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In Pursuit of Paradise

A trip to Fiji challenges and exceeds our tropical fantasies.

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SOMETIME BEFORE DAWN, looking out over the dark blue abyss of the Pacific Ocean, it hit me — I’m going to Fiji. No matter how many times I’d checked my ticket, I still thought I was hallucinating. For years, whenever someone asked me where in the world I would go if money were of no consequence, without hesitation I’d say, “Fiji!” In all honesty, my knowledge of the islands was minimal. There was an adrenaline rush as I boarded a plane headed toward unknown solitude — knowing I’d soon learn about a place that had occupied an almost mythological status in my mind. I landed in a seat beside Peter, a talkative Australian who enthusiastically hollered “Bula!” to anyone who passed. After a handful of outbursts, I finally asked what he was saying. He said the word meant both “life” and “hello” and when greeting people in Fiji you’d typically say “Bula or Bula vinaka” to wish them good health and happiness. He then wistfully recalled the time he got stuck in Fiji during the political coups of 1987. “It was the best time of my life! Fijians are so magical!” Dumbfounded, I chalked up his muddled account of what surely should have been an awful trip to the glass of champagne he was nursing at 6 a.m. Ultimately, I would come to understand his enthusiasm.

To me, Fiji has always represented the height of exclusivity, a place with seductive mystique and a rich history. And as a next-level introvert, traveling as far away from everyone and everything I knew in the middle of a pandemic was somehow highly alluring. I jumped at the chance to see the island nation, picturing an archipelago of crystal-blue shores with exotic blooming flora like the picture straight off a Fiji Water bottle, but I couldn’t wait to see what lay beyond the image. Places often exist in twos like that — a constructed image, and its true self.

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From the moment I left the airport, I was enthusiastically greeted by nearly every Fijian who passed, by foot, car, or horse. I brushed off this friendliness at first, assuming it was because I was a tourist (I’d arrived only a week after the country reopened to foreigners following a two-year lockdown that brought the nation to a devastating halt). Truthfully, I was expecting a “White Lotus” experience: resorts filled with loud tourists and resort staffers who pitied them (or in this case, me). But something else happened. I was met by locals with genuine love, acceptance, and an appreciation for my presence. I found myself on a journey — earnestly, stripped of cliché.

My first excursion from Nadi toward the capital in Suva involved a two-and-a-half-hour car ride with William, a local pastor in a village on the western edge of Viti Levu, who now worked as a driver. “Welcome home!” he said as he looked back at me through the rearview mirror. Although I couldn’t make out his face underneath his mask, I could see his eyes were smiling. “In Fiji you arrive as a visitor, but you leave as family. So we like to say ‘welcome home’ to all who come to see us.” He then warned me, “Fijians like to talk a lot!” and without further ado, embarked on a passionate soliloquy on the history of the islands, including their cannibalistic and colonial past and their highly religious population. The islands are home to a diverse array of denominations, but their overall respect for each other is what makes Fiji such a harmonious country and one of the happiest in the world. We stopped along the way to Suva at Nanuku Resort. I was sweating profusely through my clothing and needed to freshen up. Despite this only being a quick stop, I was welcomed by lively traditional warriors — topless men in grass skirts, blowing horns made from conch shells and banging large drums. This stately welcome caused everyone within earshot to turn and watch me stumble through the entrance, jet-lagged, uncertain where to look or what to do with myself. It’s an introvert’s worst nightmare, but an experience I weirdly grew to appreciate while in Fiji. (As you might have guessed, there is also a grand farewell celebration of song as you depart.)

Approximately three-quarters into the first day, exhausted from travel, I made it to Nausori International Airport to board a tiny plane headed to Wakaya Club & Spa, a highly secluded private-island retreat unreachable by boat. The late-afternoon rainstorms caused flight delays, so I waited nervously in the airport restaurant with our photographer. There is only one plane to Wakaya daily, which typically flies in hotel visitors and miscellaneous items needed by the resort’s kitchen, so our pilot assured us he wouldn’t be leaving without us. “It’s okay, we’re on Fiji time!” he laughed.

