|Bula! Last week we left off just after my dad and I landed in Fiji. This week we continue the journey as we travel to Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu.
The Savusavu airport is basically a small outdoor hut with two offices. One is for Sun Air; the other, for Air Fiji, is across the covered waiting area. A few Fijians sell handmade crafts, making it a convenient place to buy last-minute gifts. The Fijians are not pushy. In fact, they're so nice it's difficult not to buy from them. And the prices are very reasonable.
DRIVE TO HOTEL
We were picked up by the Cousteau Resort (the official name of the hotel is Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort). As soon as we sat down in the air-conditioned van we were handed a cold bottle of Fiji water (Fiji water here is cheap, unlike in the U.S.), and a damp cold towel. The drive to the Cousteau Resort takes about 20 minutes. The first half is on paved roads, including the few blocks through downtown Savusavu. Then the fun begins. On second thought, the long, bumpy dirt road isn't much fun. However, going down this remote path that hugs the water definitely stirs up butterflies of excitement. After all, you know --from reading travel magazines or seeing the resort's website -- that you will soon arrive at a tropical oasis.
The renowned Cousteau Resort is one of the most distinguished vacation destinations in the South Pacific. That's not just hype - all kinds of awards back it up, including Fiji's Leading Resort (World Travel Awards 2005), #4 Pacific Rim Resort (Condé Nast Traveler 2005), #1 Resort in Fiji (Travel + Leisure, 2001), and most importantly #1 for Resorts and Lodges Worldwide (Condé Nast Traveler Green List 2005).
The man behind Cousteau Resort is Mike Freed. One of the hottest hoteliers in the industry, he owns Passport Resorts (with his business partner Peter Heinmann). Besides Cousteau, it includes two other fine properties: Hotel Hana in Maui and the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. All three are not only unbelievably posh retreats, but eco-friendly as well. That says a lot. Jean-Michel Cousteau came up with the idea of taking over the Na Koro resort, and turning it into the sweet, eco-friendly resort Cousteau is today. Jean-Michel does not visit regularly. However, he does oversee the environmental program which employs a full-time marine biologist through Jean-Michel's organization, Ocean Futures.Having a marine biologist on site helps visitors truly appreciate the underwater world. Cousteau is the only resort in Fiji to do this.
JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU FIJI ISLANDS RESORT
I am fortunate to have stayed at the Cousteau Resort a couple of times before, but I couldn't wait to share it with my dad. I knew he was going to fall in love with it -- not only for the breathtaking location and delicious food, but also the incredible staff. That's what really makes this place. Fijians everywhere - especially here -- are so warm and friendly that you can feel their spirit as soon as you arrive. Every guest gets a traditional Fijian welcome/sendoff, no matter if they arrive or depart by seaplane or van. How nice is it to pull up and see excited strangers singing to you? As soon as we stepped out of the van we were handed a delicious non-alcoholic tropical drink, and told not to worry about our bags (they were immediately brought to our room). After filling out some quick paperwork (preferences for activities, any food allergies, and of course which credit card number to pay for everything), it was time to relax. We made it!
Like every guest, we were given a quick familiarization tour of the resort. It is located on 17 acres of a former coconut plantation, overlooking the peaceful waters of Savusavu Bay. There are 25 bures (thatched bungalows) throughout the property, which resembles an authentic traditional Fijian village from 50 years ago. Most bures have one king-size bed, and one day bed. The mattresses, all custom-made and the linens are the same as the Four Seasons hotels. Calling the beds "comfortable" is an understatement. The bures have a South Pacific feel -- except the bathrooms, which are done in Italian tile. The bath products are made by Fiji's own Pure Fiji, a local company that produces an awesome array of eco-friendly soaps, shampoos, lotions and body oil.
We stayed in bures 22 and 4. Both are ocean-front suites. Bure 22 is perfect for honeymooners; it's more secluded than the others, and has a hot tub on the deck. It was good for us because a sliding curtain partitioned the bedroom from the sunken living room. There were two day beds in the living room, and it was where I set up camp. Bure 4 was great too, because it was a short walk from the main building, where the dining area and pool are located. Bure 4 also has two bedrooms and one day bed. BTW: Last year I stayed in one of eight garden-view rooms. They're the resort's lowest room category -- and it was still plush.
