SMALL MIR­A­CLES

Fiji is an ideal des­ti­na­tion for trav­ellers with even the most en­er­getic tod­dlers, ad­vises El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IT is sad but true that since the ar­rival of our daugh­ter nearly three years ago, my hus­band and I have been fright­ened — ter­ri­fied would be too strong a term, but only just — of trav­el­ling over­seas as a fam­ily. While we have em­barked on a few do­mes­tic trips, some much more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers, head­ing abroad for a hol­i­day has seemed a con­cept invit­ing noth­ing short of dis­as­ter.

OK, so many par­ents with docile chil­dren say that they find in­ter­na­tional travel a breeze — es­pe­cially if they can af­ford a nanny — but we do not have a docile child. We have Dy­namic Tod­dler.

Nev­er­the­less, when it is del­i­cately sug­gested to us that Fiji is pos­si­bly the best place in the world to take a child for hol­i­days, we pack our trea­sure trove of fears away in a suit­case and ten­ta­tively de­cide to give it a go.

The first sign that things might turn out bet­ter than we had feared oc­curs when we sail through the four-hour flight from Syd­ney to Nadi, en­dur­ing only a mi­nor, five-minute tantrum fol­lowed by an hour-long sleep. But as we dis­em­bark from the jumbo jet, there’s bet­ter to come. While the rush of pas­sen­gers storm the Cus­toms desk and huge queues form, an of­fi­cer ap­proaches us and points to a sign over a counter where no­body is lined up. It’s the ex­press check-in for vis­i­tors with small chil­dren. Fan­tas­tic.

For­mal­i­ties quickly com­pleted, smil­ing Fi­jians approach us with neck­laces of shells to lace around Dy­namic Tod­dler’s neck. ‘‘ Bula !’’ they cry, smil­ing broadly at lit­tle miss. By the time we get into our taxi, she is al­ready en­thu­si­as­ti­cally re­turn­ing the call to any­one she sees.

We’re stay­ing at the Sof­i­tel Fiji Re­sort & Spa at ritzy De­na­rau Is­land, a 20-minute drive over in­nu­mer­able pot­holes from the air­port. It is rain­ing and there’s talk of a cy­clone but we re­solve to keep our spir­its high and even man­age to get Dy­namic Tod­dler to sleep within an hour of set­tling into our ho­tel room.

So far so good. But dis­as­ter strikes the fol­low­ing morn­ing when we wake to the sound of rain pelt­ing the win­dow of our ground-floor unit and see huge pud­dles form­ing on the lawn out­side. Con­sid­er­ing it’s 5.30am and Dy­namic Tod­dler is al­ready decked out in her swim­suit, it looks like be­ing a long day.

We kill time un­til the buf­fet opens by ex­plor­ing the highly man­i­cured re­sort. Palm trees bend and arch in strate­gic po­si­tions around the large, la­goon-style pool, and a thin strip of beach has been swept clean. Trop­i­cal flow­ers bloom and ponds full of fish and frogs ea­gerly lap up the rain­drops.

Re­as­sur­ingly for us and Dy­namic Tod­dler, there is a spa and a kids’ room so we book in for both im­me­di­ately. That the kids’ room costs a mere $FJ10 ($7.40) for whole-day ac­cess and is re­as­sur­ingly well-staffed with smil­ing ladies, makes easy the de­ci­sion to leave Dy­namic Tod­dler here while we idle away some of the rainy day with pam­per­ing. By 10am, there are al­ready sev­eral chil­dren en­rolled for wet-weather ac­tiv­i­ties, mean­ing there are some ready-made friends for our lit­tle miss. Best of all, the room is well-stocked with paints, pen­cils, crayons, balls and other toys to keep even the busiest tot oc­cu­pied.

The spa is rather more glam. As slick as any re­sort spa in Aus­tralia, it is gen­er­ously ap­por­tioned with nine private treat­ment bures, in­clud­ing sev­eral de­signed for cou­ples. As we have booked for a mas­sage and a fa­cial at the same time, we are given one of th­ese dou­ble rooms. Both treat­ments are very good and re­lax­ing, and Elemis prod­ucts are used, al­though per­haps nei­ther ses­sion is quite as rig­or­ous as those we are used to at home, de­spite the Aus­tralian-equiv­a­lent prices. Still, af­ter an hour of lux­ury, we both feel hugely re­laxed and ready for the rest of our hol­i­day.

We col­lect Dy­namic Tod­dler and check out a group of lo­cals who have gath­ered in the re­sort’s main build­ing to sing is­land songs and weave tra­di­tional goods such as bas­kets and hats. Chil­dren find this sort of sim­ple ac­tiv­ity ut­terly trans­fix­ing, and the kind and un­fail­ingly cheer­ful re­ac­tions of the lo­cals to their young fans is be­guil­ing.

For­tu­nately, the next day dawns bright and clear and by 8am, break­fast com­plete, Dy­namic Tod­dler is hap­pily pad­dling in the la­goon pool. As the hour passes, chil­dren emerge from all cor­ners and by 9am a gang of about eight preschool­ers has formed.

