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Sea Changing in The South Pacific

Lori Bryan

When the shark appears, we are snorkeling in the Beqa Lagoon, south of the main island of Viti Levu and north of Royal Davui, one of the smaller links in Fiji’s chain of more than 300 isles. The latter, home to the recently opened Royal Davui private island resort, seems worlds away, as does our boat, although it bobs nearby with its engines idling. Keeping the 7-foot-long predator in view, our guide leads us to a sandbar, where we crouch with our heads above water. “Do you see it?” he asks after spitting out his mouthpiece. “A white-tipped shark—they’re curious.” When I ask how curious, he merely grins and sinks back beneath the surface.
 
Curiosity—and the opportunity to swim with sharks and other inhabitants of these reefs—has brought me to this rapidly changing archipelago, which spans more than 800,000 square miles of the South Pacific Ocean north of New Zealand and southwest of Samoa. Travelers long have ventured to Fiji for such close encounters with nature and, for some, the dearth of human encounters its far-flung volcanic isles and coral atolls can afford. Yet the islands’ appeal to tourists traditionally has been limited by a lack of upscale accommodations; a want that, with a restabilized government and renewed interest from investors, Fiji intends to eradicate.
 
Fiji’s efforts to encourage development, which include providing tax breaks and other incentives for investors, are marked by a sense of urgency. Political discord rooted in conflicts between ethnic Fijians and the country’s people of Indian descent has, at times over the past several decades, beset the island nation (which became independent of Britain in 1970 but is today part of the Commonwealth). Its most recent coup, in 2000, involved the brief overthrowing of the elected government by an ethnic Fijian leader, who subsequently was arrested. Those events, according to a market study by HVS International of Sydney, Australia, “resulted in a sharp decline in overall hotel demand in Fiji,” but tourism—Fiji’s greatest source of foreign currency—has rebounded since the reinstitution of the elected government. The country attracted some 350,000 visitors in 2001, and by 2004 the number had increased to 500,000. Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase, according to a report on Fiji Times Online, expects more than 700,000 visitors by 2010.

But Qarase’s government has its eye on more than quantity. “With Fiji, [the goal] is for us to be able to deliver with all segments of the market,” says Josefa Tuamoto, director of marketing for the Fiji Visitors Bureau’s head office, “to maintain a reasonable number [of visitors] but have higher yield, and the luxury market will do that very well for us.”

The number of annual visitors to Fiji remains small by comparison to those of such destinations as Hawaii and Mexico. And with most of the nation’s approximately 830,000 residents living on its two largest islands, Fiji features an abundance of undeveloped oceanfront terrain, including roughly 100 isles that are uninhabited or nearly so. “Fiji is still such an unspoiled destination,” says Mike Freed, managing partner of Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort and its sister property, the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Calif. “There isn’t even a flight every day [from the United States],” he adds, although he believes that will change soon.

Hoteliers are betting on it. Royal Davui, an eight-acre resort with 16 thatched-roof vales set amid the towering palms of a private island in south Fiji’s Beqa Lagoon, welcomed its first guests in 2004. Not long before that, Huka Lodge’s Dolphin Island, a private island resort northeast of Viti Levu, opened its two bures to no more than four guests at a time. Forthcoming in 2006 are the Yaukuve private island resort, which will consist of 21 villas on 152 acres southeast of Viti Levu, and the Likuliku Lagoon Resort, a $23 million development in Fiji’s Mamanuca chain. On the more distant horizon, the Natadola Marine Resort, a megaproject on Viti Levu’s Coral Coast, is expected to attract international hotel brands of the highest caliber. “There are rumors that Amanresorts is sniffing around, and Four Seasons is practically signed for Natadola,” says Thierry Morali, chairman of Yaukuve’s management company, Serendipity Hotels & Resorts. (Four Seasons would not confirm any such plans.) “There’s also talk of Ritz-Carlton.”

As a whole, these resorts and rumors represent a new direction for Fiji. However, the proposed properties likely will be neither pioneering nor peerless in the archipelago: Scattered throughout the islands are a handful of retreats that paved the way for the current boom.

