Fiji: South Pacific style

Tropical kitsch has had its day. Fiji is back on the luxury list with elegant new boutique resorts and stylish makeovers of some old favourites. The islands’ famed white-sand beaches await.

By Peter Thomson
Much has changed since Australians first began holidaying in large numbers in Fiji in the 60s, back when the choice was between Dick Smith's Castaway resort, down the coral coast to the Fijian or a handful of Nadi airport hotels. In the past couple of years, these islands in the Pacific have undergone something of a renaissance - a host of hot new international hotels and resorts has surfaced, old favourites have been funkily upgraded and cutting-edge spas are de rigueur. Even the food scene is getting a much-needed makeover.
Drive over the bridge from Nadi on to Denarau Island and it's like you've entered an up-market corner of Florida or Queensland - there's a championship golf course with luxury villas lining boat canals and a swathe of hotels ahead - a Hilton, Radisson, Sofitel, Westin and two Sheratons. Meanwhile, all of Denarau Island's 330 freehold lots have been sold, with New Zealand and Australian buyers in the fore.
All those remembered delights of Fiji life are still there of course: outrageous sunsets above an island-sculpted horizon, the aromatic blend of coconut oil and tropical blooms, toothy-grinned villagers waving at passing cars, exuberant kids leaping into swimming holes for the sake of a photo, and the warm hand of Fijian hospitality extended wherever you turn.
Only now, kitsch is out and cool is definitely in. Here's our pick of the most glamorous newcomers on the Fijian scene, plus some old favourites who've unveiled a decidedly glamorous new look.
Fiji Beach Resort & Spa, managed by Hilton "Effortless luxury" is how Fiji's new five-star Denarau Island beach resort describes itself. From the moment you're picked up at Nadi International Airport by one of the resort's fleet of white BMWs, you're into a Hilton cocoon of the coolest of comforts. The Hilton has brought a completely new look to the Fiji resort scene. Dispensing with kitsch and bright colours, it's gone for a look of toned-down, sleek sophistication.
The resort frontage is dominated by five huge swimming pools shimmering in a shade of deep sapphire. The pools allow the resort lateral views out over Bligh Water to the volcanic profile of Waya Island and back across Nadi Bay to the rocky bulk of the Sabeto mountain range. Out in the bay, fishing boats and superyachts swing at anchor.
The resort's 219 luxury beachfront rooms are big and light-filled, embracing their views of the sea, with contemporary bespoke furniture and luxurious bathrooms. Refreshing plunge pools and day-beds lie strategically around the resort like seductive honey-traps.For families with young kids, there's a supervised Kids Club for amusing the youngsters while mum and dad are off on the golf course or succumbing to a massage at the Hilton's spa.
The Nuku restaurant is run by chef Tony Hart, formerly of The Brasserie at the Hilton Adelaide. Whether buffet or à la carte, every evening at Nuku there's a theme - Fijian, Oriental, curry night, Mediterranean, and chef's market-fresh selection. A local mud-crab (qari in Fijian), wok-fried in black pepper sauce, was as succulent a crab dish as ever I've eaten.
Doubles from $490 per night for a Studio Beachfront Villa to $1695 for a three-bedroom Deluxe Villa, including breakfast and transfers, +1 (679) 675 6800,
Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort Back in the shelter of Savusavu Bay nestles the resort known by most people as Cousteau. One of Fiji's gems, under the management of Australians Greg and Karen Taylor the graceful potential of the place is being fully realised. The resort's 25 bures are spread along the beach and through gorgeous tropical gardens; Karen's architectural background evident in the flowing design of the exclusive Point Reef bures.
From the moment of arrival, you are aware of the romance of old Fiji - smiling people with flowers in their hair, the soft harmonies of singing voices and acoustic guitars, vistas of the trees heavy with blossom, thatched roofs, bamboo-rafts and canoes at anchor, and ragged mountains rising from the bay's far shore. Along the beachfront, discreet huts with drop-screens await your presence for a long, sleep-inducing massage. This is an eco-resort with organic gardens and a marine sanctuary off its reefs and beaches, along with programs to put its eco-philosophy into action. The resort undertakes reef-monitoring surveys for Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, and an outreach project with district schools spreads the eco-word. Spa bures have been built beachside from local materials, and Cousteau's spa treatments use the products of organic cosmetics company Pure Fiji. A mood of environmental bliss pervades - waves lapping on the beach, birdsong filling the trees and the rhythm of a masseur's hands encouraging wellness.
Doubles (and two children under 12 years) from $892 per night for a Gardenview Bure to $2651 for The Villa. Rates include meals and return airport transfers, 1300 306 171 or (03) 9815 0379,
Vatulele Island Resort
Across the sea to the west of Royal Davui is Vatulele Island, famous for the production of intricately printed tapa cloth. The island's four Fijian villages are on its eastern shore, with the western shore given over to the privacy of the resort and high limestone cliffs in which glittering flocks of seabirds nest. A duck egg-blue lagoon is endowed with beauty that never fails to dazzle.
Vatulele's famous Santa Fe-meets-Bali architecture, with its sculpted walls in tones of candy pink and yellow ochre under high-pitched, Fijian-thatched roofs, has graced the pages of many a book on Pacific Island style. The 17 Deluxe Beach bures of this 'barefoot-chic' resort are spacious and open, each in a leafy grove with access to the beach. They are not airconditioned, so that as one drifts off to sleep under a generous mosquito net, the delicate swish of waves is the last sound you hear.
