A castaway romance in the South Pacific

While it won’t happen this year, my wife and I have long vowed to return to the most romantic vacation we ever took, our honeymoon back in 1986 to Turtle Island in Fiji. We both had high-pressure jobs, mine on First Boston’s hectic trading floor, hers at Sotheby’s in their American Paintings Department. While we had been dating off and on for almost seven years, we chose what we hoped would be the most idyllic, remote, and isolated destination possible. Rather than meet the demands of clients, markets or our bosses, we wanted two weeks to focus solely on each other, without disruption. A castaway South Pacific island resort sounded like the perfect tonic, and we vowed to leave directly from our morning ceremony and breakfast reception. I invested a hefty portion of my salary in the tickets and accommodations. The wedding went by in a flash, and we both changed into travel clothes in the private side room at the Westbury Hotel suite as soon as our short and modest reception ended.

The day started with a trip to the airport. We boarded American Airlines’ First Class cabin to Los Angeles, and seven hours later a car picked us up and whisked us off to the Hotel Bel Air, where I would have been happy to spend a month lazing about. However, up early the next morning, we were back to LAX, and aboard an Air New Zealand flight bound for Fiji, with a fueling stop at Honolulu.

We debarked in Fiji 15 hours later, where we were met by a Land Rover, which took us to a non-descript motel by a clean but unremarkable bay. Our host told us to relax, shower, and clean up, as the sun would be rising in about two hours. Both a bit dazed, we showered, stretched out and dozed, and in what seemed like five minutes, a light tapping on the door alerted us to a deep azure sunrise, the golden light streaming across the water and reflecting off the wings of the pontoon plane now docked at the end of the shirt pier. Our bags already loaded, we climbed aboard, skittered across the waves, then up into the sky, headed for the Yasawa Island chain, a 45-minute trip. From the air, Fiji was a majestic, deeply verdant isle, the reefs and islands surrounding it jewels in a clear, transparent sea.

Finally, we circled Turtle Island, and landed in the broad bay protected by a shallow reef several hundred yards off shore, and pulled to a stop at the end of the long, sturdy dock. The sun was dazzling, and as we stepped off the plane, the motor cut out, and the sudden, profound silence made us both stumble, as if the absence of noise had subtly altered the density of the air around us.

We were greeted by a young Brit and a Fijian beauty, who handed us each a half coconut filled with a milky, cool beverage. “Kava kava,” she explained. “It will make you relax. I’m Martin,” the fellow added, extending his hand. Leis were placed over our necks. “Welcome to Turtle Island. Follow us.”

image_4Sipping our drinks, which tasted slightly sweet and medicinal, my tongue felt a bit numb. My wife and I looked at each other. We had been traveling for a day and a half, across the dateline, and had no idea what time it was, what day it was, or where we were.

“What the hell are we doing here?” we both said almost simultaneously. Then the kava kava hit, and it didn’t seem to matter anymore. We were truly, irretrievably, unquestionably in paradise.

Soon, we were settled in our bure, a spacious, single-room hut that appeared to be made from palm fronds and wood strips. In reality, the walls were reinforced concrete anchored deep in the coral rock, the roof columns steel I-beams covered with strips of bark, and the roofs hot-riveted steel sheathing covered with palm thatch. The louvered windows were all high-impact hurricane-synthetic glass, and the whole structure was built to withstand 250 mph winds and debris. Martin explained a storm during the initial construction had forced a do-over, and the owner wasn’t fooling around.

The island had its own water source, ample fuel reserves, generators, a warehouse of spares, and frozen, canned and dried supplies to last out something just short of Armageddon. One of the staff was a former trauma surgeon. In the middle of our stay, a brief typhoon blew through, and rather than be nervous about it, the fact that the island was surrounded by a reef that made storm surges almost impossible, plus the impressive and redundant engineering, shifted my normally pessimistic, anxiety-ridden outlook to excitement. We stood leaning into 70 mph winds like kites, the dramatic skies and whipping clouds a sensory thrill. The tumultuous downpours and sudden breaks of sun provided great drama, and the arm of the storm passed over us in a day. Martin was ecstatic, as their pristine cistern had been filled to the brim, allowing him to rest the well pumps for weeks.

imageTurtle Island was the first six-star castaway-style luxury resort to open in the region, and had served as the site for the original filming of Blue Lagoon¸ the gorgeous setting competing with skimpily-clad Brooke Shields and Chris Atkins for viewers’ attention. Our initial anxiety at finding ourselves so remote soon faded into a blissful rhythm of morning bareback rides on a white stallion across the hotel’s main bay, followed by whatever you might dream up for breakfast, and then, as soon as you were ready, a short trip on one of the island’s boats to your choice of the dozen idyllic, pristine, completely private beaches that ringed the 500-acre wilderness. Each beach had a small enclosed hut, hammocks in the shade, and the sense that the two of us had washed up from a shipwreck with a double-sized hamper filled with champagne,  and delicacies. Snorkels, masks, fins and floats were all supplied, plus two radios to call back to the main house for image_3anything we might need. There would be no one to intrude unless we called, until 4 PM, plenty of time to return, bathe, and relax before dinner, served family style with the resort’s other couples, limited to one for each beach, and the total of a dozen bures. Despite our shared bias against forced socializing, we began to look forward to dinners, as the island’s guests were from all over the world, and every evening was an experience in learning about a different culture or way of life, while sharing our own.

We could have booked fishing trips, scuba excursions, hikes, visits to other islands, cultural experiences, or any number of other active options. We opted to just laze, with the occasional workout. In the years since we visited Turtle Island, it has changed hands a few times, and competing resorts have sprung up on different islands, one founded by Malcolm Forbes, others by luxury companies from several continents. Nanuya, Yasawa Island, Viwa—they all look beautiful, and generally receive excellent reviews. It would be hard to imagine a more perfect, romantic escape, or a better investment of time and money for a trip that delivers a more unforgettable experience. With some due diligence and a long voyage, that first sip of kava kava and the island greeting “Bula” will start a vacation you’ll likely wish would never end.

 

Image credits: Mike Offit and www.turtlefiji.com

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