A Fiji holiday starts with the flight.
As soon as boarding our Fiji Airways flight to Nadi on a brisk Sydney Winter pre-dawn morning, the tropical mood kicks in. The beaming faces of the Fijian airline crew (Hibiscus in hair), and the announcement from the captain to relax, that we are now on Fiji time. This is a good thing, I come to realise.
A moment later (4.5 hours), we’re in Nadi, greeted with a welcome wave of eternal summer and a white shell lei before being whisked off to catch our fast catamaran (with South Sea Cruises) from Denarau Marina to Castaway Island (1 hour). It feels like we just left home yet here we are in another world: a sea of aqua marine circumnavigating an idyllic island, like a much welcome cliche. “Welcome home”, Jim from Castaway smiles as he helps me off the tender (while someone else whisks my boys onto shore), and I’m so happy I could cry. He also tells us to leave our shoes at the bure door as we won’t be needing them again. He was right.
I spot my deckchair on arrival. The farthest one on the island, beneath an oversized grass domed umbrella in the shade of a cluster of palm trees, right where the gently hushing water meets the speckless shore. Not that I needed to bags one. There are deckchairs aplenty on Castaway Island and just as many lazy hammocks slung between branches, all far enough apart to ensure a private slice of paradise for the taking. This place has a reputation for delivering laid back luxury, which turns out to be well earned.
Even though I have my two young boys with me (aged 5 and 6), I still made good work of that deckchair, because once they discover Castaway’s Kids’ Club, they don’t want to leave. Why would you? Burly Fijian blokes (Big Jo and Brian are favourites) and bouncy, nurturing women sweeping up the posse of kids for sandcastle building, bucket relays, coconut scavenging, crab hunting and kicking a ball on the sand in the late afternoon. It’s not just child minding but educational as kids learn about marine life and Fijian culture with an emphasis on sustainability. “Kids learn why it’s important to look after their environment so when they grow up they can come back and enjoy the island”, explains Castaway’s General Manager, Steven Andrews. His staff know every child by name, even those they’ve never met (word spreads) which I initially put down to good hospitality training before realising that it is, rather, their genuine love of children and, as Andrews, a Fijian local, tells me, “Fijians value family”.
I make a deal with my two: a stint at Kids’ Club then an activity with me. Which is how I came to read an entire book for the first since they were born, and squeeze in a couple of heavenly massages in the indoor / outdoor bures, aptly titled “Lomani” (Fijian for pleasure) and “Demeni”(Fijian for pamper).
WHAT TO DO:
When done with chilling out (is one ever?), the biggest decision to make on Castaway is what to do next. Snorkelling gear is handed out to all guests for a pretty impressive local gawk at tropical fish and electric blue starfish (uncannily like the ones on the Castaway logo), with more impressive snorkelling accessible by boat not far off shore. Kayaks and paddle boards are also free for guests (plenty to go around), with jet skis, small sailboats and inflatables for hire. Pre-booked fishing trips head out at dusk. You can also island hop, with a day trip to nearby Modriki Island where the Tom Hanks movie Castaway was filmed.
One morning we tackle Castaway Summit, a steady uphill climb, well worth it for the stunning vista of the Mamanuca Islands (well, some of them) and all 174 glorious acres of Castaway.
We also spend a good deal of time poolside. Well, I am ‘side’; The kids are in, only extracting themselves for their watermelon smoothie carefully prepped by Kitty Kat behind the bar (who also knows my boys by name; she assures me if we come back again, she’ll still remember). There’s a separate ‘adults only’ pool as well with a swim-up bar and massage bure to ensure relaxation is not disrupted.
It’s hard to believe that just months ago, both pools resembled what Steven Andrews likens to “Jurassic Park” with mountains of sand dumped by the ferocious Cyclone Winston, almost a “direct hit” on the island. Several bures were flattened and others were completely sandblasted by the cyclone, one of the worst to ever hit the region, saving the full force of its might for this western edge of Fiji with with 280-320 km per hour winds, wiping this resort out of operation for almost four months. “It brought tears to my eyes seeing the state of the place”, says Andrews.
