JOIN THE FIJI FAM­ILY IN PAR­ADISE

THEY SAY FRIENDS ARE THE FAM­ILY YOU CHOOSE FOR YOURSELF. AT TURTLE IS­LAND, THE SCENE OF THE ORIG­I­NAL BLUE LA­GOON MOVIE, THAT COULD NOT BE MORE TRUE

Life & Style Weekend - - MAGAZINE | ESCAPE - WORDS AND PHO­TOS: NARELLE BOUVENG

For most of the year, Turtle Is­land is a nest for loved-up cou­ples. Lauded as one of the most ro­man­tic places on earth; a sanc­tu­ary for hon­ey­moon­ers, lovers and celebri­ties seek­ing cu­rated soli­tude be­side the sea. But on se­lect oc­ca­sions, tiny footprints are welcome to ap­pear along­side well-heeled par­ents.

As far as first im­pres­sions go, a 35-minute scenic sea­plane fly­ing low and slow through the Ya­sawa Is­lands is a pretty spec­tac­u­lar ar­rival, but add the sur­prise fac­tor of two bare-chested, grass-skirted war­riors wad­ing out to carry us ashore and it borders on rock­star.

Our feet barely graze the sand be­fore we are swept up again in a group hug. When we emerge, we have flow­ers in our hair, shells around our necks and co­conuts in our hands.

We feel like fam­ily that have ar­rived safely home and, while we know Fi­jians are renowned for throw­ing a pretty good welcome, this one raises the bar more than a few notches — so much so, my teen daugh­ter qui­etly asks if I have signed us up to a cult.

Fam­ily time on Turtle Is­land has just be­gun but my youngest daugh­ter is al­ready skip­ping off up the beach along­side a tribe of kids and the is­land’s res­i­dent dog.

She has joined off­spring from 14 other fam­i­lies, each child al­lo­cated their own buddy (kids aged over five years) or nanny (aged un­der five), and watch­ing her high on the prom­ise of shared ad­ven­tures and hol­i­day BFFS in bud a flush of nos­tal­gia floods over me.

My own child­hood was spent roam­ing wild and free and, while our world may have changed and pos­si­bly re­aligned my own chil­dren’s op­por­tu­ni­ties to taste such free­dom, here it still feels pos­si­ble.

Re­treat­ing to our bure with my el­dest daugh­ter — a lit­tle old for kids’ club at 19, but ea­ger to em­bark on her own idea of a hol­i­day — I can see she is im­pressed with our eco­haven of is­land luxe.

There are gleam­ing tim­bers, floaty cur­tains and a well-stocked fridge filled with home­made lemon­ade, my favourite wine and, for the girls, a treat jar brim­ming with brown­ies.

Our home peeps out from a thicket of sun­dap­pled hi­bis­cus and there is a cosy day bed on the ve­randa she promptly claims while si­mul­ta­ne­ously emp­ty­ing a col­lec­tion of books out of her back­pack and in­form­ing me she will see me next week.

I find my­self wan­der­ing up to kids’ camp for a fi­nal dose of re­as­sur­ance. It is a sprawl­ing out­door space nes­tled underneath a canopy of coconut palms with an open-air eat­ing, play and baby sleep­ing zone.

Wrig­gly ba­bies are ex­plor­ing the sand­pit while the older chil­dren are wob­bling about on kayaks, bal­anc­ing on stand-up pad­dle boards or line-fish­ing from a wooden boat not far from shore.

Bud­dies are ever present within arm’s length of their charges to guide them.

I spot my daugh­ter bounc­ing from a giant tram­po­line teth­ered to the sea floor into water one shade deeper than a Tif­fany jew­ellery box. I re­turn to my bure as­sured.

The beauty of kids’ camp here is that kids are free to come and go as they choose as long as their buddy is ac­com­pa­ny­ing them.

They can ar­rive and de­part any­time be­tween the hours of 7.30am and 9.30pm each day and, while all daily meals are served in camp, kids can also eat with their par­ents.

I do quickly learn that bud­dies are pre­ferred to par­ents, but rather than be­ing miffed, I am warmed by the con­nec­tion bud­dies form with their tiny tur­tles.

Par­ents are not for­got­ten, in fact, the joy of con­tent chil­dren is the ideal cue to pop into re­lax, re­vive and re­cal­i­bra­tion of re­la­tion­ship mode.

To en­sure this hap­pens, each bure is gifted a bure Mama or Papa. I say “gifted”, be­cause we come to know Mama Lav­iti as treasure.

We spend the com­ing days sup­ping on gourmet fare dur­ing pri­vate beach pic­nics, en­joy­ing sun­rise horse rides fol­lowed by cham­pagne break­fast and all sorts of dine outs and dine ins at spots around the is­land, all planned covertly by Mama Lav­iti.

