Castaway Island, Fiji: Barefoot fine dining, Fiji-style

We are hunting for sea grapes in the shallows off a sand bar, a short boat ride from Castaway Island.

For once, we are not on Fiji time - that renowned tropical attitude that eschews deadlines and schedules, for the tide is changing and soon the sand bar will all but disappear. We must quickly harvest the grapes that tonight will be part of our dinner at the best restaurant in Fiji.

"Sea grapes look a bit like capers," Chef Lance Seeto tells us as we wade ankle-deep in impossibly warm water, stepping over sea cucumbers, starfish and the occasional sea snake. Just along the sandbar a wedding is about to start in this ultra-romantic setting and the bride is fashionably late. If she doesn't hurry she could be making her vows in bridal floaties.

Back on Castaway, we spend the afternoon luxuriating in the simple splendour of the resort before the dipping tropical sun calls us to cocktails and dinner.

Seeto's 1808 restaurant, named for the year the first Chinese arrived in Fiji, has just won best restaurant at the Fiji Excellence in Tourism Awards. This is no tin-pot accolade. The competition in Fiji is very strong from places such as Castaway's sister resort Outrigger and established five-star names including Sofitel, Intercontinental, Shangri-La and Westin.

Born in Papua New Guinea of Cantonese descent and raised in Australia, Seeto's potpourri pedigree seems suited to the culinary diversity of the archipelago.

"Our restaurant pulls together three ancient civilisations - Fijian, Indian and Chinese. These are the flavours of Fiji. At 1808 we've tried to achieve a connection to flavours, both cultural and gastronomic," he says, holding court for our table of a dozen barefoot diners on this perfect, still tropical evening.

We sip eight-spiced masala chai tea as Seeto's sous-chef prepares the base for the entree of smoked kokoda - coconut milk made from the flesh of the coconut, scorched with a hot rock and strained.

It's a gutsy performance by the sous-chef as he is clearly burning his hands with every turn of the rock. We assemble our own kokodas in a half-coconut shell, adding prawn and lobster meat plus diced tomatoes, chillies, onions, Spanish onions, lemon juice and the erstwhile sea grapes. The diners all groan with delight at the piquant smoky essence of the ceviche.

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Seeto has completed stints at Cable Beach Club in Broome, Voyages at Uluru, Rydges in Port Douglas and on Daydream Island.

"I've learnt so much here in Fiji," he says. "I rediscovered simplicity. I toured all around and when I tasted the simple raw flavours, I wanted to bring them to my own cooking. I even cooked up a fruit bat! I wanted to get my experience of Fiji on to the plate - use the local produce, bring the local flavours and tell a story."

Share plates of lemongrass tea chicken, sizzling black pepper beef, wok-tossed bush ferns and masala prawns in mango relish arrive, each accompanied by Seeto's explanation about how the ingredients are balanced and how the palate will react to the interplay of flavours and textures.

Seeto is Fiji's first culinary ambassador, according to Tourism Fiji. He writes a newspaper column and presents a cooking show on TV, now seen in 13 countries across the South Pacific, promoting traditional regional diets to combat growing epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Over desserts of caramel fudge and chocolate fondant, both with island-made wild honeycomb, I press Seeto about whether 1808 could represent a new style of fine dining. "I don't really class this as fine dining in the traditional sense. Maybe it's not toffee-nosed enough. But I doubt anyone else in the world would be cooking in the fusion style that we use here.

"The guys who cooked for you tonight know nothing about French fine dining but they know their individual flavours and spices. I just helped them combine these."

1808 is a sensory experience. Spices float on the breeze, outdoor stoves hiss and flame, the sea laps at the shore and a distant guitar strums softly. The only drawback is the lack of superior wines but Castaway Island resort manager Steven Andrews tells me he is keen to expand the wine list to incorporate a selection of premium labels to back up Fiji's newly crowned best restaurant.

The writer was a guest of Castaway Island.

Heaven on earth for tourists

Castaway Island has long been beloved by Aussie tourists.

More than 40 per cent of its guests are return visitors, keen for another palm-lined serving of friendly, untroubled idyll.

Romantics and families alike revel in the slow pace and balmy air, filling their days with beach walks, swimming or snorkelling in the pools or ocean and water sports (fishing, scuba, catamarans, kayaks, windsurfers, glass bottom boat, stand up paddleboards and spy boards), before an afternoon snooze on a seaside lounger or hammock.

There’s also excursions to other islands, cooking lessons, tennis, trivia, sunset cruises, with touch football and bonfires on the beach.

The island is perfect for kids – like most Fijian resorts – but the proximity of the bures to the ocean plus games, daily activities and crafts, and a loving nanny service make Castaway a very special place for small ones.

You may have to book well in advance if you want to go during the school holidays.

Castaway was also a finalist in the deluxe accommodation category at the Fiji Tourism gongs. The bures are spacious and comfortable, air conditioned and blessedly wi-fi and TV-free.

Here, ‘‘Fiji time’’ means family time but e-desperados can still get online at the main bure. The resort has been around since 1966 but does not look its age.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia flies to Fiji from Sydney and Melbourne. See virginaustralia.com. South Sea Cruises offers an all-inclusive airport-resort bus and ferry service.

STAYING THERE

Castaway offers three levels of accommodation. Nightly rates: Island Bure $665, Ocean Bure $735, Beach Bure $848. To book, enquiries@castawayfiji.com.fj

EATING THERE

The Daily Meal Plan package costs $90 per day for adults and $45 for children, and includes the premium dining experience.

MORE INFORMATION

castawayfiji.com

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