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One of the requirements for entry into Fiji, in addition to a passport and proof you aren't carrying fruit flies, is a return ticket. Arriving someplace so beautiful and having to offer immediate assurance you'll leave is a little sad, but it is also fitting. You must leave paradise, after all—unless you are among the lucky souls who watch over it. Fiji is a South Pacific nation of fewer than a million people scattered over 100 of its 350 verdant islands. Since 2000, the number of pleasure seekers descending here has increased by an average of 45,000 each year. The search for paradise, it appears, is now a more powerful economic engine for the country than the export of sugar, fish, clothing, and gold—and the level of travel is inching closer to the high end all the time. But statistics are far from your mind when you have come to Fiji to stay on Dolphin Island, a seven-acre speck just off the north shore of the main island, Viti Levu. The number of fellow travelers you will encounter here is exactly...zero.
Dolphin has just two rooms. When you stay here with your family or mate, the island is yours entirely. On either side of Dolphin are two larger islands, one with a few dive resorts and second homes hidden away in the mangroves, the other privately owned. At low tide you can walk along the sandbars that connect the archipelago, dodging starfish and sand crabs. When the tide rolls in you can kayak or swim out to a coral reef to snorkel. Meals are served in a bure, a Fijian structure open on three sides with a wide porch and a high-peaked roof. Next to it is a smaller bure, housing the guest rooms, decorated in local style, with dark-wood beams and black-and-brown-patterned masi cloth on the white walls. The larger bure is the grander of the two: The masi lining the ceilings are magnificent and the coconut-twine lashings holding the beams to the posts are extraordinarily fine. (The twine comes from a village in the Lau islands; the men who make it have no hair on their thighs, the result of years spent rolling coconut fiber into thread on their laps.) Yet the luxury of Dolphin is neither of the extradeep-whirlpool-tub variety nor of any other man-made amenity. The sense of total isolation beneath palms, beside warm blue water, the scent of frangipani all around, has few equals.
"We felt one of the great charms of life on the island was its rustic, almost native-style simplicity," says Dolphin's owner, Alex van Heeren, the Dutch businessman who bought his bit of nirvana in 1985. Until two years ago he used it only as a family retreat. "This is in direct contrast to many of the resorts in Fiji," Van Heeren explains.
Dolphin Island could be considered the antithesis of more familiar places like the Wakaya Club, the immensely successful and überluxe resort near Ovalau Island, to the east of Dolphin. There's no restaurant, tennis court, or spa. And only recently did Van Heeren, who also (and tellingly) owns the superb Huka Lodge in Taupo, New Zealand, decide to put in a swimming pool. "Any development on the island has been very gradual and very organic," he says. "The pool"—to be completed by the end of the year—"will feel like it has been there forever." In fact, in the 20 years that Van Heeren has owned the island, he has barely done anything other than construct the bures, prune ancient pineapple trees, and preserve the old stone fish traps that lace the water on the northern side. The most notable recent addition was a thatched-roof hut on the crest of a hill at the island's far end. It's a magnificent spot: an open-air suite lit only by kerosene lanterns, a bamboo bed draped in mosquito netting, an outdoor bathroom, and a view of Bligh Water, a windy stretch of sea in front of the island. With the only sign of humans the twinkle of fishing-boat lights on the horizon, such communion with nature becomes transcendent—and just a little terrifying. No one but Van Heeren (including this author, who lasted ten minutes in the dark) has actually spent the night out here.
You can reach Dolphin in two ways—a 20-minute seaplane flight from Nadi Airport, on the southwest coast of Viti Levu, or from Nadi by car, a two and a half-hour drive to the small marina in Raki Raki, from which the island is a ten-minute boat ride. For hurried travelers making a stopover en route to Sydney or Auckland, New Zealand, the advantage of taking a seaplane may be obvious. For those with more time on their hands, there is indescribable value in being driven through the countryside. The gradual immersion in a bucolic world is good preparation for island life. Viti Levu's main road snakes past churches, schools, and tiny stores, bisecting towns and villages that are home to the nation's nearly fifty-fifty mix of native people and Indo-Fijians, the descendants of Indian laborers brought to Fiji by the British in the 19th century to work the sugarcane fields. Our driver, Shashi, a third-generation Indo-Fijian, told us that the two cultures rarely mingle. "Fijians are lazy," he said of his native countrymen. The Indo-Fijians, he states, are more productive; they are employed as merchants, taxi drivers, politicians. Yet, there they were at dawn: dozens of natives—adults and children alike—walking in the roadside grass, riding rickety bikes, waiting for buses to take them to work and school. The shacks of their village, visible from the road, were illuminated by the single fluorescent bulbs so common to poor communities here. The air carried the woody aroma of autumn even though it was October, the middle of spring and the end of the high-tourist season.
