As I enter the Jean Michel Cousteau Fiji Island Resort, the welcoming Bula song ringing in my ears, the clear aquamarine waters of Savusavu Bay shimmers, serene and inviting. A faint breeze wafts on the languid balmy air and the postcard perfect scene is framed by swaying coconut palms. Tears involuntarily spring into my eyes as in turn the staff say; "Welcome home", and a cool drink is placed in my hands.
I walk to the bar where our friend Watsoni, is mixing up a cocktail with his trademark wide grin and easy swagger. He reaches across to give me a fist bump. "Stronger than Winston," Watsoni says in his deep baritone voice, knowing it's the first time I've been back to Fiji since that fateful day back in February. It seems an apt thing to say, I think, as Watsoni reiterates the hashtag and mantra #StrongerThanWinston Fijians adopted following the category five Tropical Cyclone Winston. The force of Winston sure packed a mighty blow but it could not keep Fiji down.
If you're wondering why I'm feeling emotional, I can tell you it's not the sheer beauty of the resort, or the thought of spending the next week here, unfettered by deadlines or any particular place to be. The truth is this place, one of the areas worst hit by the strongest tropical cyclone to make landfall in the southern hemisphere, means the absolute world to me.
It's where I stood, in a tiny thatched bure, waves lapping the shore, and married my husband, to the strains of a heavenly Fijian choir, our unborn daughter a tiny bump beneath my simple white wedding dress. It's where, in the blink of an eye later, our daughter Ella celebrated her second birthday wearing a tiny grass skirt outfit hand sewn by her nanny Joana. It's where we've made lifelong friends, and where my husband and four other Aussie guys came voluntarily to help rebuild the local village flattened by Winston's brutal force. I've shed many tears at this place, both happy and sad; the staff here having become like family.
So today all is how it should be, and in fact, as I take a look around, everything looks better than ever. The five-star eco resort on Fiji's second biggest island Vanua Levu reopened on September 1 after a taxing rebuild involving 100 dump trucks of traditional thatching alone. Staff, most of whom have worked tirelessly to rebuild not only their own homes but the resort too, are thrilled to be back at work – normalcy returning to hundreds of lives following a time of enormous upheaval.
The exhaustive rebuild involved the complete replacement of all timber decking and thatching. New shutters were installed on every bure, all bed and soft furnishings were replaced, and all surfaces repainted. A new beachfront spa has been built, and Wi-Fi plumbed in to all guest rooms – something rarely available at outer island resorts. General manager Bartholomew Simpson said they decided to see the silver lining in Cyclone Winston, and capitalise on what happened; taking the opportunity to refine and improve things.
On a cloudless day we lunch with Bart by the newly refurbished serenity (adults only) pool. It looks like the cyclone never happened. Bart tells us the resort, built on a former coconut plantation, lost 60-100 coconut trees as well as two old rain trees. "But eventually they would have had to be felled anyway. The upside is it's opened the resort up and we now have more expansive views," he said indicating the 180 degree views now clearly visible of Savusavu Bay.
Bart says as there was some doubt whether the resort could come back from such a long closure, they felt like they had to come back with a bang. "And we have. We're 100 per cent occupied," Bart says proudly, pointing out the scores of Australian families enjoying their September school holidays at the resort.
Marked changes are evident in other parts of Fiji too; noticeable on landing at Nadi International Airport where a $FJ105 million upgrade is taking place. There's a four-lane upgrade into Nadi town, and new roadworks leading to the popular resort-rich Denarau Island. Incredibly, Nadi even now boasts traffic lights.
Like Vanua Leva, the Yasawa Islands north of Nadi, also suffered widespread cyclone damage. I head for the farthest flung island in the group early one morning, flying low over jewel-shaped reefs to the Yasawa Island Resort. Beneath us as we come into land are beautiful and empty beaches, lapped by dreamy aquamarine waters. Again, I can't see any cyclone damage to speak of, and later I learn why the villagers think they were spared the worst of Winston's assault.
As we sit around a kava bowl that night at the exclusive 18 bure resort – many guests trying the national drink for the first time – long-time employee Manasa Ragigia explains that Fijians drink kava all the time. "But not at my village," he says confoundingly with no further explanation. The next day while on a private picnic to a beach known as Paradise One on the island's southern side, I dig a little deeper. As our boat driver scales a coconut palm to get me a fresh coconut juice, Miri Digosa, who runs the resort's activities, tries to explain.
Just before Winston struck, Miri says, the village closest to the resort was visited by a pastor who urged them to fast from kava and pray for protection. Miraculously, even though the village and the resort – where most of the staff are employed – was directly in the cyclone's path, at the very last minute it turned, wreaking havoc further down the Yasawa Island chain. Apart from the loss of some vegetation, the resort which has recently completed a refurbishment of all its bathrooms, emerged unscathed. "Since then the chief has said no one from the village can drink kava," Miri says, "to give God thanks for sparing us".