At opposite ends of the beach are two luxurious airconditioned villas - Vale Viqi and The Point. Vale Viqi was conceived as a honeymoon bure with full-time staff residing in nearby quarters. Guests can either take their meals down at the resort or back at their villa. The Point sits on a limestone cliff overlooking the resort, the beach and the lagoon. It is a sophisticated, gardenia-white two-storeyed villa that would look grand in any waterfront setting from Cancún to the Côte d'Azur. The Point also has its own dedicated staff and the cool luxury of two private pools perched on the cliff edge.
Doubles from $1074 per night for a Deluxe Beach bure in low season to $2417 per night for The Point, including all meals. No children under 12 years. Return charter flights between Nadi Airport and Vatulele cost $575 per person, +1 (679) 672 0300,
Royal Davui Island You can get to this island gem by taking a car to Pacific Harbour and boating across the Beqa Channel or by helicopter from Nadi International Airport. The Island Hoppers chopper takes you over Fiji's main island of Viti Levu, giving you views of green mountain parrots in the rainforest canopy as you skim over the high mountain ridges and hover above remote waterfalls seen by no land-bound travellers.
The resort is on a tiny emerald island set within the aquamarine corona of the Beqa lagoon, with a backdrop of volcanic peaks. This location and the marine reserve that's been established on the surrounding reefs make it an ideal resort for snorkelling along coral reefs or scuba-diving world-class sites.
Ecological concerns were foremost in the recent redevelopment of the resort, with "responsible luxury" its catchphrase and a commitment to keeping the reefs around the island forever pristine. The 16 villas have been strategically placed among the rocks and trees to make the least impact on the fragile environment. Native trees fruit and flower in profusion and the sky is full of seabirds riding the trade winds.
Staff trained by Pure Fiji are on stand-by to give you a choice of spa treatments in the privacy of your villa.
Royal Davui's general manager, Tony Kramer, is an Australian with a chef's background. The menu includes the best of local seafood and Fijian ingredients such as rourou (taro leaf) panna cotta, ota fern salad, crunchy nama seaweed garnishes and even kava ice-cream.
Doubles from $1160 for a Deluxe Villa to $1545 for the Davui Suite. Rates include all meals. Return helicopter flights from Nadi cost $500 per person. No children under 16 years, +1 (679) 336 1624,
The Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa
Those who remember the relaxed elegance of the Regent of Fiji back in the 70s and 80s will be pleased to learn she's been done proud by a $17.5 million refurbishment for her relaunch in April 2006 as a Westin property. The thatched Steakhouse bar and grill has been extended along the beachfront and remains one of the truly great places to watch a tropical sunset, sip cocktails and dine on Pacific food with an American twist. The hotel's 271 rooms have had tasteful makeovers, as have the swimming area, restaurants and lobby, while the lush landscaping of the original resort has been added to with the beautiful garden setting of the new spa.
Almost $3 million was spent on the creation of The Heavenly Spa by Westin, a collection of 12 open-air therapy rooms set in tropical gardens around a tranquil water-lily pool. It's a toss-up between a second-to-none personal pampering at the Heavenly Spa or a visit to the adjacent Westin Workout facility with its state-of-the-art equipment and lap pool.
And because The Westin is part of Starwood's integrated resort at Denarau Island, guests have nine restaurants, two cocktail lounges, five bars, five swimming pools and a spread of shops and recreation facilities to choose from. Your Westin room card is good for billings at any of the nearby services of the Sheraton Fiji Resort, the Sheraton Denarau Villas or the Denarau Golf and Racquet Club.
Be warned, though - getting into bed at The Westin can be nothing less than a life-changing experience, for there is no doubt about it, this is the world's most perfect bed. Like so many others who have slept at this hotel, I suffered withdrawal symptoms after I left. Fortunately, The Westin understands its guests' needs and is now selling replicas of the aptly named Heavenly Bed so you can enjoy the Fiji experience at home.
Doubles from $276 per night for a Tropical Garden View Room to $510 for a Beachfront Suite or $875 for a Royal Suite, including breakfast, 1800 656 535,
Namale, The Fiji Islands Resort and Spa
If you take an Air Fiji flight and fly north-east for an hour you'll come to the huge blue scallop of Savusavu, set into Vanua Levu, Fiji's second-biggest island. Below you the old copra planter's town of Savusavu comes into view weaving along the waterfront under the palm trees, its little port protected by leafy Nawi Island.
Drive out along the coast road for 10 minutes and you come to the Namale plantation with its imposing iron-gated entrance. The owner of Namale is the American motivational speaker Anthony Robbins. Under Robbins' stewardship, Namale has developed a resort that is regarded as one of Fiji's top hideaways. Set on a 130ha holding of waterfalls and protected forests, about 50ha of the foreshore land is devoted to the resort. The 18 bures and villas sit on a limestone point that creates a leeward nook for its marina and some of the resort's beaches. At its back is an immaculately maintained coconut estate with the old copra drier still in operation, its dried coconut flesh sold to the mill in Savusavu.
If the days of old Fiji are redolent out under the coconut palms, inside the resort's activities facility the mood is relaxed Americana, with a 10-pin bowling alley, virtual golf, air hockey and a movie screen with all the latest DVD trimmings. A traditional Fijian thatched roof soars above Namale's bar and dining room, Bure Levu, one of Fiji's finest. The ambience within is one of soft, warm light; a string band playing gentle songs as guests enjoy the indulgences of Namale's enticing cuisine. Gentle indulgence is also the phrase that comes to mind when describing the experience of the Namale Spa and Sanctuary, built on a low cliff overlooking the surf of the Koro Sea and Namale's famous coral blowhole.
Doubles from $1075 per night for a Tropical Bure to $2267 for a Grand Villa, including all meals and transfers from Namale to Savusavu Airport. No children under 13 years, +1 (679) 885 0435,
  • Author: Peter Thomson