Legend has it the first settlers to Fiji arrived on twin-hulled canoes after an epic voyage from southern Africa. Knox Mudunavere knows the story from his forefathers; he picks up the thread as we sit high on Malolo Island overlooking the very same sea route his ancestors sailed.
“Long time ago in this island chain,” he begins, “when the first Fijians came from Tanganyika, they came through a passage nearby, and the sea was very choppy. Our ancestors had a blessing box with them – it was their treasure – and it fell off near Mana Island.” He nods towards Qalito Island, visible on the northern horizon; Mana lies just behind. “They went to collect it and one of them said, ‘No, just leave it there. People will come from all over to walk on this place because the blessing will be here.’ So all these places around Malolo and the other Mamanuca Islands have something special.”
Legend or not, that prophecy has come to pass. Paradise hunters from around the globe now fly and sail to the Mamanuca Islands in search of tropical island treasures. As the closest island chain to Nadi international airport, the Mamanucas are one of Fiji’s more developed regions, and home to some of its oldest or most prized destination resorts – Castaway, Tokoriki, Likuliku Lagoon and Vomo among them.
The latest, and most newsworthy in some time, to join them is Six Senses, which made its debut last month beside the exceptionally pretty beach in the resort of Vunabaka on Malolo Island. The pitched and thatched roofs of the resort’s 24 villas and 10 residences, reminiscent of the local bure huts, trim a horseshoe curve of creamy white sand, backed by emerald hillsides crowned in forests of she-oak. The placid lagoon, a pale candy-blue by the shore, deepens to cobalt beyond the house reef. Seen from the water, it almost resembles a model Fijian village, except perhaps for the two private marinas and the 35 swimming pools in various comely configurations. But it is still a model community of sorts: a combined hotel and residential colony with plans to eventually accommodate 60 private homes (some of which will be available to rent through the resort), it is powered entirely by solar panels and Tesla batteries. It supports a substantial farm of vegetable crops, fruits, herbs, chickens, bees and a pet pig named Sid – all managed by Mudunavere – which supply the two main restaurants. Neither resembles anything Fiji has offered before.
The Six Senses mandate for health and wellbeing, coupled with executive chef Ihaka Peri’s flair for innovation, have resulted in a resort with its own gluten-free bakery (there’s a wheat-friendly one, too) and a bottling plant for drinking water and probiotic sodas. All can be found at the café and bar above the marina, just by the ice creamery and gourmet deli, while at the retro grocery, pantry items are stored in glass jars and served in paper bags. In the beachfront Tovolea restaurant – a lofty longroom with chef’s table and lounge bar that spill onto a sundeck and 25m horizon pool – executive sous chef Pranil Prasad delivers international plates of endemic ingredients, such as otta fern heads, ivy chestnuts and oyster-flavoured sea grapes plucked from the shore. At daily happy hour, bartenders and chefs pair hors d’oeuvres with “living” cocktails using fermented mixers and fruity vinegar shrubs. Such inspired ideas also define the four-roomed spa, where guests can mix their own body scrubs and poultices at an Alchemy Bar and submit to biometric testing to determine which of Six Senses’ comprehensive sleep, diet or yoga programmes would bring most benefit.
The Vunabaka developers are a group of mostly New Zealander friends, drawn here by the beauty of the setting and a love of the ocean. Lead architect Richard Priest, also from New Zealand, is known for designing spare, elegant beach houses (baches). He drew inspiration for Vunabaka from Christian Liaigre’s design of Motu Tane, the French Polynesian private island retreat of cosmetics titan François Nars. Hence the marriage of endemic architecture and neutral interiors – grass cloth wallpaper, mahogany floors and carved wood panels. Sandy paths and perfumed gardens link the bures, half of them assembled on the beach and half facing remnant rainforest inhabited by 17 critically endangered Fijian crested iguanas.
For Vunabaka director Andrew Griffiths, a former investment banker and co-founder of the development organisation SurfAid International, the vision was to create a community sustainable enough to leave Malolo in a better state than he found it. “It’s about being a responsible citizen of the world,” he says.
The other compelling drawcard of Malolo for wave chasers like Griffiths is its proximity to top-rated surf spots such as Cloudbreak, the left-breaking barrel eulogised by world champion Kelly Slater. Watersports of every complexion – including private speedboat excursions to Tom Hanks’s Cast Away island Modriki – will be a defining feature of the activities roster.