The boat pulled up to the stone jetty that protrudes about 30 feet into the pale shallow water. As soon as we stepped onto it, awkward in our long pants and city shoes, we were hugged and draped with frangipani leis by a smiling woman in navy shorts and sandals. This was Dawn. "I'll be your mother here," she said in the alternately plummy and flattened tones of a Fijian—part British accent, part Australian. Behind Dawn stood Nina, a quiet woman with a bloom in her hair. Dawn's husband, Stanley, and her brother Chubby—the seamen and muscles of this operation—saw to the luggage. As Dawn led us along the rock-lined path to our rooms, she said the words that became a refrain during our stay: "Time is yours."
And so it was, because Dawn and company made it so. "They translate what the island is all about," says Van Heeren, who hired Dawn and Stanley Simpson three years ago, before deciding to take on guests. After farming sugarcane for decades, the Simpsons retired not long ago from the rigors of that industry ("Too much work for too little money," Stanley informed us). "They are unique," Van Heeren says. "They have something a hotel school can't teach."
That something is a profound pride in their country and its way of life, combined with an unreserved willingness to share. For example, Dawn, who learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, brings to the island a robust, native style of cuisine imprinted with the country's far-flung cultural influences: local papaya and an English fry-up for breakfast; for lunch, curried prawns with roti made from scratch or perfect beer-battered fish-and-chips; and for dinner, a whole roast salmon cod with asparagus or buttered lobster served with crabs caught that morning. "I'm not a gourmet chef," she reminded us, but we hadn't noticed. Stanley, for his part, is both the passionate naturalist of the place, quick to point out the finest snorkeling spots, and the anthropologist, descriptions of Fijian customs at the ready. The pair's connection to the island is deep; their intuition of how guests experience it is flawless. (After a tiring snorkeling trip, we returned to the beach to find that Nina had left a bowl of mangoes. Noticing us hobbling around the rocky west coastline, Dawn arrived with water shoes.) However, you'll never feel as if you're a trespasser in their home; they are omniscient without being omnipresent. Besides, they're so much fun. Witty Dawn, a fabulous gossip, will tell you all about the family who owns the island to the east (made a fortune in South American coffee, visited once in three years) and the local dive operator to the west who went missing while on a routine dive with the 27-year-old Australian woman he and his wife brought over to school their children (possibly the result of a shark attack, but the pair are rumored to have run off together).
On our final night, Stanley orchestrated a traditional feast, hiring a local three-man band that came bearing a guitar and ukulele, a notebook of Fijian songs, and a bowl of kava, the national drink. Around a grill at least three feet in diameter, he and Chubby arranged chunks of chicken, fish, pork, beef, and lamb. They also cracked open coconuts, into which they stirred taro leaves, replaced the tops, and set these on the grill, too. The whole thing was then covered with palm leaves and put in an underground oven until the meat was roasted and smoked and the coconut milk cooked down to a sort of sweet ricotta. Everyone ate sitting on a grass mat, passing around the tanoa, a wooden bowl made to serve kava. "Bula!" each person would toast before sipping the lip-numbing brew. "Bula!" the others would echo after each drinker finished, in strict observance of ceremony. The kava tasted a tad like mulch; its main effect seemed to be frequent bathroom trips, though it also produced a sensation of euphoria. Or did we feel that way because we were in the most relaxed place in the world surrounded by the happiest people we'd ever met? It didn't much matter. As we retired to our room, the kava bowl was still making the rounds and the band was still playing, the custodians of paradise singing into the night.
Rates, $1,735 per night for two (four-night minimum), including meals and car and boat transportation to and from the island; 64-7/378-5791; www.dolphinislandfiji.co.nz. Air Pacific (800-227-4446; www.airpacific.com) flies nonstop from Los Angeles to Nadi five times a week.