The staff (many of whom had stayed behind) were on deck the next morning, work boots on and “with smiles as big as Fiji”, labouring around the clock to be back in business by June. “Buildings can be destroyed but you can never destroy the heart and resilience of the Fijian people”, says Andrews who, in his ten years on Castaway, has pulled through three cyclones. But nothing like this one.
The only shred of evidence of Winston here now is the steady but unobtrusive construction of waterfront bures. Andrews says he was also inundated with offers of help from previous guests, indicative of the loyalty of Castaway patrons: 42% are returning guests. I meet one bloke who’s been coming here for more than 40 years, and knew many of the staff as children.
We stayed in one of the newly renovated Beachfront Bures (27 in total) with a private wooden stairway leading straight into the ocean for a quick dip before breakfast. There are also Island bures (27), Ocean View (12), and larger ‘family bures’ which sleep up to 10.
Much like the Fijians, this place is all about family. There’s not a TV / or wi-fi zone in sight (apart from a hot-spot near reception if you absolutely must, and a DVD player in Kids Club for night movie watching). “We want families to reconnect”, a staff member tells me. “That is our aim”.
Mealtimes are all about connection too. Kids Club is deliberately closed during lunch and dinner to encourage families to eat together. There are several dining options, including a sumptuous buffet at The Waters Edge with an emphasis on traditional Fijian produce (including a delectable Indian buffet) with the requisite child friendly options (spaghetti bolognaise, burgers etc). Inspired by 6 star Executive Chef, Markus Nufer, the menus are enhanced by quality local ingredients reflecting both traditional and contemporary cuisine.
There’s even wood fired pizza tree-height at Sundowner Pizza Bar and Grill, overlooking the ocean. Kick back with a Sundowner Supreme as that sun goes down. It’s a kids-free zone after dark. As is the award winning Restaurant 1808 dining on local organic produce – many classed as super foods for their medicinal compounds – as the water laps at your feet.
My boys were itching to get back to Kids Club as soon as it reopened each evening (6:30pm – 10pm), the kids piling onto the tennis court to play games. Except on the night of the International Crab Race where they join in barracking for competitive crustaceans (Big Ben from England, Bolt from Jamaica and Australia’s own Ned K.) scuttling for chalk line honours, as serious bets are made. I soon realise this is a Fiji tourist tradition, crabs – and frogs – being put to the test in resorts and cruise ships from one end of Fiji to the other. We’re also treated to a night of traditional Fijian dancing, the children taught the ropes.
Castaway marks 50 years as a resort this November. Before that it was the holiday island for the local island Chief who still has a place here. Many of the guests have been coming for almost as long. “It feels like home”, says one. You can see why.
A band of staff in hibiscus shirts make their way to the shore to hug us and strum a Fijian lament as we depart this blissful idyll. Hopefully not for the last time.
WHAT TO KNOW:
Castaway Island is in the archipelago of the Mamanuca islands, just a one hour boat ride west of Nadi on the mainland. A fast catamaran service leaves Denarau Marina three times a day (FJD$115 one way) with South Sea Cruises www.ssc.com.fj
Other options are water taxis and seaplanes.
Kids Club: The Castaway Kids’ Club (for children aged 3+) is open from 9am to 10pm every day with breaks in between to encourage “family time”. And it’s free.
There are numerous bures on the island: 27 Island, 12 Ocean View and 27 Beach bures. Most sleep up to four (one king size bed and two single beds). There are also bures which sleep five and Family beach Bures which sleep up to 10 people (two king beds, six singles and two bathrooms).
What To do:
Or – swimming, snorkelling, canoeing, paddle-boarding, sailing, jet skiing, fishing…
Jacinta Tynan travelled to Fiji courtesy of Fiji Airways and was a guest of Castaway Island. Her trip was arranged with the generous support of Tourism Fiji
This story first appeared on TheCarousel.com