Six Senses’ debut coincides with a tourism boom in the Pacific nation that defies its intermittent political strife and devastating storms. The last coup d’état was in 2006; the last major cyclone was Winston, which entered the record books in February 2016 as the strongest storm to make landfall in the Southern Hemisphere. But tourism barely flinched; according to data from the Fiji Bureau of Statistics, earnings doubled between 2006 and 2016, from FJD822m to FJD$1.6bn (about £293m to £570m), and visitor arrivals hit a record high of over 800,000 in 2017. Such is the sense of optimism that the Fijian government has announced an ambitious plan to reap $2.2bn from tourism by the end of 2021.
In the relatively untouched Kadavu Islands, south of the capital Suva, workers have just put the finishing touches to Kokomo, the private island resort of Australian property magnate Lang Walker. Its 21 beachfront villas and five residences actually opened over a year ago, but Walker has only just finished realising his dream. “I thought maybe A$10m and 18 months to two years to get it up and running,” says Walker. “It ended up taking five years and the budget went many, many times over.” The fine-tuning operations included expanding the alfresco waterfront diner Walker d’Plank, building a new gym and teenagers’ retreat, both of which opened last month, and adding the final foliage to a “spa journey” via moated gardens to nine treatment rooms and Fiji’s first accredited hammam.
As part of his research for Kokomo, Walker stayed at Laucala, the ultra-exclusive, $5,000-a-night Fijian resort owned by Red Bull co-owner Dietrich Mateschitz. The two are very different in style but there are affinities in the stone privacy walls and lavish landscaping, which at Kokomo is tended by a team of 27 gardeners. Australian-born executive chef Anthony Healy, also ex-Laucala, has created an extraordinary biosphere of plants and animals to provision his kitchens with everything from vanilla beans and honey to seafood, harvested by a team of six fishermen.
Unlike Laucala, Kokomo is very much a resort for families, and despite now having 60 bedrooms spread across villas and residences, it still feels intimate and fun. Accessible only by Kokomo’s helicopter and seaplane (or by private yacht, by prior arrangement), the 21 beachfront villas capture sunrise or sunset views over raked ivory sands and translucent seas. The five residences enjoy panoramic outlooks to neighbouring islands over waters alive with turtles, manta rays and dolphins. The bures are handsome, expansive spaces of plantation timbers, woven pandanus ceilings and timber joints fastened with magimagi-patterned coir. Glass walls slide open to luminous beach scenes where sunloungers and hammocks wait and infinity pools seem to melt seamlessly into the lagoon.
Kokomo’s most precious asset is the Great Astrolabe Reef; arriving guests witness it from the air as a halo of iridescent blue encircling the Kadavu group of islands. Staff have identified more than 40 dive sites, from caves to giant bommies – all virtually untouristed, given Kokomo is the province’s only major resort. “Our dive sites are still very much undiscovered,” says resort manager Nathan Vassallo. “A lot are island sites that we have rights to dive on.” During a snorkel off Qasibale Island, near a slip of palm-fringed sand used by Kokomo for private picnics and barbecue dinners à deux, I discover pastel corals shaped like antlers, brassicas, brains and lily pads, all arranged into living sculpture walls, as if Patrick Blanc had been down there in a wetsuit.
In the aftermath of Cyclone Winston, many Fiji properties were forced to close for repairs or full makeovers, meaning that today even veteran resorts feel fresh. At tiny Dolphin Island, off the northern coast of Viti Levu, antipodean lodge queen Virginia Fisher’s interiors look as crisp and cool as when she completed them eight years ago, following a recent refurbishment. There are just four suites in two pavilions, set like sun temples on stepped platforms facing the water. A third pavilion functions as a restaurant, bar and lounge. Over the hilltop on the windward slope, an open-sided hut with netted bed and filtered views to Vanua Levu stokes the fantasies of romantics or would-be Robinson Crusoes. Across the island the lawns are immaculate and the sands groomed; a swing dangles invitingly from the branch of a beach almond.
Best of all, Dolphin guests don’t share the 14-hectare idyll with anyone they didn’t invite. Whether a couple, or eight people or – in my case – just one, it’s always exclusive use. My private paradise for the night. Would I like a snack? Champagne? How about some lobster for dinner? Actually, no, a whole coral trout just pulled from the sea will be perfect. Perhaps with some prawns to begin, and a chilled Hawkes Bay Chardonnay. (No set menus; simply request your culinary desire and it will be answered.)
Back atop the hill where we started, Mudunavere reveals he used to sneak across to what is now Vunabaka in his youth to buy black-market beer from an old German guy who lived in a hut roughly where the marina is now. That was 20 years ago. He didn’t recognise Malolo when he first came to work here. “After Vunabaka developed it, it’s different hey? It’s heaven on earth.”