Fiji's luxury Vatuvara Private Islands
Author: Sophie McComas
Photography: Sharyn Cairns
I'm being defeated in a staring contest by a double-decker coconut cake, thickly iced and sprinkled with golden toasted coconut flakes and frangipani flowers. It sits beside a bottle of Taittinger on ice, my only companions inside a villa that's big enough for 10, but intended for two.
Only three of these enormous villas hug the shrouded shoreline of Kaibu, a remote island in the pristine Lau archipelago in Fiji's far east. Kaibu is one of two islands that comprise Vatuvara Private Islands resort, a hideaway accessible only by its gloriously retro Twin Otter plane, which banks above the sapphire lagoon before touching down on an airstrip at the island's peak.
The owner, like his islands, is very private. In 2007, more than 30 years after launching his sportswear and eyewear company Oakley Inc, Jim Jannard sold it to the eyewear giant Luxottica for $US2.1 billion. His next project, named Red, was more niche but no less successful, producing high-resolution digital cameras for the film industry. One of the brand's earliest champions was New Zealand director Peter Jackson, who shot The Hobbit trilogy on Jannard's cameras, catapulting their value.
Drinks served on the beach at the resort.
So, with no issues regarding cash flow and with a mission to find somewhere to spend a few weeks a year with his toes in the sand and his head in a coconut cocktail, the Californian entrepreneur scoured Fiji. In 2010, he bought a pair of reef-fringed islands in the east: Kaibu, a 324-hectare piece of land on which US fibreglass tycoon Jay Johnson had previously developed a simple, quiet resort, and neighbouring Vatuvara, which is roughly the same size, dotted with coconut groves and dominated by a soaring mountain peak resembling a stone hat.
Jannard's next step was to lure husband-and-wife management team Rob and Lynda Miller, an Australian and American respectively, to build a secluded resort and run it in the months he wasn't enjoying his splendid island isolation. The Millers were managing Wakaya Club and Spa at the time, considered by many (including Gourmet Traveller, which featured it back in January 2006) as the South Pacific's most exclusive island resort. Its reputation was due in no small part to the Millers' careful management since the early '80s. In its heyday, Wakaya was favoured by the likes of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise (even after their split), Russell Crowe, Demi Moore and Spain's Prince Felipe. Apparently Keith Richards toppled out of one of the resort's coconut trees in 2006. That's the extent of the Millers' account - discretion is high among their talents. "We've had to hide the guest book a few times," says Rob when we meet over a salad lunch, plucked mostly from the island's organic kitchen garden.
The resort's signature lunch dish of raw fish marinated in coconut milk.
The Millers are a relaxed couple - he's a hotelier and chef by trade, she has a horticultural degree - and when they arrived, they shared a clear picture of the kind of paradise they wanted to create in this corner of the world. Jannard had his own ideas, of course, but for the most part the Millers were left to realise their vision. "We thought if we can imagine it, we can make it happen," says Lynda.
After 28 years at the larger (though still boutique) Wakaya resort, with its 10 bures and expansive villa, they were keen for a new, smaller project. "We decided it would be fun and new and something we can take charge of ourselves," says Rob. The aim was to attract a similar crowd to a more tranquil and remote island idyll. The Lau archipelago is sparsely populated; the closest resort island is Laucala, owned by Red Bull's Dietrich Mateschitz, 60 kilometres to the north. "Between them and us and a few little ones, that's all there is this side of the mainland," says Rob. "Everything else is off Nadi. When you come here, you're out, way out. Almost in Tonga. It's all untouched."
The view from Delana, one of the resort's three villas.
The couple moved to the uninhabited Kaibu in 2010 with a tent, a generator and a handful of helpers, and began work. "We looked at the island like a big backyard," says Lynda, recalling the early days of the resort's transformation. They trained villagers from a neighbouring island in carpentry, gardening and construction to help them, and employed Fijian architects to polish and modernise the existing resort's classic Fijian style. The beachfront pavilion that houses Jim's Bar & Grill is built with darkly stained pylons of Fijian mahogany. The main bar is a highlight; Rob worked with a local tattoo artist to etch the thick slabs of Vesi hardwood with Fijian-style carvings noticeable only when you run your palm over them. For a contemporary feel based on South Pacific style, Lynda sourced furniture from Italy and soft furnishings from Coco Republic and Tommy Bahama.
Sitting on the crest of the island is Delana which, at 450 square metres, is the largest and most impressive of the three villas. A pair of heavy wooden doors as wide as my outstretched arms swing open and I'm looking down the barrel of an infinity-edge lap pool and beyond to the lagoon. I count 11 lounging positions on sofas and daybeds by the pool's edge, each one upholstered in dove-grey linen, scattered with bright cushions and accessorised with potted succulents, candles and coasters.
Fruit punch and juices.
From the pool terrace, I spot Delana's private cove, where a rack of stand-up paddleboards is flanked by a life-sized chessboard and a cabana with neighbouring twin hammocks.
Inside Delana, the blaze of the sun is muted by the coolness of stone and dark lacquered hardwood. Two desks sit side by side in a study so handsome it's almost presidential. That space flows into a lounging area dominated by slouchy, contemporary Italian furniture, screened by double doors from a supersized custom-made bed looking out to the pool and lagoon through floor-to-ceiling glass. Just a few steps from the bed is a square stone spa bath and massage area, with twin massage tables and a therapist on call. The Vintec is stocked with your favourite wine and spirits requested before arrival.
The island's other villas, Vatu and Saku, sit on either side of Delana but are completely hidden from it. Marginally smaller than the master villa, they have similarly over-the-top features. There are private pools, ocean-facing terraces for yoga or Pilates classes, deep stone tubs, outdoor showers, and unlimited cocktails and snacks. For guests who can't (or won't) switch off, there's high-speed WiFi available everywhere on the island - from every hammock and on every beach.
