By: Shamus Sillar
Something intriguing happens when you first arrive at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort (JMC), set on exotic Savusavu Bay on, Vanua Levu, the second-largest island in Fiji. Your children disappear. Well, ours did. A few minutes into check-in (which included welcome drinks and acoustic guitar accompaniment), I noticed that my wife Gill and I were alone at the counter.
“I wonder where the girls are,” I mumbled. “Oh, they’ll be at the Bula Club,” said a member of staff, with a beaming smile.
They were right. As we were being handed the key to our bure, our two daughters re-emerged. Standing next to them was a cheeky-looking 20-something staff member named William.
“Mum and Dad, this is William. He’s our Buddy at the Bula Club and he’ll be looking after us during our stay. We’ve met two girls our age – they’re from Chicago. We’re going to play with them this afternoon. And William is taking us to look for crabs and frogs. Well, that’s after we try the waterslide and have a water-balloon fight. Okay, I think that’s everything. See you later!”
And off they scampered.
“But … they don’t even know where our room is,” said Gill to nobody in particular.
“William will show them!” said another member of staff, equally as friendly as the first.
Bure by the sea
So, began a blissful – and, for much of the time, child-free – stay in paradise. The way the resort staff immediately familiarise young ones with the kids’ club on arrival is ingenious. No ice-breakers required; no nervous clinging to parents’ legs; just straight into the fun! Children five and under are assigned a dedicated Nanny for the duration of their stay, and ages six to 12 are put in small groups with a Buddy. This is all complimentary, by the way, from 8.30am to 9pm every day, so you don’t have to worry about the hours ticking by and the costs adding up.
While the girls were hunting crabs with Chicagoans, Gill and I took ourselves off to Bure 4, our spacious two bedder, with an impressive thatched roof, generous bathroom, a hammock out front, and a 10-metre walk to the water.
JMC is a luxury resort, but it’s not one of those shiny, perfectly manicured places with a book-sized list of rules. You also won’t find every mod-con under the sun; no phones or TVs in the rooms, for instance, and no air-con. (Nor is it needed: the bures have blissful ceiling fans and wall-to-wall wooden shutters for ocean breezes.). It’s a deluxe rustic vibe that feels in keeping with the property’s strong emphasis on eco-tourism and its slew of awards for “going green”. We found it completely charming.
The resort spa is located in a seaside bure right near ours, so with the kids occupied we swiftly made a beeline for it. I’m no massage connoisseur, but I know an amazing one when I have it, because it relaxes me to the point that I’m incoherent for an hour or two afterwards. That’s what happened here – lucky I had no kids to keep in line!
In fact, our daughters did finally return, but only because they got hungry. (We didn’t tell them that lunch and dinner can both be arranged at the Bula Club.) Meals are another thing factored into the room rates at JMC, and they are, in a word, brilliant. There are only 25 bures, so instead of buffet-style dining, you get small à la carte menus that change daily, with plenty of Fijian cuisine and Asian-inspired dishes. Things we loved: a tomato and basil soup made from ingredients grown in the resort garden; grilled grass-fed rib-eye in a béarnaise sauce; Singapore-style chilli mud crab; coconut and lime crème brûlée with minted pineapple. (I could go on.) The girls enjoyed everything from stir-fries and satays to simple toasties at lunchtime.
We also snorkelled as a family. JMC is, of course, famous for its diving – is there a surname more synonymous with the sport than Cousteau? – so we knew the underwater scenery would be a knockout. Our favourite session was drift-snorkelling out at sea, beyond the reef that protects the resort. This was an eye-opener for the kids, as it was their first time jumping straight from a boat into the deep blue. Once the heart rates settled, we all enjoyed spotting clouds of iridescent fish and a plethora of coral varieties. We had JMC’s marine biologist Jonny along as our guide, and he would dive down and point to a specimen, then write the word for it on a slate for us to read.
The girls had a word of their own for all of this: “Epic!”
The extras in a JMC stay extend beyond the Bula Club and meals. There are complimentary in-house activities on tap, from sailing and SUP-ing to glass bottom boat tours, and even excursions outside the resort. I went on one of these excursions, to the farmers’ market in Savusavu town, with stalls selling mud-covered taro roots and green “sea grapes” (a caviar-looking seaweed). Other trips include a rainforest hike to hidden waterfalls, and – one the girls would have enjoyed – a Friday-afternoon visit to a local primary school.
The best experience of our stay, though, was our half-day on Naviavia, JMC’s own private island. This is an extra fee, but so worth it. Jonny and a colleague took us by boat to the island (20 minutes), where we were left alone to wander, swim and snorkel, then feast on the picnic that had been set up for us. We circumnavigated the island on kayaks, explored rock caves and, at low tide, watched as a group of cute baby sharks (black-tipped reef sharks, about a foot long) came right up to the shore to feed. The girls were mesmerised and – for a brief moment – didn’t even miss the Bula Club.
Sadly, we only did this on our final afternoon at JMC. If we were staying on, we’d have done Naviavia a second time, perhaps for breakfast. (You can book it for any meal of the day.) Still, there were plenty of things we didn’t get around to doing. And, as the acoustic guitars strummed on our departure, we all figured that was a great reason to return.
