A true survivor
Castaway Island in Fiji celebrates its 50th birthday
Castaway is the Fijian island from central casting, all rustling palms, thatched bures, singing locals with flowers tucked behind their ears, and 70 lush hectares lapped by transparent sapphire waters.
When Lingo Reece came to work at this tapa-andthatch holiday resort 27 years ago he couldn’t believe his eyes. “It reminded me of the village I grew up in!” he laughs. “How can you sell this to foreign tourists?”
Traditional architecture wasn’t the only surprise. Castaway was in receivership and looking worse for wear, but holiday-makers seemed oblivious to its woes.
“I was really surprised they still had people coming,” says Reece, now duty manager at the resort. “It was still as busy as ever because of all the repeat clients [more than 40 per cent of guests]. People just fall in love with the place.”
It’s easy to understand why. As well as ticking all the tropical bliss boxes, there’s a mellow vibe to Castaway that makes it feel like the friendliest village in Fiji.
The Mamanuca Islands are home to some of the region’s most celebrated properties, including adults-only Likuliku Lagoon resort and its family-focused sibling Malolo, plus Six Senses Vunabaka, Wadigi private island resort and Tokoriki resort. But back in 1966 there was only Qalito Island, aka Castaway, the pioneering resort that has evolved from a humble property of four motelstyle units to the barefoot idyll favoured by generations of Australians and New Zealanders today.
Castaway turns 50 this year but it has not been an easy birthday. In February the island was smashed by Winston, the strongest cyclone recorded on the archipelago. Like many a neighbouring island property, the damage was extensive. Fourteen guest bures had to be rebuilt and the clean-up was gruelling.
But Castaway reopened less than four months later on June 1, a little battered but arguably in better shape than ever. It’s a testament to the island’s resilience and enduring appeal that when I visit in October every bure is booked out, the landscaping is lush and perfumed with frangipani, and happy family holidays are in full swing.
Castaway’s success is largely due to Geoff Shaw, the Australian property developer who rescued it from (yet another) receivership in 1992 and operated it for 22 years before handing the keys to the family-owned, Hawaiibased Outrigger Resorts group in 2014.
Shaw remains a consultant to the new owners and is on site during my visit, his enthusiasm undimmed after all those years (and more than his share of cyclones).
“I have honestly never had a bad day on Castaway,” he says over wine and salads on the sun-drenched dining deck. “I have had days that are more challenging than others … but it’s just one of those wonderful experiences that, sometimes, you are fortunate enough to gain in life.”
When Shaw took over, the resort and its staff were languishing. “It was a pretty sad old property.” He set about rebuilding morale, then facilities, and then the clientele. If he could capture the family market, he figured, Castaway’s future was assured.
So he opened a kids’ club staffed by Fijians, surely the world’s best childminders, and introduced endless activities and some of the best food at the time in Fiji. The strategy has been so successful that the opening of a second, adults-only pool has been a hopeless failure. It is always swamped with children, but no-one seems to mind.
For a small island this one packs a lot of punch. When guests tire of the two pools and whirlpools, beaches, hammocks and hiking through the forest, there’s a “house” reef for snorkelling.
Windsurfers, kayaks, catamarans and paddleboards are available free of charge at the Boat Shed; there are handicraft demonstrations and cultural performances.
Paid fun includes waterskiing, jetskiing, scuba and a champagne brunch on nearby Modriki Island, where
Fiji’s Castaway Island, top; beachside bure, above; Geoff Shaw, who rescued the resort in 1992 and ran it for 22 years, above right