My is­land home

A pri­vate re­treat in Fiji is the ul­ti­mate cast­away fan­tasy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - SU­SAN KURO­SAWA

CY­CLONES and coups. Coups and cy­clones. Com­modore Frank Bain­i­marama as un­pre­dictable as ever. Fiji has had more than its eq­ui­table share of prob­lems in re­cent years, none of which seems to have de­terred tourists. Quite the re­verse, in fact.

Flights are full, deals are ir­re­sistible, vis­i­tor ar­rivals are buoy­ant, ev­ery­one is smil­ing in trop­i­cal touristville. And no one is smil­ing more broadly than Dawn Simp­son and her ‘‘ladies’’ at Dol­phin Is­land, a mem­ber of the Huka Re­treats group, freshly re­opened af­ter an ex­ten­sive up­grade and ad­di­tion of pool and ex­tra ac­com­mo­da­tion.

Dol­phin Is­land is not j ust a re­sort but a pri­vate is­land — and make that your pri­vate is­land. With four dou­ble rooms, the 5.3ha is­land is avail­able for a one­book­ing stay. So travel with a part­ner or an as­sort­ment of fam­ily and friends; you will not be among strangers, and that in­cludes Dawn, Bunny, Nina, Elesi and Adi, all of whom will be your Fijian sis­ters within the brief time it takes to or­der kokoda for lunch or a ra­di­antly coloured trop­i­cal cock­tail for sun­set drinks.

It is my sec­ond visit and Dawn’s hus­band, Stan­ley, has died since last we met, so our greet­ings are long and heart­felt.

‘‘Wel­come home,’’ she says, her eyes teary, her hugs firm and real.

Dawn and Stan­ley were dubbed the ‘‘concierge cou­ple’’ but af­ter a life­time work­ing in plan­ta­tion and su­gar mill man­age­ment, Dawn has opted to con­tinue with­out her dear hus­band and now her ti­tle is ‘ ‘ is­land host’’. But it seems a mea­gre de­scrip­tion; she is earth mother, force of na­ture, or­gan­iser par ex­cel­lence, host­ess with the mostest, as my par­ents would have put it.

Dawn loves the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try, she tells me, the sense of in­stant fam­ily as guests ar­rive, the way that dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties, with their wide-reach­ing sto­ries and cul­tural dif­fer­ences, open small win­dows to a larger uni­verse.

She has no need to travel when the world comes to her, she tells me one night as we sit shoul­der to shoul­der, girl­ish and gig­gling, on a step and look at the stars.

If I could live on Dol­phin Is­land, I doubt I’d have itchy feet, ei­ther. It’s the Robin­son Cru­soe idyll, 21st-cen­tury style. Which means the catch of the day is lob­ster ( and no chanc­ing your own line) and the ac­com­mo­da­tions are is­land chic.

But if you do want more of a cast­away fan­tasy, walk up the hill to a semi-al­fresco thatch-roofed sleep-out with a mos­quito-net­ted four-poster bed and a dis­creet toi­let and shower pav­il­ion. You can while away an af­ter­noon here or even spend the night — lit with hur­ri­cane lanterns or can­dles, soft­ened by salty breezes, it feels ma­jes­ti­cally re­moved from life iself.

Dol­phin Is­land is just off the main Fijian isle of Viti Levu to the north­west, a drive of about 21/

2 hours from Nadi air­port along the grandly named Kings High­way. Get­ting there is part of the fun, past cane­fields backed by loom­ing hills and signs for Fiji Bit­ter: The Sports­man’s Beer and Vinod Pa­tel: Big­gest Name in Hard­ware. The mel­liflu­ous names of the towns we drive through seem to string to­gether like song lyrics: Lo­molomo, Vi­sei­sei, Vatu­tavui, Tavua and, as a cho­rus note, Ba, the so­called soc­cer town — an aber­ra­tion, surely, in this rugby na­tion, where the Fly­ing Fi­jians are treated like gods, although the Wan­der­ing Fi­jians would seem a more ap­pro­pri­ate tag.

(‘‘They should spend all that money the Fly­ing Fi­jians cost on the poor,’’ Bunny tells me later, ad­mit­ting she is an All-Blacks sup­porter. ‘‘Have you ever no­ticed how hand­some Dan Carter is?’’ I taunt her. ‘‘Oh yes, I have no­ticed, Su­san!’’ she vol­leys back, her sweep­ing get­ting more vig­or­ous by the sec­ond.)

