In barely eleven hours, we had arrived in Fiji, half way around the world in the South Pacific. So much easier than I had expected.
We were on our way to Turtle Island, a private island featured in the Blue Lagoon, an iconic movie starring Brooke Shields. My wife, Michelle, and I were taking a week long, off-the-grid vacation to enjoy an early celebration of our wedding anniversary. The online photographs we had seen of the island promised an extraordinarily beautiful setting with white sandy beaches, Pacific-fresh cuisine and crystal clear water.
Landing just after dawn, we had a few hours to explore the city before the seaplane would take us to the island. We enjoyed a cappuccino and morning roll at Bulaccino and soaked up the local culture walking through the Nadi Municipal Market where vendors sold fresh produce, fruit and seafood in a covered, football field sized open-air market.
We boarded a DHC-2 De Havilland Beaver at the tiny Turtle Airways terminal. Riding in a seaplane is always a treat. Flying low, you get a close-up view of the water. Sitting behind the pilot’s seat with Michelle next to me, our eyes were turned to the water below as we flew over islands the size of small cars, others only had enough room for a single dwelling, while larger islands had clusters of houses gathered together in sheltered coves.
The De Havilland’s engine pulsed and vibrated. Our headphones protected us from the thundering hum of the seaplane’s single engine. Thirty minutes after leaving Nadi, the pilot banked toward Turtle Island. The water below was so clear, we could make out the sea grass and coral on the sandy bottom. The transition from flying to boating happened in a split second. The pontoons threw up a wake as the pilot throttled back the engine and the vibrations ceased.
That’s when we heard the singing.
A dozen of the staff in brightly colored, traditional Fijian wrap-around sulus were gathered on the shore. The seaplane coasted onto the wet sand. Wearing tops and skirts made from vau tree fibers, two burly men opened the cabin doors. With smiles on their faces, they greeted us with “Bula” (hello) and “welcome home.”
Weeks before we left, we had received a welcoming packet that advised us to wear flip flops and shorts on the trip to the island. That proved to be good advice as I jumped into the warm surf. The two men put their arms around Michelle and carried her to the shore where we were greeted with ice-cold, fresh fruit drinks.
Atu Neisua, the patriarch of the staff, and Rob and Landi Burns, the hosts or general managers, welcomed us to the island. Atu shook our hands and told us we should enjoy the island as if we were coming home.
With our drinks in hand, Rob gave us a tour of the property. Opposite the dock, we walked through the open-air main building where we would eat most of our meals, have cocktail hour in the comfortable lounge area and order drinks at the long wooden bar. A few steps away, Rob showed us the gift shop, a small building with a covered porch where we would find the only wifi on the island. Opposite the gift shop, the spa had a wide deck facing the beach. All the buildings were constructed in the typical Fijian manner, with thatched, peaked roofs.
Each bure has its own concierge. Rob introduced us to Elle, our Bure Mama. Whatever we needed, we were to call Mama Elle. If we wanted to schedule a massage so we could unwind or have an adventure exploring the Sawa-i-lau underwater caves on a nearby island, if we needed fresh towels, our clothes laundered or wanted an afternoon snack, Mama Elle was there to help.
Our bure had a spacious sitting room with couches, a separate sleeping area with a four-poster bed and a hot water spa sunken in the floor. The large shower, open to the room, had two shower heads and the bathroom area had two sinks.
During the day, the floor-to-ceiling, louvered windows facing the gardens and the beach let in light. The bure was cooled by overhead fans. Incorporating Fijian designs, the vaulted thatched roof ceiling was braced with beams made from tree trunks, scraped clean, wrapped with coconut fibers (magi magi) and decorated with images including turtles swimming silently above our bed. Much of the furniture was manufactured on the island. That homemade quality added to the bure’s charm.
The four-poster bed had a firm mattress and was covered with a perfectly white comforter. At night, the canopy of sheers was untied to keep in the cool air from the energy-efficient air conditioning unit above the bed. We loved how the sheers made us feel cocooned and cozy at night.
All of our meals, beverages, laundry service, mini-bar and the activities on the island were included. Horseback riding, snorkeling, scuba diving, paddle boarding, kayaking, Sunfish sail boating, hiking, wind surfing, mountain biking and deep sea and line fishing were available whenever we wanted.
Rob pointed out that we could schedule as many adventure activities as we liked but for many people the most valuable activity on the island was to be untethered, to be able to relax. There were no telephones, emails, text messages or televisions to interrupt the natural rhythms of the day. If we wanted to read a book or take a nap, on the porch there was a queen-sized day bed, cooled by an overhead fan. In front of each bure on the beach, there was a hammock hung between two palm trees, two chaise lounges and two comfortable chairs with a side table on the sand, sheltered from the sun.
