Is it possible to take kids to a luxury resort without spoiling it for everyone else? Lauren Quaintance heads to Vomo Island with her two-year-old daughter to find out.
There’s something unnatural about plucking a sleeping toddler from bed in the small hours of the morning. The night before, Bella had gone to bed fully dressed, excited about the prospect of a trip to ‘‘the island where the turtles live’’, but now she stretches, catlike, and protests feebly as she struggles to fully wake .We leave my husband behind in his dressing gown, since he is not able to join us until the following day. As the taxi steals through the streets to the airport, with the two of us bleary-eyed and mute in the back seat, the inky night sky slowly gives way to a misty predawn light.
Before our daughter came along, my husband and I had enjoyed an island holiday somewhere in Asia or the Pacific once or twice a year. We were lucky enough to stay at places that were generally four or five stars and our time was mostly spent reading, sleeping and drinking Pimm’s at the swim-up bar. How times have changed.
Travelling with a small child invariably requires determination, patience and a small stationer’s shop worth of colouring books. But, like many parents, we need a break more than ever and we’ve tried, as much as possible, to replicate some of those holidays we had together in our previous life as a couple. At the very least, we say to each other we want to stay in resorts that are the same standard we enjoyed before we were parents. We would dearly like to avoid cheesy decor and buffets laden with deep-fried foods.
Last summer, we spent five days at a contemporary five-star resort and spa in far north Queensland. We had an apartment with our own balcony and spa overlooking a large lagoon pool. When the sun shone, Bella played happily in the shallows, but when it didn’t there was almost nothing for her to do and few other children to play with. When I momentarily left her nappy off after a swim and she had a ‘‘comfort stop’’ at the feet of a woman at the poolside bar, I thought, ‘‘There has to be a better way.’’ So we find ourselves squeezed into a helicopter high above swamps and patchy farmland on a 15-minute ride from the Nadi airport to Vomo Island in the Mamanucas. Vomo is one of only two five-star islands in Fiji that accept under-18s all year round. In July, the resort opened a purpose-built kids area called The Turtle Club, which is named after the endangered hawksbill turtles that inhabit the island. Vomo seems to be designed for parents like us.
But do five-star resorts and kids really mix? I can’t help but glance at the well-heeled retired couple joining Bella and I on the helicopter ride and wonder whether they know what they’re getting into.
The 91-hectare island is as idyllic as you would hope: coral-strewn beaches, crooked palm trees and ragged hedges heavy with red hibiscus. It has 21 beachfront villas, seven hillside and garden villas and two private houses suitable for large family groups. As well as the facilities you would expect – a spa, a gym, a floodlit tennis court – it has a nine-hole ‘‘chip and putt’’ golf course set among the coconut trees.
Our villa is slick and contemporary with dark wood, white linen and a few decorative Pasifika items.
Given that I estimate two-thirds of the guests are here with children, I’m surprised there is only one pool and it is directly in front of the only restaurant. I try to imagine how a childless guest might feel about sharing the pool with my child as she demonstrates how she can ‘‘swim like a mermaid’’, but is actually about as graceful as a small hippopotamus. However, perhaps because of the island’s size, there are never more than a few children at the pool at any one time and they never seem to offend other guests.
Amazingly, most of the time the only noises heard poolside are the shush of waves, birds chirruping and ice clinking in glasses.
In fact, the island is so quiet I become convinced most parents are so grateful to be here that they have bribed their children to behave.
When I notice someone dozing in a hammock slung between two trees, I’m quick to shush my squealing offspring, and it seems like a small price to pay.
By the time my husband arrives 24 hours later, almost all the Fijian staff know Bella’s name, and she is greeted with kisses and high-fives wherever we go. Our days take on a pleasant rhythm: up early for a swim in the pool (with breakfast delivered poolside because service in the restaurant can be slow); mid-morning is for handfeeding the baby turtles that are part of the island’s breeding program, or to the kids’ club to play in the cubby house; a nap (for Bella) under a sun umbrella while we watch her from the restaurant. Some young children seem to be almost permanently in the company of Fijian nannies known as ‘‘baby butlers’’, but we decide that since this is a short break, we want to spend as much time together as possible.
