Fiji: Fantasy Islands

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Bure accommodations at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort.
Bure accommodations at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort.

Even in the most enchanting tropical daydream, it’s difficult to conjure up fantasies that transcend the realities of Fiji. While images of thatched-roof bungalows, aquamarine lagoons, sugary white-sand beaches and lush rainforests are each seductive in their own right, it’s the genuine spirit of amiable islanders that elevates the bliss.

Fijians greet visitors with a warm smile and “bula” (hello). They burst into song when welcoming and often tear up when bidding farewell. An extended hand is for shaking rather than requesting a tip. Here, it’s all about heart.

paradise “101”

The lay of the land—or some 333 islands, in this case—can be a bit baffling. The archipelago is divided into 13 groups, with the islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu dominating the tourism scene. The former is home to Nadi International Airport (NAN), Denarau Island resort and Sigatoka River villages, while the latter is an eco-adventure haven where diving rules.

Unless they’re seasoned long-haulers, recommend your clients recharge at least one night on Viti Levu before springboarding to other destinations. That was the plan of action during our visit, planting ourselves 20 minutes from the airport on Denarau Island.

Not an island in natural terms, the integrated resort complex deviates from Fiji’s more laid-back style with 1,700 guestrooms in brands including Radisson, Wyndham, Sofitel, Hilton, Sheraton and Westin. It’s also home to lively Port Denarau Marina where South Seas Cruises transports hoppers to the Mamanuca and Yasawa islands.

Starwood faithful can tap into Stay in One, Play in All signing privileges at Sheraton Fiji Resort, Sheraton Denarau Villas, The Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa, and Denarau Golf & Racquet Club. Familiar perks include Heavenly Spa by Westin, watersport rentals, multiple swimming pools, and 14 restaurants and bars.

Bear in mind, however, that Denarau isn’t pure Fiji. U.S. visitors are best guided to more traditional settings beyond.

what a dive

Bright and early the next morning, our eco-craving quartet took off for Vanua Levu in the northern fringes. A glorious sightseeing tour in itself, the 1-hour flight aboard Fiji Airways’ Pacific Sun subsidiary lands on Savusavu Airport’s (SVU) single-strip runway.

While void of endless beaches, the island’s volcanic origins have created some of the world’s most spectacular soft coral diving. Vanua Levu’s three major resorts each provide shuttle transportation among their all-inclusive conveniences.

NAMALE RESORT & SPA: Perched atop volcanic uplifts where a rainforest meets the Koro Sea, this resort raises the bar on privacy and luxury with its 19 bures (cottages) and villas. Over lunch, Hudson Mitchell, the resort’s director of sales, marketing and guest services, explains that the 525-acre retreat limits its “population” to 44 guests 14 years and older at any one time—sizing up to a three-to-one staff-to-guest ratio. Aside from smiling Fijians who quickly learn our names, we rarely encounter others outside of the Dive Namale Watersports & Activity Center and Main Dining Bure. Escape artists into one-on-one time can opt for dining in bures, nooks near waterfalls or on an empty beach. We explored all three while staying in the Dream House, a 2,000-sq.-ft. hideaway overlooking the sea.

No doubt guests are tempted to never leave these posh digs. Why bother when there’s a dreamy water feature feeding a swimming pool that drops further down to a spa tub. The massive deck’s private cabana-style daybed and shower off each bedroom truly take it over the edge.

Mitchell explains that at Namale, the word “no” doesn’t exist. “At the luxury level, you don’t dictate to your clients. They dictate to you.” That mantra proves a magnet among guests ranging from “once in a lifetime” couples to high-profile travelers demanding discretion.

Warm-hearted hospitality keeps the resort approachable despite atypical amenities like a digital golf driving range, hardwood basketball court and 2-lane/10-pin bowling alley.

More customary, the recently refreshed Spa & Sanctuary sedates within a hydrotherapy area where floor-to-ceiling windows unfold to the sea. After a foot soak in coconut-infused water, we melted into The Spirit of Fiji treatment that blends luxurious Swedish-style strokes with spiraling movements.

The resort’s warm and fuzzy check-out ritual found us engraving our names and artwork onto small bricks of wet cement. Mitchell says that the high percentage of return guests channel their inner child to comb resort paths for their creations.

All-inclusive rates start at $995 per couple for Garden Tropical Bures to $2,300 for up to four in the Dream House. The foodie-friendly Eat, Drink & Be Happy package extends one free night on 5-night bookings made through June 30 for stays through Dec. 31, 2014.

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU RESORT: It’s a no-brainer that a resort with Cousteau in its moniker would be eco-centric. Sprawling within a former coconut plantation on Savusavu Bay, the 25-bure Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort-Fiji (JMC) goes beyond the casual splash with PADI-certified L’Adventure dive school and environmentally responsible activities.

