Turtle Island, Fiji: Unforgettable island offers more than just luxury
Never thought I'd be a little out of my comfort zone on a South Sea island so enchanting its palm-fringed shores, tropical forests and sapphire lagoons have featured in Hollywood productions and stars of screen, sport and politics have flocked to its luxurious resort.
It soon passes, this discomfort. I remind myself that, as the eminent British literary editor Diana Athill wrote of Florence: "Its great charm lay in its unlikeness to home – in it being so enchantingly 'elsewhere' ".
Turtle Island, an all-inclusive, indulgent, private island resort in Fiji's Yasawa island chain, is like that.
The fact is I'm overwhelmed by the love of strangers. Not false affection, as it becomes apparent, but the kind of genuine warmth you might feel from family – a desire to please, to make good any hurts, to surround one with happiness.
For a person whose learned response to city-street advances is to brace for a sales pitch, it takes some adjusting to being folded so comprehensively into the arms of the "Turtle family".
Anonymity is not a word that exists in the Turtle Island lexicon. From the moment guests are carried off the seaplane by grass-skirted Fijian "warriors", they are "welcomed home" by Fijian staff singing beautiful songs, who clasp you to their hearts, kiss you repeatedly, bring little drinks and food treats, wanting to entertain and enlighten you, to initiate you into their culture, customs and families, sometimes joining you for meals, taking you around the island to introduce you to its workings.
Good luck trying to walk down the beach without a happy "bula bula, Alison!" or three echoing across the sand, followed by the arrival of a cocktail or an impromptu serenade.
And your exclusive "Bure Mama" is exactly that – the Fijian mama you never had. Her heart's desire is to spoil you with champagne, homemade biscuits soft drinks, platters of fruit, leaving anything from little gifts and notes to aloe vera stalks for sunburn to daily activity plans and freshly washed laundry – thank you, Mama Adi, our very own new mum.
Once the "cityness" has drained away, and shoes permanently shed, time slides easily into serenity. The South Sea breezes blow, the rains flow across the islands, then back out to sea, the trees wave their arms about, coconuts fall (preferably not on my head), the tide climbs and retreats and the days pass benevolently.
No wonder children adore Turtle Island – visiting during dedicated family weeks in April, June-July and December-January this year – and many have returned into adulthood. Five-year-olds and under have their own nanny and from six, a "Bula Buddy" is companion and playmate.
We arrive from Nadi in the Turtle Island-owned Turtle Airways seaplane – 30 interesting minutes as tropical storms sweep the Yasawas. Chief pilot Ontario-born Jamie Vanlenthe puts us down in the famous Blue Lagoon in practically zero visibility. We silently thank his Canadian blizzard experience.
Even in the rain, Turtle Island is exquisite – a powdery crescent of sand frames a traditionally built, low-rise, eco-friendly resort with only 14 huge, well-spaced bures hanging their toes into crystal waters. They're set on the island's sheltered western side in tropical landscaped gardens of hibiscus, bougainvillea, fragrant white ginger, frangipani and strelitzia. Above the bures rise hills thick with mahogany, casuarina, Fiji Christmas trees, rain trees, papaya, coconut and pandanus.
To a bula chorus, Mama Adi and Turtle Island general manager Rob Burns escort us to our grand bure. Rob, or his wife and co-manager Landi, meet and farewell all guests, part of the total staff immersion guests experience.
This includes being invited as guests of honour to the staff meeting on our final day where we are presented with our photo album and asked to address the staff.
The fact that I'm able to name and thank many staff members is testament to relationships formed. There's Adi, and Semi and Phillip who feed us amazing cocktails. Beni – who trained with Turtle Island's food consultant, the much-awarded Jacques Reymond of Melbourne's former Jacques Reymond Restaurant – and Tima indulge us with food. Senior staff Ato and Bill host us. Ere, Ray and others take us for tours and snorkelling. Sali wrangles the horses. Mere charms us with her dancing and singing. Wainese is the friendly island seamstress. Mr Lui explains the incredible solar installation, for the island is 100 per cent energy sufficient with the biggest panel array in the Yasawas. And, apologies, that's just naming a few.
And by this stage, public speaking is second nature, expected the night before at the formal kava ceremony, lovo and meke (dancing and storytelling through song), as well as at pre-dinner cocktails when "the talking stick" may appear. Brush up your Toastmaster skills.
The two-roomed thatch bures, which have been built using island materials of hardwoods and stone in the traditional manner, are undergoing a "soft upgrade".
The brown-painted wood is being stripped to its natural state; the heavy drapes repurposed into screenprinted upholstery and delicate white drapes will lift the interiors. The lightening of the furnishings will enhance the charm of the bures with their coconut-leaf ceilings and traditionally woven bindings telling island stories. There is no television and only Wi-Fi in the gift shop.
