A VENTURE IN PARADISE
It was a rush to the finish but Fiji’s latest resort has a wonderful party flavour, says Nellie Blundell
THE Radisson Resort Fiji has been open for all of 39 minutes when we step over the drying cement of its threshold. This must explain the vehemence of the welcome. Rapturous, if not a little alarming, arrival ceremonies begin with a conch-shell fanfare and a thunderous beating of drums. Then three grass-skirted men leap out to deliver a heartstopping chorus of Bula!
Luckily my heart is in good nick and their greeting does no lasting damage, but my nerves are nevertheless relieved when the drums give way to a Polynesian song of welcome. With a happy sigh, we’re carried inside by the gentle, swaying harmonies.
The Radisson is Fiji’s newest luxury resort and we’re here for its opening weekend. On Denarau Island, 20 minutes by car from Nadi airport, it lies on a palm-spangled beach with the Pacific Ocean on one side and its own golf course on the other. Over 4ha of tropical gardens, 270 rooms and suites are arranged around a large, lagoon-style swimming pool; there’s the instant caress of balmy breezes and sweet tropical sunshine.
It’s true we’re a little early and our arrival has caused a minor ruffle backstage as our rooms are readied ahead of schedule. But who’s hurrying? We’re on holiday and a cold glass of Fiji Beer in the Orchid Lounge is just what the doctor ordered.
We sit back and watch paint-spattered men packing up tools and wheeling their barrows into the sunset. Our smiling waitress carefully pours another beer and rearranges the coasters three times, and just as we’re thinking how nice it is to be the first guests to step foot in this palace of luxury, the towering waterfall releases its first sputtering cascade.
Like James Cook, Fletcher Christian and shiploads of shipwrecked sailors before us, our eyes are wide at the wonders of Polynesian hospitality. Every staff member at the Radisson Fiji appears charmingly, shyly attentive and sweet. They know how to spread happiness. Don’t their cheeks hurt from all that smiling? Maybe it has something to do with the fact they own the land on which the resort is built. It’s a complicated economic arrangement whereby the local Fijian landowners lease the land — beach, palms, blue water and all — to the hotel, and in return members of their clan get first dibs on the new jobs.
Later we attend the traditional handover ceremony, part of the opening celebrations, which involves gifts of a palm-wrapped baked pig, several baskets of yams, heavenly singing and dancing and much ceremonious drinking of kava.
But right now, while we’re watching the waterfall chart its inaugural course, those landowners are in our rooms hooking up the cables for guests’ free high-speed internet, peeling plastic from huge television screens and laying an arrangement of freshly picked flowers on the pillows.
My assessment of a hotel room always begins with its smell. So when I open the door here I have a good sniff. There’s a base note of fresh paint beneath hints of sea breeze and frangipani. This is not a bad sign, not at all: it’s a smell of newness and cleanness, and is another happy reminder that I am the first to take possession of this room.
And what a lovely room it is. The colour scheme is one of sophisticated neutrals: textured linen furnishings and hand-stitched parchment lampshades complement simple dark wood furniture, and here and there a bright splash of hibiscus print reminds of the South Seas paradise beyond. A wall of glass doors opens on to a private patio with table and chairs and easy access to the pool.
On the bed the sheets are cool Egyptian cotton, and there’s a spacious tub in an enormous bathroom for washing off salt and lying under bubbles, plus plenty of perfectly lit mirror space for arranging holiday flowers in the hair, which is exactly what I do before heading back to check out the Nautilus Restaurant for dinner.
Open to the beach and the sea breeze, the restaurant offers every diner a palm-fringed view of sunset over the sea. Tonight we have a buffet of Fijian-Indian delights. We sample local fish simmered in a creamy, coconut curry, and there’s an array of richly spiced vegetables, aromatic rice, dahl and all sorts of other plate-weighing delicacies that have us skulking back for thirds. Several cold glasses of wine later, I return to my room, tired and floppy, to enjoy my virgin sheets.
The next night is the gala opening and, when guests step out of their rooms at sunset, pathways have been strung with coloured lights and flaming torches throw a fiery glow over the bamboo.
Staff members are clearly excited; there are waiters with trays of champagne and stalls piled with suckling pig and various other Polynesian treats, but I don’t go farther than the Indian corner, all decked out with canopies of coloured fabric and marigolds strung from the trees in fresh floral streamers.
I loiter at the samosa table and chat to the men who fry and double fry in a skilled display of culinary teamwork. These are the best samosas I’ve tasted, so I alternate between the crispy little parcels of meat and vegetables, using each one as an excuse to sample minty raita and chutneys of tangy tamarind, mango and tomato.
Meanwhile there are kids splashing in the pool long after bedtime and adults dancing under the starry sky.
As wonderful as resort life is, we decide to go a little farther afield and the next morning we head for the Denarau marina, a fiveminute drive in the Radisson’s complimentary shuttle bus. We’ve arranged to spend the day exploring the turquoise waters, beaches and lagoons of the Mamanuca Islands.
A catamaran takes us to the island of Mana, where we hop aboard the Seaspray, a romantic two-masted schooner run by South Sea Cruises, and set sail for Modriki Island via stunning coral cays and island outcrops, some inhabited and some not. As gorgeous as it is, the Seaspray rolls a little too emphatically for this landlubber and I’m told if I keep my eye on land my breakfast will stay safely in my stomach. So while my hearties are trying to engage me in a conversation about boat shoes, I have to tell them it’s not that I’m not interested in their new boat shoes, it’s just that if they don’t let me concentrate on that lump of lava over there, I’m going to decorate their footwear with my tropical fruit salad.
Mandriki is a deserted island, just like the one in countless comic strips; in fact it is the island in the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away. We drift up to its coconut-strewn edge and drop anchor. The brave and foolhardy among us dive overboard to swim ashore; I sit nicely and wait for the skiff to collect me.
After raiding the Seaspray’s cargo of flippers and snorkels, we spend the next couple of hours exploring the fabulous Technicolor reef that rings the island. The underwater world of tropical reefs is like the set of a Busby Berkeley musical; schools of impossibly coloured fish perform a kaleidoscopic choreography around a stage of giant 1950s clam shells and flamboyant stalks of coral. It is simply gorgeous.
Back on the boat, an extended patch of calm water inspires the crew to pull out a battered ukulele and strike up some Polynesian-flavoured country songs, their Pacific harmonies crooning the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams.
Music plays an important role in Fijian life: there’s singing in church, on the beach and even at the airport as you head for passport control. It seems that in Fiji, the bigger the man, the smaller the guitar, and impromptu ukulele bands spring up everywhere with songs of welcome and farewell.
On our last night at the Radisson, the resident band croons Fijian versions of favourite songs. They have the diners swaying as they strike up some Bob Marley, but confusion ripples through the restaurant when instead of ‘‘ no woman no cry’’, the band sings a cryptic chorus of ‘‘ no more Mary Jane’’. Is it a lament about Fiji’s revised drug laws or a sorry commentary on the singer’s romantic trials? Either way, it sounds good.
But the party’s over and the resort is no longer brand new. I suspect it will just get better with age. Nellie Blundell was a guest of Radisson Resort Fiji.
The Radisson Resort Fiji Denarau Island is 20 minutes from Fiji’s international airport. There are various opening specials. More: 1800 333 333; firstname.lastname@example.org. South Sea Cruises run daytrips and transfers between Denarau marina and Fiji’s Mamanuca and Yasawa islands. More: www.ssc.com.fj.
Brand spanking new: The Nautilus Restaurant at Radisson Resort Fiji is open to the lagoon pool and sea breezes