Castaway with kids

Sean Condon imagines a holiday sipping cocktails in a poolside hammock. His two-year-old daughter has other ideas.

On a walk along the winding path between lush gardens and blue ocean, we come across one of the island's gardeners, a friendly man named William. "Bula!" he says. My wife, Sally, and I return the greeting; our 2½-year-old daughter, Sylvie, does not.

"Would you like some coconut water?" William asks.

In a flash, he flips his wheelbarrow over, stands on it, belts the trunk of a palm tree with the heel of his machete, catches the green coconut that falls from above, lops the top off with a single swipe of his blade and hands it to us.

"Vinaka," I say to William by way of thanks.

"Say thank you to the nice man," I add by way of condescension towards both my daughter and William. Sylvie says nothing.

It is our second or fifth day on Castaway Island, a small, near-perfect resort a two-hour ferry trip from Port Denarau, just outside Nadi.

Despite the many profound differences between them, it's difficult not to associate Castaway with the deserted South Pacific island on which Tom Hanks (playing the character Chuck Noland) washes ashore in the movie Cast Away. (It was filmed on an equally deserted island named Monuriki, close to Castaway. Indeed, they're so close that the resort offers day trips to Monuriki.)

Probably the biggest difference between my island experience and that of Hanks is that I have a swimming pool, several cocktail bars, three buffet and a la carte menus every day, windsurfers, kayaks, paddle boats, snorkelling gear and classes in Fijian cooking or weaving (all free), along with scuba diving, fishing and jet-skiing trips, all of it accompanied by the ceaseless squeals of happy children - so very many, very happy children. All Hanks had for entertainment and company was Wilson, a half-inflated volleyball. How I envied him.


I jest, of course, but the truth is my experience is turning out less like a holiday in paradise than an extended class in tropical babysitting.

Gone was the mental picture I'd painted of relaxing in a hammock strung between two palms; replaced by the reality of long days in the shallow end of the pool with Sylvie, surrounded by the splashes and wet whining of other junior guests.

Among the dozens of islands that comprise the Yasawa and Mamanuca groups, there are a number that don't admit children under 16.

Castaway Island is not one of them; children are welcome here and well catered for. They enjoy a separate menu at the buffet, there is a kids' club and babysitting is inexpensive and reliable. Of course, these last two features are relevant only if your child does not scream at the sight of a smiling, kindly woman with her arms outstretched in welcome.

This is our first child-centric holiday. We've been overseas with Sylvie before but this is the first time we've chosen a destination with her capricious yet always specific needs carefully considered and placed almost equal to our own.

In deciding on a destination, we took into account such matters as flight time (goodbye, Europe!), extremes of weather and crowds, food hygiene, general health and safety conditions (which ruled out India on pretty much all counts) and an unquantifiable quality we thought of child-friendliness.

And so here we are on the palm-shaded, white-sand beaches of Castaway, surrounded by warm turquoise water and spectacular coral reefs teeming with marine life and a man offering us coconut water straight from the coconut.

I feel anxious.

"Please say 'vinaka'," I implore our usually impeccably mannered daughter as she hides behind a protective wall of parental legs.


It has been this way since we arrived. She has insisted on being picked up whenever a stranger comes in sight; refused to acknowledge the enthusiastic greetings and smiles of the staff; has shown loud and tearful resistance to joining the kids' club. Not that we resent any of this - she's only two - but we're surprised nonetheless. Sally and I try to compensate for her standoffishness by being first and loudest with most of the day's 300 or 400 "Bula!" exchanges. And by spending a lot of time in our bure.

Nestled in a verdant garden of frangipani, palms, red ivy and paw paws, our airconditioned cottage is modelled on a traditional Fijian village hut of reeds and thatch.

