My island home
A private retreat in Fiji is the ultimate castaway fantasy
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