Laucala Private Island, Fiji
Friends? Over-rated. Friendliness means people want something out of you. And I’m a woman with much to give. Friendly companies? Distinctly suspect.
“The World’s Friendliest Airline”. Sounds rather nice, doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled. Pacific Southwest, the last airline that carried this slogan, managed to kill 187 people, the majority in a crash ironically caused by a disgruntled employee who shot his manager, the two pilots, and then himself. Not that friendly, then. As the smile-adorned nose of the plane ploughed into the Californian countryside, the airline closed. Two decades later and I find myself on the all-new “World’s Friendliest Airline”, an Air Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Nadi, Fiji. I certainly should have been more wary of any airline that gives itself that tarnished mantle.
I thought I was in for a treat, an easy eleven hour flight (made easier by a sedative or seven) in the hands of some of the world’s best flight attendants on my way to an island paradise in an attempt to escape from the little people. But even with the valium and a first class seat, I could tell that the plane that hadn’t been updated since the 80s (I wonder if Air Pacific had bought them from Pacific Southwest?). I could discern the crackled drone of ‘Free Willy’ on repeat, coming from economy. Not good.
I was getting tense and, thus, wanted to ram my bottle of artisanal Fiji Water down the throat of the overweight businessman next to me. On my return, I asked my PA why I hadn’t just booked a private jet to Laucala – she told me that we’d agreed flying with the public “would be fun”. I suspect I was drunk at that point. I’d never think that.
When speaking to others about my impending trip to Fiji, being told to “get off the mainland IMMEDIATELY!” didn’t fill me with confidence. I was also a little nervy, travelling right to the edge of the date line for what some describe as “just like the Maldives”. I mean, if I wanted to go somewhere “just like the Maldives”, I certainly wouldn’t have endured a twelve-hour flight followed by time lost in the Chinese cultural wasteland that is Macau followed by another eleven hours aboard Fiji’s aviational equivalent of Fawlty Towers, in order to get there. I would’ve just gone to the Maldives. Thankfully, I wasn’t just going to Fiji, I was going to Laucala, a private island 45 minute flight to the north east of the main island, Viti Levu.
After a quick connecting flight and some stunning views of some of the archepelago’s 332 islands (only 110 of which are inhabited), I was welcomed to Laucala by a smiling chorus of a Fijian folk song, from a dozen of the resorts 329 staff. I would see numerous members of this private army of pleasure on many occasions throughout the next few days; if only to exchange the greeting ‘bula’, Fijian for hello, whenever we passed. The greeting was accompanied, as was my arrival at every other place on the island, by something which I would come to painfully miss: a shot of freshly squeezed tropical juice accompanied by an ice-cold towel infused with islang-grown floral and herbal scents.
Lush green foliage speckled with orange and pink tropical flowers with the lilt of the cicada and the chirrup of island birds flitting from palm to palm – Laucala’s natural beauty is a thing to behold. The sweeping main bay of the resort is dotted with beachside and palm-nestled villas of wood, stone and traditional thatching , each with its own swimming pool and private section of the toe-caressing white sandy beach. A coconut-fringed hillside commanding the most breathtaking views of the South Pacific backs on to this and the whole place is watched over by the highest points on the island, cliffs dappled by the varied greens of rainforest, where previous owner Malcolm Forbes’ ashes are buried.
He thought it one of the most beautiful spots on the planet. Well, who’s going to argue?
I suspect, with fearful admission, that I may be a total recluse. My idea of paradise really is being as far away from ‘reality’ as I can get. The Bond-like swimming pool carved out of the rock in the Overwater Residence, means you can swim out to the yacht for a spot of deep sea fishing or fantastic diving (reef sharks and turtles, if you’re lucky). The pure isolation of the Peninsular Residence, perched out on its own clifftop with only the odd passing boat and the marine life as your neighbours. The Hilltop Residence, surveying the island and with its own chef, butler and private access roads. All this is nirvana for those wishing to hide away for a while… count me in.
My villa (or bure) was one of the original Plantation Residences and every morning I was faced with the heart-stopping view of my infinity pool falling away to the sea, not 15 metres beyond me. One looks over the edge of the pool, beyond the foliage of the manicured garden, over the private beach (raked every day, natch), over the wooden deck poised perfectly between two palm trees for intimate evening meals, with the waves lapping under your feet and on, to the sea.