Over on Matangi Island, just off the island of Taveuni (also one of the worst cyclone ravaged areas of Fiji), the resort owners and staff are also grateful they escaped the worst of Winston's wrath. This wasn't the case on nearby Taveuni. Australians, who operate a pearl farm, lost their home and business; while a staggering 80-90 per cent of the houses on the island's southern side were destroyed.
A few weeks after the cyclone, Matangi was welcoming back guests, many of whom return again and again to the adults-only island getaway. "Fortunately Winston didn't cause any structural damage," says Christene Douglas whose family has owned the resort for more than 30 years. Matangi itself, and surrounding villages, received a lot of help from generous donors, including Australian vet Chris Brown's family following the cyclone, Christene says. Surprisingly little known in the Australian market, Matangi has just completed a refurbishment of its oceanview bures by Sunshine Coast photographer cum interior designer Anastasia Kariofyllidis. The chic rooms are now themed, with inspiration drawn from the local surrounds. The interior of Fiji Luxe for example, was inspired by ancient stone axes and tools found in the surrounding Heliconia garden. "In this bure, we used bold traditional Fijian tapa, tapa print fabrics and black and white photos of old Fiji sourced from the Fiji Museum library," Christene says. The oceanview bures' original high bamboo ceilings are now white, while almond trees that fell in the cyclone have been repurposed as timber furniture. Large verandahs featuring charming swing sofas have been added, along with sandstone tiles (mirroring) the beach outside, and fresh, new bathrooms.
Matangi is in the process of completing a giant clam hatchery, which guests will be able to visit. A coral reef restoration project is also underway whereby selected varieties are grown and transplanted to surrounding reefs that have suffered from both cyclone and crown of thorns damage. To further assist reef rehabilitation, Matangi harvests the problematic crown of thorns which are turned into fertiliser.
"Our beautifully manicured grounds and gardens took a hit but the new growth has been phenomenal and the grounds are looking superb," Christene says. I have to agree, I think to myself, taking in Matangi's stunning sweep of palm fringed beach, and the verdant butterfly filled gardens which surround my treehouse accommodation. If you didn't know otherwise, you'd never guess that Winston had made an unwelcome visit here.
It's just on nightfall when I land back in Nadi, having spent two weeks traversing Fiji's islands. I've learned that not only are Fijians remarkably resilient and upbeat considering what they have been through, but post-Winston, the country has never looked more inviting.
As I step into the balmy air, a taxi slowly rolls by. A large Fijian woman with a beaming smile leans out of the window. "Bula," she yells in greeting. Momentarily I'm confused; does she know me? I scan her face, as I hesitantly wave in return. It's in that moment I realise I don't know her at all. She's simply a Fijian making a stranger feel welcome in her country. As I board my flight to Sydney, the afterglow of a sunset lingering on the horizon, this heartwarming gesture reminds me why I love this country so much.
Fiji Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Nadi (see fijiairways.com) with connecting flights to the outer islands. Island Hoppers also services the outer islands using fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter (see www.helicopters.com.fj).
Jean Michel Cousteau Fiji Island Resort. From $ FJ2115 a night for a family of four all-inclusive (except alcohol). See fijiresort.com. Yasawa Island Resort from $1400 a night for two inclusive (except alcohol). See www.yasawa.com. Matangi Island Resort from $FJ1125 in an oceanview bure per night. See www.matangiisland.com.
Doubletree Hilton Fiji from $FJ359. See fiji.doubletree.com. Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa luxury beach club room from $FJ630. See www.sofitel-fiji.com
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of Tourism Fiji and Jean Michel Cousteau Fiji Island Resort.
Five new things post Cyclone Winston
Both the Air New Zealand and Fiji Airways business class lounges are undergoing a major refurbishment as part of the Nadi International Airport upgrade, scheduled to be unveiled in 2017. Economy passengers will be able to purchase an entry ticket to the Fiji Airways lounge.
Vomo Island Resort, hard hit by Cyclone Winston, reopened on September 1 after substantial upgrades and repairs. The island has unveiled two new beachfront homes available for rental, complete with private pool and villa concierge services.
The Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa has celebrated the popular Waitui Beach Club's first birthday. A first for Fiji with its Bali meets the Pacific feel, Waitui offers guests their own accommodation wing, check in, complimentary access to the adults-only beach club and nightly sundowners, a champagne bar, poolside cabanas, gym, morning yoga and restaurant.
Following a multimillion-dollar renovation, Doubletree by Hilton has opened its first Fiji property – offering an affordable option close to Nadi. The four-star resort (formerly Sonaisali Island Resort), features 120 contemporary rooms and bures, one main pool, a kids' club, dining at two outlets, sunset horse rides, jet skiing and more.
Two exclusive new resorts, Kokomo in the Kadavu Island group and Six Senses Fiji on Malolo Island, are set to open in 2017; Kokomo earmarked for a March 31 opening, and Six Senses late 2017.