Best resorts in Fiji: Castaway Island in Mamanuca is 50 and still fabulous

Why do some hotels and resorts stand the test of time and others don't?

In a world of almost limitless travel options and see-sawing trends, what makes some people return over and over to the same place? Is it something special in the service? A favourite room? Nature's gifts arranged in a particularly memorable way?

There has to be more to it than the chance to unplug and embrace beach hair and bare feet in guaranteed sunshine. After all, we Aussies can find that in countless coastal nooks on our own doorstep.

In the case of Castaway – opened the same year Australians adopted decimal currency, in 1966 – its fans almost always give the same answer: the people.

To call the locals who live on this beautiful sandy dollop in the Pacific "staff" seems hopelessly inadequate. The people who live and work here are known to all as the Castaway family and are the resort's best asset, according to Sydney businessman Geoff Shaw who owned the island for 22 years.

"There are resorts with taller palm trees and better white-sand beaches in other parts of the world, but they don't have the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Fijians," said Geoff. "That's the point of difference and distinction."

Devotees of the small island in the Mamanuca group seem to agree. Many return year after year – first with children and then grandchildren – and have struck up enduring friendships with their hosts, some of whom have been working in the resort for decades.

A stay on the island has many signature experiences that keep its fans coming back. A three-part harmony song performed on the beach for every boat arrival, the ultimate champagne picnic trip to neighbouring uninhabited Modriki Island, it's famous kids club where big-hearted nannies run games in the sunshine and the chance to dine barefoot in award-winning 1808 restaurant on the sand are just a few.

Margaret and Bob Luff, of Melbourne, fell for Castaway's charms 40 years ago. 

"We thought it a magic place and quickly returned with our children and have been visiting ever since. We have taken our granddaughter there each year for every one of her 19 years," said Margaret.

"We feel very much part of the Castaway family. "

Fellow four-decade devotee Carlene Costello from Sydney has also holidayed with three generations on Castaway, marking birthdays and anniversaries with husband, children and grandchildren. 

Ian Braddock, of Sydney, tells the same story.

"We have been coming to Castaway every July for the past 40 odd years because of all the wonderful staff we have become acquainted with over this time," said Ian.

"My early memories of Castaway Island date back to the '70s when we would leave Lautoka on the yacht Sea Spray for a very slow, three-hour trip, consuming the odd Fiji Bitter and listening to the band. On approach, most guests would dive over and swim ashore. "

The Marshall family, of Melbourne, estimate they have spent almost a year on Castaway adding up their regular visits during 20 years.

"It has been such a huge part of our lives," said Marian. " Of course the staff is what makes the whole island work. We are all looking forward to our next trip."

Castaway's remarkable tourism success story began when holidaymakers still needed travellers' cheques, Disneyland was only 11 years old and the Fairstar cruise ship was bringing immigrants from Britain to Australia.

Back then an Australian named Dick Smith leased about seven hectares of an island called Qalito and threw together four basic accommodation units. He sold it to Canadian Mike Brooke in 1974, who built the resort up to its present 66 bures. 

Brooke in turn sold it literally weeks before the 1987 Fijian coup and after a couple of unsuccessful ownerships, Sydney businessman Geoffrey Shaw bought the island in 1992, a few short months after a cyclone had scared away other potential investors.

Shaw played a vital role in Castaway's success story. At various stages he rescued it from insolvency, rebuilt it, saw it devastated by cyclones and rebuilt again, before finally selling to the Hawaii-based Outrigger Enterprises Group in 2014.

"When I first told my accountant I wanted to buy Castaway Island, he thought I was mad," recalls Geoff.

"The first five years were pretty tough as the resort was in a pretty shabby state. 

"Freshwater was being shipped in by barge in 30,000-litre lots costing $500,000 a year. Despite everyone saying 'it will never work', we eventually built a desalination plant and became self-sufficient." 

Geoff's vision was for Castaway to capture the imagination of families dreaming of tropical escapes.

"We had the best real estate and the appeal of individual bures of natural timbers, tapa bark cloth and thatched roofs. I felt success lay in maintaining the rustic island feel."

Even the fury of cyclone Winston in February this year couldn't stop the Castaway crew. In a 13-hour rampage, the cyclone swept sand and water into every guest room, with flying sand also ripping paint from every surface, wind ripping off thatched roofs and damaging walls. 

After a gruelling three-month closure, clean-up and rebuilding project where everyone from housekeeping staff, waiters and management pitched in to make repairs, the resort reopened in June.

"Winston may have been classified as the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in Fiji in recorded history, but the reopening of our beautiful island resort just months after such a severe storm is proof that our Castaway family is much stronger, and more resilient than any storm can be," general manager Steven Andrews said at Castaway's reopening party.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

castawayfiji.com

GETTING THERE

Fiji Airways flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Nadi; see fijiairways.com

STAYING THERE

Free scuba diving is now being offered as part of the new Pass to Happiness deal with all stays of five nights or more. Choose from five passes – family, aqua, R&R, Adventure and Dive – all come with a full resort meal package. Valid for stays until December 23 and between January 5 and March 31, 2017. For bookings, see outriggerfiji.com

Angie Kelly was a guest of Castaway Island Resort.

CASTAWAY THEN AND NOW

THE MENU

1966 Kokoda raw fish salad, prawn cocktail, curry, garlic bread, roast chicken, rice salad.

2016 Rice paper rolls, XO calamari, Singapore chilli charred prawns, chicken burger, wood-fired pizza.

IN THE SUITCASE

1966 A-line mini-dresses and boy-leg bikinis for her, short-sleeve body shirts and high-waisted, tight-fit swimsuit for him.

2016 Embellished kaftans for her, boardies for him, rash vests for all.

ROOM RATES

1966 About $45 a night.

2106 About $645 a night.

AT THE BAR

1966 Mai Tai, Blue Lagoon, rum and beer.

2016 Martinis, mojitos, Australian wines, craft beers.

THE TRANSFER

1966 By boat only.

2016 Scheduled ferry three times daily, speed boat, seaplane, helicopter.

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