Telling people you’re heading to Fiji is almost as much fun as actually going there. Typically, the reaction is undisguised envy. For many, this 333-island archipelago is the embodiment of a tropical paradise. Fiji certainly has no shortage of palm-lined beaches and dazzling coral reefs, but its cultural heritage and ethos of warm, unforced hospitality are also part of the irresistible appeal.
Coconut palms and tropical hardwoods thrive in the volcanic soil, while commonplace houseplants such as variegated crotons grow into towering Technicolor shrubbery. At times, the atmosphere of Fiji is reminiscent of an upscale flower shop. And simply inhaling the air feels restorative.
Most international flights arrive in Nadi on Viti Levu, the largest island. It is best to escape this area as soon as possible. The city of Nadi has few charms, and the large resorts on man-made Denarau Island — while adequate for an overnight stay should your flight schedule require it — have little sense of place. Fiji is at its most magical in the outer islands, which, until now, have been home to all of my recommended resorts: Laucala Island, Yasawa Island and The Wakaya Club. However, Auberge Resorts recently opened a property on the south coast of Viti Levu. Curious to see whether Fiji’s main island had finally acquired a luxury hideaway, I flew for 30 minutes across the emerald interior to the resort’s airstrip.
Thatched roofs give all of the buildings traditional profiles and allow them to blend into the palm-studded landscape behind the resort.
The entire Nanuku development, which comprises an 18-room resort and private villas, stretches along almost two miles of sandy beach facing the green humps of Beqa and Yanuca islands. The property welcomes children — Australians regard Fiji as a family destination as much as a couples’ escape — but the lodgings have been separated. Families tend to stay in one of the six beachfront villas (which offer two or more bedrooms), whereas couples opt for the Vunikau Suites atop a hill. Thatched roofs give all of the buildings traditional profiles and allow them to blend into the palm-studded landscape behind the resort. All accommodations have sea views.
Although we had reserved a Vunikau Pool Suite, we found that we had been upgraded to the vast Vunikau Penthouse. The door was opened by our “Villa Mama,” Ani. A wine-tasting room and media room — complete with a wall-size projection screen and dining table for eight — flanked the entrance hall, which opened onto a vaulted great room with hardwood floors, walls of polished stones, and log beams capped with magimagi (coconut fiber) cloth supporting ceilings clad in traditional pandanus mats. Beyond the kitchen and full-size pool table, a group of hemp-rope sofas and armchairs stood opposite a bar, above which glowed a cascade of illuminated mother-of-pearl shells. A grand terrace wrapped around three sides of the suite and came with a gas grill, a hot tub and an infinity plunge pool. It was all rather overwhelming.
Upstairs, the master suite was notable for its jetted tub, dual vanities carved from boulders, and two additional terraces: “One for sunrise and one for sunset,” Ani cheerfully noted, as she unpacked our bags. Later, at the main bar, we encountered one of the resort’s financiers. “You’re in the Penthouse?” he inquired. “In my opinion, that’s the finest house in all of Fiji.” I saw no reason to dispute his assertion.
It required some effort, but we did leave the Penthouse from time to time, descending the hill in our golf cart (every accommodation includes one) or walking down the steps leading from our terrace directly to the beach. Each morning before a breakfast of tropical fruit, pastries and hibiscus tea smoothies, we would explore tidal pools populated by sea urchins, crabs and cobalt-blue starfish. We also went on a “food safari” led by our “Villa Buddy,” Taukini, during which we visited a kaleidoscopic fruit and vegetable market, toured a crab farm and watched a woman fetch prawns straight from a creek. We enjoyed a platter of the crustaceans at dinner that evening, along with kokoda, a ceviche-like appetizer; feta-stuffed pork fillet with wild ota fern and a pumpkin croquette; and a light papaya bavarois with passion fruit coulis and coconut sorbet. Alas, the waterfall hike we had reserved in advance was, irritatingly, canceled twice, so we arranged a Zodiac trip through the mangroves directly behind the hotel. There, we spotted kingfishers, barking imperial pigeons, a white heron and a crimson and emerald collared lory, or kula bird. Nanuku also organizes daily scheduled activities such as kayaking, yoga and bike rides.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Unfailingly warm service; the tranquil spa; the strong sense of place.
DISLIKE: The repeated cancellation of our waterfall hike.
GOOD TO KNOW: An excellent kids’ club offers activities throughout the day.
Nanuku 95 Vunikau Pool Suite, $1,075; Vunikau Penthouse, $2,055 (meals and non-alcoholic beverages included). 11 Nanuku Drive, Pacific Harbour. Tel. (679) 345-2100.
Thirty minutes to the south by boat, Royal Davui appeared to be an ideal counterpoint to a stay at Nanuku. This 16-villa family-owned resort gets a lot right, especially its open-air bar and restaurant, laid out on several levels around a giant banyan tree overlooking the sea. Our spacious villa exhibited fine contemporary Fijian design in its living room and separate bedroom, which led onto an ample bath with dual vanities, separate shower and tub, and a roof that could be opened with the flip of a switch. Alas, strong and persistent winds rendered our terrace and heated plunge pool all but unusable. However, a reef surrounds most of the island, and we enjoyed excellent snorkeling right off the pier.
Yet the service at Royal Davui lacked the irrepressible warmth of Nanuku’s, and its restaurant was inferior. So for the ultimate Fiji vacation, I recommend a stay at Nanuku, followed by several nights at one of my recommended resorts on the outer islands.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The dramatic restaurant design; the extensive wine list.
DISLIKE: Numerous tiny ants in our bath; corroded bedside lamps and ceiling fan.
GOOD TO KNOW: Seas between the main island and Royal Davui can be rough. Children under 16 are not allowed.
Royal Davui 88 Island Pool Vale, $1,020; Premium Pool Vale, $1,235 (meals and non-alcoholic beverages included). Royal Davui Island. Tel. (679) 330-7090.