Hundreds of miles northeast of Royal Davui, at the top of a steep driveway flanked by banana, kumquat, and lime trees, the driver brings our SUV to a stop in front of Vale O. Disembarking from the vehicle, we accept chilled glasses of lemonade from the estate’s Fijian staff and proceed to the living pavilion’s wraparound deck, where perspective takes hold. Vale O, or house in the clouds, looks down upon the more than 2,000 acres that compose perhaps Fiji’s finest resort, Wakaya Club.

Originally constructed as a private home for resort owner and financier David Gilmour and his wife, the 12,000-square-foot Vale O estate now is available for island guests to rent. The ocean- and garden-view bures visible far below the home’s deck represent the greater part of Gilmour’s resort, which also includes a nine-hole golf course, a museum of 19th-century Fijian artifacts, and a recently opened spa. Elsewhere on the forested island, 600-foot cliffs bear the pottery shards and human bones of an ancient village, wild deer and horses wander, and a village is home to 140 Fijians for whom, it appears, maintaining the island is a labor of love.
 
Gilmour acquired this island in the Koro Sea in 1972. (Fiji’s islands are no longer available for purchase; operators of private island resorts lease the land.) “I thought, where am I happy, healthiest, and where do I enjoy the people the most?” says Gilmour. “Fiji has always been it.” Gilmour’s decision to transform the former copra plantation into a resort came years later. “It was the challenge of a famous hotelier some years ago who said, ‘David, you’ve become the biggest critic in the world when it comes to tourism. Why don’t you do something yourself, a tiny template of what you say would be acceptable going forward?’ ” says Gilmour, who claims that the resulting template—the antithesis of an overbuilt, underserved megaresort—was not designed to turn a profit. “I’m there to hopefully set a standard, which the right people come to and get emotionally involved in Fiji.”
 
For Fiji’s upstart resorts, a primary challenge will be to attain or surpass the standards set by Wakaya and other established properties—including Freed’s Jean-Michel Cousteau resort and the trailblazing Turtle Island, which opened in 1980—while maintaining a profitable business. “A few [private island resorts] have hit a number of hitches, and construction has stopped,” says Christopher Southwick, marketing director for Royal Davui, who points to the logistics involved in transporting equipment, materials, and workers to an island build site. “The cost is the most prohibitive part. The government does have a tax incentive, but it’s not a huge help.”
 
Although development at the resort has continued well past its opening date, Royal Davui is attempting to ensure that ongoing work does not disturb guests’ sense of seclusion. Each of Royal Davui’s oceanview cottages has its own spa tub, sundeck, and plunge pool; seating in the open-air restaurant is staggered around an ancient banyan tree for privacy; and an offshore sandbar, during the several hours each day that it rises from the sea, is a true sanctum.

When Yaukuve opens (as early as next spring), guests likely will find that the resort has placed considerable emphasis on cuisine—which never has been Fiji’s forte—and environmentally friendly design. Serendipity chairman Morali likens Yaukuve’s approach to that of African safari lodges. “We’re replanting and revegetating, not introducing nonindigenous varieties,” he says. “Our clientele experience luxury every day of their lives, so what they’re looking for is an experience. Everything else is a given: They expect comfort, they expect Champagne at the right temperature.” The quality of the food, too, is an expectation. “When you’re on an island, and therefore you’re in a captive environment, boredom can set in very quickly where the food is concerned,” says Morali. Thus the resort has hired a Montreal-based chef, whose specialties include tapas, to enliven its menus.

The Likuliku Lagoon Resort, scheduled to open in December 2006, will include Fiji’s first over-water bungalows, but the property’s parent company may prove to be a distinguishing point as well. “Currently, all major resort development in Fiji is generally by large international developers,” explains Danielle McPharlin, group director of sales and marketing for the 50-acre resort being built by the Rosie Group of Companies. “Rosie is a totally Fiji-owned organization that has been able to achieve this development on the same scale of funds as other international companies.”
 