Bures have huge, petal-strewn, netted beds, indoor spas, double showers and basins with Pure Fiji coconut lotion and soaps and lemongrass insect repellent body spray, two toilets, a kitchen area, water cooler, sitting area, verandah with daybed, beach hammock and chairs to watch the setting sun make its red path across the water to neighbouring Nanuya Lei Lei or Little Turtle Island.
Nothing is compulsory and if guests choose, they can retreat to their villas for total solitude, but this is what you would miss:
A sunrise canter along Long Beach's white sands on Nemo and Deepak, followed by a beach breakfast of Moet, freshly baked muffins and fruit. Or deep-sea fishing to try and catch your lunch – the tuna weren't running, but barracuda and trevally jumped onto the hook – not mine, I was fast asleep. I ate them later, though. Or scuba diving – one daily tank a guest provided, or stand-up paddling, or sailing.
Or perhaps a champagne beach picnic at one of the 14 private beaches, with names like Honeymoon, Devil's, Shell, Racheli's. Guests are taken there with hampers. The "vacant" sign is turned to "occupied", and we're free to do as we please – snorkel, scoff, drink, snooze in the hammock, or whatever.
Or a private dine-out at one of many locations – perhaps a pontoon in the lagoon with the constellations twinkling and the mullet jumping while you savour a Beni creation. Or dining at Cliff Point with its private swimming pool and 180-degree views, or on the mountaintop, or the jetty.
Or snorkelling the reefs to marvel at the cushions, flutes, curls, prongs and Christmas-tree forests of peach-coloured, pale blue, yellow and purple coral with garish little fish turning sideways to ogle you. And the occasional reef shark, which still give me the willies – possibly the least friendly Fijians we will meet.
Or an excellent, Asian-inspired meal with produce from the huge gardens, cooked on the spot at the cyclone-proof Teppanyaki Grill, or sharing stories at the long dining table with your toes in the sand.
Or planting your own little papaya tree and naming it, in our case, after our first child, Georgia, so that a little part of us will remain on the island.
Or maybe, if you're a masochist, a screening with popcorn of the 1980 version of the movie Blue Lagoon, starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins, that was filmed on Turtle Island and is a fixture for post-dinner Sundays.
Some tuneful snoring joins the lagoon's lapping lullaby after an hour or so of Brooke's wooden acting – she won an award for it.
Or the communal breakfast where hospitality staff go through the "Bula Board", which lists arrivals and departures, your private beach or dine-out options, activities, ending with a reminder that rule number one is "keep smiling," while rule number two is: "Refer to rule number one".
But most of all you would miss the chance to build relationships with lovely people – the guests – often honeymooners or special-occasion couples – who come mainly from the US and Australia, and the handpicked staff, many related to one another or to owner Richard Evanson snr – he has had six wives or partners, five of them Fijian, and has nine children.
Turtle Island is Evanson's creation. An American who grew up with a desire to own a tropical island, he bought the 202-hectare island in 1974. Evanson went about building one of Fiji's first luxury resorts. It has won many awards since it opened in 1980. A son, Richard Evanson jnr, now runs it.
At week's end, staff sing their lovely Fijian farewell, Ise Lei. Mama Adi fastens a hibiscus lei around my neck. Mere gives us a memory stick of photos with a shell tag she has made. Then, the charming Mintesh Prasad, Fiji's first Fijian-born seaplane pilot carries us back to Nadi, entertaining us with tales of movie stars.
We leave with the knowledge that Turtle Island is a place not just for those in search of luxury, or for lost souls whose spirits will be soothed, but for anyone willing to accept its uncomplicated kindness. Once you visit Turtle Island it's doubtful you will forget it.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO
A low-flying, 10-minute scenic flight will take you to dive and snorkel at the limestone Sawa-I-Lau Caves, home of Yasawa islands' deity, Ulutini. The adventurous are guided through an underwater passage between the two caves. Turtle Island will book this two to four-hour excursion. US$300 a person (NZ$435).
During their May to October Yasawa season, you can swim with manta rays at one of the nearby resorts. A Turtle Airways seaplane will deliver you to a manta site. See turtleairways.com/swimming-manta-rays-fiji/
Visit a local village to experience the warmth of Fijian life. Turtle Island can organise a visit as many of the staff live across the channel.
Dive cage-free with sharks at Vertical Blue Diving at nearby Blue Lagoon Resort on Nacula Island. You will need certification. Speak to the Turtle Island dock man.
In Nadi, there is a half-day tour of the Sabeto Mud Baths and Garden of the Sleeping Giant. Experience lush tropical gardens with lily ponds and orchids, then soak in traditional mud baths in the Sabeto Valley. See viator.com/
Many airlines including Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand fly from New Zealand to Fiji, and Turtle Airways connects you to the island.
Turtle Island costs from US$2499 a night, a couple, all-inclusive. See turtlefiji.com
Alison Stewart was a guest of Turtle Island.