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
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
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.