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 Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

Check­list

The Radis­son Re­sort Fiji De­na­rau Is­land is 20 min­utes from Fiji’s in­ter­na­tional air­port. There are var­i­ous open­ing specials. More: 1800 333 333; reser­va­tions.fiji@radis­son.com. South Sea Cruises run daytrips and trans­fers be­tween De­na­rau ma­rina and Fiji’s Ma­manuca and Ya­sawa is­lands. More: www.ssc.com.fj.

www.radis­son.com/fiji

Brand spank­ing new: The Nau­tilus Restau­rant at Radis­son Re­sort Fiji is open to the la­goon pool and sea breezes

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