The days are easy and re­laxed, spent swim­ming in warm, crys­tal waters, bask­ing in the sun and soaking up the seclu­sion of this un­touched, tech-free par­adise.

Din­ing is en­cour­aged as a com­mu­nal af­fair, and it is pretty in­ti­mate with only 28 adult guests in res­i­dence, but also lovely to hear ev­ery­one’s sto­ries of how they came to be part of the Turtle Is­land fam­ily. For the ma­jor­ity, this visit is part of an im­pres­sive 67 per cent guest re­turn rate.

We listen to sto­ries of hon­ey­moons mor­ph­ing into an an­nual tra­di­tion with a grow­ing brood of kids in tow, and of chil­dren be­ing bap­tised in the la­goon along­side

Fi­jian fam­ily. And there are memo­ri­als dot­ted here too.

We hear tales about celebrity guests in­clud­ing John Travolta who cel­e­brated his 50th here with fam­ily and per­sonal friend Oprah Win­frey, and of sport­ing greats in­clud­ing for­mer wal­laby cap­tain Ge­orge Gre­gan, AFL pow­er­house Nathan Buck­ley and Aus­tralian crick­eter Steve Waugh.

Mu­si­cians Ed­die Van Halen, Tommy Lee and Richard Starkey (bet­ter known as Ringo Starr) have all spent time on Turtle Is­land too.

While there were some notable guests in res­i­dence dur­ing our visit (can’t say who), there was no ch­est puff­ing, VIP vet­ting or Rolex com­par­ing — just easy con­ver­sa­tions about kids and trav­els while dan­gling our de­li­ciously bare, com­mon feet in the sand.

The is­land it­self has a celebrity pedi­gree with the orig­i­nal Blue La­goon movie star­ring Brooke Shields and Christo­pher Atkins filmed here in the ’80s.

While there wasn’t a re­sort at the time, the

in­ter­est piqued by par­adise beaches and a seascape boast­ing 50 shades of blue set the foun­da­tion for a small but up­scale de­vel­op­ment that pro­gressed over com­ing years by then and present owner Richard Evan­son. Richard’s own story of cor­po­rate burnout pro­pelled him to adopt a sim­ple, is­land ex­is­tence and it is easy to see the magic that en­am­oured him orig­i­nally, both in the is­land and its free-na­tured peo­ple.

It’s the same magic that draws in af­flu­ent guests for a soul fix, but fam­ily has al­ways been at the heart of ev­ery­thing Richard

Sr. cre­ated.

He lives on the is­land with his re­sort man­ager son Richard Evan­son Jr, one of his eight chil­dren rang­ing in ages from eight to 58 blended by his evolv­ing Amer­i­can/ Aus­tralian/fi­jian story.

To­gether they ded­i­cate en­ergy into the Ya­sawa com­mu­nity they call fam­ily, spear­head­ing ed­u­ca­tion and med­i­cal pro­grams to im­prove their qual­ity of life, sup­ported by equally al­tru­is­tic friends.

We tour the gar­dens in so­lar-pow­ered bug­gies to see where the ma­jor­ity of the re­sort’s food is grown and learn how Turtle Is­land was one of the first re­sorts in the world to op­er­ate on clean en­ergy.

A lighter foot­print in­cludes the re­sort craft­ing its own build­ings and fur­ni­ture that en­ables young is­landers (who may oth­er­wise have had to leave the Ya­sawas to pur­sue work) to de­velop trades in wood­work­ing, build­ing and hos­pi­tal­ity.

A WWF ac­cred­ited turtle re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gram op­er­ates here too.

In con­tin­ued in­clu­sive spirit, fam­ily time on Turtle Is­land is a shared oc­ca­sion cel­e­brat­ing the cul­ture and time-honoured tra­di­tions of the Ya­sawan peo­ple as told sim­ply by them.

We par­tic­i­pate in meke, feast to­gether af­ter help­ing pre­pare the lovo and watch as fire dancers ig­nite the night. We also take turns weav­ing fronds into bas­kets, get the hang of husk­ing co­conuts and are sur­prised by the dif­fer­ent ways we can tie a sulu.

Kava is shared ev­ery evening and all are in­vited to join in.

We snorkel the reefs be­side each other and make crafts to leave be­hind as mem­o­ries or take home as me­men­tos.

While there is an ever-present gen­tle buzz of boats, sea­planes and bug­gies to whisk us just about any­where we wish to go, there is no fan­fare. Ev­ery­one is treated the same and sched­ules merely serve as a guide sug­gested by Ma­mas and Pa­pas.

We are en­cour­aged to be­lieve that this is our very own is­land to en­joy how­ever we wish. Food and wine flow freely, con­ver­sa­tion is easy and the day is planned not ac­cord­ing to a clock, but sim­ply in synch with the sun, wind and tide.

If this is in­deed a cult, sign us up.

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