A world away – enjoy a blissful tropical getaway in sunny Fiji

One of my favourite parts of any trip is the first drive you take through a new city. Floating through the Nadi traffic after my first international flight in more than two years, I noticed a hundred details: the bright lanes of bougainvillea down the centre of the roads, the complete absence of closed-toe shoes, buildings with slat windows propped open as far as they would go. My first impression of Fiji was of brilliant colour and lush vegetation. Everywhere we went, there were mango, papaya and coconut trees.

I checked into my first resort of the stay – the Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa on Denarau Island. This private luxury resort is a tourist hotspot for good reason: blessed with crystal-clear waters, exceptionally friendly staff and every convenience the tired traveller could need, it’s an oasis. I settled into my comfortable room, changed into my togs and headed right out for a swim in the sea, which was warm as bathwater.

After a quick shower, I was ready for a feed – something the Sofitel caters amply for, with multiple restaurants, including a seafood-forward cocktail bar and an upmarket bar and grill. Drawn in by the vast array of goodies on display, I decided on the spacious buffet, which offers six international cuisines in a convivial space by the pool, and would be an excellent spot to dine with kids. After dinner, I found my way back to my room, along frangipani-scented paths dotted with the cute little ground frogs that emerge after dark.

The next morning, after a refreshing sleep, I went for another dip, drying off in the sun on one of the many day beds dotted along the shoreline. The Sofitel offers everything from a luxury spa and salon to a ballroom and nightclub – but I didn’t have time to try them out, as after a quick jambon beurre at La Parisienne, the on-site French café, I was off to the airport to catch a flight to Labasa, located on the northern island of Fiji, Vanua Levu.

I was collected by a lovely driver named Seru, who took us to Savusavu, 90 minutes away along quiet roads lined with coconut trees, where I would be staying two nights at the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort. During the drive, I was struck by the fact every pedestrian we passed waved and smiled – in fact, the friendliness of every Fijian I met during the trip was unbelievable.

Located on the fringes of Savusavu, a bustling village by the coast, the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort felt rather more ‘authentic’ than the Sofitel and would be a good choice for travellers seeking more of a sense of real Fijian life. Guests are housed in straw-roofed bure, traditional Fijian houses constructed only of natural materials. Cool and airy inside, they feature no air conditioning, only ceiling fans, and guests can rest easy in the knowledge they’re staying in a truly sustainable resort. The luxury eco-resort also supports a wealth of other sustainability activities, including Project Reef Check and partnering with the Sustainable Reefs programme, both reef conservation projects.

After being received with a lavish welcome song that made me blush, I checked in and had a wander around the idyllic beachfront property. Each of the bures backs onto Savusavu Bay and the grounds offer everything from an organic vegetable garden (which provides produce for the restaurant) to a serene lily pond that is not only pretty, but also helps draw mosquitoes away from the guests.

Families with young children are well catered-for, with the complimentary Bula Club offering activities for all ages. Each child under the age of five is assigned a dedicated nanny for the length of their stay, while kids aged 6-12 are led in groups of five by a ‘buddy’. While I’m not yet a parent myself, I could appreciate this as a fantastic set-up, and saw plenty of parents at the resort enjoying a proper holiday.

My first night at Cousteau, I ate dinner with the ever-cheerful Kitty, long-standing operations manager. We both went for the za’atar-dusted walu (a local fish) with fresh zucchini and lemon from the garden, which was delicious.

After a peaceful night’s sleep, I woke with the sun and did a spot of yoga in the rainforest-esque surrounds. After breakfast by the Serenity Pool, I was ferried off to enjoy a 60-minute on-site spa, which was the best I’ve ever enjoyed. I left in a haze of bliss and calm and can’t recommend it enough for those looking to incorporate a wellness experience into their tropical getaway.

It wasn’t time to lean into full relaxation just yet though, because I was soon off on my first-ever snorkelling trip, within the marine protected area around Savusavu. After a quick orientation in the pool, I found myself on board the resort’s glass-bottomed boat along with a host of other guests, ably led by one of the on-site marine biologists, Johnny. We motored out to one of the nearby coral reefs, dove into the pristine waters and treated our eyes to an extraordinary display. You may think you’ve seen tropical fish before, but I can promise those off the coast of Savusavu are another world entirely: I saw tiny, electric blue fish, zebra-striped varieties, shoals of iridescent green flickers and even a couple of octopuses. The trip was also a sobering reminder of the realities of climate change, with some of the reefs visibly bleached, although still supporting plenty of life.

After a delicious lunch back at the resort of seafood noodle stirfry, featuring local scallops, prawns, squid and fish, I went with a group to nearby Nukubalavu village. There, we were warmly welcomed by the local community after presenting a gift of kava root, one of Fiji’s most precious crops. Traditional songs and dance followed, with guests encouraged to take part. After dancing our hearts out in the heat of the day, we indulged in some juice and biscuits, before wandering around the local craft stalls in search of unique souvenirs.

