Fiji

The Islands Next Door

Craig Tansley discovers the Yasawa Islands while Craig Osment drops in at the Mamanuca’s
luxurious Likuliku Resort. Just a short trip from the ‘mainland’ but a world away.

February 25, 2019
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Rebecca Murphy

Rebecca Murphy

February 25, 2019

The tiny Cessna taking me to the Yasawa Islands lands with a bounce onto a grassy runway that angles downhill to the sea. It’s not even close to flat – though when I leave here, I’ll notice how pilots use the slope for extra speed to get up over the ocean metres beyond the landing strip.

I’m bundled into a 4WD and driven along a muddy track which winds its way past a village and through a tract of coastal forest by the owner of the Yasawa Island Resort & Spa himself, then escorted to a villa built metres from its own white-sand bay.

Before I’ve had time to look around, I’m taken by speedboat past dozens of deserted beaches flanked by black rock cliffs, rolling grass hills and coconut trees; to a beach for lunch which disappears with the tide. Since I flew out from Nadi, I’ve barely seen another person, except the local bloke free-diving for lobsters for lunch. That’s just the way it is in the Yasawas.

Though the Yasawa Islands start just a few kilometres further north from the Mamanuca Islands (which are closest to Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu) being here’s like travelling back in time. Only opened to land-based tourism since 1987, even cruise passengers permitted to travel through these islands weren’t always allowed to set foot on land. And so the Yasawas remain some of the most unaffected of all the Fijian islands. They may be just half an hour away from Nadi by plane, and two hours by ferry from Denarau (depending on where you’re staying – the northern islands of the Yasawas take longer to get to), but locals still live in traditional villages, and there are no shops, banks or cafes (outside of the resorts).

Yasawa Island Resort

I’m staying at the Yasawa Island Resort and Spa, and while it’s five-star and I eat seafood cooked for me at a table on the beach, and am beautified at a day spa whose treatment rooms are barely five metres from the sea – all but a handful of the workers here come from the village five minutes drive away. On Sunday, I join them at a church service there, where they’re dressed in neatly pressed trousers, button-up shirts and ties, their hair Brylcreemed sideways and their voices as rich as opera singers.

Who should come to the Yasawas?

The Yasawa Islands have accommodation to suit every type of traveller. In recent times, no-frills flash-packer and backpacker resorts have been built for more intrepid (and younger) travellers. But there are middle-of-the-road three and four-star options for couples and families. Then there’s the five-star offerings. Despite their relative isolation, the Yasawas have for decades been home to some of Fiji’s finest luxury resorts. The most famous of them all is Turtle Island, the first of Fiji’s luxury private island resorts; the vision of American businessman Richard Evanson over 40 years ago. Today it’s still one of Fiji’s most exclusive resorts, with space for just 14 couples.

There are numerous excursions and adventures for travellers throughout these islands; but the Yasawas are best for travellers who prefer to leave the normal attractions behind. You won’t find the bustling bars of Fiji’s Coral Coast here, or the restaurant scene of Denarau.

One of the many islands you can cruise through with Captain Cook Cruises

There’s plenty to do across the 20 islands of the group; though most activities are based around swimming, diving and snorkelling. Surfing is rarely attempted; though I find empty chest-high waves out in front of the Yasawa Island Resort & Spa which have only been surfed by a handful of surfers. Blue Lagoon, the 1980 film starring a teenage Brooke Shields, was filmed at the Sawa-I-Lau caves in the northern Yasawas. I take a boat here to an entrance of a deep chamber at the top of a limestone formation. I hold my breath and swim beneath the cavern into tiny chambers of blue water lit up by sunlight shining through holes in the limestone ceiling.

Because of its hilly landscape, there are plenty of hikes all over the Yasawas. And there’s kayaking – from quick paddles to multiple-day-and-night tours lauded across the world. The water here teems with sea creatures – visitors can swim with sharks and manta rays. With the rise of backpacker resorts, there’s now night-time options at resort bars – from crab racing to fire dancing and sunset tube cruises; though anyone coming to the Yasawas to party will be disappointed.

The lagoon with the lot

While the Mamanucas are home to islands with modern marinas boasting fancy yacht clubs, bars, restaurants, cafes and grocery stores – and there’s even a floating day bar set just inside the barrier reef – these islands are some of the most pristine in the entire South Pacific. We may well be close to Nadi here (some islands are barely 20 minutes by ferry from Denarau), but this is where Hollywood comes to depict South Seas desolation.

At Likuliku Lagoon Resort in the Mananucas you’ll find the ultimate in understated island luxury and over-water bures which sit directly above a reef. Likuliku is described as ‘Fiji’s unique luxury escape for couples’ (although it’s the sort of place where a single would feel entirely comfortable). Likuliku means ‘calm waters’ and calm is a state which is exuded here in spades. While the jetty greeting is an ebullient round of bulas with musical accompaniment a pervading sense of peace and tranquillity is what this place is all about.

Likuliku Lagoon Resort, Overwater Bungalows

There is plenty on offer for all tastes and levels of aerobic ability but the serenity of the surrounds tempers all activities, not in the spiritual sense that attaches to ‘wellness retreats’ but in a very civilised adult sort of way that comes with thoughtful, personal service and a respect for privacy and personal space. Which is not to say that the staff aren’t wonderfully welcoming and engaged, in fact I don’t think I’ve been anywhere where the people assigned to ensuring that their guests’ expectations are met are more genuinely proud of the levels of service and warmly embracing of their clients. I suspect this authentic concern is a direct result of the employees having ‘skin in the game’ as they say in business circles.