Likuliku and other resorts aim to increase employment opportunities for Fijians, especially those on the country’s more remote islands. “We’ll be offering employment to neighboring islands where it had been mostly a subsistence economy,” says Serendipity’s Morali. “For example, we’re starting flower growing on the neighboring island, so all of the flowers used to decorate [Yaukuve] will be grown there. And they could supply fruits and vegetables and mats that [guests] can buy from the shop here.”
 
International hotel brands, which bring years of experience serving the luxury market, likely will contribute to the training of Fiji’s labor pool. The locally funded Natadola Marine Resort, which began construction on more than 1,500 acres of Viti Levu’s Coral Coast this year (and is slated for completion in 2016), expects to attract several such chains. “The first hotel is Intercontinental,” says Isoa Gavidi, CEO of Natadola Land Holdings, the resort’s promoter, “and we’ve been talking to Four Seasons about a luxury resort of 120 villas, but nothing is firmed up with them yet.”

Later this year, professional golfer Vijay Singh will commence construction of Natadola’s golf course. “[The course] will really establish a new era of world-class golf in Fiji,” says Singh, a native of the islands. “Fiji has a couple of courses already, but nothing of this caliber.”

Like Singh, the developers of Fiji’s new resorts hope to raise standards of quality in the islands. “In the next 10 years,” says Royal Davui’s Southwick, “you’re going to find that Fiji has this luxury market. And the top end of it will strive to provide a product that is not just great for Fiji, but great for the world.”

 

Waking Beauty

The some 330 islands in the Fijian archipelago are home to only a handful of notable hotels and resorts. But with five new developments joining Fiji’s few proven standouts, this South Pacific nation soon may rise among the ranks of distinguished destinations.

The Establishment

Namale Resort
That business guru and life coach Tony Robbins has made his vision of a South Pacific sanctuary a reality is hardly surprising. Couples, honeymooners in particular, long have sojourned at his Koro Sea hideaway, where 16 villas and bures (“home” in Fijian) dot a 325-acre landscape. Guests of the deluxe honeymoon bures can watch the sun set while cooling off in their plunge pools or lounging on their decks. For more adventurous clientele, a Fijian village tour, a rain forest trek, or a guided reef walk can be arranged. ($700–$2,250 per night)  800.727.3454, www.namaleresort.com

Wakaya Club
With its ancient banyan trees, sheer cliffs, white sand beaches, and oceanfront bures, this private island in the Koro Sea is the benchmark by which every new resort in Fiji will be measured. Vale O, a 12,000-square-foot hilltop villa originally built as a private home for Wakaya owner (and Fiji Water founder) David Gilmour and his wife, Jill, is the resort’s most secluded accommodation, but each of the nine bures offers ample privacy. The island—which spans more than 2,000 acres—includes a new spa and a nine-hole golf course on Homestead Bay. The Palm Grove restaurant serves local seafood, such as divine preparations of sashimi and mangrove crab, but Vale O guests can opt for meals cooked by their private chef. (Bures, from $1,900 per night; Vale O, $7,600; full-island rental, from $220,000 per week) 800.828.3454, www.wakaya.com

Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort
Those with a passion for the deep may wish to dock themselves at this 17-acre Vanua Levu island resort overlooking Savusavu Bay and named for the explorer son of Jacques Cousteau. The property, which opened in 1995, has on its staff a full-time marine biologist who leads visitors on reef walks. Scuba diving, snorkeling, and kayaking excursions also are available to guests of the resort’s 25 bures, which include a new 2,000-square-foot villa with a master bedroom, living and dining spaces, a bathing suite with spa tub, and an outdoor plunge pool. ($535–$1,950 per night) 800.246.3454, www.fijiresort.com

Turtle Island
Northwest of Viti Levu in Fiji’s Yasawa chain lies the private island resort that trailblazing owner Richard Evanson opened in 1980. Then as now, the 500-acre boutique property hosts no more than 14 couples at one time. Guests reside in thatched-roof beachfront cottages, and activities include scuba diving at reefs offshore or hiking the island’s varied terrain, which comprises grassy highlands, tropical rain forests, and plantations of mango, papaya, and banana. Each of these fruits can be found in chef Jacques Reymond’s dishes, as can lobster, tuna, and other local ocean dwellers, all of which are paired with selections from Turtle Island’s 3,000-bottle wine cellar. ($1,975–$2,390 per night) 877.288.7853, www.turtlefiji.com