From a small j etty j ust past Raki­raki at Wananavu Re­sort, a com­fort­able beach­side hide­away pop­u­lar with divers, it’s about 10 min­utes by dinghy across to Dol­phin Is­land, where Dawn and her crew will be wait­ing, en­fold­ing arms out­stretched with frangi­pani gar­lands, boom­ing out a cho­rus of ‘‘Bula!’’

Your pri­vate is­land has two free­stand­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion bu­res, each with two en­suite dou­ble rooms, and a cen­tral pav­il­ion, with loung­ing and din­ing space, plus the small kitchen where Dawn cre­ates homely food from the fresh­est ingredients she can muster.

Dol­phin Is­land is yours, the days are un­scripted and so is the choice of menu — what’s fresh that morn­ing, from fruit to fish, whether it’s a curry with all the side-trim­mings that takes your fancy, a lob­ster and ota fern salad sauced with co­conut milk, or even a tra­di­tional earth-oven lovo.

De­li­cious juices — pineap­ple, cumquat, mango — are served in jugs with a seg­ment of the gar­den­picked fruit perched on top like a jaunty lit­tle hat. The tree over­hang­ing my bure’s open-air shower is heav­ing with pa­paya; I have to fight temp­ta­tion to pick one but it all seems too stage-man­aged for such greedy in­ter­fer­ence.

Every­thing, in fact, is in­tri­cately styled, pre­ci­sion-per­fect, thanks to the re­cent makeover by Vir­ginia Fisher, New Zealand’s best-known in­te­rior de­signer, who has mas­ter­minded the eclec­tic decor tem­plate at all the Huka Re­treats prop­er­ties in NZ and South Africa.

Fisher has up­graded what was al­ready a very com­fort­able minire­sort — and once the fam­ily hide­away of Huka Re­treats founder Alex van Heeren — to a new level of luxe. The pal­ette is Fisher’s pre­ferred white and soft pas­tels but Fijian her­itage is de­clared, too, with tapa cloth, shell-framed mir­rors, drift­wood, carved wooden pieces, and wo­ven bas­kets and church-wor­thy straw hats ar­ranged as wall hang­ings.

Dawn is keen to point out ev­ery last ‘ ‘ Vir­ginia de­tail’’, from the abun­dant sup­plies of White Gingerlily bath prod­ucts from Pure Fiji to the huge cotton ta­ble nap­kins, which turn out to be tea tow­els, and thus hap­pily big enough for lob­ster splat­ter and cock­tail spills. Even the gar­den,

land­scaped by van Hereen favourite Suzanne Tur­ley, has Fish­er­dic­tated white blooms, although I no­tice a bit of scar­let bougainvil­lea peep­ing through the creamy frangi­pani, like a nosy neigh­bour up for a stick­y­beak.

Dawn says she is true to her name and likes to be out and about by sun­rise, but there is no in­cen­tive to get up early. If the ladies see you mov­ing about, your choice of tea or cof­fee ap­pears; then it’s break­fast, fol­lowed by laz­ing in or be­side the in­fin­ity-edge fresh­wa­ter pool.

Wan­der down to the small beach, past pale-barked rain trees, tamarinds, man­goes and ser­rated palms, and take out the Ho­bie Cat or sea kayaks; there’s hand-line fish­ing for the likes of coral trout and snap­per, or per­haps a mas­sage by ex­pert ther­a­pists from Wanan- avu’s Wai Spa, who ar­rive by launch, hi­bis­cus in their hair, sooth­ing co­conut oils and sug­ar­crys­tal scrubs at the ready.

I walk around the is­land, with its cen­tral hump of palm-tex­tured hills, at low tide as crabs scut­tle into the man­groves and fish­er­men put­ter by with a wave and a shouted ‘‘Bula!’’ I re­mem­ber Stan­ley telling me that you don’t re­ally see dol­phins around Dol­phin Is­land; you would need to go fur­ther out, past Nananu-i-Ra Is­land and into deeper chan­nels.

He had of­fered to take me ‘‘dol­phin call­ing’’ years ago, and I said no. I can’t re­mem­ber why I de­clined, but I wish I had gone. How Dawn must miss him.

I leave only once dur­ing my stay, for a visit to the main is­land, and when I re­turn, Dawn and her gar­den­ers have built a bon­fire on the beach and are wait­ing by the jetty. I have been gone three hours. It feels like an eter­nity. Dawn’s face is lit by the bright orange flames. Bunny is beam­ing. The night is gen­tle with the fra­grance of frangi­pani. I am home. Su­san Kuro­sawa was a guest of The Huka Re­treats and Fiji Vis­i­tors’ Bureau.

Dol­phin Is­land’s cen­tral pav­il­ion, above, flanked by guest bure suites; is­land host Dawn Simp­son, left

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