Fabulous Fiji: Where warm welcomes never cease

When one thinks of Fiji, one imagines beautiful South Pacific islands, resplendent, silky white sand beaches with perfectly swaying palms and colorful underwater life. All this is true. However, Fiji has the added advantage of having perhaps the friendliest, most hospitable people on the planet. One will constantly hear “Bula, bula” — the Fijian equivalent of aloha — and return travelers are met with a heartwarming “Welcome home.”

There are 333 islands, of which just 110 are inhabited with about 900,000 people. After 96 years as a British colony, Fiji achieved independence in 1970. Several coups followed, the last in 2006. Democracy though is making inroads and Fijians are optimistic. Despite Cyclone Winston’s 2016 devastation, Fiji has recovered. And winning seven gold medals in Rio’s 2016 Olympics rendered locals positively giddy.

Known as the soft coral capital of the world, Fiji has more than 1,000 fish species. No small wonder that when Jean-Michel Cousteau first visited in 1989, he was “blown away by the hundreds of islands surrounded by an amazing biodiversity of tropical coral reefs with abundant marine life …” Without doubt, Fiji is an island nation blessed like no other.

Tantalizing Tokoriki Island

Following a nonstop flight from the West Coast I arrived in Nadi, Fiji’s third largest city, on its main Viti Levu Island. Fifteen minutes later, I embarked on a one-hour catamaran transfer to Tokoriki, one of the northern Mamanuca Islands. With only two hotels on the island, the adults-only Tokoriki Island Resort is the stuff of which heavenly dreams are made.

My villa, like all of Tokoriki’s 36 villas and bures — traditionally inspired dwellings — faced the ocean and stunning, neon-hued sunsets. Twenty-four have private pools in addition to the infinity pool near the main restaurant. Separate indoor sitting areas, indoor and outdoor showers, large deck, loungers, and the all-important hammock, make moving difficult.

Tokoriki’s Spa is a Zen-inspired affair with abundant lily pads, water fountains, lush greenery, and talented masseuses who will make you forget your name. There is also a tennis court, a small TRX zone and traditional chapel where Sunday services and small weddings are performed.

Wi-Fi is brilliantly off nightly from six to nine, permitting communion and uninterrupted enjoyment of the chef’s musings, both western and traditional. The Kokoda — raw fish in coconut cream and spicy lime juice — was outstanding, likewise the tender pork cheek. The eight-seat teppanyaki restaurant had me well fed, entertained with hilarious antics and finally, serenaded by Chef Johnny Wax’s angelic voice.

A highlight, besides the remarkable staff, was the snorkeling. As if dropped unannounced into an overcrowded, brightly colored, tropical aquarium, the variety and number of fish and other marine life, including slow moving stingrays and black tip sharks, was brilliant.

A short boat ride across the glorious channel is Monuriki Island, where Tom Hanks’ 2000 drama “Cast Away” was filmed. There are other excursions, including to Yanuya Village, where the Chief is met, and beautiful, broad-smiling children who are delighted to get acquainted sing songs.

Tokoriki is certainly a place to return. Indeed, the day I left, a New Zealand couple arrived for their 50th visit to Tokoriki in 27 years. While uncovering no available statistics, Tokoriki is so romantic I’d bet the farm that nine months following guests’ homecoming a significant population growth uptick occurs. https://tokoriki.com

Sensational Six Senses, Malolo Island

The newest gem in Fiji’s treasure chest is Six Senses on Malolo Island, also within the Mamanuca Archipelago. If traveling with kids, this is parental Nirvana with a dedicated kid’s club, complimentary nanny service, outdoor pizzeria and movie theater.

Located on a shallow, completely flat bay with ideal swimming/wading conditions, there’s a full range of activities — nature walks, crafts, cricket — in addition to myriad water sports to keep everyone busy and happy.

All 24 handsomely appointed enormous bures and nine residences have private pools. The main pool fronts Tovolea Restaurant, where I ate a divine Wagyu burger and komba studded coconut cream parfait.

GEMs (Guest Experience Makers) schedule activities requiring reservations and see to it that guests are happy. My GEM Repeka never seemed to sleep and sported a magnificent smile every time I saw her.

From my chic, oceanfront bure, transcendent sleep was assured with Naturalmat mattresses and electronic blackout curtains. Indoor and outdoor showers, daybed and hammock, made venturing too far challenging, but I played tennis, enjoyed a yoga class and seriously considered exercising in the fitness center.

I opted instead for the spa’s signature Fijian Bobo massage with poultices of herbs picked from their garden. So renewed I strolled to the complimentary ice cream bar. Choosing mango I decided it devoid of calories then took out a Hobie Cat in perfect conditions. It was high time to reconvene with my fish friends.

Incredible turquoise waters front Six Senses on Malolo Island. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Joining Capt. Noah on the 25-foot Seas the Day, we anchored near one of deserted sandbars. Jumping into warm, aquamarine waters, I was again astonished at the throngs of neon-colored fish vying for my rapt attention. As I swam towards a deserted, pristine sandbar, several immense, cobalt starfish lollygagged. One had an arm draped over a rock, like dear friends embracing. Which is how I felt when it was time to leave: enveloped and recharged. http://sixsenses.com/resorts/fiji/destination

Peaceful Savasi Island

An hour flight brought me to Savusavu on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island. Fifteen minutes later I was at the private 54-acre Savasi Island Resort, accessible by a small bridge amid jade-colored foliage.