On our walk back to the lounge, at the shore line we saw a couple on the beach sitting in their chairs, a silver ice bucket with a bottle of chilled rose wine resting on the side table. With their toes in the warm, clear water and fish swimming nearby, they happily toasted us and themselves on our good fortune to be together in such a beautiful setting.
Comparably priced with other luxury island destinations, Turtle Island is a casual luxury eco-resort. Taking its cues from Fijian culture, the island embraces the friendship of community.
The staff made us feel at home every day. In the morning, walking to the lounge for an espresso, I was greeted by name by Tima, Lela and Sam who served breakfast around the long communal table. When we were fitted for our snorkeling gear, Mosese remembered our sizes and found the flippers, slip-on surf shoes and snorkels we had used before.
Most of the time, Turtle Island is available only for couples. No singles or children are allowed. A great many people we met during our stay were there for a special occasion—having a wedding on the island, enjoying a honeymoon, celebrating a milestone birthday or a wedding anniversary as we were.
And many had stayed on the island before.
For some this was their second or third visit. For others the island was their go-to-retreat from the world. One couple from Laguna, California had visited seven times. They were enjoying a three-week stay this trip. Another couple from Oklahoma City was on a nine-day vacation, their eighth in ten years.
Over the years, many couples wanted to share the island’s special qualities with their children. As a result, three times during the year, the island welcomes families. During that time, local teenagers are employed to be the companions of the guests’ children. Bula Buddies help them plan activities and learn about the island, very much as our Bure Mama helped us during our stay.
The wait staff serves and sings
Before dinner every evening there was a cocktail hour in the open-air lounge. On our first night, we were asked to introduce ourselves. Another couple was leaving the next day, so they were invited to talk about their experiences on the island.
That rhythm was repeated every day. New arrivals said hello. Those about to depart said goodbye. Invariably, those who were leaving talked emotionally about their time on the island. That openness promoted an easy-going camaraderie among the guests.
Our first night also happened to be Fijian culture night with a lovo, similar to a Hawaiian luau. During the day a pit was dug in the sand. Large stones were placed on top of stacked hardwood harvested from the island and the wood was set ablaze. The stones became lava-hot. Triangular shaped baskets were woven from fresh palm fronds. The baskets were filled with a cornucopia of meats, chicken and fish, placed on the stones and buried.
With all the guests gathered, executive chef Beni Nasaumalumu uncovered the smoldering mound. He carefully pulled out the baskets. The food was steamed to a mouth-watering moistness. Fresh vegetables from the organic garden and fruit picked from the island’s trees were served as part of the buffet.
Once guests and staff had filled their plates, we took our seats around the long wooden table facing the beach. Flood lights illuminated the palm trees at the shore line. Candles lined the long dock that stretched into the dark waters of the lagoon. High overhead, starry constellations pinpricked the dark night sky.
After dinner, everyone was invited into the lounge that had been cleared of couches and coffee tables to be replaced by grass mats. We sat in chairs next to the bar.
We heard the rustling of people in the darkness and a choir of joyous voices before the servers and bure mamas marched into the light of the room. Everyone was dressed in colorful shirts and sulus. This was a meke, a performance of songs celebrating arrival, love, war, loss and farewell. Singing led to dancing until we were all invited to join with the staff in a snake dance.
The culmination of the evening was a kava ceremony. The mildly narcotic drink is made from pulverizing the dried roots of the pepper plant (piper methysticum) and soaking them in water. Once strained, kava is served at welcoming ceremonies and important social events. Drinking kava has its customs. Before accepting your kava bowl, clap once, say “bula,” accept the cup and drink, then clap three times as a way of saying thank you. That way you have accepted the bounty of god and you have respected the gift. After two rounds of kava, my lips tingled and I felt light-headed.
Included in the welcome packet was a list of basic Fijian expressions, the most important being bula, a friendly greeting that means “welcome,” “hello,” “health” and “life”. At first you might be self-conscious saying it in response to staff who pass you on the dock, in the restaurant or along the beach. But their greeting is so infectiously good-natured, you will begin to use it as well.
Each day you will pick up another expression. Vinaka means “thank you” and the staff gives you many reasons to thank them for the friendly help they give you each day. As you walk barefoot along the sandy beach allowing your feet to enter the gentle surf, you will exchange a Ni sa yadra, “good morning,” with another guest or with your bure mama when you meet to plan your day’s activities.
Turtle Island’s story
In an age when island resorts are created by large companies and wealthy individuals, the creation of Turtle Island as a luxury eco-resort has a very unique story. The passion project of Richard Evanson, the story of how he ended up on Turtle Island began when he sold his media company in the States. He had proved he was a talented engineer who could make money and run a business. Now he needed purpose.