Par­ents bask in the steamy sun­shine, keep­ing an eye on their charges as the small ones share float­ies, foam surf­boards, buck­ets and spades, gog­gles, hats, sun­screen and ice creams in the shaded wad­ing area. Cof­fee and, later, cock­tails, are de­liv­ered pool­side and, for the big­ger kids, there’s a wa­ter­slide, al­though it is closed for main­te­nance dur­ing our visit.

In the trop­i­cal heat, which rarely strays from the mid-30s dur­ing our late-March visit, it is easy to get into the gen­tle rhythm of is­land life.

Early morn­ings and late af­ter­noons are best for ac­tiv­i­ties such as swim­ming or re­sorthop­ping, while the boil­ing hours around the mid­dle of the day are best for lazy sleeps.

For those in­ter­ested in ac­tiv­i­ties, a ‘‘ bula bus’’ fer­ries guests from re­sort to re­sort so we can check out the range and shape of pools and restau­rants on of­fer or, for ad­ven­tur­ous types, there are wa­ter ac­tiv­i­ties in­clud­ing para­sail­ing, off­shore snorkelling or scuba div­ing. There’s also a lush, man­i­cured golf course avail­able to all De­na­rau re­sort guests.

Next door to the Sof­i­tel at the up­mar­ket Westin, lo­cal women run a small shell mar­ket, which can make an in­ter­est­ing lit­tle ex­cur­sion for chil­dren. And in the evenings (weather per­mit­ting) many re­sorts have demon­stra­tions by lo­cal men who per­form tribal cer­e­monies, such as bang­ing drums to an­nounce din­ner. With so much drum­ming, singing, run­ning, fire-light­ing and shout­ing, th­ese events are ex­cit­ing for young­sters. Most re­sorts have made an ef­fort to stay con­nected with tra­di­tional cul­ture and of­fer lovo , the Fi­jian equiv­a­lent of the Maori hangi , or pit bar­be­cue. Most De­na­rau restau­rants, in­clud­ing the Sof­i­tel’s Salt, are child-friendly and of­fer ju­nior meals at rea­son­able prices.

With so much to do, and so much fun to be had in the pool, it is hard to imag­ine any child stay­ing awake be­yond 9pm, and we find we have lit­tle trou­ble set­tling Dy­namic Tod­dler into bed (pre­vi­ously one of our great fears about trav­el­ling). It should be noted the Sof­i­tel’s fam­ily rooms are quite ba­sic, with bunk beds shoved un­com­fort­ably be­tween a small ho­tel-style room and a bath­room, and that this chil­dren’s sleep­ing area is only par­tially shielded from the main room by a half wall. That it is not pos­si­ble to close the door on the chil­dren at night is a bit of a prob­lem for par­ents want­ing to watch TV or in-house movies in bed in the ad­ja­cent space.

While the pools, the food and the chil­dren’s room are all fine, what re­ally makes Fiji so great for chil­dren is the Fi­jian peo­ple. Never have I en­coun­tered a pop­u­la­tion with so much af­fec­tion for the young, or such an abun­dance of un­forced grace and nat­u­ral good hu­mour. Ev­ery­where we go, staff and lo­cals want to talk to, cud­dle or cod­dle Dy­namic Tod­dler, and it seems ev­ery sin­gle Fi­jian knows her name af­ter a sin­gle day on De­na­rau. Happy cries of ‘‘ bula !’’ ring out con­stantly, each of which is mer­rily re­turned by lit­tle miss. Lo­cals fre­quently stop us to ad­mire her pale skin and ginger hair and af­ter we buy her a Fi­jian dress (for just $FJ25), she is happy to per­form twirls for any­one who’s in­ter­ested. Which is, ap­par­ently, ev­ery­one.

Our fears about in­ter­na­tional travel thus al­layed, time passes too quickly and soon we are on the plane bound for home. Resid­ual pool fa­tigue sets in and Dy­namic Tod­dler can­not re­sist some sleep, leav­ing the jour­ney free for us to re­lax. As we get back to Syd­ney, we’re sad our hol­i­day has come to an end.

‘‘ Know any­thing about New Cale­do­nia?’’ asks my hus­band. In­ter­na­tional travel, it seems, is firmly back on our fam­ily agenda. El­iz­a­beth Mery­ment was a guest of Ac­cor. The Kids’ Club, for chil­dren two and above, is open 9am-9pm daily. Per­sonal babysit­ting is $FJ8 ($6) an hour; fam­i­lyfriendly pack­ages are avail­able. More: Fiji & Pa­cific Spe­cial­ists, 131 381; www.sof­itelfiji.com.fj. Air Pa­cific flies daily to Nadi from Syd­ney and Bris­bane and four times a week from Melbourne. www.ac­corho­tels.com.au www.air­pa­cific.com

In good com­pany: There’s fun for all at Fiji’s fam­ily-friendly re­sorts in­clud­ing Sher­a­ton Fiji, main pic­ture. Right, from top, Sof­i­tel Fiji Re­sort & Spa, chil­dren at play at Fiji Beach Re­sort & Spa and Shangri-La’s Fi­jian Re­sort

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