Discover the unspoilt side of Fiji in Savusavu, writes Mary O'Brien.
The children of Jerusalemi don't see many foreigners in their remote village on Fiji's Vanua Levu island – perhaps that's the reason they are so shy and slow to smile.
I'm one of four visitors to their new kinder, the day before it officially opens. Until now families have had to travel up to an hour into Savusavu. After some cajoling from village elders, and many photos and "bulas", some timid smiles are teased out.
It's a lovely insight into the real Fiji. I'm lucky to be allowed to visit the village after seeking permission from the chief. I'm travelling with staff from the nearby Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, which has worked with the Savusavu Community Foundation to open the simple one-room kinder.
The resort where I'm staying takes its community and environmental obligations very seriously. Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, opened it in 1995 on a former coconut plantation. He still oversees the eco and dive programs and retains a soft spot for Savusavu, recently celebrating his 75th birthday there.
Nowadays Fijian marine biologist Johnny Singh is in charge of protecting the environment. The area around the resort, Nukubalavu, is a marine reserve and the fish are growing more plentiful.
On my first day, Singh takes a group of guests behind the scenes to show how the resort works to have minimum impact on its beautiful surroundings. He tells us about the waste treatment system, water reclamation plant, solar panels and recycling system.
The organic vegie garden is sizeable and much of the vegetation around the resort is edible – I see my first mango tree but there's also avocado, papaya and guava. No reef fish or farmed prawns are served on the menu and the food (unlike in many other places in Fiji) is fresh and skilfully prepared.
As we circle around the back, Singh's little daughter comes out of her house to say hello. She's told to go back home as dad's still working.
But it's not all serious stuff. After all, this is a five-star eco holiday resort with infinity pool, restaurant overlooking the sea, 25 bures and beachfront massage huts. When my children were young, I dreamed of coming here but never made it. It's a great destination for frazzled parents. There's a lovely children's area with pool, play area, sprawling tree house and cultural activities. But best of all is the program where children under five get their own trained Fijian nanny while older ones are matched with a buddy. Bliss for the lucky families.
The resort is like its own little village where I quickly get to know some of the staff. There's Ricco, the ultimate host, who somehow manages to remember everyone's name at dinner. Or Chris, who patiently instructs the timid snorkellers (like me) in the pool. The entrepreneurial newcomer Matthew, who as well as waiting on tables, hopes to start growing and arranging flowers for the hotel. And, not to forget lively medicine man, Mario, who can find a cure for almost anything among the plants in the gardens. He often picks things for local villagers who have aches and pains.
I'm quite nervous about snorkelling so I'm given into Chris's care. After a basic lesson in the pool we head off to Split Point. My guide knows exactly where to go in this sparklingly clear underwater wonderland. I later have a snorkel around the pier where clams are bred in a giant mesh enclosure. Some friends head out later that evening for a night snorkel. The Cousteau Dive Centre has scuba-diving facilities and PADI-certified courses. Fiji is known as the "Soft Coral Capital of the World" and nearby Namena is considered one of the best diving sites.
For early-morning risers, there's a challenging walk in the tropical rainforest behind the beach, a revitalising yoga session or a dip in the pristine Koro Sea. A trip to the resort's Private Island feels very indulgent. Singh accompanies us around the tiny island, pointing out marine life as the tide flows out. Soon another boat arrives with food and one of the men shimmies up a tree to cut some coconuts for us.
Only a small number of Fiji's visitors make it to Savusavu (about 20,000 of the annual 600,000 visitors). It's the second-biggest town on Vanua Levu, with about 5000 people, and it lies on a protected picturesque bay. The market is the lifeline of the town and well worth exploring. Locals and holidaymakers buy colourful fruit and vegetables here and a friendly stallholder shows how kava (for the traditional kava drink) is extracted from kava roots. After I buy a few trinkets for friends back home, my friends and I have a picnic overlooking the bay with its many yachts. The town is a modest affair and the Planters Club and the Copra Shed Marina are the best spots for a drink.
A large part of Savusavu's charm lies in its stillness and calm beauty, and initially I have to make myself slow down and come to terms with the relaxed pace of life. Locals joke about "Fiji time" and it's only when I slip into the island groove that I realise this is what all of us need – whether we know it or not – a dose of Fiji time.
The writer was a guest of the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort and Island Hoppers.
FLY Fiji Airways Melbourne-Nadi from $400 one way, fijiairways.com. Island Hoppers Nadi-Savusavu from $246 one way, islandhoppersfiji.com. Check out package deals with creativeholidays.com.
STAY Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, Savusavu, Vanua Levu, fijiresort.com, 1300 306 171. Garden bure from $1116 a night (2 adults and 2 children under 12), includes all meals and non-alcoholic drinks, most activities and nanny. Watch out for out special offers.
TO DO Snorkel, dive, sail, rainforest walks, yoga, explore Savusavu town and market.