Isobel King discovers a first-class Fiji where other guests are scarce, food is epicurean and you might even score a beach to yourself.
Strapped into the creamy leather interiors of our seven-seater private plane, bound for an island in Fiji's far north, the absence of other passengers was curious. Clearly, no other guests were headed to Laucala Island that day, the private island resort of Red Bull magnate Dietrich Mateschitz. Two days later, still in a daze from the sheer opulence of this $300-million venture, my naivety seemed laughable. When you're shelling out a minimum of $5000 a night in a resort where privacy is paramount and guest sightings are a novelty, you want a plane all to yourself.
It was a window into the other side of Fiji - the one where kids won't eat free, because chances are they're not allowed. And you won't be jostling for a spot at crowded bars and restaurants, because guest numbers are kept delectably low. More often than not, you can wangle an entire beach to yourself.
This is deluxe Fiji, and while few resorts measure up to the heady decadence or price tag of Laucala, most offer the jaw-dropping beauty and world-class fare that destinations such as the Maldives or Tahiti are more famous for.
For those wanting a luxury escape just four hours' flight from Sydney, here are five very different island resorts where top-notch food from pedigree chefs is a given, with freshly caught seafood a staple. Service is five-star and any hitches rectified at lightning speed. And at night, there's generally some kind of entertainment, more often than not from the resort staff.
The strapping young Fijian who took you snorkelling earlier might well don a grass skirt that evening, front row in a boisterous traditional performance. Fijians seem universally gifted with angelic voices from an early age, so you'll definitely hear an a capella choir or two during your stay.
As part of Air Pacific's rebranding as Fiji Airways a new fleet of comfy A330 airbuses has been introduced, and the old B747s will be phased out by year's end so the relatively short flight from Australia promises to be a breeze.
ROYAL DAVUI RESORT
This tiny, adults-only island resort south of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu has just 16 villas, all located around the fringes of the island, with elevated views straight out to a blindingly turquoise sea. Its total seclusion means there are no distracting lights from neighbouring island resorts at night, and the only sound is the gentle wash of waves against shore. You can walk around the entire island in about 10 minutes, massaging the toes on sandy white beaches - or take the overland route around the central path that leads to each of the villas, admiring the sculpted tropical gardens as you go. The thatched villas all have their own plunge pool, separate lounge room and expansive decks, so if you're settling in for the week, - as most couples do - it feels like your own secluded beach house.
Not surprisingly, the resort's largest market is young, loved-up honeymooners. Meal times are probably your only chance to check out the other couples, as everyone is coaxed from their villas to gather around the magnificent old banyan tree that is the centrepiece of the open-air dining area. As with most resorts at this level, you can choose your level of interaction - dine alongside other couples and enjoy some easy banter; take a romantic table for two in a tucked-away spot; or dine in-villa. There's a list of daily activities for a change of scenery, or set your body clock to Fiji time and sneak on the kilos.
Don't miss Some of the best snorkelling is in the shallow waters straight off the jetty, where you'll instantly see brilliantly coloured coral and tropical fish. The shark dive is apparently hugely popular.
Rates From $800 per villa a night (based on seven-night stay), all meals and non-motorised sports included. See royaldavui.com.
LIKULIKU LAGOON RESORT
Only recently reopened after extensive damage from last December's Cyclone Evan, Likuliku is most famous as Fiji's only resort with overwater bures. There's 10 of them stretched along a boardwalk that hovers enticingly above the edge of the reef, so you simply toddle down the ladder from your deck for a quick snorkel. Otherwise, just watch the darting fish and gentle lagoon currents through panes of glass on the floor of the lounge room and in the bathroom. The overwater bures really are quite magical, but you won't feel too short-changed if you have to settle for one of the beachside bures. There are 35 in total. Gleaming from their post-cyclone refurb they are spacious and airy, with lustrous timber throughout, indoor/outdoor bathrooms and day beds; the deluxe bures have plunge pools. Talking of pools, this resort has a spectacular infinity swimming pool bordering the lagoon. Make sure you try the signature crabmeat omelet at breakfast and hang around long enough for their weekly curry night. Yum!