Another nice amenity is that guests can have their laundry done cheaply (another reason to pack light). For example, washing a pair of underwear costs only 30 US cents. The only reason they charge at all is so people won't abuse the system by getting everything washed twice a day. Washing, of course, hurts the environment.
The first thing we did was put on our bathing suits. My dad really wanted to go snorkeling, but he didn't feel comfortable jumping in the bath-like water (a perfect 82 degrees) because he hadn't snorkeled in a while. To my surprise the activities guys said, "Don't worry - we'll teach him." The next thing I knew, there were two guys in the pool with him, and a third around on the deck giving him a refresher course. It didn't stop there. When we went on a reef (a 10-minute boat ride away), they were in the water on each side, holding his hands to make sure nothing went wrong. I thought, Are you kidding me? Where else can you get this kind of service? It didn't cost us anything -- and they weren't looking for tips, either. In Fiji you don't tip individuals - only at the end of the stay do guests give money. It goes to a Christmas fund, which is divided up with everyone at the end of the year. To top it off, while snorkeling my dad lost his favorite ring. The Fijians said, "Don't worry, Frank. We'll find it." And they did!
Guests don't even have to get in a boat to snorkel. Down at the end of the long dock are loads of reefs and incredible fish. That was where my dad and I jumped in when he felt comfortable going without his entourage. Fifty yards away is a float. It's a perfect place to take a break, relax, and soak in that it's not a dream. You really are in the middle of the South Pacific.
After rinsing off the salt water at the outdoor shower, we took a few laps in the calm pool. I then tried to relax on one of the colorful orange day beds. I lay there with my legs crossed and thought to myself, This is unreal - I have to tell my brother and sisters. So I grabbed my laptop from my room and logged on the internet. Can you believe they have wireless internet? The only negative was that it wasn't cheap: $42 FJD ($24 USD) for one hour. Ouch! But that's probably a good thing, so people won't spend time working online. When I inquired why it is so expensive I learned that in Fiji, resorts are not charged a one-time fee; instead, they are billed by the minute. The money they recoup from guests does not even cover their costs to the internet company. To use the wireless, you have to be in the bar area (where the router is located). FYI: Fiji uses the same electrical outlets as Australia, so make sure to bring a three-prong slanted plug adapter and a transformer for any electrical equipment. Fiji uses 240 volts; the U.S. operates on 120 volts.
Another huge plus about this resort is that all meals are included -- and the food is divine. Chef Vijendra Kumar uses fresh ingredients, including local seafood and produce from the resort's organic garden. We dined outside under the stars every night except once, when it rained. And after every meal but breakfast we had at least one dessert. That's right -- they were so good, we had to order more than one. The hotel also offered private settings, like dinner at the end of the dock or a picnic on your own private island. The island can be reached by kayak (15 minutes) or motorboat (5 minutes). But since I was with my dad, not you-know-who (Paris), having dinner in the dining room was fine.
Not only is the staff friendly, but the guests are as well. Something about the Fijian spirit evokes friendliness within everyone. Guests never walk by each other without saying "bula!," and many times people stop and chat. Most guests hail from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, with a few from Europe. Some were on honeymoons. Many guests were celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, but some were just water enthusiasts. My dad made friends with everyone (as he always does), and we even some meals ate with other guests. What surprised me most was that some people had kids with them, but I didn't know it until later. That's because Cousteau has an amazing children's program.
KIDS LOVE IT TOO
Seriously, I have never been to a resort that took better care of kids. I didn't realize there were kids on property, except for hearing an occasional meltdown in a bure when walking to my room. First of all, children are discouraged from being around the big pool (called the Serenity Pool). That's okay - it probably would be too boring for them. Their own pool has a slide. Parents loved that kids under 5 get their very own nanny, while those older than 5 are put in a group with no more than two other children. The program runs from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., with one-hour break. Here's the best part: It's free! Of course, kids love it. Every parent I spoke to said their kids didn't want to leave. That's probably because Fijians are such great people. Honeymooners will be pleased that kids rarely eat in the main dining area -- and if they do, it's early, before everyone else. It seemed to me that most guests had breakfast with their child; then the kids had lunch and dinner with each other at the kid center, which everyone preferred.