Dinner that night was sensational. Cousteau offers a three-course extravaganza at every meal, but I hadn’t taken advantage until this point – indulging in traditional kokoda (impossibly fresh and fragrant), a vegetarian curry, reflecting the Indian influence on Fijian cuisine, and the traditional vaka soso dessert, which combines plantain and coconut cream and was served with vanilla ice cream and salted caramel sauce. I fell into bed exhausted from the (delightful) exertions of the day and slept right through until the birds started, just before sunrise.

My final activity at Cousteau was a spectacular private island breakfast experience. The effervescent Mika took me out to a small, exceptionally peaceful island just off the coast and left me with a vast chilly bin of goodies – from freshly squeezed orange juice, to a platter of mango and passionfruit, to an array of freshly baked scones and muffins. After a leisurely breakfast, I whizzed back to the mainland and made my way to another resort in the Savusavu area: Koro Sun.

The 160-acre resort was quite a lot bigger than Cousteau, with a landscape dominated just as much by lush rainforest as by sandy splendour. I was met with a quick coconut foot scrub and welcome cocktail, then shown around by one of my favourite people I met on the whole trip – general resort manager Tui, who was impeccably efficient and warm. My room, one of the edgewater bures, had its own hammock, day bed and private ladder to the sea and looked out over a paradisiacal view. During my stay, I watched every sunrise and sunset from my own space.

After a quick lunch at Sand Bar, one of Koro Sun’s three restaurants, I was whisked away to KokoMana, a tiny artisan bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the heart of Savusavu. This was perhaps my favourite experience of the entire trip.

KokoMana plants just two acres of cocoa trees in the midst of the rainforest, along with supporting crops such as cinnamon and vanilla, which are eventually used to flavour their chocolate. Cocoa farmer Joeli took us for a tour of the whole process, from growing the cocoa pods and protecting the fruit from rats, to fermenting and drying the beans, to grinding them with sugar to form a rich, complex chocolate.

As a food processing nerd, the whole tour was heaven for me, but it was heightened by the expert guidance and warm hospitality received, both from Joeli, and from expat Brits Richard Markham and Anne Moorhead, who started the company and are passionate about sustainable agriforestry.

After sampling all the KokoMana chocolate flavours – from pure 70% and 85% dark chocolate, to sea salt, chilli and chai flavours, to a moreish chocolate fudge – we sat talking for another half hour about various sustainability initiatives in Fiji, including a campaign spearheaded by Richard to protect the rare Fijian swallowtail butterfly.

Back at Koro Sun for the evening, I enjoyed a traditional dance show and buffet dinner with reservations manager Mela, sampling both kokoda and traditional Fijian lovo, a pork dish cooked in an earth oven. Wandering back to my room along the starlit water, I felt pretty lucky!

I spent the next morning reading by the pool and wandering the extensive grounds, which feature everything from rainforest walks to a velvety golf course. After a quick pizza lunch by the sea, I joined a group for a trip to a local waterfall, led by peppy activities manager Andrew. We climbed through rainforest along a dusty path before reaching a picturesque waterfall in a shady nook, where we spent a happy hour luxuriating in the cool water, diving from rocks and marvelling over the fish in the shallows.

The day ended with a delicious meal at the Latitude 17 Seafood Restaurant, the most upmarket of the offerings on-site at Koro Sun – I enjoyed a plate of fragrant pad thai with the biggest, most succulent prawns I’d ever tasted.

The next day was spent flying from tiny Savusavu airport back to Nadi, then transferring to the Fiji Orchid hotel. I was lucky during this trip to enjoy each new resort with fresh delight – and my final night at the Fiji Orchid was dreamy. The elegantly appointed rooms are made mostly of glass and situated right amidst the tropical foliage. Cool and airy, with a glassy (but private!) bathroom so you can feel you’re bathing right in nature, the room was a joy to spend time in, and the excellent wifi made it easy to get some work done as well as spend time by the pool.

The trip ended with the best meal of my stay, shared with director Peter, general manager Gordon and guest relations head Deepika at Raymond’s Restaurant on-site. I started with a woozily strong and delicious cocktail made by friendly bartender Jason, before crunching through a pile of tempura veggies and devouring a delectably tender steak. I felt quite sad I didn’t have more time at this last hotel, where seafood is the specialty and produce comes straight from the hotel’s own gardens.

I woke the next morning to Jason dropping by a full continental breakfast. After that, and much too soon, it was time to go. Waiting at Nadi Airport in a gaggle of fellow travellers bound for home, I felt the most relaxed I had in months and nostalgic for Fiji already. I’ll definitely be back soon.

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