The bathroom was perfectly designed for a Fijian beach villa; windows and doors on three sides allow you to open it up to the elements. With pebbles painstakingly placed to line the inside of the shower, the sound of the water running down from the rainstorm shower head mirrored the waves breaking outside. The giant stone bathtub’s harsh edges are softened by the view out of the open shutters of the sea in the distance, the local flora so close, you could stroke the leaves as you bathe. Stepping through the French doors and into the outdoor bathroom brought a gushing of warmth into my stomach and chest which left me stifling a tear at the sheer loveliness of it. Now a second deep, carved stone tub set into the ground, in which, when filled with hot water and Laucala’s trademark bath salts, flower petals floating on the surface and glass of wine in hand, my eye line was perfectly level with the sea and I realised I never wanted to leave.
In what is a very rare turn of events, the human development of the island appears to have enhanced its natural beauty. Originally, a coconut plantation owned by the Forbes family until 2003, the vision of Laucala’s owner and management team is to create an island of up to 85% self-sufficiency. Having developed the 25 individual residences sympathetically to Fijian culture, with eco-friendly materials and structures (even the gnarled yet majestic pillars holding up the library and living rooms were parasites that once lived around the trunks of native trees, now able to thrive without them as a noose) they have also created something akin to a small principality – with 80 staff living there at any one time. A dock, a farm, a hydroponics system for the island’s seasonal and surprisingly wide-ranging produce, a spa kitchen that grows herbs and flowers to make the decadent selection of beauty products, a laundry, generators, gas tanks, water filtration system, all exist within five square miles and all discreetly hidden.
One often gets the sense from luxury hotels that once a certain high standard is reached, the job is simply a matter of maintaining it. Yet what seems genuinely unique about Laucala, is that constant improvements were evident – a new boat-house for canoes was being crafted with traditional techniques (modern building would obviously be quicker, but not appropriate), workers were building the island’s own freight vessel, the management even expressed a desire for an island for a brewery. I had the impression that the island would move and change as experience and the land allowed – that if you were to go back every year you would have a slightly different, but certainly refined experience. But what price perfection?
An “unofficial estimate” suggested that the cost of the re-development of Laucala was in excess of $30 million. Certainly money was never discussed in my presence, but the suggestion (and quite frankly, logical deduction) that this is not a profit-making resort, adds a certain pressure on the operation. If no-one is to profit from this, one has to at least guarantee a certain level of occupancy; otherwise one is, in essence, spending an exorbitant amount of money on nothing. A resort that has no guests is beyond an indulgence. Luckily, I was there. So it TOTALLY made sense. And what does ‘total’ indulgence actually feel like? Well, mere mortals, read on:
Apart from sheer relaxation, I indulged in a Fijian massage and body scrub at the beautiful spa and got active with some great scuba diving and an exhilarating jet ski around the island, but I could also have partaken of 18 holes of golf, tennis (both with the pros on hand for lessons), snorkeling, canoeing, wake boarding, windsurfing, sailing, deep sea fishing, mountain biking, trekking or horse riding. All on one perfect island.
I must admit, I had a Truman Show moment, every now and then, on Laucala. That feeling that the staff on the island knew where I was going, before I got there, was quite uncanny. It might have been the 300+ staff per guest ratio during my stay (four staff per guest if at full 80-person capacity, which they’ve yet to achieve) or the fact that wherever I appeared, they were ready for me, tropical juice shot and ice-cold towel in hand. For those who want to eschew planning on holiday, no appointments for activities are necessary – the most I had to do was phone minutes ahead, just so any necessary preparations could be made. My wonderful concierge, Mary, was also always on hand for any request. If only the staff were this wonderful back home.
The island’s five restaurants offer between them any cuisine you could possibly want, from Thai, to Japanese to French fine dining at the Plantation House or an in-villa barbecue.
I endeavoured, like the trouper that I am, to sample all of them for the benefit of a well-rounded story, you understand. Dinner under the stars with the waves of the Pacific lapping just a couple of metres from the Beach Bar was a chore, as you may imagine.
