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A taste of the real Fiji

A frenzied pace? Not at the island resorts of Nukubati and Toberua, where life is easy. Here, it's all about hammocks, pearls and kava.

April 18, 2011|By Amanda Jones | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Kayaking is a fine way to see Nukubati, Fiji. Too strenuous? Try lolling under a palm tree with a book from the resort's extensive library.
Kayaking is a fine way to see Nukubati, Fiji. Too strenuous? Try lolling… (Amanda Jones )

If — like me — you are old enough to say, "It didn't used to look like this," then — like me — you're probably seeking places that are still relatively unaffected by rampant tourism. Last summer, I had the pleasure of visiting such a place. Nukubati, a small island resort, is about as untouched by time as it gets.

Thirty-seven years ago, I came to Fiji, an archipelago in the South Pacific at the western edge of the Polynesian triangle, with my parents and had my first taste of adventure travel. This time, it was my turn to take my mother and my two daughters. In the years since childhood, I have returned to Fiji's seductive shores many times, often staying at expensive, over-the-water-bungalow resorts that have sprung up all over the islands.

I asked a South Pacific travel specialist to recommend a resort that would give us a taste of real Fijian life. I cared less about umbrella drinks and more about getting to know a few Fijians. Her immediate response was Nukubati (pronounced nu-KUUM-ba-ti), an intimate resort off northern Vanua Levu, Fiji's large but little-visited northern island. What made the place so special, she said, was that it was owned by local hero Jenny Leewai Bourke, who was born and raised on Vanua Levu. Bourke is an island girl who left to be educated in Australia and returned with an Aussie husband and plans to open a resort for adventure travelers.

Although Nukubati does not accept children younger than 12, it will allow them if there are whole-resort bookings. Because there was a private party with children staying in five of the seven bures, or cottages, the week we wanted to go, my 11-year-old got in under the wire.

Getting to Nukubati was a journey in itself. Fiji is a 10-hour overnight flight from LAX, and we arrived in Nadi (nan-DEE) at dawn. Easy. There was only a five-hour time difference (although we had skipped a day), so we did not have to contend with bad jetlag.

We left our luggage at the airport and walked to what turned out to be a rundown motel where we waited for my mother's plane to arrive before taking our domestic flight to Labasa on Vanua Levu.

Of course, her flight was late, which put me into an all-American panic. "But don't worry, my love," a beaming woman behind the airline counter told me, "We'll hold the Labasa plane for your mummy." I was stunned, unable to remember a time I'd heard such a statement.

"You'll love Vanua Levu," she continued in her singsong voice. "It's the real soul of Fiji. Everybody is peaceful. So you should relax right now."

After the 45-minute flight, we were met by the hotel car for the 90-minute drive on a ribbon of dirt, followed by a seven-minute boat trip to the island. Our welcome committee made the long trip worthwhile. Staffers were lined up on the beach, singing a traditional song of welcome, flowers in their hair.

My mother, who had injured her shoulder badly during her trip, arrived wearing a makeshift sling fashioned by a flight attendant. Eta Marai, an older woman herself, stepped from the lineup and guided my mother toward the open lobby. Marai, it turned out, was the local village healer and Nukubati's masseuse.

The resort resembles a patrician family's comfortably aged summer estate, with a plantation-style wood floor, woven mats, bamboo furniture, 3,000 books to read, board games and shelves decorated with shells, wood carvings and other Fijian objects. Our rooms were two spacious side-by-side bures with a sitting area and a porch looking out to sea. It was classy and relaxed, a place where no one would flinch if you walked in with sand on your bare feet. Every whim was anticipated and met with warmth and grace.

Shortly after settling in, Marai arrived bearing a pile of fresh leaves. "Vau plant, for your mother's shoulder," she said, applying the leaves like a compress and binding them to the skin. Then she crouched and began to give my mother a foot massage. She would return every day to replace the leaves, and the two would sit talking, forming a tight bond during the five nights we were there.

Over a meal of fresh local lobster, I met Bourke, whose mother was Fijian and whose father was Chinese. She told me she opened the resort in 1990 to empower the locals.

"I wasn't a hotelier," she said. "Our main motivation was to help provide employment and livelihood to the village. This is the real Fiji right here. The locals' way of life resembled my own childhood, where women had little opportunity, and I hated that as a girl, and I always wanted to change it.... Here we are, 20 years later, with 42 employees, mostly women, supporting 400 family members in the area. My greatest pride is that this seven-room resort has helped so many from disempowerment."

One day, Bourke introduced me to Salote Cina, the resort's sports director and one of the few women to hold such a position in Fiji. Apparently, it caused a village scandal that she supervised men, but Cina, Bourke and the village women reveled in it.

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