Savasi has seven large bures, all with private pools and a Robinson Crusoe feel. It’s where you go for tranquility and slumbering to sounds of rhythmically pounding waves. Aboard the 142-foot Serenity yacht currently docked in Savasi’s lagoon, there are also five newly renovated suites.

Dining in the oceanfront restaurant also feels marine-like, as several tables are perched in bow-shaped alcoves. Daily offerings include western, Fijian and Indian dishes. The coconut poached Walu — a tender whitefish — wrapped in banana leaf with onion, ginger, chili marinade and lemon tart dessert were delicious.

Savusavu has some small shops, an open-air market, a few restaurants and marina. Heading north near the Cousteau Eco Resort, my guide Mikey pulled over and we jumped into the water at local snorkeling reserve Split Rock.

Circumnavigating the massive rock several times, the sheer quantity of marine life was astounding. Thousands of grouper, angel fish, butterfly fish, rainbow colored parrot fish, pink sweet lip fish and sergeant majors that nibbled our arms had to be literally stroked away to swim. Seeing sea turtles swaying in slow motion completed the day.

Close to Savasi, emerald hills and puffy clouds frame Urata Point’s breathtaking Pacific view. Nearby, trekking 10 minutes on a dirt path, mist started to appear from the mammoth Vuadomo Waterfall. Surrounded by a large, natural pool, this was nature’s gift — swimming in pristine waters.

Snorkeling Turtle Alley near Savasi, I was accompanied by gliding turtles, more neon-colored fish, and along corals, several white-tip sharks. A couple of mouthy Moray eels later, it was time to bid adieu. http://savasiisland.com http://savasiisland.com

Marvelous Matangi Island

Along aptly named Hibiscus Highway, I drove an hour amid virgin, untouched tropical vegetation with perfect palms hovering over what appeared Eden’s epicenter. At Natuvu Jetty I boarded a speedboat for the 30-minute ride to Taveuni Island, Fiji’s third largest, known as the “Garden Island.”

At the Korean Jetty and I was met by another private speedboat for the 15-minute ride to Matangi.

There’s no shortage of neon-hued sunsets on Matangi. (Julie L. Kessler/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Matangi is a 240-acre, privately owned paradise. With just 12 beautifully appointed bures, including three grand tree houses, it has a magical, ethereal feel. If one dreamt of a favorite aunt with loving cousins who owned an adults-only South Pacific Shangri-La, this would be it.

My tree house was a marriage of elegance and nature containing separate sitting areas, three decks, outdoor shower, large Jacuzzi, and perhaps more importantly, a French coffee press and absurdly delicious shortbread cookies. One flight of stairs through a verdant tree and I faced a silky, white sand beach with a strategically placed hammock to watch those psychedelic sunset extravaganzas.

Matangi’s Spa is over water, so waves lapped while masseuses used hot stones to skillfully lull me into bliss. Great meals are served in the open-air, oceanfront dining room. Standouts were the succulent grilled lobster and banana chai coconut pancakes. Did I mention the brownies?

On Matangi’s west coast is Horseshoe Bay, listed in Patricia Schultz’s 2003 book, “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

Horseshoe’s water appears like a mirage, it’s so turquoise. Following a delightful picnic, I jumped on a paddleboard while shiny-coated mountain goats meandered nearby hills then hopped into a kayak. Unable to leave that water, I grabbed my snorkel gear and entered into another euphoric aquatic state with abundant marine life. I cannot speak for the other 999 places, but on this, Schultz spoke gospel.

For landlubbers there’s daily volleyball, bush hikes, coastal walks and Togo Village tours on neighboring Qamea Island. For nature lovers, a Taveuni Island day tour is an eco-rich delight with abundant flora, fauna, lush greenery and several waterfalls. https://matangiisland.com

With the heart of an island girl but the soul of an urbanist, after ten magnificent Fijian days, it was time to journey onward. Making my way across the Pacific, Hans Christian Andersen’s wise words came to mind:

“To move, to breath, to fly, to float,
To gain all while you give,
To roam the roads of lands remote,
To travel is to live.”

Perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the idyllic South Pacific paradise of Fiji.

Air, the best way: From SFO, award-winning Fiji Airways offers nonstop overnight service to Nadi three times a week spring through fall, otherwise twice weekly. Flights depart in the evenings and arrive early morning. Restricted, round trip fares start at $1,110. Telephone: (800) 227-4446, https://fijiairways.comhttps://fijiairways.com

Travel arrangements: South Seas Adventures specializes in South Pacific travel and can provide tailor made arrangements for Fiji. https://southseasadventures.com

For more information on travel to the Fijian Islands, visit: https://fiji.travel/us

Julie L. Kessler is a travel writer, legal columnist and attorney based in Los Angeles and the author of the award-winning book “Fifty-Fifty: The Clarity of Hindsight.” She can be reached at Julie@VagabondLawyer.com.

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