Fiji Does It

Nobody ever said paradise is just around the corner. Owen Edwards checks into the Wakaya Club.

Sitting high above a blue curve of bay on the deck of Vale O, David and Jill Gilmour's spectacular hillside "House in the Clouds" on Fiji's Wakaya Island, Gilmour is explaining how he came to create the Wakaya Club.

"I've had wonderful travel experiences in my life," he says, staring into the middle distance of memory. "I recall swimming in Capri's Blue Grotto with my father in 1937 and trail riding with him for days on end in Banff. He gave me two options: He could leave me some money when he died or subsidize as much travel as I wanted while he lived. I chose the second and saw beautiful places like St.-Tropez, Acapulco, and Hawaii before they were overrun by mass tourism. But over the years, more and more often I'd return to a beloved place and find it completely changed, or I'd go somewhere that should have been delightful but somehow wasn't."

So Gilmour, a romantic but a methodical one, developed his "Seven Year Rule": If you find a place you cherish, enjoy it while you can, because after seven years you won't want to go back. "When I first saw Majorca," he recalls, "I looked at everything very carefully, because I knew I was seeing it just that way for the last time. And indeed, where I saw four hotels, eventually there were four hundred.

"The more the world changes," he adds, "the more we gravitate toward places that don't." Thus he came up with a 13-point quality test for any destination: air, water, flora, fauna, comfort, cuisine, sporting activities, security, health care, communications, nourishment of mind, nourishment of body, and nourishment of spirit. His advice, should you fall in love with a place: "If one of these thirteen points is missing, lie down until the feeling goes away."

By the time he turned 40, Gilmour had become so accustomed to "anticippointment" that he was sure he would spend the rest of his life traveling from place to place, watching what he calls tourist pollution wreak its inevitable havoc. Then, in the early 1970s, he flew over Wakaya, 2,200 pristine acres uninhabited save for a few migrant workers who went there each year to harvest coconuts. From the air, he says, "the island looked like Noah's Ark floating in the Pacific." Gilmour decided that the way to keep a destination from being ruined was to start from scratch, then retain control. He was in luck. Wakaya was available.

"It's good to be czar," I joke.

"It's essential," he replies, smiling only slightly.

Wakaya isn't just around the corner, but then paradise rarely is. From Los Angeles, the flight to Nadi International Airport on Fiji's Viti Levu Island takes ten hours. From there, Wakaya—a lush speck of land six miles long and no more than a mile wide at any point—is a 50-minute trip aboard the twin-engine Britten-Norman Islander that constitutes the entire fleet of Air Wakaya. Coming in for a landing on the gravel strip locals call Wakaya International, visitors fly over Chieftain's Leap, where in 1838 the local chief, besieged by a war party from a neighboring island, jumped to his death along with 22 of his warriors rather than be captured. Fijians are famously hospitable and good-humored, so it is hard to believe that not much more than a century ago the islands were in a more or less constant state of internecine war. As late as the mid-19th century they were known as the Cannibal Islands because of the natives' unpleasant habit of having shipwrecked sailors for dinner—literally. In 1789, Captain Bligh, who'd been forced by mutineers off the Bounty, sighted Wakaya from an open boat crowded with 18 loyal crew members and hoped to land, but the approach of two large war canoes changed his mind.

Wakaya still feels like a place the world has bypassed. It is unique in many ways. Most of the island is set aside as a nature preserve. A primeval forest of canopy trees—banyans, mangos, pink-blossoming rain trees, and gaudy flamboyants (royal poincianas)—suggests an open, shaded English park rather than a tropical forest with thick undergrowth. That one can walk easily through the woods anywhere on the island is the unintended consequence of the 19th-century import of three fallow deer (a species commonly found on English estates), whose descendants now number several hundred. (Besides working as natural gardeners, these deer often wind up on the club's dinner menu.) According to Gilmour, Wakaya is the only place in Fiji where the deer exist, sharing the island with feral pigs and the current incarnations of saddle horses imported by Wakaya's early American and English owners (a U.S. vice-consul bought the island in 1840 from a local chief).

When Gilmour first flew over Wakaya, he was a partner in a hotel and resort company operating in the South Pacific. Although, under a law dating from the reign of Queen Victoria, only five percent of the 330-island archipelago can be owned by foreigners, he managed to arrange for his company to buy Wakaya for about $1 million. When the partners sold the company, he bought the island for himself and his wife (and has since added $25 million more in infrastructure). At first the couple lived in a house the vice-consul had built, one of two permanent structures on the island at the time. When friends and family visited, they stayed there too. "We slept eight to a bedroom," Gilmour remembers. To help out, they brought in Fijians from other islands. By the time they began planning Vale O, a 12,000-square-foot, three-bedroom aerie designed in collaboration with Fijian builder Peni Tubukula, they'd decided they wanted a permanent community on the island. Since they themselves split their time between Wakaya, Palm Beach, and New York, the Gilmours needed to give Fijians a reason to be there year-round. And so the idea of the Wakaya Club was born.