If you’re spending time at any Fiji island resort that requires a domestic flight or boat ride to reach, you’re likely to spend a night or two on Denarau Island. This cluster of high-end hotels surrounding an excellent 18-hole golf course is a 20-minute drive from Nadi International Airport.
While it’s used primarily as a launching pad, many holiday-makers stay at Denarau for the duration, and it’s easy to see why. We spent two comfortable nights here in the Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa at the back end of our trip. Our Luxury Family Room had an internal cubby-style bunk room for the girls, which they loved (it included their own PlayStation, after all). A ground-floor sliding door opened up to a large lawn, with a view of palm trees and a black-sand beach beyond. The large resort wraps around a humungous pool (pictured, above), where days unfold in typical fashion: claiming the best lounger and settling in for a long stint of sunshine, swimming, and – hey, it’s a holiday! – a cocktail or three.
In a spin
As appealing as all that is, there comes a time on every trip when my feet get itchy, and I say to my wife: “I think it’s time for me to …” – insert any kind of rigorous activity here, from “climb a mountain” to “cycle to the nearest town for street food”. In this instance, it was: “get flung around a surging river on a jet-powered boat”.
The Sigatoka River Safari is a memorable half-day excursion that combines the thrill of jet-boating with a fascinating glimpse into Fijian traditional village life. After bidding adieu to the girls, I and a group of 12 others were driven along the pretty Coral Coast and to a boat shed in the hinterland, where we donned life-jackets and set off at speed up the river.
Our destination was Tubairata, but the Safari visits 18 different villages on rotation, to minimise disturbance in the daily life of each community. A percentage of the ticket price helps with improvements in infrastructure and education.
As we pulled up to the riverbank, a stream of laughing children appeared, not just onlookers but active participants in mooring the boat and helping us climb the muddy stairs to terra firma. The village tour included an atmospheric ceremony in a traditional hut, where we joined the chief and a group of chanting elders for a bowl or two of lip-numbing yaqona (or kava). Afterwards, we enjoyed a lunch in the main hall, as the whole village came together to sing local folk songs while I was called upon to dance in front of everyone too, though the less said about that the better.
On the trip back down the Sigatoka, we got to experience the real power of the Safari jet-boats as our skipper threw our vessel into a series of radical 360-degree spins. We knew this was coming, but it was still a whole lot of drenching fun. An intense full-sky rainbow arcing over the top of our boat only added to the drama.
Back to home base
I returned to the resort ready to impress the girls with tales of my active day. But they’d been just as busy. I’m not good at spotting changes in a person’s appearance (panic sets in whenever my wife turns to me and says, “Notice anything different?”), but I could see my daughters’ newly braided hair from a mile away.
They’d both been to the Sofitel’s So Spa, where the delightful Olive spent an age twisting each and every braid. The girls got to choose the pretty coloured beads for the ends, and they both looked very chuffed with the results.
They’d also spent time at the kids’ club, where a highlight was “balloon dancing”; choose a partner, sandwich a balloon between your bellies, and dance for as long as you can without the balloon popping or falling. Tubs of ice cream for the winners! Other than that, it was all about getting waterlogged in the resort pool and slide. Gill also enticed them into the Sofitel’s handful of shops, including a Pure Fiji boutique whose shelves of hand creams, body moisturisers and shampoos they pretty much emptied. (“Gifts for family and friends!” they explained when I eyed the massive haul.)
We celebrated our last night in Fiji with dinner at the Sofitel’s tasty oceanfront restaurant Salt. Guests from neighbouring resorts apparently like to book dinner at this spot too, such is the quality of the food. If the cooked-to-order crepes were the highlight of the hotel’s breakfast buffets each morning, here it was all about fish and chips: fresh, simple and superb.
We lingered for a last cocktail and a final waft of tropical ocean breeze, then it was time for the un-friendliest task of packing up and leaving.
Fiji fact file
Fiji Airways flies direct from Hong Kong to Nadi International Airport in around 10 hours. You could also tie in your trip with a visit to Australia, since onward flights to Nadi from Sydney and Brisbane are under four hours. Our international and domestic flights were all excellent – and the service was impeccable. Stormy weather caused a small delay before our 45-minute domestic flight from Vanua Levu back to Nadi, and the Fiji Airways staff at tiny Labasa airport couldn’t have been more helpful or reassuring.
The airline has an impressive new Premier Lounge at Nadi International Airport, with all the bells and whistles for those with access via frequent flyer programmes. Alternatively, if you have a few hours between landing and your onward boat or flight, the Essence of Fiji Rejuvenation Centre is a handy place to transit; it has day rooms for a nap, a cinema room, a full spa menu (the girls had their first-ever foot massages here) and a café. For around HK$140, you get a free transfer (it’s 10 minutes from the airport) and up to six hours at the centre.
Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort: fijiresort.com
Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sigatoka River Safari: sigatokariver.com
Fiji Airways: fijiairways.com
Essence of Fiji: fb.com/RejuvenationCentreFiji
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This article first appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.