The resort has a wonderfully carefree, informal ambience that filters through every encounter with the Fijian staff: you can hear their laughter a mile off. The spa was originally constructed as a house for one of the management staff, so it's extra large and right on the lagoon. There's lots to do at this couples-only resort and it's all on your doorstep, as Likuliku is part of the busy Mamanuca Islands group, about an hour by fast catamaran from Nadi. You could hibernate, but half the fun is joshing with staff and experiencing the splendour of the reef.
Don't miss It's not on their official activities schedule, but you can probably persuade the ever-obliging crew to take you on the 25-minute speedboat ride out to Namotu. Emerge from still lagoon waters into a wall of tubular, surging waves and a sea of bobbing craft, waiting to try their luck on this world-famous surf break. It's an amazing sight.
Rates From $932 per villa a night, all meals and non-motorised sports included. See likulikulagoon.com.
TADRAI ISLAND RESORT
Just a short speedboat ride from Likuliku in the Mamanuca Group is relative newcomer, Tadrai, an all-inclusive resort on Mana Island. It's adults-only, with just five beachfront villas, so the feeling is very boutique. You have your own private butler to cater to your every whim, and given there was only one other couple staying on my two nights, there was little competition for attention.
Tom, my Fijian butler, cracked the welcome Moet, later provided a hot shell massage on my private deck; and made the best coffee I had in Fiji at brekky. The menu is fixed (dietary and wine preferences catered for), but flexible enough they can send their small fishing boat out to haul in a reef fish for lunch. The central dining area and bar looks over a glorious horizon pool to the ocean beyond: it's all very intimate.
Almost half of the 100-square- metre villas are given over to an open-air bathroom, which spills out to a private plunge pool with the beach immediately beyond. It's tailor-made for romance but the lack of privacy is a problem, as staff use the beach to come and go and, of course, there are the other guests - something to keep in mind if you're the coy type.
There is some fantastic snorkelling in the Mamanucas; be sure to go out to the nearby sandbar and explore the reef. I saw turtles and every kind of tropical fish imaginable.
Don't miss The 10-minute walk over the hill to the village on the other side of the island, especially if you combine it with a cold beer at the busy beachside Mana Island Resort.
Rates $1700 per villa a night, including all meals, drinks, and most activities. See tadrai.com.
TURTLE ISLAND RESORT
Further north in the Yasawa Islands, the long-established Turtle Island Resort has a unique concept. It's couples only - except for a few set times a year when kids are allowed - and in a tradition that's endured since the resort first opened in 1980, everyone gathers at meal times around one long table on the beach. Newcomers formally introduce themselves with a few words and then settle in as the wine and conversation flow freely. Of course it's not obligatory to dine communally, but sooner or later everyone gravitates to the big table. As general manager Alex Weiss astutely points out, the fact no one feels pressured to outdo each with impressive shouts (alcohol is included) keeps the atmosphere relaxed. Al Gore recently visited and apparently fitted right in. We had a lovo one night - food slow-cooked underground - followed by what can only be described as a kava party that kicked on until the wee hours, with staff and guests sitting cross-legged in a free-wheeling "sip and singalong" ceremony during which no less than four guitars beating out the tunes.
Most guests arrive and leave by seaplane from Nadi (about a 45-minute flight), so there's always a buzz of activity on the waterfront. Alex personally takes guests out deep sea fishing on his prized new boat.
There are just 14 beachfront bures, all huge, completely private, and with their own indoor spa pool, outdoor day bed and personal "bure mama". Step out onto a powdery beach, raked to perfection. It's a resort entrenched in local culture. The original owner, Richard Evanson, still lives on the island, his modest house bordering the staff quarters, and the son of his Fijian business partner is a mainstay of the resort: big, friendly, fun-loving Arthur, who is guest relations manager and a mean guitar player, clearly loved by the staff.
Don't miss The 200-hectare island has no less than 14 private beaches you can claim for the day. Order all the food and wine you please and luxuriate in pristine solitude. Hammock, raked beach and picnic table provided. Just dial in on the CB radio when you're ready to be rescued.