By sheer chance, he ended up in Nadi. In a bar. In 1972. Having a drink, sitting next to a stranger, one thing led to another and the stranger asked him a question that would change his life. “Do you want to buy an island?”
The next day, they flew to Turtle Island. They didn’t land. They circled the island. Evanson leaned out the window. He saw a 500 acre, uninhabited island with wild goats and beautiful beaches. That’s all he needed. He bought the island.
Six days after the purchase was concluded, Evanson was beginning work with seventeen-year old Joe Neisali, a local Fijian, when cyclone Bebe swept across the island. With no way to escape, Evanson and Neisali tied themselves to a giant banyan or baku tree. All through the night the storm raged. In the eerie quiet next morning, Evanson walked around the island to evaluate the damage. The fierce winds had leveled all but a few trees.
Another person would have called it quits, but Evanson saw that storm as a challenge. Using all his resources and with help from the local authorities, he began a reclamation project to restore the island and create an eco-resort. He employed locals from the nearby villages to cut roads across the island, plant hundr of thousands of seedlings and build bures. He built a large organic garden to supply the kitchen, a solar farm to supplement the resort’s energy ne and a desalination system so the resort would be guaranteed ample drinking water even during droughts.
Today the island is covered with thick foliage, cascading down to the shoreline. As we hiked across the island we could see mahogany, noko-noko, pandana and Christmas trees, bougainvillea, coconut palms and hibiscus trees filled with bright red and yellow flowers. Every guest adds to that conservation. On our second day, Atu gave us a tour of the organic garden where we were invited to plant a papaya tree. The seedling was barely a foot tall, but Atu assured us that in nine months the tree would bear its first fruit. Something to come back for, he told us with a smile.
Solitary pleasures or fun with the group
Leaving our flip flops outside the eating area, we checked out the fresh fruit and pastries at the buffet. I always chose one of pastry chef Kini Leweni’s delicious chocolate croissants or a flaky nut and banana filled morning bun.
As other guests joined the table, we talked about what we had done the day before. One of the great pleasures of the island was the communal atmosphere. We learned about people’s lives, what kind of work they did and where else they had traveled.
Most of the seafood we ate each day was caught in the nearby waters. When guests had luck fishing, we enjoyed their catch-of-the-day. Other times, local fishermen brought their fish to the dock to see what chef Beni needed. One morning, two fisherman arrived with a huge sea turtle but this sea creature was not destined for the kitchen. Part of the island’s conservation program, turtles are bought from fisherman, tagged and released.
Dinner was mostly eaten group style, but if a couple wanted to have dinner by themselves, dine-outs could be arranged in their room, on the end of the dock, the spa deck, on one of the two pontoon decks or on Cliff’s point with its saltwater pool.
Chef Beni was an artist in the kitchen. Drawing on the day’s bounty from the garden and the water, he put together healthy, fresh tasting meals. For variety, he put on a lavish buffet for Mongolian BBQ night. For a candlelight dinner on the beach, he created an elegant dish composed of a thin slice of watermelon topped with crab, cucumber, avocado and papaya. For lunch and dinner he served red and white wines, many from Australia like the Fermoy Estate Chardonnay (Margaret River, 2014) and the Head Red Shiraz (Barossa Valley, 2014) we enjoyed our first night.
After dinner there was often entertainment, with performances by the staff. For Fun Night when we visited, the staff transformed themselves from Fijians into American country and western performers and the full throated beat of country music echoed up and down the beach.
Standing on the end of the dock, I looked through crystal clear water to the sandy bottom twenty feet below. Chuck and Naomi, who were on their eighth visit to the island, were passionate about marine biology. With great joy they told us the names of the sea life we saw under the dock: sea anemone, clown fish, Damsel fish, Sargent Major stripped fish, Trigger fish, the Humuhumunukunukuapua, the state fish of Hawaii, whose name is longer than the fish, heniochus with black and white stripes and a large top comb and Trifasciatus also known as a Melon butterflyfish, with yellow and black stripes from head to tail.
Besides snorkeling off the dock and the beaches in front of the resort, we took a ten minute power boat ride north to the Blue Lagoon Beach on Nanyuasewa Island. Once we had pulled the boat onto the sandy beach, we put on our gear and into the water we went. No need for a wet suit. The water was warm.
The fish were indifferent to us as we flippered past them. Only once did a fish notice me. A black and white stripped Damsel fish, the size of my hand, swum past my face mask and then circled back to look me in the eye. Face to face. Eyes to eyes. The fish stared a moment and then rejoined the pack.
