Nubby coral islands and cerulean sea spread out below and beyond us as we traveled to Fiji’s Yasawa Islands. I was grateful that our seaplane was traveling low and slow because I needed time to ponder this heart meltingly gorgeous sight. How could I have forgotten how beautiful this place is, the voice in my head wondered.
It had been more than a decade since I’d been a guest at Turtle Island, one of Fiji’s premier places to stay. In the interim, I’d visited more than my fair share of 5-star properties, but intimate, remote “Turtle” remained one of my best travel memories. I remembered why when we landed in front of the resort and two sturdy Fijian men waded out to carry me from the plane to the shore. “Bula, Elizabeth. Bula, Richard. Welcome home.”
Privately owned, 500-acre Turtle Island consists of 14 beachfront bures (Fijian villas), numerous precious cove beaches, an open-air sand floor dining area, well-stocked bar, chic grill restaurant, extensive organic gardens, stables, spa, boutique, and water sports center.
Having said that, what really sets Turtle apart from all other Fiji resorts is the opportunity to experience authentic Fijian culture. The 80-130 staff members — including gardeners, furniture makers, cooks, engineers, bar men, boat men, and folks who work in the spa, boutique and restaurant — all live on the island much as they would in their home village.
Staff members laugh, play pranks on each other, and burst into song at the slightest provocation. They also go to great lengths to make sure that guests enjoy themselves. It doesn’t take long for new arrivals to notice that the Fijian way of life places a high value on kindness and joy.
The staff, together with all current and past guests, are known collectively as the “Turtle family.” Everyone is called by their first name and greeted with a huge smile and a warm bula (welcome, hello). Former guests include Al Gore, John McCain, Kevin Spacey, and Ringo Starr (who signed the guest book as Richard Starkey).
During our visit, two couples were on their honeymoon, another was celebrating an anniversary, one invited everyone to witness their vow renewal in the chapel, another dressed in traditional tapa cloth for a commitment ceremony on a private beach. Many Turtle guests return at frequent intervals.
Upon arrival we were introduced to our bure mama Adi, who walked us to our glorious island home. The spacious villa included a king canopy bed decorated with just-picked red hibiscus, a large hot spa, huge walk-in shower, two sinks, two toilets, separate sitting room, and large wet bar. Outside, Mama Adi showed us our hammock in a private garden of crotons, casurinas, and bougainvillea; our chaises on the beach; and — best of all — the queen day bed on our covered porch.
Richard went to check out snorkel gear, but I — less than perky after the almost 11-hour flight from L.A. — collapsed on the day bed while Mama went to get us some lunch. Soon Gabriel stopped by, introduced himself, and explained that his job was to cut overhanging coconuts before they landed on an unsuspecting passerby. Before long, I was enjoying a coconut juice aperitif.
At Turtle, we snorkeled every day, went for a walk around the island, kayaked, went fishing, enjoyed wonderful four-hand lomilomi massages, and spent countless hours gazing at the beautiful blue lagoon and white sand beaches that surround the island.
What we didn’t do was just as important: no rushing (“Turtle time” is very flexible), no reading bad news (no newspapers), almost no screen time (even though Wi-Fi is available), no answering robo marketing calls, and no enduring the noise of neighborhood leaf blowers. (Mama swept leaves off of the porch with a handmade straw broom.)
Richard and I shared some meals with other guests, but savored several lobster lunches alone on secluded beaches and enjoyed dining at tables for two set by Mama on our beach, on our porch, and at the end of the dock. In each of these magical settings, our dinner music was the sound of breeze rustling through palm trees, fish jumping, and guitars being strummed by our Turtle family elsewhere on the island. While I couldn’t always make out the words they were singing, I knew their song meant “welcome home.” (www.turtlefiji.com) Elizabeth Hansen