Rates From $2600 per villa a night (minimum six-night stay). All food and drinks, and many resort activities included. turtlefiji.com.
LAUCALA ISLAND RESORT
Now for the resort whose mere mention drew revered gasps from Fijians I spoke to. If the others were impressive, what was so special? Well, let's start with a few facts and figures. Opened in 2009, it cost $300 million to build, has a staggering 360 staff and just 25 villas (one-, two- and three-bedroom). Work out that staff to guest ratio and feel special. The villas are luxurious and enormous beyond belief, with sprawling, multilevel interiors (by Britain's Lynne Hunt) opening on all sides to luscious gardens and a pool the size of your average resort's. I immediately recognised a shagpile rug by Australia's Designer Rugs. They cost about $5000 each and were literally doormats. Baths and sinks are carved out of granite. The custom-made lights are like twinkling artworks in themselves. Everywhere the eye looks, it's no-expense-spared gorgeousness. The super-luxe Peninsula villa, literally built into a cliff top, and the Overwater villa are in another class. The price is all-inclusive - and that includes your own Vintec double fridge stocked with grog. Two carafes of cognac are kept topped up. You can splurge Australia's annual minimum wage, $31,500, on a week at Laucala and that kind of money keeps the numbers low and the clientele highbrow. If exclusivity is what you're after, this is the pinnacle. We saw only two other couples in our brief stay, which meant we mostly had the five restaurants and bars on the island to ourselves.
Virtually self-sufficient, the 1400-hectare island has its own vegetable gardens, cattle, abattoirs ... they even press their only coconuts for the coconut oil for the spa. And let's not forget the 18-hole championship golf course. You travel around this big Jurassic Park of an island in your own electric buggy, up winding gravel roads to a cliff-top bar with views that literally take your breath away. It all felt strangely like the set of a James Bond movie and we were just waiting for the cast to turn up and someone to call "action". In a word: surreal.
Don't miss The food, spearheaded by the executive chef personally hand-picked by Dietrich Mateschitz from his Red Bull Hangar 7 restaurant in Salzburg: Martin Klein. Be sure to rotate around the restaurants, from the Asian-infused Seagrass to the more casual fare at the beach and pool bars and the formal, colonial-style Plantation Restaurant, where we enjoyed a seven-course degustation dinner matched with wines.
Rates From $US5040 ($5550) per villa a night, inclusive of all meals and drinks, and many activities. Kids welcome. See laucala.com.
The writer travelled courtesy of Fiji Tourism and Fiji Airways, and was a guest of the resorts.
Fiji Airways (previously Air Pacific) has a fare to Nadi for about $600 return from Melbourne including taxes and $500 from Sydney. Fly non-stop from Sydney (4hr 55min) or Melbourne (5hr 55min). Phone 1800 230 150; see fijiairways.com.
Transfers to the resorts are additional to resort rates, as there is generally a choice of transfer options from Nadi. See the respective resorts' websites for details.
FIVE FIJIAN RESORTS UNDER $450 A NIGHT
OUTRIGGER ON THE LAGOON
On the Coral Coast, southern Viti Levu (the main island). Costs from $282 a night, room only. Phone +679 650 0044; see outrigger.com.
The Astrolabe Hideaway eco-resort on Kadavu Island. Costs from $389 a night, all-inclusive. See matava.com.
THE UPRISING BEACH RESORT
A 3½-star adventure resort in Pacific Harbour. Costs from $148 a night, B&B (beachfront bure). Phone +679 345 2200, See uprisingbeachresort.com.
Newly refurbished five-star on Denarau Island, 20 minutes from the airport. Costs from $278 a night. Phone 1800 333 333; see radissonblu.com.
MATAMANOA ISLAND RESORT
In the Mamanuca Islands, 1½ hours by boat from Denarau Marina. Costs from $270 a night, B&B (garden room) or $438 a night (beachfront bure). Phone +679 672 3620; see matamanoa.com.