Every other day, guests were entitled to the exclusive use of one of the seven beaches. On our fourth day, we chose to have lunch on one of the beaches used as a location in the Blue Lagoon with Brooke Shields. Bure Mama Elle packed our snorkeling gear and made certain we took along the picnic lunch we had ordered from the kitchen.
After a short bumpy ride in the four-wheel Polaris mule up the hills behind the resort and then down to the ocean side of the island, we arrived at the turn off to Devil’s Beach. Our driver turned the wooden sign at the top of the road indicating that the beach was now “OCCUPIED.”
We could stay as long as we wanted. We had a walkie talkie, so when we were ready to leave, we could call to be picked up.
Before lunch, we explored the beach. The shallow, aquamarine water stretched out half a football field before the water turned dark blue suggesting the ocean floor at that point fell off to a great depth. To the horizon there was clear blue sky with a few puffy clouds in the far distance.
We walked along the beach collecting shells. Then it was time to go swimming. I followed Michelle into the warm water. With my flippers and face mask on, breathing through the snorkel, the water was quiet except for the sound of my own breathing. Looking down, half-drifting with the waves, half-swimming, watching fish pass by, I was hypnotized by the back-and-forth swaying of the sea grass.
Drying off with a cobalt blue towel, the color of the sea, I joined Michelle at the table for two. Underneath the shelter of a palm frond roof, we enjoyed the picnic we had selected: grilled lobster tails, spicy rice noodles with shrimp and vegetables, tossed green salad with lettuce from the organic garden and a plate of fresh fruit, sweet watermelon, tart orange sections, bright yellow papaya picked from one of the many trees in the garden behind the Gift Shop and half-moon slices of pineapple.
After lunch, time for another walk in the surf, enjoying the foam and flip of water against feet and ankles and then lying down wrapped in the cobalt blue towels, falling asleep and dreaming of being on an island on a private beach with wonderful food, no responsibilities, no pressures, no demands, no emails to return, no errands, just time spent relaxing and being happy.
The spa offers a menu of body massages and treatments using South Pacific techniques and ingredients as well as treatments focused on facials, hands and feet. Michelle chose a deep tissue body massage using Pure Fiji’s oils to release the tensions stored in her muscles.
I chose a relaxation massage with massage therapist Rini. Her room had two massage tables because many couples have their massages together. The large space had a high peaked ceiling decorated with Fijian designs and a window facing the water and the boats anchored at the end of the dock.
Rini warmed Pure Fiji noni hydrating body lotion and applied the oil to my arms, legs and back. With her skilled hands and fingers pressing my muscles and pulling on my arms and legs, I was lost in the sensation, happy to have someone so expert in the craft in charge of my well-being.
Gently washing my arms, legs and chest with a wet, warm washcloth, I sensed the end was coming. Sure enough, Rini leaned close to say I did not have to rush. I should take as long as I needed before I got up. I nodded, happy to have her permission to lie there a bit longer. She had given me an excellent massage. I thanked her. “Vinaka.”
At the cocktail reception on our last evening we were asked to share our thoughts about what we enjoyed during our stay on the island. Sharing what we had experienced gave us a lovely closure. We told them how much we enjoyed the beauty of the island and the generosity of the staff. We loved the staff’s singing, the lovely children’s choir from the Vuaki Village on Sunday and their sharing Fijian customs with us.
I enjoyed going clam digging with Mosese and two other guests, Bonnie and John. We shuffled in the mud in waist deep water at Waitui Basecamp across the lagoon on Matacawa Levu Island and brought back a bushel of clams that chef Beni served on the half shell with fresh salsa for the evening appetizer.
We were grateful for the way our anniversary was celebrated, for the flowers on our bed in the shape of a heart, the flower leis we were given, the special mocha-frosted chocolate cake with our names on it and the staff inviting us to join them dancing and singing with the rest of the guests on the beach at the end of dinner.
When you go:
Turtle Island (Nanuya Levu Island), Yasawa Island Group, Fiji, 1-800-255-4347, turtlefiji.com. For availability and prices, call or go online to : http://www.turtlefiji.com/rates-and-special-offers/. Included in the all-inclusive price is car service between Nadi International Airport and the Turtle Airways terminal and the seaplane to and from Turtle Island. All the bure face the beach, but not all bures have the same amenities. When you contact reservations, ask about those differences, which can include an outdoor shower, close proximity to the open-air dining room or in-room spas. If additional days are booked during an island stay, to reward returning guests, a discount can be negotiated.
Fiji Airways has non-stop, direct flights to Nadi from San Francisco and Los Angeles. For flight information and reservations go online to https://www.fijiairways.com or call 1-800-227-4446.