At dusk, everyone descends on the Rocks Bar, which is perched on a black volcanic rock at the western end of the island and opens for only a few hours in the early evening.
While the kids practise ballet steps and look at bats swooping overhead, my thoughts again turn to the canoodling honeymooners trying to enjoy the sunset.
Still, shortly before 6pm, when dinner is served on the balcony at the kids’ club, the parents and children leave almost immediately and the non-parents have the bar to themselves.
In the evenings, after Bella is asleep, we phone reception to organise a babysitter (for $F11, or $6, an hour) who appears within a few minutes. The ease (and lack of expense) of arranging childcare is a joy if you are more used to booking a sitter two weeks ahead and shelling out $80 for the evening. Our babysitter is, invariably, a shy young Fijian woman, but since we require her to do little more than sit quietly on a chair on our balcony while we head to the restaurant a couple of hundred metres away, that suits us just fine. In previous holidays to Fiji, the food was more often than not a disappointment: unseasonal and unhealthy. At Vomo, however, there is nary a hot chip in sight thanks to South African-born chef Geoffrey Crabbe, whose resume includes New Zealand’s Huka Lodge and Bedarra Island in Queensland. Expect grilled prawns with mango and coriander, or jungle curry with local fish, prawns and squid. The wine list is excellent: a well-considered selection that betrays the bias of the resort’s New Zealand owners.
On our last day, I ask the retired gentleman who shared our helicopter ride over from the mainland how he is enjoying his stay. He confesses he is surprised by the number of children at the resort but says it doesn’t bother him.
As a grandfather, he is used to having children around, and it is a big island so there is always somewhere to escape.
Whether it works for everyone else Vomo is a gift for those of us with children .We speak to several families from Australia and New Zealand who come here every winter – some have been here as many as five times – and ‘‘turtle island’’ has become part of their family folklore.
We certainly hope it becomes part of ours.
Six things to know
1 Room Our oceanfront villa was well set up for children with a large bath, a fridge for snacks and a separate child's sleeping area. For bigger families, adjoining villas are available. Baby cots are included, but it is $F50 ($27) a night for extra beds for older children. A complimentary daily washing service is a godsend.
2 Kids' Club With an airconditioned indoor playroom with ride-on toys, building blocks and dress-up clothes as well as a TV room and outdoor cubby house, there's enough to keep kids of all ages entertained. During school holidays, activities include traditional weaving, painting and crab hunting (no additional charge). Children under four must be accompanied by an adult or a dedicated "baby butler", at a cost of $F11 ($6) an hour.
3 Food Vomo's restaurant offers a children's menu and they are welcome any time. Dinner is served on the balcony at the kids' club and includes spaghetti, prawns and plenty of vegies. The kitchen prepares fresh pureed baby food, high chairs are provided and the staff are happy to heat baby food or milk at any time.
4 Babysitting Babysitting costs $F11 an hour, with an hour's notice required.
5 Activities Tennis, badminton, volleyball, golf, hiking, petanque, snorkelling, kayaking, windsurfing, fishing, paddle-boarding and Hobie Cat sailing (no motorised water equipment) are all included in the tariff.
6 Just for parents Book a picnic on Vomo's sister island, Vomo Lailai. Staff will drop you off at the island, which is a few minutes away, with a hamper, cold drinks and a two-way radio, and pick you up a few hours later.
Air Pacific flies daily to Nadi from Sydney and four times a week from Melbourne. Return fares start from $690 for economy and $1655 for business class. Note: next year, Air Pacific will be rebranded as Fiji Airways. 1800 230 150, airpacific.com.
There are several options for transfers to Vomo, including helicopter, seaplane and boat. Island Hoppers operates the helicopter service; $F630 ($342) return for adults and $F378 for children. helicopters.com.fj.
Rates start from $F1750 and include all meals, non-alcoholic beverages including minibar, arrival bottle of wine and fruit, daily laundry service, non-motorised water sports. vomofiji.com.