Upon reaching Wakaya, I discovered my assumptions about Fiji’s luscious terrain are actually true. Funnily enough, I also learned that David Gilmour, the founder of Fiji Water, rediscovered Wakaya island when it was entirely uninhabited, immediately becoming enamored by its majestic scenery. This was decades before he became a minority stakeholder on the island, sharing its profits and seductive landscape with none other than Seagram’s heiress and NXIVM financier Clare Bronfman, among others. Curious wheeling and dealing aside, the heart and soul of the island remains pristine — you might imagine that tropical islands are all the same, but until you’ve touched the roots of a gargantuan Banyan tree surrounded by thousands of toads and black deer, a shell’s throw away from volcanic-rock beaches lapped by warm cerulean waves, you haven’t seen the pinnacle of island beauty. It was from all this, atop the island’s fertile soil, that Wakaya, the ultra-exclusive club and spa, was born.

Falling within government-protected waters means that Wakaya practices conscious fishing methods to source ingredients for their dishes. That, along with a sustainable farm-to-table approach, has allowed them to create a one-of-a-kind menu replete with traditional Fijian dishes infused with Middle Eastern and South American flavors. Their wildly unexpected cross-cultural cuisine, painstakingly curated by Executive Chef Marielle Hajj, a Lebanese Mexico City native, along with a team of local culinary artists, is well worth the long trek to this resort. The unforgettable dining experience is enhanced by bespoke itineraries for guests, and tastefully crafted oceanfront bures (wood-and-straw huts), designed for visitors to escape prying eyes and indulge in peaceful solitude. The resort has played host to an impressive roster of political figures and big-name celebrities over the years. You might have even heard about the time Keith Richards stayed at Wakaya; he famously sustained a mild concussion after climbing and subsequently falling out of a coconut tree.


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Numerous tropical fruit baskets, seafood dinners, and Bobo massages later, we were on the move again back to Nanuku Resort, where I’d been staying to experience one of Fiji’s more family-friendly resorts renowned for its all-inclusive offerings, allowing travelers to learn more about Fijian folkloric crafts and native culture.

Even before I boarded the plane to Fiji, I’d been bragging that I’d return home from my travels with survival skills suitable for keeping my friends and family alive should we end up stranded on an uncharted island. I’d spent most of lockdown binge-watching shows about half-naked survivalists living off the grid, so I was particularly interested in learning how to build fires, weave vessels, and forage ingredients for food.

My first lesson took place on a secluded beach, where two native chefs taught me how to gather tools in preparation for a delectable meal of barbecued coconut shrimp cooked inside of bamboo shoots. But my most memorable lesson was with a local elder who went by the name of Papa Leo, a legend at Nanuku for his work as the in-house maitasu, or village craftsman. I found him sitting cross-legged on a bamboo mat in a bure filled with Fijian relics he’d handcrafted, replicas of artifacts once used in hunting and times of war. “What do you want to learn?” he asked me in a soulful, husky baritone. Before I could run through the laundry list of skills I hoped to master from this brief experience, he exclaimed, “I’ll make a fire!” and began forcefully rubbing together two pieces of wild hibiscus from a tree he’d chopped down himself. Haphazardly shaving off pieces of wood with his knife, he dug the sharpened edge of one stick into a split piece of wood until it blackened and smoked. He then tossed a handful of coconut husks onto the smoking wood, blowing on it until a large flame erupted. He laughed and peered at me, sweat gathering on his brow. “Now you try!”

Outside, he pulled out two large palm fronds and told me proudly that he’d climbed a coconut tree that morning to gather them for today’s activities. As I sat beside him, he counted, “One, two, three, four … one, two, three, four.” With swift dexterity, I watched his hands form a round basket, and tried to follow along. We sat together in near silence for about an hour as I attempted to replicate his movements, interrupted only by short bouts of laughter and shared smiles, until the sun began to set and it was time for me to depart.

Feeling my trip thus far had only provided me with a glimpse into Fiji’s culture, Nanuku’s manager arranged for us to spend an afternoon beyond the confines of the resort, going on the Sigatoka River Safari to a local village. When we reached the boat to begin our excursion, our guide told us that the village we’d be visiting had been texting him all morning, eagerly awaiting our arrival. Our host village hadn’t had guests in two full years. When visiting villages, he explained, outsiders must bring a gift of kava to present to the village chief as a sign of respect. Kava, an indigenous root found only in Fiji, has many medicinal uses — but more importantly, it’s used to make a mouth-numbing psychoactive beverage served in a traditional ceremony called sevusevu, when members from neighboring villages come together on special occasions. He then revealed a small bundle of kava roots within a wrapped cloth. With our offering, we made our way up the river in our jet boat, speeding past sleepy villages and grazing horses.

