A medal at the Olympic Games can make an entire country swell with pride. And in the case of Fiji, whose rugby team brought home gold from Rio, it can even turn around tourism fortunes. “Previously, we didn’t have many guests coming from Asia — mostly from Australia, New Zealand and the US,” reveals Christoph Ganster, managing director at Laucala Island, a no-expense-spared private resort set amidst coconut plantations, beaches, lagoons and nature. “But since the Olympics, we’ve been getting more enquiries.”
Spanning 3,500 acres, Laucala Island (pronounced le-tha-la), has always been a magnet for the wealthy and connected. It was where former owner Malcolm Forbes threw lavish beach parties attended by Hollywood royalty. Current owner, billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, co-founder of Red Bull, enlisted the help of London designer Lynne Hunt and opened the self-contained world of superlatives to paying guests, attracting the likes of Elle Macpherson who married billionaire Jeffrey Soffer in a private villa. Don’t bother to ask Ganster to spill the beans on celebrity guests though. “Our staff are briefed to keep the profiles of our visitors private. They’re here to relax and don’t want to be disturbed,” he says.
The Peninsula Villa is popular amongst honeymooners at the resort
Comprising 25 villas, five restaurants and bars, an 18-hole golf course, 240 acres of farmland and crystal clear waters, Laucala offers a wide range of activities — most, at no extra cost.
Today, the team has organised a hike for my travel mates and I to the waterfalls at the nearby island of Taveuni, a 30-minute boat ride away. An hour’s hike up the dirt track of Bouma National Heritage Park, made wet and muddy from the early morning drizzle, our group of five arrive at what can only be described as a natural wonder. The three sections of Taveuni’s waterfalls progressively inch closer to the shore; each one more majestic than the previous. We get so close that the spray caresses our faces, teasing us to dive into its inviting body of water. Which is exactly what we all do. Although chilly, the dip proves to be invigorating and nothing quite beats emerging from the cool water to mugs of hot chocolate and sandwiches prepared by the staff at Laucala.
The Taveuni Waterfalls
Back at the resort, I mentally check off my to-do list. I’d already scuba-dived that morning (the dive centre offers an introductory class for non-divers), jet-skied and water-skied the day before. If I so wish, there’s still fishing, sailing, wakeboarding, kite surfing and paddle boarding to try my hands at, and let’s not forget about taking out the resort’s luxury yacht Riviera or sailing yacht Rere Ahi to enjoy the azure waters in style.
More than an Eden for water babies, Laucala is also home to a stable of horses and ponies, which guests may saddle up for a leisurely ride. Mine is a cheeky white stallion named Grey, who loves munching on papaya leaves and bush vegetation. An endearing steed, he even takes me on a slight detour to splash around in the sea. It’s only later that one of the staff thinks to inform me that Grey also has the propensity for “rolling around” in water. Thankfully, I make it through my ride relatively dry.
As the resort is 80 percent self-sustainable, agriculture features prominently too, with most of the food served sourced from the island itself. Laucala’s herb and flower gardens, orchard and hydroponics farm are all cared for by staff like Chef de Cuisine Patric Gigele who enjoy getting elbow deep in dirt, in the aim of tasting the fruits of their labour later. “It’s like our playground,” Gigele says with excitement, as he points out the likes of parsley and mint to us city slickers on his garden tour.
Guests can also arrange to visit farm animals such as cows, quails, pigs, chickens and ducks, as well as the island’s plantation of 5,000 orchids that are used as welcome garlands or in-villa decorations.
After all that activity, one surely needs pampering, so I drive my buggy — each villa has two — to the spa. Signature experiences range from Fijian hot-and-cold stone therapy to body scrubs using volcanic soil from the island and mineral crystal therapy, but I opt for a traditional Fijian Bombo massage; it’s so relaxing that within five minutes, I’ve drifted off into sleep.
Guests of the spa are also encouraged to pick their own spices, flowers and fruits — such as vanilla, lemongrass, and ylang ylang — and create their own essential oil, soap or lotion in the Spa Kitchen, where a coconut press produces oil in small batches.
Post-treatment, I’m feeling fresh and at ease, which is exactly what I need to be, since this evening the resort is staging a Fijian Culture and Entertainment Night for guests. Held weekly, the event is a time for mingling with other travellers while being introduced to Fiji’s culture and history.
A submarine adventure awaits.
Presented with a garland and flute of champagne at the Cultural Village, I’m greeted by the soothing melodies played live by Laucala’s musicians. Interesting Fijian crafts are on display, including mats and bags made with dried coconut and pandanus leaves. Soon we’re ushered to a spot where a huge rice dumpling lookalike is sitting in an even larger pit. Emcee for the night, Ratu Meli, explains that’s our dinner inside. “This is the lovo. Underneath all this, the food is slow-cooked on very hot rocks in the ground. The leaves retain the heat to make sure everything is cooked well, while keeping out bugs, rain and dirt,” he says. As the staff “unwrap” the lovo, the delectable aroma of the food wafts through the air, making all our stomachs growl.
But before dinner commences, we are led into the chief’s hut 10m away, with each of us bearing a coconut husk bowl. Here, we are introduced to the kava ceremony, a formal Fijian ritual similar to that of a Chinese tea ceremony. To Fiji, kava is a link to their ancestral past and is often carried out at weddings, celebrations and funerals. The kava root is dunked and mashed in a large bowl of water, then strained several times. “As the kava is served, clap once before you receive it then drink it all at one go,” Ratu explains. The drink tastes like grass and sediment, and is said to have anti-depressant qualities.
After the ceremony, we return to the dining area to watch performers from a nearby local village before our feast. Traditional Fijian fare is as tantalisingly delicious as it smells. The vegetables are soaked in coconut milk — Fijians cook almost everything in coconut milk — while the meats are tender and flavourful. Over our meal, we chat about Fijian culture and the activities we’ve tried out on the island, before calling it a night.
I’ve saved a submarine adventure for my last day in Laucala and it brings my Fijian sojourn to a fitting end. My guide, Gordon, and I climb into a two-seater submarine — him in front and me at the back — and we head out into the South Pacific Ocean. Busy toggling between camera and video mode, trying to record everything I see while 100ft deep in the water, Gordon calls out: “There’s a young sea turtle sleeping on the coral. Do you see it?” “Yes, I see it!” I answer excitedly. Sadly, the 45-minute ride ends all too soon and we have to head back to the surface.
My time on the island has passed much too quickly. There’s so much more to do here, including helicopter tours and handicraft classes. Boarding the private plane that takes me back to the main island of Viti Levu, I’m already making mental notes to return one day.