, just so you know, we have only one life jacket on board."

Our host, Illy, earnestly addresses the intrepid passengers aboard this Captain Cook Cruise, bound for Tivua Island. Nervous glances are exchanged between the more than 50 tourists who have signed up for a day of sun, sea and activities.

Falling overboard is not part of the plan.

We are perched on wooden benches under a large shade sail. The clear blue ocean softly rocks the ship and our benches shift slightly with the vessel - it's better to ignore the fact they're not attached to the deck.

"I'm just kidding!" cries Illy. He erupts into infectious laughter. His smile is megawatt, and the effect on us, instant. And there, in a mouth full of gleaming white teeth is the reassurance we are looking for.

The elegant old ship creaks as she sits docked in Port Denarau; the heady smell of burned diesel filters up from below the decks.

Ramarama, which means "Old Lady", is just that, says Illy. Built for the Governor of Fiji in the 1950s, this timber-and-brass beauty has quite a history. She was converted to an open-deck brigantine rig in the 90s, and is now living out the rest of her days transporting holidaymakers around the Pacific Ocean.

"When we get to the island, you can swim with Nemo," says Illy. "You can kayak, you can stand-up paddle board, or, you can do nothing. Here in Fiji, we call doing nothing, doing something."

And with that, we set sail, and the Old Lady begins her graceful - if somewhat slow - journey towards Tivua.

The dry heat in Nadi is overwhelming, and farms are a patchwork of brown and yellow. But happily, the sugar cane fields appear to be thriving.

Our home for the next three days is starkly juxtaposed with this dehydrated landscape. A brief jaunt through Nadi's rugged roads - my driver Ali explains they are in the middle of an extensive makeover - takes me across the bridge and into the lush, sprinkler-fed private gardens of Denarau Island. Here, the Sofitel Fiji sits beachfront, and it is breathtaking.

The lobby is filled with beautiful tapa-cloth pieces below a lofty wooden ceiling.

From the far balcony, I can see families relaxing by the hotel's mammoth main pool, which snakes along the width of the resort.

The Sofitel Hotel in Denarau, Fiji.
The Sofitel Hotel in Denarau, Fiji.


My luxury King Room is a classy affair, with elegant Fijian accents and a distinctly French feel.

An inviting king-size Sofitel MyBed is flanked by a healthy supply of bottled Fiji Water, and fragrant bathroom products from Pure Fiji are generously provided.

From my balcony, I can see the Sofitel's newest creation: The Waitui Adults-Only Beach Club. The "adults-only" aspect gives parents a welcome retreat away from the main pool, while kids are safely deposited in the kids' club with minders. For others, it is a peaceful and luxurious place to unwind and focus on wellbeing: a towel, sunscreen and water bottle are provided on entry. Waitui's menu has a slew of nutritionally well-balanced dishes, put together by Sydney nutritionist Lucinda Zammit. The selection is the perfect way to hydrate after an early-morning yoga or stretch class by the pool.

Cabanas and loungers line the turquoise lagoon infinity pool. There is a restaurant, gym, and in-pool Champagne bar, where lucky club members can enjoy a front-row seat to Fiji's famous sunsets, cocktail in hand.

And what cocktails they are.

My "Another Colada" comes in a branded coconut, and is a seriously decadent way to enjoy the show at sundown. Saturated in a riot of pinks, oranges and purples, the sky's light slowly fades and is gradually replaced with fire torches and strategically lit palm trees.

The chic V Restaurant in the Sofitel's main building hosts us for dinner, twice.

From its large windows we can see the hotel's main pool glowing, and fire lamps among the frangipani trees.

Chef Stuart Blair recommends his pork belly entree, and it does not disappoint. The initial crunch is followed by a melt-in-the-mouth experience. It's hard to know whether anything else on the menu could possibly beat this.

Chef Justin North hosts us for our second V dinner: a four-course degustation with wine-matching. There is a heavy seafood theme here, and each dish is carefully chosen to reflect the produce and meat on offer and in season. We taste a fresh kokoda reef fish salad, marinated in lime juice and drizzled with coconut cream. Mahi mahi fillets are set before us, drenched in orange and sake and followed by slow-cooked mutton shoulder and sweet potato curry.

SoSpa hosts me on my last day in Fiji, where I'm treated to one of the Sofitel's signature Rejuvenating Facial Treatments. My face is slathered in beautiful French Themae and Pure Fiji products.

The lovely Joyeshvi is very sympathetic to my sunburned neck and shoulders, applying a thick, cooling layer of Pure Fiji Dilo rescue cream. I wonder how often they must do this for unprepared and vitamin D-deficient city-dwellers like me.

Ramarama yaws and struggles through the rough waves. Crew members raise her massive white mainsail to temper the strong winds. Other small islands are scattered haphazardly like glistening jewels in the Pacific Ocean. Fiji is made up of more than 300 of these jewels, most of them uninhabited.

We pass the glorious Garden of the Sleeping Giant - whose mountain range does indeed resemble an ogre mid-slumber - and arrive at Tivua, windswept and excited.

Ramarama drops anchor outside the island's 200ha halo of coral reef and we are met by a glass-bottomed boat, which will transport us to our paradise for the day.

Again, cabanas are dotted along the palm-tree laden beach, complete with bean-bags and loungers.

It is a cut-throat race to secure the best spot, and I triumphantly stake my claim to a large bean bag and settle in.

If you've ever tried to hoist yourself out of a bean bag half-buried in sand, you'll understand the undignified process one must go through to get out of it - I wish I had lunged for a lounger.

After a delicious buffet lunch and a strategic hobble across coral-strewn sand into clear warm waters, we are shuttled back to Ramarama. "Bula! Come back again soon, we loved having you here." I am warmly farewelled by the crew. And you know they genuinely mean it. I will definitely be back. I'm sold.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Fiji Airways flies direct to Nadi from Auckland and Wellington. fijiairways.com

DETAILS
Captain Cook Cruises will get you to Tivua Island, departing Port Denarau on the Ramarama. captaincookcruises
fiji.com
For transfers, try Rosie Holidays rosiefiji.com.

ONLINE
fiji.travel

- NZ Herald

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