From bula to bonjour

CAROLINE GLADSTONE
Last updated 10:22 05/07/2013
Fiji-landscape

UPSCALE TOURIST ENCLAVE: Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa, Denarau Island, Fiji.

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Croque monsieur and pate maison are not exactly staples on the menus of Fiji, where holidaymakers are more likely to find mango and coral trout, but they herald a new French influence at the Sofitel Fiji.

Jean-Marc Ruzzene, who arrived in April, is the resort's first French executive chef and he wants to bring more of the tastes of Paris - such as the genuine buttered French croissant - to the casual eateries, fusing the French flair for garlic and cream with the local produce grown on the resort's own farm.

The fine-dining V Restaurant will use imported delicacies such as truffles, French vanilla bean and brandy to add extra oomph to its offerings.

Ruzzene says this mix of ingredients and French classical techniques is all about "dispelling those old cliches of bad Fijian dining".

Hailing from south-west France, Ruzzene learnt his skills at renowned three-star Michelin establishment Yves Thuries before working in fine restaurants in France, Germany and London.

He moved to Brisbane nine years ago, where the highlight of his Australian career was a stint at Queensland's Government House cooking for the governor.

In what he is calling a French revolution, Ruzzene says he will fine-tune the menus and experience to present a "new era of world-class dining"- across all the dining outlets - V, the cute and casual La Parisienne cafe, the all-day waterfront Salt restaurant, and the buffet restaurant, Lagoon.

During my stay I dine at three of the four and can give the thumbs up to V's entree of fresh crab and prawn dumplings scented with kaffir lime and my main course, Pacific mahi mahi (a local fish) grilled with a parmesan and caper crust.

And when I pull up a bar stool at Salt on my first night and order two entrees - the wonderful eggplant salad and a grilled calamari - I overhear a couple who have come from the resort next door to buy a takeaway pizza from Salt as they swear it's the best.

Items that will grace the Sofitel's menu include Nadi Bay prawns flamed with French brandy and garlic and dill-seared paka paka snapper (a type of pink snapper) and mango and peach samosa, and Fiji vanilla bean ice-cream and bitter-sweet chocolate.

Ruzzene's arrival comes just months after the resort finished cleaning up after December's devastating Cyclone Evan. Only the lush grounds, the hundreds of coconut trees and the beach were affected by the cyclone.

However, the clean-up has delayed the hotel's planned renovation, which is expected to get under way later this year. It will include upgrades to the majority of the 296 rooms.

I have found the new luxury rooms, a collection of 10 rooms restyled in mid-2012, exude a subtle blend of the funky and the Fijian.

Designed by Sydney-based The Carmody Group, they sit between the top-level suites and the superior rooms and have stitched leather bed heads, fresh furniture including corner sofas, timber and polished Fijian shell writing desks, and colonial-style shutters.

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The Sofitel Fiji is one of seven international resorts at Denarau Island, an upscale tourist enclave that also includes private villas, a marina and port, which was fashioned from a mangrove swamp on the west coast of the main island of Viti Levu.

Those with a bit of cash to splurge tend to stay at Denarau for a few days at the beginning or end of a Fiji holiday.

While some quip that the rarefied air of the enclave, and the nearby port with its Hard Rock Cafe, are "plastic Fiji", there is no doubting that Australians, particularly families and wedding couples, love it.

During my stay, the Sofitel is nigh-on full and from my balcony I watch one of the two weddings that take place that day in the charming little chapel by the sea. Another seven are scheduled to be held over the week.

Many guests spend their entire holiday at the property, venturing out for a bit of shopping or taking tours to zip over rivers and explore caves.

It is a cultural microcosm and a chance to bone up on Fijian folklore and life and pick up a bit of the language and knowledge before venturing out into the "real world".

The hotel has a full range of activities, from weaving, pottery, wood-carving and learning to sing the emotional farewell song Isa Lei, mixed with a dash of afternoon sport and evening entertainment.

Nothing could be more Fijian (apart from kava drinking) than rugby, and that takes place in the afternoon on the beach.

Every evening one of the hunky "warriors" beats the lali (drum) as another runs through the resort lighting torches, often with a posse of children in pursuit, and on selected nights there's fire dancing on the beach and a Fijian feast night when the lovo (food cooked underground) is served and dancing and kava drinking are on the menu.

All this activity winds down on a Sunday at a non-denominational church service at the chapel at the leisurely hour of 11am, when the staff sing heavenly harmonies in English and Fijian.

And for those who want to savour the fresh ingredients served at V, there's a tour of the resort farm every Thursday.

Caroline Gladstone travelled courtesy of Captain Cook Cruises Fiji and Sofitel.

Drag yourself away: great day tours

The Sigatoka River Safari is a hair-raising jet boat ride, with quite a few 360-degree airborne spins. The boat whooshes past mountains and farmland on its way to a village for kava, a meke (concert) and lunch. sigatokariver.com.

The Off Road Cave Safari is a fun half-day aboard an all-terrain vehicle (ATV) that bumps over rough roads through the jungle to Naihehe Cave. Wearing helmet lights, folks visit three dark chambers where unlucky captives were cooked and eaten by Fijian warriors back in the cannibal days. offroadfiji.com.

A cruise on the white-sailed tall ship Ra Marama to Tivua Island in the Mamanuca group. It includes snorkelling and glass-bottom boat rides, lunch, morning and afternoon teas, beer/wine/soft drinks, a kava ceremony and Fijian entertainment. captaincook.com.fj.

Trip notes

Staying there Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa is about 20 minutes south of Nadi Airport. The hotel is set on 10 hectares of beachfront and gardens and has 296 rooms and suites. Rooms from F$449 ($305.6) a night. sofitel.com.

Touring there To explore Denarau Island, hop on the Bula Bus that calls at all the resorts and the port/marina shopping centre for F$8 ($5.4) a day; or do as the locals do and catch the West Bus, between the resort and the port or travel into Nadi Town, for just F$1.50.

More information fiji.travel.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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