27 September 2023

The fabulous pool view at the Tokoriki Island Resort
A fling with Fiji, or a love affair for life?
Sara Wheeler falls for a beach butler and a dream holiday location. What more could a girl want?
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ne perfect day in the South Pacific, towards the end of 1987, award-winning Australian filmmaker Henry Crawford waded on to the shore of the Fijian island of Vatulele with a cane knife in his hand. He didn’t know anything about tourism and not much about Fiji – but he had a dream. He’d made a thousand hours of TV drama and now aimed to create a real-life film on a remote idyll. With business partner Martin Livingston, a fifth-generation European Fijian, he lived in a ship container on the beach for two years as they hacked at the jungle.

They could live, the pair decided, by bringing in their own food and by collecting rainwater. But for the first three months it didn’t rain and they drank Coca-Cola. Fiji is a configuration of 300 islands floating between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn in the south-west Pacific. Its people belong, ethnically, to Melanesia, a region that includes the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. Vatulele, south of the largest Fijian island, Viti Levu, is eight miles long with a 950 population. Before the resort was conceived, people lived largely from copra and the production of tapa cloth, a fabric made from the bark of the paper mulberry tree. It was a precarious existence.

I visited in the company of Crawford, 58, now sole proprietor of Vatulele Island Resort. He turned out to be an affable ruffian and a dangerous companion for a helpless female journalist alone in the South Seas. It takes a certain kind of determination to transform a jungle into a top-end resort. After a coup on the ‘mainland’ held things up, 18 bures or traditional Fijian thatched villas received their first guests in 1990.
Enjoy the view from your room at Tokoriki
‘It’s like making a film,’ he said, as we contemplated the ocean from our loungers. ‘You lie in bed at 3am with an idea. Then you find a location, design and build the sets, and fill them with characters so the whole lot promotes an experience which leaves the audience with a smile on their faces and wanting a little more.’ The Point enjoys 24-hour butler service. Matronly Mela, on the morning shift, has been with the resort since opening day when, as a nymph of 19, she auditioned on the beach with the other villagers.

A mother of four, Mela embodies the legendary Fijian quality of gentle hospitality (the guest before me was Fiji’s Prime Minister and Mela apparently put her arm around him and treated him as lovingly as she does all her guests). No 2 butler was the gorgeous Tukini, who caused a stir, shortly after I arrived, by saying he was on the lookout for an English wife. A daily list of activities is delivered to the villa, including scuba diving, but I’d never felt less active. I became an expert dry snorkeller. This taxing pursuit involves sitting on the edge of the infinity pool and dangling my legs in the water while observing tropical fish below. Vatulele isn’t really about activity, more shutting down from the world in a dream setting.

Somehow, the combination of halcyon surroundings, silence and staff efficiency creates perfect sleep conditions: as a mother of small children I am obsessed with sleep (my own, I mean) but at Vatulele I slept better, and longer, than I have for years. The island is hard to access – you either come on the specially chartered seaplane, from the international airport at Nadi or procure a plane or yacht of your own. This makes it attractive for the famous. Guests, who have included Jim Carrey and Tommy Lee Jones, can take all their meals on the private deck. But the atmosphere fosters sociability and you can join a long communal dining table at the main bure.
Three years ago, Crawford opened The Point, a luxury cliff-top eyrie at the far end of the beach. The spacious two-storey villa has two pools. Inside, Crawford has deployed earthy colours, selected traditional Melanesian and Polynesian textiles, and light, light, light.
The beach paradise of Fiji
"Vatulele isn’t really about activity, more shutting down from the world in a dream setting. "
Everything promotes relaxation and a sense of being indulged. A member of the 105-strong staff snaps a Polaroid of guests as they arrive and these are posted up behind the scenes for staff to memorise. Two hours after arriving, everyone knew my name. The bures have no television or phones and guests are encouraged to discard watches and shoes. On Sundays, breakfast is in bed. And if none of that works, ice buckets with champagne lurk behind every coconut palm.

Crawford talks with missionary zeal about the sense of spirituality that hovers about the island and I know what he
means. The quality of light, a luminosity that glimmers on the ocean and the rustling of palm fronds at night. It’s a long way but if you need a stopping-off point en route to Australia or New Zealand and you want privacy, there is nowhere in the South Pacific to compete with the filmic experience of Vatulele. On my way home I stayed a night at Tokoriki, a 15-minute helicopter ride from Nadi and the northernmost of the Mamanuca chain (the Hollywood blockbuster Castaway, starring Tom Hanks, was filmed on nearby Monuriki). Tokoriki is a low-key resort with 29 discreet beachfront bures and a fablous spa.

Here I bestirred myself sufficiently to scuba dive, and the coral was blooming. Then I lay in a hammock on my own bit of beach and watched the sun set behind nearby islands. Sun, ocean, a waiter stealing soundlessly across the white sand bearing another vat of some treacherously agreeable cocktail - what more could a girl want?

Original article published in Jul 2006. All info and prices correct at time of publication.
"It was from Robben Island on February 11, 1990, that Mandela made his famous long walk to freedom."
The luxurious Vatulele Resort
Relax and enjoy
Take in some of the south pacific culture during your stay
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