Staff at the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort say feisty Australian operations manager Helen Regan "drives like she's in the army". It's meant as a compliment, for her no-holds-barred approach may well have saved lives a year ago when Cyclone Winston whipped in.

Helen made it her job to ferry staff home to their villages ahead of the full force of Fiji's killer natural disaster. With waves already breaking over the winding coastal road that connects the resort with Savusavu town, she made a number of 4WD dashes to get staff away from the exposed oceanfront, back to local villages, so they could help their families attempt to secure buildings and find shelter.

As the winds whipped up, evacuation by road became too tricky. Remaining local and staff children were escorted to safety up the hills behind the resort. The last workers on site, who had been boarding up what they could, took shelter with Helen in the resort's boutique. This is part of a substantial administration structure in the main building, behind the oceanfront restaurant. Water rushed through the entire area, but the group barricaded in their "bunker" survived. They eventually emerged to find the resort's timber pier had been destroyed, with 7-metre anchor pylons, the width of power poles, found kilometres up the coast weeks later.

Coconut palms were snapped, the roofs of the guest bures shredded, and contents smashed.

Advertisement

A year on, sitting looking across the tranquil Somosomo Strait, home of world-class diving, all this is hard to credit. Miraculously, frangipani trees around the swimming pool survived. They frame a view that encapsulates the eco-luxe look the award-winning resort is renowned for.

But it took seven-long months before the resort could reopen. Elsewhere on Vanua Levu and across on Taveuni, Fiji's third island, there are similar stories. Along with remote outer islands, these were particularly hard hit by Winston.

The cyclone was the most powerful to crash land in Pacific history — killing 44 people and wrecking 40,000 homes in Fiji alone — with wind gusting to 285km/h at its height on February 20 last year.

On the mainland, at less-lashed tourist central Denarau it was soon business as usual, but the northern islands, which rely on agriculture as well as tourism for income, have had a harder row to hoe.

The warm welcome visitors get in the north is not at all formulaic. Right now these regions hope visitors will look beyond the usual "flop-and-drop" Kiwi trips to Fiji and take their holiday dollar further into local communities. The add-on domestic flight from Nadi opens up new landscapes and experiences. The peaks of Vanua Levu look almost Tahitian; Taveuni has a relaxed pace and a prized kava output all of its own. Both islands feature easy access to fabulous dive spots at Rainbow Reef and the White Wall, where deep waters shelter colourful coral kingdoms and varied fish life.

Accommodation ranges from backpacker style to exclusive couples resorts, reflecting that it is likely to be the adventurous independent traveller and honeymooners who venture beyond Viti Levu's chain hotels.

Families too, can find much to explore in the authentic north. It is a great place to learn to snorkel and dive, hike to waterfalls, or simply soak up the sun without the crowds.

At Cousteau, you can take a picnic to the resort's own little islet for some undisturbed indulgence, leaving your children in the care of the nanny they are paired with throughout their stay.

Around the point, the exclusive Namale couples resort will set up a table for guests at the foot of a waterfall, where you can swim or sip champagne before being brought back to your cliff-top villa. Compared with Cousteau, Namale's cyclone damage was less severe, but little rings of stones across its expansive lawns once encircled trees. Dining platforms below the main restaurant were dashed by waves the height of a three-storey building. These, and the sea-level activities bure, have been rebuilt.

Over the waters, the cliff-top Paradise Taveuni also faced an onslaught, with waves lifting one-tonne boulders into its swimming pool. The resort's Kiwi manager ordered in timber from New Zealand to speed the rebuild and guarantee soundness. Thatch supplies were so short locally that tin roofs have been temporarily put in place on stucco bures, giving them a retro bach feel.

At Cousteau, staff unloaded 10-tonne trucks that made 100 trips carrying new thatch.

They planted 15,000 new plants. Lush growth means the village elder who leads guests around the gardens pointing out traditional herbal remedies has plenty to talk about once more. The kitchens can rely on produce grown on site and catch is local, but consciously not from the reef for fish preservation purposes.

Helen says an upside to the devastation was the chance to update the resort's furniture and soft furnishings. This has given the property a fresh and chic contemporary feel.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the Presidential villa, with its two bures built around a private pool.

First in line for any accommodation upgrades are the team of tradies who flew over from Australia to help with the rebuild, at the resort and in its staff's villages. These annual visitors have become honoured friends. Like so many other guests, their children have bonded with their nannies and correspond with local kids they met on village school visits.

It is a first name kind of place.

A wealthy American who declaimed he was there to learn to dive at "the best" place, was a day or two later sharing his catch, prepared by staff as sashimi, with all in the bar.

Cousteau's children's club takes an eco-educational approach and serves healthy fare.

The resort's resident marine biologist Johnny Singh leads walkabouts and snorkelling sessions. Children (and their parents if they wish to join them) have a separate pool in the kids' club area and eat to the side of the main restaurant which overlooks an adults-only pool. Grown-up guests can upschool on the environment as well, with daily topics and trips, or simply head to the spa for some solitary or couples pampering.

The relaxed vibe and small scale of this resort, means the sight of a few children, often with new friends like Helen's half-Fijian daughter or Johnny's boy and girl tagging along, won't disturb the peace.

At a place so in touch with nature, it seems fitting to discuss its twists and turns. The cyclone damage was undoubtedly cruel, but resilience is part of island life. To improve the quality of that life, local resorts, spearheaded by Cousteau, are involved in the Savusavu Community Foundation, which is building a kindergarten and improving medical care in the area, including running free eye, dental and skin clinics. Guests can contribute to its work.

When one guest asked what he could do to help post-cyclone, he was asked for roofing screws. Many roofs are lost in storms because they are badly secured with regular nails. The specialist screws cost too much for locals to buy.

The guest arranged a donation of 250,000 quality roofing screws to be sent from Australia. The foundation is in the process of getting these through officialdom and transported from Suva to Savusavu. It plans to use them to better weather-proof community buildings and village homes across the region.

Though the resort was able to come back stronger from the storm, in the villages much remains to be done to complete permanent repairs.

The locals, it seems, are still hostage to remoteness and the weather.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Fiji Airways flies from Auckland to Nadi.

Accommodation: For information and reservations at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort go to fijiresort.com.

Further information: See fiji.travel.