Nick Walton travels back in time with a visit to one of Fiji’s most acclaimed island retreats.
Sometimes getting to the world’s best destinations takes a little effort. That’s what I kept telling myself as our tiny single-engine Islander bounces and sways on final approach to a grass landing strip that’s a par 4 at best. Below us, the sea is vividly blue, coral gardens racing beneath the surface, a blindly white strip of beach running away towards the horizon. With a final whine from the engine and a bump of wheels on terra firma, we arrive at Yasawa, a wafer-thin island in Fiji’s northernmost chain. In a world increasingly globalised and homogenised, Yasawa Island is Fiji as it was when I was a kid, visiting during school holidays – all empty, pristine beaches, loud, bellowed bula welcomes, and endless smiles.
My wife Maggie and I have ventured away from the chain resorts of Fiji’s main island for a touch of old South Pacific charm, at one of the archipelago’s most coveted houses of slumber, Yasawa Island Resort & Spa. This little slice of paradise is the kind of place travellers like to keep a secret, if only to keep away the crowds. Fortunately, the 30 minutes charter flight (or significantly longer boat ride) helps keep both island and resort in a kind of a time warp. There are no day trippers here, no flag-waving tour groups, and, a blessing for couples, no kids under 12 (outside of school holiday season), just a tropical locale that’s resisted the onslaught of modernity.
The resort, with its 18 expansive, garden-wreathed ‘bure’ villas scattered along one of Fiji’s best beaches, was opened in 1991 and has won virtually every award in the book thanks to authentic Fijian hospitality, a breathtaking location, and enough innovation to keep modern travellers returning year after year. Each bure is a little haven of seclusion; after the air-conditioned confines of Hong Kong, we throw open the shutters and let the sea breeze flow through the villa, carrying with it the intoxicating perfume of Frangipani and Bougainvillea. More flowers line the simple paths that lead from the main resort buildings and which end at Lomalagi or ‘heaven’, the honeymoon villa, which boasts its own pool.
While seclusion is always on the menu (and it can be a chore to drag yourself from your beachfront hammock), Yasawa Island Resort & Spa is also quite communal, in part because of the kind of traveller it appeals to, and in part because of its all-inclusive tariff, which covers meals and scheduled excursions. It’s not long until we’re meeting guests from around the world – many Yasawa regulars – over coconut shells of kava, a ceremonial libation famed for its slightly euphoriant properties that’s served during a traditional ceremony to welcome new arrivals. Located beside the resort’s main pool, the semi-open air dining room, which serves international comfort cuisine laced with locally-sourced ingredients, including world-class local lobster, has a great ambiance, and dinner conversations with fellow guests often extend to drinks around the al fresco cocktail bar afterwards.
We leave our fellow guests in our wake as we head to one of the island’s 11 private beaches, this one the honeymoon villa’s namesake. There are a range of popular day excursions on offer at Yasawa, including diving, fishing and visits to caves where the 80s hit The Blue Lagoon was filmed, but for Maggie and I it’s all about getting lost in the beauty of the South Pacific. With a bottle of chilled champagne and a picnic of salads and sandwiches, we’re blissfully marooned by the resort team on 500m of talcum powder white sand,coral visible in the shallows of brilliantly-blue seas. On Lomalagi, as it seems to be on all of Yasawa, time stands still, and the hustle of city life becomes a distant memory replaced by the sound of waves cascading on the beach and the call of circling frigates high above.
Our final Yasawa experience comes the next day when we visit Bukama, one of two villages on the island and home to many of the resort’s staff. It’s Sunday and we slip quietly into a pew at the back of a humble little Methodist church the colour of key lime pie. It’s a special day for the village; a Deacon is visiting from the Mainland to conduct the christening of two babies and while church in Fiji is a very solemn affair, the families can’t hide their pride for long as the ceremony is completed and the congregation breaks into song. It’s the kind of authentic and touching encounter that’s increasingly hard to come by in modern Fiji, and one that makes the effort to get to Yasawa all the more worthwhile.
Fly: Roundtrip Business class with Fiji Airways from Hong Kong to Nadi from HK$21,000 (US$2,680) per person. www.fijiairways.com
Stay: Stay in a Yasawa Island Resort & Spa Deluxe Bure from FD$2,563 (US$1,192) per night, twin share (min of three nights), and include FD$1,187 (US$552) per person for return air transfers. www.yasawa.com