At water’s edge, we were greeted by Sadam, a handsome, spirited man sporting a vibrant sulu and purple-tinted lip gloss, who would be showing us around his home. “We’re so happy to see you!” he exclaimed, as he beckoned us to follow him up a muddy path past waist-high crops that opened to a vast clearing sprinkled with quaint vibrantly painted houses. Then I noticed something odd: no doors. He explained that traditional Fijian homes don’t need privacy because villagers share everything among the community. If someone enters your home during mealtime, you must invite them to join you in prayer and make room for them to dine. As tourists visiting in the middle of a pandemic, we’d be sharing a meal with the entire village under a tented enclosure in the center of town. I thought back to what William had told me on my first day here, and I couldn’t help but dwell on the contrast between Fijians’ warm, inviting culture and the absence of it back home. I felt humbled by emotion and gratitude.

I watched as the villagers laid out a monumental spread they’d prepared for us using locally grown vegetables and livestock from their farm. It was a feast unlike anything I’d ever seen, dozens of dishes made with potatoes, taro root, roti, chicken, and pork. As we took our seats under the tent, the sounds of boisterous chatter and a loud clanging like church bells could be heard — two young men were pounding the kava root we’d brought into powder, using a small bowl and two long pestles made of iron to grind it into dust. They carried the freshly ground kava into the tent and mixed it with water, turning it into a murky brown liquid they flippantly described as “chocolatey dirt water” — they were not wrong.

After the ceremony, in which the elderly women of the village gifted us necklaces made of fresh banana leaves and smeared baby powder across our faces (I still don’t understand its significance), the usual singing and dancing commenced. Before I knew it, I was standing there face-to-face with an entire village, singing the Fijian farewell song of “Isa Lei” in chorus. Despite how many times I’d already heard the song on this trip, this time it felt different. Though I still didn’t know the words, I truly felt what they were saying. We only spent a short time together, and yet I felt I would miss these locals. I still do. Now back in the States, I look back on my journey with some perspective. I realize I was happier than I had been in years.

My adventures in Fiji only lasted a few days, but looking back it feels as if I were there for much longer. What I thought would be just another trip to a beautiful island, one populated with typical resort hotels, ended up being a much more meaningful journey. While I was there, I didn’t even think about how any of this was affecting me, but Fiji ended up being less about a location, and more about a meditation on life’s shared experiences. Even now, on a good day, I will occasionally catch myself slipping back into saying “Bula,” to complete strangers on the street.

Exploring Fiji

Where to explore, dine, and dream when visiting the fantasy island.

  • Fiji Airways

    A handful of airlines offer travel to Fiji, but if you’re going to make the journey that far south, you might as well do as the locals do and fly the national airline. This was the first time I’d ever seen salmon tartare on an airplane menu. I did not indulge, but apparently it’s all the rage.

  • Wakaya Club & Spa

    I wholeheartedly hope to one day return to Wakaya with all my friends and family. My stay here was so serene; it was the first time in my adult life that I could fall asleep without a sound machine. The natural soundscape of morning rain showers, chirping birds, and toads is better than any sleep aid on the market. Be sure to see Nina at the spa for a life-changing Bobo massage, and order the crab curry at the Palm Grove restaurant.

  • Nanuku Resort

    There are some striking similarities between Nanuku and Wakaya, which made sense when I learned that the current GM, Logan Miller, grew up on Wakaya when his family managed the island. Aside from making sure you visit Papa Leo to learn about Fijian crafting, sign up for a snorkeling excursion with the resort’s in-house marine scientist, Kelly-Dawn Bentley, to learn about conservation efforts off Nanuku’s immaculate government-protected waters. I also can’t stop thinking about the red-snapper kokoda I ordered for basically every meal during my stay.

  • Vomo

    By now you’ve probably come across Fiji’s new “Open for Happiness” ads, featuring Rebel Wilson glamorously shipwrecked on a raft, landing at Vomo. It’s presently one of the most sought-after hotel reservations in Fiji, due to it also being on a private island with incredibly luxurious 5-star amenities. Its sunsets are definitely something to be seen.

  • Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort

    I unfortunately didn’t get to visit Jean-Michel, but our photographer could not stop talking about her incredible spa experience the entire time we were together. She formed such an intense friendship with her masseuse Viri that they continued texting each other for the duration of her time in Fiji. It’s another resort on the islands that produces oohs and aahs any time its name is brought up in conversation. It’s at the top of my list for my next visit!

  • Garden of the Sleeping Giant

    From a distance, the top of Mt. Batilamu looks like a giant lying on his back, having a snooze — hence the name “Garden of the Sleeping Giant,” home to an impressive array of over 2,000 orchids and Cattleya hybrids. Definitely a must-see if you’re looking to ditch the resorts for a peaceful afternoon stroll among the flowers. Don’t forget to bring bug spray!

  • Fiji Airways

    A handful of airlines offer travel to Fiji, but if you’re going to make the journey that far south, you might as well do as the locals do and fly the national airline. This was the first time I’d ever seen salmon tartare on an airplane menu. I did not indulge, but apparently it’s all the rage.

  • Vomo

    By now you’ve probably come across Fiji’s new “Open for Happiness” ads, featuring Rebel Wilson glamorously shipwrecked on a raft, landing at Vomo. It’s presently one of the most sought-after hotel reservations in Fiji, due to it also being on a private island with incredibly luxurious 5-star amenities. Its sunsets are definitely something to be seen.

  • Wakaya Club & Spa

    I wholeheartedly hope to one day return to Wakaya with all my friends and family. My stay here was so serene; it was the first time in my adult life that I could fall asleep without a sound machine. The natural soundscape of morning rain showers, chirping birds, and toads is better than any sleep aid on the market. Be sure to see Nina at the spa for a life-changing Bobo massage, and order the crab curry at the Palm Grove restaurant.

  • Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort

    I unfortunately didn’t get to visit Jean-Michel, but our photographer could not stop talking about her incredible spa experience the entire time we were together. She formed such an intense friendship with her masseuse Viri that they continued texting each other for the duration of her time in Fiji. It’s another resort on the islands that produces oohs and aahs any time its name is brought up in conversation. It’s at the top of my list for my next visit!

  • Nanuku Resort

    There are some striking similarities between Nanuku and Wakaya, which made sense when I learned that the current GM, Logan Miller, grew up on Wakaya when his family managed the island. Aside from making sure you visit Papa Leo to learn about Fijian crafting, sign up for a snorkeling excursion with the resort’s in-house marine scientist, Kelly-Dawn Bentley, to learn about conservation efforts off Nanuku’s immaculate government-protected waters. I also can’t stop thinking about the red-snapper kokoda I ordered for basically every meal during my stay.

  • Garden of the Sleeping Giant

    From a distance, the top of Mt. Batilamu looks like a giant lying on his back, having a snooze — hence the name “Garden of the Sleeping Giant,” home to an impressive array of over 2,000 orchids and Cattleya hybrids. Definitely a must-see if you’re looking to ditch the resorts for a peaceful afternoon stroll among the flowers. Don’t forget to bring bug spray!


AMERICAN EXPRESS® CARD MEMBER ACCESS

Fine Hotels + Resorts®

Nanuku Resort is a Fine Hotels + Resorts property. When you book with American Express Travel, you’ll receive an exclusive suite of benefits including daily breakfast for two, a $100 experience credit that varies by property, guaranteed 4pm check-out, and more. Plus, book on AmexTravel.com and you can earn 5X Membership Rewards® points, or use Pay with Points, on prepaid stays. Terms apply. Learn more here.

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Our Contributors

Annette Lamothe-Ramos Writer

Annette Lamothe-Ramos is the visuals director of Departures. A native New Yorker now based in Los Angeles, she is a multidisciplinary artist and creative consultant working in online media, print, and film. Formerly the creative director and fashion editor at Vice, she has also created original documentary shorts and series for several major streaming platforms.

Tai Power Seeff Photographer

Tai Power Seeff is a travel and portrait photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Seeff's most inspiring photo projects address cultural and environmental preservation. She was invited to photograph the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was featured as a 'Green' Photographer by American Photo Magazine.

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