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