Opened in 1990, the resort accommodates just 12 couples at any one time. Next to it stands a thriving hamlet with 28 houses, a school, and a charming white wooden church (designed by Jill, based on old photographs of English missionary churches). The village is now home to more than 150 Fijians, the first Wakayans since the days of interisland warfare.

The club is as expensive as it is exclusive, but Gilmour contends that if the point were to make a profit, it would cost more than twice as much. For anyone with a yearning for harmony and a passion for perfection, Wakaya is surely one of the best places on the planet. This is Eden without the snake. Days here are so friction-free you can feel your metabolism slow to the level of the mangrove crabs that crawl sleepily into their holes as you walk by. Well, maybe not everything is perfect. The toads that emerge after dark make moonlit walks a bit dodgy, and a few mornings my eggs were overpoached.

Guests stay in eight 1,500-square-foot bures (pronounced boo-rays) or the slightly larger Governor's Bure. Each of these thatch-roofed cottages constructed of native Fijian woods—pale golden yaka for the interiors, darker vesi outside—has a living room, a bedroom, a large bathroom, and a wide veranda ideal for helping guests forget that the "real" world is even out there. Seven of the bures sit on their own section of beach, complete with double hammock strung between coconut palms. The attention to detail is evident everywhere and perhaps most noticeable in the Gilmours' house, with its 17th-century gilded Buddha, a lyrical stone torso from Cambodia, and a dramatic six-panel black-and-gold coromandel screen from southern China. (Vale O, with pool and tennis court, can be rented when the Gilmours are away.)

At the heart of the club is the Palm Grove restaurant, in an imposing bure Tubukula modeled on a traditional chief's residence. In a state-of-the-art kitchen designed by Rob Miller, an Australian born in the islands who has managed the resort since it opened, four Fijian chefs prepare dishes made mostly from local ingredients, including fish caught near the coral reefs that surround the island or farther out at sea. Pacific green lobster, shrimp, swordfish, tuna, wahoo, and a variety of Spanish mackerel called waloo all show up on the menu, which changes daily. Those interested in snagging their own supper can troll for seafood off one of the club's fishing boats. (Although line fishing is one of the most popular activities, spear fishing isn't practiced here, so the dizzying variety of reef fish aren't at all wary of snorkelers and scuba divers.) A steady supply of mangos and papayas is harvested from Wakaya's trees, and salad greens and other fresh vegetables come from organic gardens designed and planted by Miller's wife.

While lush landscaping around each cottage helps to foster the illusion of having Wakaya all to one's self, the club's most eloquent expression of privacy and of privilege may be its picnics: From your bure, you are driven to a white-sand beach on a small, sparkling bay. Awaiting you there are two chaises shaded by an umbrella, a hammock, and a table set for lunch. Your driver hands you a two-way radio and says, "Call us when you're ready." With that he leaves, assuring you that there isn't another human being within two miles. It was the only time I have ever thought to myself: Whoever said paradise isn't just down the road and to the left?

Wakaya Basics

HOW TO GET THERE The trip from L.A. to Nadi International Airport on Viti Levu takes ten hours. Air Pacific departs late in the day three times a week, so you can sleep through the flight and arrive early the next morning (two calendar days later because of the International Date Line). United and Qantas also fly to Nadi. From there, Air Wakaya flights are scheduled at guests' convenience.

WHEN TO GO Anytime, but Fiji's summer (winter in the Northern Hemisphere) can be hot, while winter tends to be cooler and rainy. Wakaya (including Vale O) can accommodate 12 couples at most, so planning ahead is important. Christmas and New Year's are fully booked well in advance.

BEYOND THE HAMMOCK There's plenty to do between naps, from swimming in the freshwater pool and hiking the trails of the island's nature preserves to golf, tennis, croquet, boccie, and billiards. An air-conditioned exercise bure keeps the relentlessly fit from fretting. Scuba diving among 11 coral reef sites, many of them part of a marine reserve, is a great adventure; two guided dives a day are included in the club's rates, and beginners can earn their certification for $900.

AT TABLE The food is superb—and occasionally surprising. Who, for example, would have imagined local venison, lean and pungent? The stir-fry of fresh mangrove crab with caramelized palm sugar and chili accompanied by a bottle of the private stock of Greg Norman Estates Shiraz makes for a perfect meal; the weekly "meke and lovo" night features meat, fish, and vegetables wrapped in banana leaves and cooked on hot rocks. The evening is capped off with a buzz-inducing kava ceremony.

RATES Garden-view bure, $1,600 per night; ocean-view bure, $1,800; Governor's Bure, $2,100. Vale O, the Gilmours' own house, is available for $3,500-$6,500 and accommodates up to three couples. Rates include meals and beverages.

RESERVATIONS Call 800-828-3454; fax 970-920-1225;

Owen Edwards, the author of Quintessence and Elegant Solutions, is a consulting editor at Forbes ASAP and a contributing writer for GQ magazine.