It is spacious and welcoming, with a sliding privacy screen between the bedroom and the lounge area in which a pair of couches double as full-sized single beds, allowing plenty of room for families to spread out. There's a small refrigerator, coffee maker and cot for Sylvie. In the stylish, modern bathroom, amenities are plentiful and luxurious. Like Tom Hanks, we have no television.

Although we aren't far from other bures - occupied, for the most part, by families from New Zealand and Australia - it nevertheless feels private. Our bure's vaulted ceilings are decorated with hand-painted tapa cloth, and the use of native hardwoods, woven rattan and cool colourings creates a true island feel.

The weather is magnificent, which means that when Sylvie will allow herself to be torn from the pool we can spend time swimming and paddling in the ocean. The snorkelling is superb. I can't offer an authoritative account of the marine life, but I see schools of fish that look like they've been painted by Keith Haring; fish with long, droopy noses that are probably called elephant fish; that orange stripey one from Finding Nemo; great darting clouds of electric blue, tropical-cliche fish; coral clusters that look like vibrating cauliflower; and no garbage whatsoever - this last being perhaps the most astonishing of all.

It's not long before I become an enthusiastic explorer of the undersea world and one morning I take a guided snorkelling tour to a reef.

As I sit in the glass-bottom boat on the way to the dive site, I see everyone else on the expedition is wearing one of those torso-hugging blue diving jackets I had thought were the exclusive gear of professional scuba divers.

All I have for protection and flotation is pudginess and a T-shirt. Somehow I missed the everybody-grab-a-lifejacket announcement back at the dive shop. Oh well, I think, I'm an adequate swimmer. I can handle it.

Then we enter very deep, very dark blue water and I begin to lose confidence. We are, however, on a sailing vessel and there are plenty of lurid yellow emergency lifejackets on board, the kind designed to keep you extremely vertical in the water so you don't drown trying to stay awake for five days waiting to be rescued while avoiding sharks; jackets with a whistle and flare attached.

I bob in the water for one of the most pleasant, if extremely yellow, hours of my life.

After a week or so, Sylvie has still not returned a single Bula! and she has had literally hundreds of opportunities every day - there is nothing that Fijians seem to enjoy more than greeting people enthusiastically and often. We explain to our otherwise sociable daughter that it is polite to return a greeting; more than that, it's actually fun to blurt out a loud, emphatic "Buulahh!" that will awaken people who like to sleep past dawn.

But she declines. She will not say bula or vinaka and she will not return any of the dazzling smiles offered to her by friendly staff.

The Fijians really do dote on children and their facility for remembering names is extraordinary; a week after the briefest encounter, in a resort full of children of all ages, staff will remember the name of your children and inquire after them with genuine interest: "Is Sylvie still refusing to speak?"

Indeed, after about a week at the resort, one also develops a sort of superfamiliarity with other guests. Castaway comfortably accommodates up to 300 people and there are arrivals and departures every day, but after a week or so I find myself thinking, "Oh, there's Penny the conductor from Auckland, who finished Eat Pray Love by the pool on Thursday sitting on the lounge where Craig was sitting yesterday, of Craig and Alison from Brisbane, who renewed their wedding vows on the deck near the restaurant. Penny likes a mai tai around 11am."

A few days after we return home I put Cast Away in the DVD player and sit my daughter on the couch.

As soon as Hanks arrives on the island, Sylvie turns to me and says, "Is it bula, daddy?"


Getting there

Air Pacific flies to Nadi from Sydney and Melbourne for about $690 low-season return, including tax; see A 150-seat South Sea Cruises catamaran departs Denarau Marina three times a day for the 90-minute journey to Castaway Island. Fares cost from $55 one-way for adults, $25 for children under 16. Children under five ride free. See

Staying there

Castaway Island bures accommodate four people and cost from $445 a night. The optional (but highly recommended) meal plan includes hot and cold breakfast buffet, a la carte lunch and dinner menus, wood-fired pizzas all day and theme-night buffets, costing $65 a day for adults, $30 a day for children 5-12 (kids under five eat free). See

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