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No shirt, no shoes, no cares

Laid-back Fiji offers lodging for all budgets, with a new focus on luxe offerings.

May 18, 2008|Amanda Jones | Special to The Times

NADI, FIJI — Fiji is one of those island daydreams you can't believe still exists.

The ocean is warm, turquoise, clean, and little in it stings or bites. The people are exuberantly welcoming, the drinking water is filtered. The food is safe and, in the upscale places, worthy of Michelin stars.

Despite a spate of recent development, it's no Bora Bora, where development stacks upon development.

But American travelers have largely stopped frequenting Fiji's virginal white beaches and simple but heavenly resorts since the military took over the government in a 2006 coup.

It's their loss.

The word "coup" strikes fear into the hearts of travelers -- understandably so. But this one in Fiji was gentlemanly and bloodless. It was even postponed for a day because of an important rugby match. Not a shot was fired, not a life lost. Most of the locals on the 300 outer islands heard about it days later, shrugged and got on with their lives.

Ignoring caution, my husband, Greg, and I decided to return to the islands, our first visit in 10 years. We were drawn by the Savusavu Music Festival, an annual event that brings in music groups from all over the South Pacific, and we were celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. And then there is the small thrill we derive from ignoring travel warnings -- unless artillery is involved. It wasn't.

This chain of more than 300 islands is at the westernmost edge of what is considered the Polynesian triangle of the South Pacific (the three tips being Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand). But the islanders are a mix of races and cultures, predominantly Melanesian-Polynesian, Indian and the descendants of European settlers. They are gracious, hospitable and friendly. We didn't encounter any resentment toward tourists.

Fiji has accommodations to suit all budgets -- from $20-a-night hostels to $3,000-a-night establishments, all with the same tropical-perfection setting.

The spate of recent development, though, has now put Fiji on the discerning traveler's list. The Likuliku Lagoon Resort is the latest upscale property to open, and that was our first stop.

Likuliku is in the Mamanuca island chain, a two-hour ferry ride from Nadi (pronounced NAN-dee) and the closest white-sand-beach islands to the mainland of Viti Levu, where the airport is.

The resort has 46 rooms and boasts Fiji's first over-the-water bungalows, Tahiti style.

Not a big fan of over-the-water living, I booked a beachfront bungalow. It was about 600 square feet, built in the traditional way with intricate, hand-carved poles and a thatched roof. It had an outdoor shower, a plunge pool and a day bed above the sand, set at the optimum angle for watching sunsets. A few steps off our deck was a beach so white and water so aquamarine that it was like a backdrop from "The Truman Show."

Our days would go like this: We would wake up late, head to the open-sided restaurant for some breakfast and discuss whether to go kayaking or hike one of the islands. We'd make great plans, then head back to our room, take a swim, go snorkeling right in front of the room, eat lunch, take a nap and never go anywhere. We were so soothed by the tranquillity, food was the only thing to entice us from our daybed.

Our next stop was Royal Davui Island Resort, an upscale, 16-room resort on a private island off southern Viti Levu. The only way to get there is by helicopter, which picked us up in a pasture near Nadi. The resort, which opened two years ago, is owned and operated by a Fijian family, descendants of colonial settlers.

Our room was a luxurious villa on a lush cliff, with sitting room, deck, outdoor plunge pool, spa bath in the bathroom and a large bedroom with slide-away glass walls, all with uninterrupted views of the sea below.

There was even a "pillow menu" next to the bed, so that if we objected to the texture of the one provided, we could summon another kind. This may be de rigueur at the retreat spots for the world's rich and famous, but such a small thing spoke of a new era of hospitality for Fiji.

We overcame our lethargy at the Royal Davui, once I saw a flier for a shark dive -- without a cage. We couldn't pass that up.

Fiji has a healthy population of sharks, many of them the larger, more dangerous breeds such as tigers and bulls. Amazingly, however, there are rarely shark attacks.

We left by boat early the next morning to head to the Beqa Lagoon to meet up with Aqua-Trek, the company that runs the shark dives.

"OK," the Fijian dive master told us. "A couple of rules. Don't stick your hands out, don't pet the sharks unless we tell you to, and don't go swimming off by yourself. Righto? Let's go."

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