I can't forget about the bar. This is where most of the guests gather when the sun sets (around 6:30 p.m.) to have a drink with new friends before dinner. At Cousteau all non-alcoholic drinks are free (except fresh-squeezed lemonade, smoothies and milkshakes), including as many bottles of ice-cold Fiji water as you can throw down. Also at the bar are fresh slices of coconut, addictive taro chips, and fresh sushi and sashimi. The latter is only there if a guest goes deep-sea fishing. Here's another little Cousteau detail that makes a big difference: The bar also has a large assortment of insect repellent for guests. One more bar tip: At 3 p.m. the staff puts out fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. No one seemed to know about them except me (of course my nose found them).
Although this resort is known for some of the best diving in the world, it's definitely not just for divers. Not even close. In fact, guests can do as much or as few activities as they like. Every day there is something to do, on land and sea, from early morning yoga to an afternoon catamaran trip to weekly crab races. They offer adventure hikes in the rainforest (we took a short hike one morning to see the gorgeous views), and Sunday trips to the local church. They also provide ecological awareness tours, like exploring the reef with the in-house marine biologist.
Speaking of Church: My dad and I went to a Methodist mass on Sunday (we overslept the Catholic mass). We quickly learned that even church is on "Fiji Time": It started 20 minutes late. However, it was well worth the wait. The experience was fabulous, and the music fantastic. This side trip allowed the six guests -- including me -- from the hotel to interact with locals outside of the resort. In the middle of the service the minister welcomed us, and asked if a man and woman from our group would get up to say a few words about where we're from. I stood, said that Fiji has become a third home to me, and thanked the people for being so kind and welcoming. They all listened quietly, and seemed very appreciative. The service was performed mostly in Fijian, but the minister translated some of it for us to understand. The locals were very patient and nice as they shared with us their personal songbooks and bibles. The highlight came when my dad got up and his sulu (basically a skirt which men and women wear to cover their knees) fell off --- in the middle of the aisle. You should've seen my dad's face - he looked like a deer in headlights, and the whole church started to laugh. I just thanked God he had underwear on.
Another funny moment took place the following morning. The night before, my dad announced he was going to try yoga for the first time. The class started at 7 a.m., but when I went to wake him he was snoring so loudly I didn't have the heart to get him up. So I went by myself. I didn't want to go. This was only my second yoga class ever, but I felt I needed to do some kind of exercise (all I had been doing was eating three huge meals a day). While I was on one foot, trying to stay balanced, I started thinking, It's a good thing my dad didn't show up - I've got great balance, but this is really difficult! And those four other guests look like experts!
Sure enough, while I was doing the downward dog pose I saw my dad walking toward us. I glanced at my watch; there were only 10 minutes left in the class. I tried signaling him not come, but of course he didn't listen. The instructor had a big smile, and quietly set up a mat for him. It turned out the instructor was also one of the resort's masseuses, and had given my dad a massage the night before. To make a long story short, when my dad tried mimicking the instructor's poses he gave everyone a good laugh. I'm still not sure if he kept falling over on purpose or not.
IT'S TOUGH TO SAY GOODBYE
To give you an idea of how special the Cousteau resort is, here's one story. We met a Swiss mother and three children (ages 5 to 16), traveling around the world for a year. The Swiss are known for their punctuality, not for their super-friendliness. The eldest daughter told me that when they checked in to the resort they wanted to be as far away as possible from guests and staff. They only wanted to interact with each other. But the daughter then told me how happy she was they stayed, and didn't go to another resort. She said she learned so much from her short stay. She said the Fijians taught her to be a much more friendly and kind person. She wasn't just telling me a tale, either. I happened to walk by when I heard the gang singing their sad goodbye song. It turned out to be for the Swiss family, who were going on to their next destination. I stood in the back and observed the family (including the mother). It was particular moving that they not only gave each staff member a big hug, but they all had tears in their eyes. In fact, the oldest daughter was bawling. I couldn't help it -- I got choked up myself.
This resort - in fact, the entire country - offers so much more than your typical tropical holiday. It really can be life-changing.
Next week we visit a local village, and check in to a moderately priced adventure resort. We will also have video clips from the 2nd Annual South Pacific Music Festival.