The dusk was signalled in with the lighting of tiki torches and, with the flames flickering gently around me, I ignored the fact that the whole restaurant was laid out as if expecting a full night of covers, despite being the only guest on the island. The romance of the place, and the attention that you receive, as if you are the only person left in the world, means you quickly stop caring that all eyes are trained on you. I became accustomed to it rather easily. Certainly, my eyes were trained hard on my food, because, being this near to the Equator, the sun’s gone by about 7pm.
If I had one criticism of Laucala, it is that at night time it was really rather dark. Now, I’m not turning into Elton John at the height of his cocaine-frenzied ‘turn the wind down outside my suite’ phase. Simply put, the island wasn’t well-lit. I’m all for authenticity. And I do recognise the loss of genuine night-darkness is a global issue. When travelling in your electric buggy with headlamps alight or relaxing in a restaurant or your villa at night time, vision is guaranteed, but when trying to view what you’re consuming, it is a little frustrating to have to play ‘guess the food stuff’.
Fijian cuisine, when I did find my mouth, appears to be “fusion” food, with influences spicily wafting in from south-east Asia, Polynesia (read that as ‘heavy with the coconut’) India and China. Exotic fruits are, unsurprisingly, a staple, with spices such as ginger, cumin, coriander and chillies all playing their part in the culinary symphony. I sampled amuse-bouche so delectable that, had I not been ferociously drooling at the thought of my hors d’oeuvre, I would have eaten enough to fill me up at least until breakfast. Sushi of pure melt-in-your-mouth fleshy wonderfulness with home -grown wasabi was fiery enough to give a hint to the nose-burn you’d receive if you polished off too much in one go. The Japanese teppanyaki grill was deftly manned by a local, schooled in some ferocious knife skills.
Apparently, one can order ‘off menu’. But when my sculptured and artistic Thai lunch, including purple, flower-shaped fish dumplings of the most exquisite flavour, was presented, I prayed for one long moment that no-one, not even a child, had ever asked for something as embarrassingly unsophisticated as a pizza or a toasted cheese sandwich. Having said that – you could, of course. Just please, please don’t. (The island is far too good for children, in my informed opinion, but then I’m not a fan of the little critters. They’re just walking virus carriers with a sense of entitlement).
One is, on the whole, used to a well-respected restaurant putting the effort into the small details for an haute cuisine dinner, so it was the breakfasts that really impressed. I am particularly partial to a hotel breakfast, but, from now on, all I shall think of when I munch on a buffet of croissant and limp cold meats, is the unending supply of island cheese, home-made hams, smoked fish, delightfully fluffy rolls that made waking up in Laucala an even more exciting business. They even pulled off a Full English with just Laucala produce, all accompanied by a cup of tea, literally egg-timed, so it is brewed to perfection. Spoilt forever.
My favourite places on the island were cocooned in the intimate spaces in the Rock Lounge bar (built into rocks over a cliff with out any excavating machines) and the highest point in the Seagrass Restaurant: up on the cliffside, facing panoramic views of the ocean, with nothing but the varying hues of blue filling your eyes. The few boats that passed were too far away to see me and the peace felt like end of the world. If I were not a lady, I would try and describe to you the blissful minutes I spent spending pennies in the restroom on the cliff, open to this same vista. Definitely my number one number one.
I didn’t for a second believe when Lusso gave me this assignment that, in an article about a luxurious, exclusive island resort, I’d be writing about self-sufficiency and Germanic precision but, I suspect, that creating one of the most sublime destinations on Earth requires nothing less. The knowledge that every minute detail of the island, from the staff’s training, to the menus to the hydroponics, to the less glamourous aspects of the operations, all reflect glory on the husband and wife management team of Laucala, Thomas and Maja Kilgore. The most fabulous thing is, that if you’ve experienced it, you would be one of the very few, incredibly lucky people on the planet to have done so. Which makes me one of them, I suppose. Then we could be friends. Then again…
For more information on Laucala contact Aspirational Travel (01932 220 908 / aspirational-travel.co.uk). For details on Laucala (laucala.com). Ali Silk flew to Fiji via Macau with Cathay Pacific and Air Pacific.