As I step off a flight at Fiji's international airport, Inise greets me at the end of the air-bridge. We progress through immigration, customs and baggage faster than you can say the country's universal greeting, "Bula" and, after a short walk to the domestic terminal, I board a private plane.
Instead of my name, Inise's reception board could just as easily have said: Welcome to the world of the super-rich. What brings the wealthy and famous here is an hour's flight to the north-east, from where the Piper plane begins its descent, crossing a wide band of fringing coral reef and turquoise waters, to arrive at immensely beautiful Laucala (pronounced Lathala) Island.
It takes 400 staff to maintain this 1400-hectare piece of tropical paradise for a maximum 80 guests.
They play an 18-hole championship golf course, ride horseback along palm-fringed beaches indulge in myriad water activities from surfing to diving and submarine rides, eat outstanding food and watch spectacular sunsets.
Or stay in their bure. Recently, one couple holed up for five days in the one-bedroom Peninsula villa. Its series of bures, one with wraparound infinity pool, are built on a cliff-face with connecting covered walkways. Below, there's a private beach with jetty.
My bure, named Maya or Mango after the large tree at its entrance, is at the other end of the resort. The 2.5-kilometre distance is a delightful jaunt of idyllic ocean views and dense rainforest at the wheel of my on-island transport, a golf buggy. Also labelled Maya, the buggy and I become well-acquainted over the next few days as I zip between the spa, restaurants and bars, dive and cultural centres.
Although I, too, could just as easily have stayed within my villa's confines with its 3000 square metres of landscaped tropical gardens, freeform pool and large, private beach with yoga platform at the ocean edge. Private Pilates and yoga instruction are just a phone call away.
The bures, along with most resort buildings, are thatched in sago palm leaves with stone and hardwood flooring and supported by huge, island-sourced timber beams, bound in the traditional coconut husk weave, magi magi. The living areas, of lounge, bedroom and bathroom lean heavily on indigenous architectural styles with contemporary furniture, artworks and an abundance of Florence Broadhurst fabrics.
There are also outdoor bathroom, dining and sitting areas. The bar, which has tea and espresso coffee facilities, gives one of only a couple of clues to the island owner's identity. Along with champagne, good wines, spirits and Fijian beer, it has a large choice of Red Bull energy drinks.
And the island's two-person, seven-metre semi-submersible, rumoured to cost $2 million, is branded with the drink company's distinctive logo. Red Bull co-owner Dietrich Mateschitz bought Laucala from late publisher Malcolm Forbes' family in 2003. The American tycoon owned the island for 31 years and, despite having multiple homes, planes and yachts, it's said this was his most treasured possession. He is buried here.
Mateschitz's three-bedroom estate, sited at the hilly island's highest point, is listed among the resort's 25 villas. The rest are a combination of one, two and three bedroom bures, situated on the island's northern tip, and occupying about 20 per cent of the landmass. Much of the rest is untouched and not for nothing is one area called Jurassic Park. There are villas set along the beach, accessed through a former palm plantation, while Seagrass bures are also beach-side but situated in more dense, natural vegetation.
Nawi Hill is the location for villas set high with spectacular ocean views, and sunsets, while guests of three-bedroom overwater Villa Wai can jump directly into the clear blue South Pacific.
With children welcome, the resort is popular with families and multi-generation groups and Australians are the second largest visitor group (25 per cent) after the US (40 per cent).
Privacy rates high for some guests and, with its own air and maritime exclusion zones, the island is truly off limits to prying paparazzi. The resort doesn't divulge guests' names unless they do it themselves, such as Elle Macpherson and Oprah Winfrey, and while celebrities often post photos frolicking in the resort's spectacular glass-sided swimming pool, they are less likely to divulge its location.
With more activities than a Florida theme park, the most popular choice may surprise. More than 95 per cent of guests visit its 97-hectare farm in the island's south-east. Here, there are wagyu cattle, pigs, poultry (including special Sulmtaler hens for breakfast eggs), four huge hydroponic greenhouses and paddocks for vegetable and fruit cultivation. These, plus an extensive herb garden, locally caught fish, pure water springs and its own slaughter house, makes Laucala more than 80 per cent self-sufficient in food. Dairy is almost the sole import.
"For a chef, it's simply amazing," says executive chef Jean Luc Amann, who leads a team of 37 chefs servicing fine dining Plantation House and Asian-style Seagrass restaurants, Beach Bar barbecues, Rock Lounge with its breathtaking views and, well, dining just about anywhere from beaches to bures.
The dish requested most often is coconut crab, so named after its food source, and while the island is no longer a copra farm, they process coconuts for their milk, oil and flesh to be used in the kitchen, spa and gardens. Three men work full-time climbing palms and gathering coconuts.
It's the small things that make Laucala really special. The gorgeous orchids found throughout the resort and tended "like my children" by gardener Sabeta who looks after plants in "5617 flower pots", she says.
And the house-made soaps and lotions found in the bathroom and spa.
And the service. It's discreet, flawless and friendly. And absolutely nothing is too much trouble. Arrive at the 18-hole golf course and a pro offers to play with you, the chef is happy to give cooking classes, someone offers to join with you hiking to the island's 26.8-metre highest peak and take a sunset cruise on the kauri-hulled ReRe Ahi yacht only to find your favourite wine and canapes on board.
Despite all this – and much effort – there's one un-met request: A peek at the rare and elusive Orange dove (Ptilinopus victor), endemic to just five Fijian islands, including Laucala. There's a message there: I must return. As if I needed an excuse.
Laucala is among the world's most exclusive resorts. Loved by the wealthy and famous for its privacy, self-sufficiency and homage to Fijian design, the all-inclusive price covers meals; house wines, champagne and spirits; diving; water sports and submarine ride; horse riding; golf, including lessons; laundry and dry cleaning. And much, much more.
Qantas, Fiji Airways, Jetstar and Virgin fly between Australia and Nadi. It's Air Lacaula from there at $US1200 ($1600) a person return. Or take your private jet direct to the island, where the airstrip can operate night and day, at $US10,000 a landing. If customs and immigration are required, that's $US8000 extra.
As they say, if you need to ask, you can't afford it ... For the curious, an island buyout (excluding Hilltop Estate) is $US170,000 a night (minimum five nights) . A one-bedroom villa is $US4800 a night, minimum three nights (seven at Christmas). For a three-bed villa, it's $US8800 a night and Peninsula Point, $US6800. Note: all costs are subject to 25% local government tax.
Sue Bennett was a guest of Laucala Island
SOLVING A THORNY PROBLEM
When crown-of-thorns threatened to engulf Laucala's pristine coral reef, resort management came up with a plan: Enlist the help of the local community and pay 40USc (52c) for each invasive starfish brought ashore. A staggering 180,000 starfish later and the reef is virtually free of the venomous invertebrate.
It didn't take long for corals to re-establish. Snorkelling in the channel between Laucala and neighbouring island Qamea, there is plenty of evidence of new corals growing in an area once under attack. And while the number of captured starfish is huge, large parts of Laucala's colossal reef were untouched. Five minutes from the island wharf, I snorkel on Broken Reef (so named because of an intersecting channel) and it's a wonderland of healthy hard and soft corals, huge discs of Table coral, boulders of brain coral and shoals of tropical fish.
It's like swimming in a David Attenborough documentary but the island is blessed with so much reef, the location doesn't rate a mention on the resort's list of nine inner, and 16 outer, dive sites. For guests not wanting to get their feet wet, there's always the semi-submersible for reef exploration.
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