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Finding Fiji
Rebecca Lawson travelled to Fiji expecting smiling faces, palm trees and sunny skies – but nothing prepared her for what she actually found..

At Nadi airport, Fiji’s relaxed culture hits me before I’ve even gone through immigration. A cheerful guitar melody sung by a trio of brightly-clad musicians welcomes me with open arms – the band’s genuine warmth washes over the planeload of travellers. You can almost hear everyone relax.

I jump in the transport car headed for Outrigger on the Lagoon and we hit the road. I watch as local oxen randomly recline along the roadside, up to their flaring nostrils in thick verdant foliage, not even blinking at the rickety trucks and cars racing each other along the one-lane highway. Rustic fruit stalls tout their wares along the way, a rich collection of mangoes, papaya and sun-ripened bananas dressing the counters in red, orange and vibrant yellow. Another prominent colour is green. Everywhere I look, a shaggy blanket of emerald trees covers the mountainous backdrop, craggy and sharp.

Local smiles
An easy hour’s drive from Nadi (pronounced Nandi) and I arrive at the resort. The Outrigger brand is renowned for its family-friendly luxury and this property doesn’t disappoint. We’re welcomed by enthusiastic cries of ‘Bula!’ from everyone we see, the car park attendant to the receptionist, but none of it feels forced – twinkling eyes, huge smiles and genuine warmth comes naturally to these people.

I do feel slightly disappointed, however, because as we check in, the skies open up and Fiji show us what a real tropical rainfall looks like. The open grassy spaces around the resort turn into puddles and makeshift streams of tumbling water cascade in unexpected places. I needn’t have worried, though. Groups of laughing children are soon racing leaves along the torrents, encouraged by carefree staff. Others hang over small bridges playing pooh sticks or simply splashing in the puddles – and everywhere are the open, smiling faces of the locals.

It isn’t just the kids who get looked after here, though. Thirty-seven meimei nannies and a fantastic kids’ club allow mum and dad the time they need to enjoy the swim-up bar and adults-only pool. Sounds of laughter and spontaneous singing float in the air, reassuring parents that their kids are having plenty of fun without them. I see more than one child cry when saying goodbye to their nanny.

Culture lessons
But Fiji isn’t just about sun and sand. There is a strong culture here that many Western children could learn a lot from, and Outrigger offers some interesting tours to showcase this. We take a bus tour through some local isolated villages. The people here are very poor – many children have to walk miles to attend school. They often have no shoes and very few houses even have glass in their windows, but every person we pass shouts a friendly ‘Bula!’ and smiles effortlessly spring to their faces. Children race along beside the bus, too busy making mud pies, swimming in streams and climbing trees to worry that they don’t have a big screen TV or PlayStation at home.

Families can enjoy the wonderful Fijian culture while still at the resort, as well. Each evening, shows are performed in the main restaurant, and the locals amaze with spectacular fire walking, energetic dancing and lovo nights. When it is time for guests to leave, groups of staff form to sing to them the very touching Fijian farewell song, ‘Isa Lei’. When it is time for us to hear it, I’m not the only one in our group wiping a tear from my eye. Luckily, we are not leaving Fiji for good, only heading out to another, newly acquired Outrigger property, Castaway Island.

A world apart
As we approach on the ferry, Castaway seems Photoshopped – a dot of fluorescent-white sand caught between deep blue cellophane water and more verdant foliage reclining on the hill above. As we pull up on the beach, I see a young family digging a trench in the sand for the ocean to fill – Mum laughing, Dad digging, kids supervising the construction. It is fitting then, that as we pull up in the boat and the young family plays in the sand, the Castaway staff are singing a Fijian song meaning ‘Welcome Home’. Now this is what a family holiday was meant to be.

As energetic and dynamic as Outrigger on the Lagoon is, Castaway is the opposite – relaxed, barefooted luxury at its very best. Hammocks swing between drooping palm trees, crystal-clear waters lap over powdery sand and bare-footed guests enjoy delicious food served by staff with ready smiles on tables nestled in the sand. There are no clocks on the island, no TVs in the bures, very limited Wi-Fi, but the kids will not get bored. There are endless bays to snorkel in, endless sand to build castles with, endless rock pools to investigate, endless trees to climb.

It breaks my heart when the time comes for the Castaway staff to sing ‘Isa Lei’. All I can think of is when I can bring my children to experience this perfect place, and if they’d let us live here.

REPORT CARD
Getting there: The international airport is in Nadi. Virgin and Fiji Airways fly regularly from all capital cities.
www.virginaustralia.com
www.fijiairways.com

Stay: Outrigger on the Lagoon - www.outrigger.com

Castaway Island - castawayfiji.com

Do: Take a boat trip to Monuriki Island from Castaway – this is where they filmed the 2000 Tom Hanks film, Castaway.

 

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