When people picture crystal-blue waters, talcum-like beaches, over-the-water huts, bluebird-colored skies and days spent in lounging in hammocks or snorkeling, they typically think of Bora Bora in French Polynesia. What many don't know is that Fiji is easier (because you can fly direct from LAX) and has everything Bora Bora has, but without the crowds and French influence.
I'm reluctant to share my secrets about some of Fiji's 322 islands because I consider them my private South Pacific stash. It's nice having them mostly to myself, but Fiji deserves the attention and has a place for nearly any budget, from no-shirt, no-shoes backpacker escapes to one of the world's most expensive private island resorts.
Waya Island, Yasawa
The Yasawa islands chain has the most traditionally tropical scenery in Fiji, with palm-fringed white beaches, cerulean seas and thatched bures, or huts. It's also less commercial than Fiji's other island chains, so it's easier to find more affordable accommodations.
Octopus Resort is a gem for those on a budget; it was originally built as a backpacker's utopia. It has added more upscale accommodations but has not forsaken the budget traveler. You can get a "backpacker" single bed for $20 a night in a five- or seven-person dorm room. By dorm-room standards, these are luxe. Air conditioning, no bunks, all single beds with fresh linens and towels, a mosquito net and a reading lamp.
The chic backpacker private bungalows are from $105 a night, and the three-bedroom luxury family villa from $989 a night. Considering the beauty of the location, it could be the steal of the century. Meals are extra, but because there's no choice (this is the only resort on the island), you purchase the meal plan for $53 a day for adults and $35 for kids.
The Coconut Bar is famous in the area, and "yachties" stop by to enjoy the nightly buzz, drinking cocktails and enjoying the sunset with people from all corners of the world.
In between swapping on-the-road tales, you can try the dive center or go deep-sea fishing, visit villages or try yoga, hike into the verdant mountains behind the resort or have a massage, play volleyball or take a Fijian cooking class. At certain times of the year, you can swim with manta rays. It's an ideal place to save money on the bed and spend it on all Fiji has to offer.
Nanuku Resort & Spa,
Pacific Harbour, Viti Levu
Nanuku Resort is hardly a budget destination, but compared with other luxury island resorts, it's more attainable.
This is the only five-star boutique resort beside the sparkling Beqa Lagoon on the Coral Coast of Viti Levu, Fiji's main island.
Accommodations are either individual suites or entire multi-bedroom residences with a full kitchen, living room, outdoor dining patio, infinity pool and golf buggy to zoom around the property.
Each villa also comes with its own butler, who will unpack, do laundry, iron, prepare meals, draw you a bath filled with flowers or even go shopping.
Activities are nearly unlimited because you are on the mainland. The hotel restaurant has an outdoor platform where a morning yoga class takes place beside the slapping waves of the lagoon.
Then there's the Lomana Spa, which became a daily habit for me. Massage is an ancient part of the Fijian culture and is considered more healing than a luxury, so that was my excuse. Although you shouldn't expect a muscle-rending, deep-tissue massage, you will float out of the session.
Nanuku is also close to some of the world's best surf breaks and dive sites. Cloudbreak, a surfing paradise, is a boat ride away, as is the adrenaline-pumping experience of diving with sharks (I did this and it's a heart-stopper) off Beqa Island. There's also golfing, fishing, zip-lining and white-water rafting within an hour's drive of the hotel.
One of my favorite activities was a bush walk through the jungle to a waterfall. No one else was there, so we spent the afternoon lounging on rocks and swimming in the sublime pool beneath the hammering falls.
Nanuku makes sure children have as good a time as adults. While you head off to dangle chum in front of sharks, leave the kids at the Cakava Creative Workshop to learn tapa-cloth printing, Fijian dancing or grass-skirt weaving.
Info: Doubles from $936 a night. nanukufiji.com
This is where Oprah Winfrey escapes from the world and model Elle Macpherson got married. Attainable? Maybe not, but definitely dreamable.
Once the private retreat of Malcolm Forbes, Laucala is now owned by Dietrich Mateschitz, the Red Bull billionaire who turned it into a place that's the stuff of dreams.
You get to it by private plane from Nadi, home of Fiji's international airport. Of Laucala's 3,500 acres, only 300 have been developed, which gives you one villa for every 12 acres. Each of the 25 villas has its own pool, but we're not talking a plunge pool — it's more like a fits-30-people pool.
Each unit also has a huge separate bedroom and living room (with all-inclusive bar) and a cavernous dressing room and bathroom with at least two showers and two bathtubs — carved from boulders — one inside, one outside. The décor is not the predictable Pacifica but a modern take on Polynesia (think groovy shell lighting and carved wooden doors) with design elements and furniture commissioned for the resort. Each villa has a different aspect — over the water, beside the sand or perched on a cliff with views of the sunset.
You never need leave your villa; the staff will bring your food to you if that's what you want, but it would be a waste not to frequent one of the five restaurants. Yes, five full-blown dining establishments serving an island with a maximum of 54 guests. The food is included (no bill at the end of dinner unless you order an outrageous bottle of premium alcohol).
There's Seagrass, a cliff-top Asian and Fijian restaurant; Plantation House, for fine dining in a colonial-style mansion; Pool Bar, for Mediterranean cuisine beside the huge lagoon-style pool and the glass-sided lap pool; the Beach Bar, for barbecue; and the Rock Lounge for finger foods and exotic cocktails. A must-try: kokoda, a traditional Fijian dish of raw fish marinated in coconut milk, lemon and chili.
Perhaps best of all, the island is mostly sustainable, growing its own organic vegetables, fruits and herbs as well as raising poultry and meat.
What does one do while marooned on one of the world's most expensive islands? For starters, there is an 18-hole championship golf course designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd (of St. Andrews Links Castle Course fame) with a golf pro on hand. Then there's hiking and horseback riding.
With a fleet of 12 vessels and a water sports center, you can have your pick of activities: game fishing, sailing, sunset cruises on a classic wooden boat, windsurfing, kite surfing, surfing and jet skiing. And then there's lolling about your villa.
Laucala is also in Fiji's ultra-pristine marine reserve, which makes it ideal for scuba diving, and the resort has a Professional Assn. of Diving Instructors operation that ventures into mind-blowing sites. My favorite activity? The spa. The Laucala Spa is one of the most beautiful and relaxing I've seen. Set in the hills overlooking the ocean, the indoor-outdoor spa makes most of its treatment products from homegrown medicinal herbs, spices, flowers and fruits. Every treatment begins with a foot bath with hibiscus, honey and sugar crystals.
Afterward, lie in the outdoor, flower-strewn bathtub and dream about how to afford returning.
Info: Doubles from $4,200 a night. Price includes all meals and snacks, all non-premium beverages, golf, horseback riding, laundry, dry cleaning, inner-reef boat trips, sailing, windsurfing, kite surfing and one spa treatment per guest. laucala.com
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO FIJI
From LAX, Fiji Airways offers nonstop service to Nadi, Fiji; Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia, Delta and Qantas offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $1,189, including taxes and fees.