Likuliku employs many of the local villagers who are direct recipients of the land charges on the resort’s leasehold land as well as a percentage of all sales and an education fund, so in turn have a sense of ownership and a sincere interest in seeing that every holiday is a memorable success for both sides.

The typical Melanesian affability is boosted by a remarkable facility to remember every guest’s name and greet you with a personal “bula” every time they encounter you whether walking through the grounds or in the restaurant or at sunset cocktails or on one of the many boat trips you’d be advised to take if you really want a sense of Pacific place.

Likuliku has perfected both ends of the phrase ‘hospitality industry’ in that they have managed the perfect fusion of the congenial and the commercial. This is one slick and professional operation but without the conceit of anything even slightly fraudulent about the sincerity of the bonhomie. Everyone here seems to be enjoying themselves from the guy raking the leaves to the worldly, amusing and urbane Steve Anstey, the group general manager of Ahura Resorts which is the company which operates the property.

Some of this pride in service and delight in the place must come down to the very real awareness expressed by the operators about the natural environment which they inhabit. It’s more than just a nod to fashionable concern about eco-systems and growing huggable trees, here they’ll take you on a medicine walk where your guide will point out a dozen local arboreal species with traditional medicinal qualities all growing within the grounds, there’s a virtual pharmacy outside the door to your bure which the locals have made use of for centuries.

This consideration of the environment extends to every aspect of what they do (they even take the resort laundry offshore so as not to pollute the local area) and out of a desire to preserve the very things that attract those of us who pay to play here. The surrounding waters and reef are part of a marine reserve and it is forbidden to remove any part of it, fishing and coral collection within this area is not allowed. In addition there is a turtle breeding ground, a mangrove preservation area and a dry forest regeneration program underway as well as a world-renowned attempt to revive the future of what was thought to be an extinct iguana via the Fijian Crested Iguana Program which is run in conjunction with both Sydney’s Taronga Zoo and the San Diego Zoo. There’s even a seven-point list of dos and don’t when snorkelling included in the comprehensive guest compendium designed to help you protect the reef while you’re enjoying a float over the spectacular sea life and marvellous colourful corals.

Poolside at Likuliku

Apart from the ten overwater bures there is a selection of spacious beachfront bures the deluxe versions of which feature personal plunge pools. All have extensive decks, lavish bathrooms and outdoor covered lounging spaces as well as direct access to the golden sand beach lapped by pale green clear water. They also include a walled outdoor shower area at the rear and plenty of air-conditioned and fan-cooled indoor living space as well as desks and free WiFi connection. In another nice touch each room includes a his ‘n’ hers Pure Fiji amenities pack of sumptuous, uniquely packaged skin and hair care products plus a signature sarong or pareo.

My personal measure of the calibre of my accommodation is the quality of the bathrooms and the breakfasts. Likuliku measures up on both fronts with huge, beautifully appointed bathrooms and fabulous combination buffet and à la carte breakfast choices served in the resort’s only dining area, the Fijiana Restaurant. This is a vast, traditionally designed indoor/outdoor space adjacent to the foyer, which is in the style of a Fijian canoe house, it catches both views and breezes. Fresh, clean and creative, Executive Chef Shane Watson showcases Likuliku’s cuisine with the finest local and international produce with an emphasis on local seafood, lush tropical fruits, premium product and the diversity of cultures that shape the South Pacific.

One of the must-do things from among the many excursions on offer is a picnic lunch on nearby Honeymoon Island, a deserted dot of palm fringed beach inhabited by six goats and whoever you take along for lunch. Watson prepares a very upmarket hamper with a wide choice of menu options from which we chose the antipasto selection and a good rosé.

Also on offer and not to be missed is the three-hour morning Island Hopping boat trip which takes you around some of the more interesting islands in the Mamanuca group, from Monuriki, the one made famous by being the location for the Tom Hanks’ movie Castaway, to Mana and Matamanoa to others with discreet boutique resorts, deserted beaches and snorkelling and diving spots, and there are coffee, croissants and muffins to keep you going until you return for breakfast.

On top of the various boat trips, there’s Hobie sailing, paddle boarding, snorkelling straight from the balcony of your overwater bure, scuba diving, water skiing, wake boarding, windsurfing, fishing (outside the preservation area), walks and tours to the local village; where we, and our offering, were warmly welcomed at the Sunday church service which is worth the short boat ride for the singing alone. There’s also the Tatadra Spa offering a full menu of pampering massages and treatments as well as a gym for those who like to do it indoors.

Masima Island and Bar at dusk, Likuliku Lagoon Resort

Then there’s the indomitable and serene Tulia Seru, the resort manager, she’s the perfect dinner companion and good for a pre-dinner sunset cocktail at the Masima Bar (on its own small island accessed by footbridge) while watching the torch lighting ceremony. She’ll fill you in on her Fijian culture and history over a coco mojito while her ever-vigilant eye ensures that everything is running smoothly and to perfection.

The perfect total immersion, exclusive adults only, five star island experience.

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