You get the Denarau idea
Andrea Yu says ‘bula!’ to Denarau Island on Fiji’s west coast and is rewarded with pristine beaches, insanely blue waters and unbeatable poolside manners
We’re standing bleary-eyed in a Fijian airport’s immigration queue at 5am, fresh off the plane. The last thing we expect is a pair of brightly dressed men with huge smiles bellowing a song of welcome in the local language. But of course, song is the typical Pacific Island welcome and it’s an apt introduction to this land of sunshine and smiles. We’re more than pleased to be serenaded by these crazy crooners who welcome us with calls of ‘bula’ (which literally translates as ‘life’ but has come to mean both ‘hello’ and ‘welcome’. We heard this hundreds of times on our visit – and it’s always accompanied with a trademark smile…)
Our journey to Fiji has been a long one. Nine hours long, in fact. We fly direct from Hong Kong, straight into the warm and humid sunrise of Nadi Town, the tourism hub of Fiji. Just spitting distance away from Nadi airport is a clutch of pristine resorts on Denarau Island – and that’s our holiday destination for just short of a week. We can’t wait to get there.
Formerly a mangrove swamp, Denarau underwent massive reconstruction and reclamation in the 1990s, the result of which is a gated community-like expanse of five-star resorts including the Sofitel, Sheraton, Wyndham, Westin, Radisson and Hilton, as well as a handful of serviced apartments and a golf course. Denarau Island is an ongoing work-in-progress with many of the hotels, including our temporary home of the Hilton, undergoing expansions. But worry not as the construction doesn’t affect our stay in the slightest.
Here on Denarau, the beaches that line the outer edge of each resort are merely decoration. Upon closer inspection the sands are more grey than white and the water is murky, with clumps of seaweed floating about. But it’s the hotel pools which are the main attraction. They’re social watering-holes where honeymooners, older couples, groups and families gather – the latter who are well represented at the Hilton.
It’s here by the poolside that we first witness the famous Fijian hospitality. The natives we encounter during our stay are pleasant, patient and warm. Perhaps it’s their big, broad stature which is more comforting than menacing. Or perhaps it’s because, as we’re told by the Hilton’s executive chef (a native Kiwi who has called Fiji home for the past three years), employment opportunities are few and far between so service staff work doubly hard and maintain an extremely high standard of customer service to keep their jobs secure.
We’ve arrived during the peak of the wet season (which runs from November to April). The sun is out and the air is thick with humidity, making the Hilton’s many glistening pools (seven in total) all the more inviting. The highly unreliable weather websites forecast thunderstorms for the whole week of our trip but we’re told the storms only come in the afternoon and last just 30 minutes. Like clockwork, just past 4pm, the skies cloud over and the heavy rainfall clears the humidity and cools the air sufficiently. Bula to that!
Okay, word of warning on Denarau: leaving the comforting confines of the resort is pretty futile, especially for those who have already carved butt grooves into their cushy poolside loungers. Indeed it seems that for most people who stay here (largely Aussies and Kiwis, who are only a few hours flight away) simply come to kick up their heels, work on their tan-lines and have their children’s hair set in cornrows (a treat for the eyes and the ears). However, if you venture across multiple time zones to visit Fiji, much lies beyond these pools-a-plenty and perfectly manicured lawns.
Western Fiji’s islands are a must-visit if it’s powder white sand and crystal clear waters you seek. An hour-long ferry ride takes you to the Mamanuca Islands, just west of Nadi, with 26 islands – each utterly pristine and with their own personality. Some are inhabited, some are not. Some are so small they are merely the size of a kitchen table. The ferry, which doubles both as transport and a leisurely day-trip, means multiple stops along the way to allow passengers staying on island resorts to alight.
The small-yet-active Beachcomber Island is our first stop and a popular destination for backpackers and adventure seekers. Then we pass by two islands made iconic by Hollywood – the uninhabited Monuriki, where Cast Away was filmed, and Nanuya Levu, where some scenes from The Blue Lagoon were shot.
As we approach our destination of Tokoriki Island, we’re met by a speedboat from the resort so that marine life isn’t wrecked by our ferry. It’s here we peer into the sea, which looks unbelievably blue, heightened by the clear sky. Our arrival to the Tokoriki Island Resort is met by a small troupe of resort staff – barmen, waitresses and managers, each doubling as a member of an amazing little band. it becomes apparent that the smallest musical instrument – the ukulele – is often played by the largest man available.
As a child-free resort, couples and honeymooners will find respite at Tokoriki. It boasts 34 freestanding beach bures (Fijian huts) and pool villas, each with private outdoor showers. And we fall head-over-heels for the quaint, on-site chapel which offers a weekly service along with wedding ceremonies for couples.
Our time on Tokoriki Island is short as we have to catch the last ferry back to the mainland. After a quick meal at the outdoor beach-view restaurant and a spot of snorkelling, the singing troupe returns to wish us well with a farewell song, prefaced by a heartfelt speech by the resort manager emphasising Fiji’s reliance on tourism and the hopes that we can encourage more visitors from Hong Kong to travel here. We don’t think it will be a hard sell.
Back on Denarau, the first-ever South Pacific Food & Wine Festival is just kicking off. We’re curious to know how the festival will turn out as our experiences with food thus far have been overwhelmingly Western, thanks to menus catering to picky foreign palates. Festival ‘ambassador’ Robert Oliver, who was raised in Fiji and nearby Samoa, tells us that instilling a sense of pride and value in local cuisine is what’s needed to combat its absence on resort menus. One dish that has successfully become a resort menu staple is kokoda – a raw fish salad much like ceviche which is marinated in lime juice and mixed with coconut milk as well as chopped tomato, pepper and cucumber. A handful of notable chefs (Peter Gordon, Manu Fieldel and Michael Meredith, to name a few) from overseas have flown in just for the occasion to participate in workshops and present signature dinners to guests.
An unexpected addition to Fiji’s local cuisine is the adoption of Indian curries. They represent the population which descended from Indian labourers brought to Fiji during British colonial rule from the late 19th to early 20th century. Currently Indo-Fijians make up just over a third of the population, although many have left over the past two decades as a result of four military coups – three of which were bred from tensions between Indo-Fijians fighting for greater rights with ethnic Fijians in opposition. The latest coup came just three years ago when the constitution was suspended and the former government was deemed illegal. But during our six-day stay, we don’t get the slightest hint or feeling of political unrest. In fact, all we see are smiles, right up until the day we sadly have to leave.
As we’re boarding our plane home, we can’t help but feel like we haven’t quite had enough of what Fiji has to offer. There are seemingly an endless amount of ventures inland, island hops, towns, resorts and villages to visit – and we’ve barely done anything but kick up our heels and relax. But, boy, is the relaxation worth it.