Lounges with a view at Delana.
Tablets in each villa are loaded with deserted island playlists, and there's a direct line to staff should guests need a pillow fluffed or bottle chilled. If one were to request a bath filled to the brim with single-malt whisky, it's not hard to imagine the only question might be one's preference of barrel age.
It would be a shame, though, to remain indoors when there's scuba diving, surfing and fishing trips, cooking classes and a four-hole golf course. A perfect morning might involve a lagoon ride in Houdini, the island's speedy 11-metre Naiad boat, with a couple of stand-up paddleboards in tow. It wouldn't be an unreasonable or unusual request to be dropped off on one of the powdery banks that rise from the private lagoon for a few hours at low tide, with a bucket of iced Champagne, a walkie-talkie and your lover. Houdini will reappear when summoned.
The dining pavilion's exterior.
Back on land, Lynda guides us through the gardens that she and her team of six have cultivated. Paths arc through a riot of lush green splashed with the rude colours of bougainvillea, hibiscus, and frangipani. The gardens are beautiful, but that's only a fraction of the story. With a degree in horticulture and a goal of self-sufficiency, Lynda has developed an expansive farm and orchard with full organic certification, a standard still uncommon in Fiji. "When we arrived, this area was sort of a natural bog," she says, gesturing to small pools at the lower end of the sloping garden. "We created ponds and redirected the water into them, so we can utilise the land here." Chooks scratch and fuss between tomato vines and rows of lettuce, rocket, endive and zucchini; they lay eggs haphazardly, leaving a treasure hunt for the gardeners. There's a little market garden behind each kitchen, so chefs can dash out and snip mint for drinks or salad leaves for lunch. Ink-blue coconut crabs with muscular pincers scurry along paths in front of us and dart up palms to evade capture (as a protected species, they needn't worry).
The orchard is full of bush lemons, cumquats and Indian and Tahitian limes, which are squeezed and mixed with fresh sugarcane juice and ginger for breakfast drinks. There are dark glossy-leafed macadamia trees and laden breadfruit trees, pawpaws and bananas, delicate vanilla plants and jalapeño plants, bushy rows of shiso and soy beans. Almost everything on the table is grown on the island or sourced nearby. Lynda's herbs and local lobster fill curries at dinner; at lunch, there are sliders with organic beef and lamb from neighbouring Mago Island, which is owned by Mel Gibson. (Oysters from his island are also said to be excellent.)
Fijian wood carvings dominate the Valhalla's look.
There are two spots for dining on the island, not counting your villa. Jim's Bar & Grill is a breezy pavilion on the beachfront with a barbecue on the sand for the day's catch - prawns on lemongrass skewers, say, or lobsters caught in nearby reefs - and also a wood-fired pizza oven. This is the spot for knocking the top off a young coconut and sipping its water, and for leisurely breakfasts - smoked salmon with poached eggs and homemade chilli jam, perhaps, or piping hot doughnuts and local coffee. A traditional Fijian lovo earth oven is fired up for chickens, joints of pork or whole fish to cook underground until tender, smoky and crisp-skinned.
Set back from the beach, up on a crest en route to Delana, is a more formal dining pavilion with bar and lounge, aptly named Valhalla. Games and books are stacked up for rainy afternoons, before evening cocktails and candlelit dinners. The menus mix fresh Californian and Japanese flavours with Fijian staples - labelled by Rob as "Pacific Rim" - though as is the way on this isle of plenty, the kitchen will endeavour to make anything requested. Seafood is abundant; local fishermen routinely come ashore with lobsters, crabs and torpedo-sized yellowfin tuna. We start one evening with Gingeritas and roasted coconut chips dipped in aïoli. Tuna sashimi, lobster curry and grilled opakapaka - a pink deepwater snapper - are followed by banana-caramel soufflé and a nip of whisky from the island's 300-bottle stash.
Delana's master bedroom.
The cocoon of tranquillity and comfort at Vatuvara seem so shatterproof it's hard to imagine that conditions are not always so calm or predictable. The most recent cyclone in February last year was the wildest in Fiji's recorded history: a category-five event named Winston. It and its accompanying tidal surge devastated many islands, killing 44 people and affecting 350,000 more. An estimated 32,000 homes were destroyed, many of them in low-lying villages. The damage at Vatuvara resort was enormous, though less deadly. Rob recalls running to the resort's main pavilion after the roof on his house blew away. "Once the roof goes, the walls go," he says. "It was like a washing machine. [The storm] was about eight hours all up." The gardens were shredded; coconut palms torn clean from the sand.
A year later it's hard to detect damage. Aside from a few slightly balding palms, the scars have disappeared under new growth. "It's funny," says Rob as we sit at the outdoor table at Jim's Bar & Grill, looking out to the garden, "during cyclone season, you just have to go ahead and chop the tops off the banana trees so they don't rip away in the wind. Once the storm has passed, they sprout again as if nothing had happened. Everything goes back to normal."
The view from Vatu.
The team here has done much the same. Lynda has the garden back in shape, and guests enjoy its bounty at every meal. It's hard to spot a Fijian face without a smile here, whether they're wrangling coconut crabs or agreeing that, yes, of course, it would be a good idea to whip up a second coconut cake. It's impossible not to match their smiles with one just as wide.
Fiji Airways flies daily to Nadi from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Flight times range from three and a half hours from Brisbane to five hours from Melbourne. fijiairways.com
The three villas at Vatuvara Private Islands can be hired for exclusive use or by villa, from $6,500 (plus tax) per night. This includes all meals, drinks and most activities. Transfers by private plane from Nadi (which take 90 minutes) are also included. vatuvara.com