Vatulele Island Resort
From Nadi airport on Fiji’s main island, visitors travel southwest some 25 minutes by seaplane before gliding to a stop in the lagoon that fronts this 15-year-old getaway. Vatulele’s 18 villas are spaced at varying distances and therefore afford different levels of privacy. The resort’s most exclusive option, the Point, is a cliff-top, two-story villa with unobstructed ocean views, two swimming pools, and its own staff. (Villas, from $1,352 per night; the Point, $2,240 per night)+679.672.0300, www.vatulele.com (Click image to enlarge)

The New Wave

Royal Davui
The past is palpable on this recently opened, eight-acre retreat in Beqa Lagoon. An ancient banyan tree is the centerpiece of the restaurant’s open-air seating area. Pieces of lapita pottery, the work of the Lapita people who likely inhabited the island thousands of years ago, have been found on the beaches. And soon, says marketing director Christopher Southwick, the resort will take on a curatorial role: During their stay, guests will have the opportunity to view artifacts and photographs on loan from the Fiji Museum. None of these finds and features should detract from the resort’s present-day amenities. The 940-square-foot Davui Suite, for instance, has a king-size Jacuzzi tub, a plunge pool, and two outdoor decks from which to watch the surf break to the south. ($1,013–$1,350 per night) +679.330.7090, www.royaldavui.com 

Dolphin Island
This eight-acre private island, which opened in 2004 off Viti Levu’s northeast coast in Viti Levu Bay, hosts from two to four guests in two adjacent bures. Concierge service on the island is the concern of the amiable Simpsons, Stanley and Dawn, who ensure that beverages, meals, and the like agree with guests’ tastes. The couple also can arrange an array of outings, kayaking and snorkeling among them. ($1,950–$2,570 per night) +64.7.378.5791, www.dolphinislandfiji.com

Yaukuve
As early as March 2006, this previously uninhabited, 152-acre volcanic island will begin hosting guests in 21 villas; the most private will occupy an elevated position above a secluded cove. Among the distinguishing aspects of the presidential villa will be a “proper swimming pool” (as opposed to the smaller plunge pool), says Thierry Morali, chairman of the affiliated Serendipity Hotels & Resorts. And though a spa will not be part of the package when the resort opens (one could come later, Morali says), treatments will be available in the villas, which will feature outdoor showers and bathing pavilions with views. ($1,250–$2,500 per night) 800.928.5883, www.yaukuve.com

Likuliku Lagoon Resort
Expected to welcome its first guests (couples only) in December 2006, this resort on Malolo Island in Fiji’s Mamanuca Islands chain borrows its name, which means calm lagoon, from the Malolo dialect. The moniker is fitting, for the development’s 10 over-water bungalows—reportedly the first such accommodations in Fiji—will be built over a tranquil cove at the edge of a coral reef. Also planned are 36 beachfront bures, including a deluxe version with a plunge pool and an outdoor bathing pavilion. The structures’ designs will reflect traditional Fijian styles, incorporating such materials as bamboo, pandanus leaves, and mahogany timbers. A spa is in the works, as are plans to employ personal butlers for Likuliku guests. ($1,200–$1,800 per night) +679.666.9192, www.likulikulagoon.com

Natadola Marine Resort
By the time the Natadola Marine Resort’s third and final development phase concludes in 2016 (phase one commenced this year), the main island of Viti Levu, specifically the Natadola Bay region of the Coral Coast, will be home to several new hotels (Intercontinental and potentially other international brands among them), residential villas and apartments, marina and recreational facilities, a convention center, and more. “The main thrust is geared toward the [luxury] end, but we appreciate that we need some four- and three-star resorts, too,” says Isoa Gavidi, CEO of Natadola Land Holdings. At least in the realm of golf, Natadola promises to be first-rate: Fiji’s own Vijay Singh is designing the resort’s 18-hole course. www.natadolafiji.com

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