General manager Mark Slimmer notes that since JMC draws couples, families and divers, courses range from basic to advanced certification. Dive vessels haul aquatic addicts to coveted sites in 10 to 15 minutes and highly touted Namena in 45 minutes. We’re quick to catch that adventure is only part of the plan. “Our goal is to motivate visitors and especially divers to act as ambassadors of the environment,” says Slimmer. JMC resident marine biologist, Johnny Singh, introduces guests to organic gardens with “edible landscaping” and water reclamation system masked within flower-festooned lagoons.

The welcome routine revives with a 15-minute foot massage on the deck of traditional Fijian-style bures refreshed last year. Although JMC’s all-inclusive plan isn’t quite as extensive as Namale’s, it covers non-motorized watersports, cultural treks, yoga, rainforest hikes and Bula Club for kids 12 and under. We opt for a quick boat ride to private Naviavia Island where guests can reserve half- or full-day soirees with snorkeling, kayaking and gourmet fare prepped by resort chefs.

Since JMC’s Dining Bure features two 7-day menus, those staying two weeks will never order from the same line-up twice. The ultimate “nightcap” finds us on a mat seated around a kava bowl as the “Bula Boys” croon local and American classics. At press time, rates started at $1,005 nightly.

KORO SUN RESORT: Shining with luxe Edgewater Bures that debuted last November, the 43-bure/villa Koro Sun Resort caters to divers, honeymooners, soft adventure lovers and those simply craving relaxation. These couples-only newbies go romantic via an elevated private porch with beach area and ladders leading directly into a blue lagoon. Reflecting a 30 percent grand opening discount through 2014, nightly rates start at $525 per couple.

“We felt the waterfront experience is underutilized in terms of accommodations,” says Merlyn Young, director of sales and marketing. “With our newest bures, Koro Sun puts emphasis on waking up right next to water and waves lapping up next to your bure.” Aside from all-inclusive gourmet fare and non-motorized watersports, the resort offers access to its Rainforest Spa and PADI-certified Koro Sun Dive.

Through March 31 of next year, 1-bedroom oceanview bures start at $430 nightly for two, while two bedrooms are from $460. A new children’s policy allows one child 12 years and under to stay for free with each paying adult in accommodations for more than two people. Mandatory meal plans are $50 daily per child.

The Namale Resort & Spa overlooks the Koro Sea.
The Namale Resort & Spa overlooks the Koro Sea.

getting there

While the distance seems especially daunting from the U.S. east coast, nonstop red-eyes from LAX, aboard Fiji Airways’ spiffy new A330 Airbus, let 273 passengers snooze through the night. Rebranded last summer, the former Air Pacific also operates 737-800 service through Honolulu (HNL) for those craving a double dose of Polynesian pleasure while breaking up flight time.

Our group flew in business class, where 24 can stretch out on comfy 76-inch-long sleep beds with 60-inch pitch. Night owls can plug into ample entertainment on Panasonic 15.4-inch LCD displays with noise cancelling audio jacks. The 254-seat economy class also focuses on comfort with increased personal space via adjustments to seat angle and armrests.

pleasant in paradise

Among the various wholesalers packaging the whole shebang is Pleasant Holidays. “Fiji embodies what most people envision as the quintessential South Pacific paradise,” says Nadine Lu, Pleasant Holidays’ product director, South Pacific. “It’s spectacularly beautiful, with pristine beaches, lush tropical vegetation and warm, crystal-clear waters.”

Lu notes that the hospitable Fijians up that appeal. “It’s very family-friendly, with nanny services available at most resorts, plenty of activities for all ages and unique cultural encounters like kava ceremonies allowing travelers to experience local village traditions,” she says. “It’s also very private, making it ideal for romance vacations and honeymoons.”

Pleasant expects its steady growth in U.S. bookings to continue thanks to Fiji Airways’ increased A330 capacity. Lu adds that many bookings include two islands, with most opting for several days on Viti Levu before visiting either the Mamanuca or Northern islands. The wholesaler’s portfolio encompasses 33 hotels and resorts, three intimate cruises and a bevy of commissionable activities.

To help agents up their Fiji mojo, Pleasant’s extensive online resource center provides training, marketing materials, webinar information and promotions. The current Hot Deals campaign offers $500 savings on new all-inclusive/air-inclusive bookings made by April 14 for stays through 2014 at participating properties. Agents also earn booking points for travel to any Pleasant destination with the wholesaler’s TRIP program (Travel Reward Incentive Program).

Especially for U.S. east coast travelers, Lu recommends a longer Fiji vacation for better balance. “Fortunately, most resorts offer special stay/pay plans that make longer stays more advantageous,” she says. “It’s also a great stopover for Australia and New Zealand vacations packaged by Pleasant Holidays’ luxury Journese brand.”

contact information

Fiji Airways:
Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort:
Koro Sun Resort:
Namale Resort & Spa:
Starwood Hotels & Resorts: or
Tourism Fiji: