Stepping up to the check-in counter of Fiji’s local airline, Pacific Sun, I’m feeling what can only be described as hyper-confident. “That’s all?” says the friendly staffer, after weighing my carry-on luggage. “That’s right,” I nod proudly.
Travelling light in this instance seems both yogic (who needs all that stuff?) and pragmatic. I’m heading to Vanua Levu, the second largest of Fiji’s 300-plus islands. My destination, the eco-luxurious Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, is decidedly high end, so I’m letting them worry about yoga mats, towels and snorkel gear. In fact, I’m not worrying about much at all; that is, until the staffer’s next sentence.
“OK, now you,” he says pointing to the scales. “Me?” It seems I’ve found the one downside to heading to a remote tropical island. The 20-seater plane that will get me there needs to weigh not just everything but everyone on the one-hour flight.
Happily, once onboard, the scenery distracts me from both the weigh-in and the light plane experience. Looking down at Viti Levu’s rugged, bright-green mountains as we head north-east, the clear blue ocean in the distance holds the promise of a week of serenity at both land and sea.
Within an hour of arriving at tiny Savusavu airport, that promise is already being realised. For the next five days, I’m transported into an experience where yoga, local culture and authentic environmental credentials seamlessly combine for an unforgettable wellbeing experience.
Fiji is a welcoming culture, so I’m delighted but not surprised that new arrivals are usually greeted by a Bula (welcome) band and a cool fruit punch. But while these are undoubtedly enjoyable, this resort prides itself on going above and beyond. Within minutes of relaxing on the balcony of my oversized bure (thatched roof hut), I can see why. Across the lawn, a friendly looking woman walks up bearing a large metal bowl. “Bula! Foot soak?” she says, “It’s complimentary.”
Yoga in paradise
I’ve arrived on a Sunday, the traditional Fijian day of rest (Siga Tabu), and by Monday morning I’ve well and truly settled into Fijian time. Still, yoga holidays don’t usually equate with sleep-ins: by 7am I’m leaving my thatched roof and blissfully TV-free bure and ambling up the tree-lined path to find the gap between bure 23 and 24. Across the grass I spot an open patch of land looking out onto the calm waters of Savusavu Bay. The in-house yoga teacher, Torika Tabua, has chosen well. “I spent a long time trying to decide the best place to do yoga here. People like being outside,” she smiles.
As our small group sits cross-legged to begin our daily, hour-long hatha practice, Torika’s first few words wash away any remaining traces of the outside world. “Enjoy this moment, as this is the only moment,” she says.
Staring at the clear blue water just metres away, it’s easy to embrace the moment. Moving through a well-balanced practice, we warm up with seated twists before challenging ourselves with some stronger asanas, such as Plank Pose and a standing sequence. The gentle morning breeze keeps us cool, and just as I start to feel we’ve worked hard, it’s time to relax. Lying in Savasana, I realise Torika has another skill besides yoga teaching: massage. My calves and feet get a welcomed rub to ease me into relaxation, in a daily ritual I quickly come to anticipate.
Once class is over, I remember there’s far more than yoga and foot rubs to anticipate here. When diver Jean-Michel Cousteau (yes, from that Cousteau family) started the resort in 1994, he was determined it would provide an authentic connection to both land and sea.
On land, the vision translates to a 25-bure property with strong environmental credentials. Buildings are made from renewable materials; a water reclamation plant is disguised as a flower-filled lagoon; and edible landscaping features throughout the 17 acre property. An organic garden provides around 20 per cent of the food from the restaurant, which serves delicious (but sensibly portioned) three-course meals by the pool.
At sea, there’s a host of options to fill my days. Being a snorkeller, I’m keen to take one of the twice-daily trips with the resort’s live-in marine biologist, Johnny Singh. While Fiji time is famously slow, Singh is a busy guy. During the week he hosts activities including mangrove tours and night snorkelling (an eerie experience that is highly recommended), and consistently does an excellent job of interpreting the marine life for young and old.
During my stay, I’m also lucky enough to catch Singh heading beyond the resort’s fringes. Divers come from around the world to dive Fiji, and Savusavu’s Namena Marine Reserve is just a 45-minute boat ride away. As the instructors from L’Aventure (the resort’s dive operation) drop the divers out at the Chimneys, Singh takes me snorkelling mid-ocean.
While the multitude of coloured creatures here are impressive, it’s the crystal-clear water that’s the real star. That is, of course, until our second snorkel site. Here, I spot a handful of reef sharks before a hammerhead shark cruises lazily beneath me, resulting in a serious spot of yogic breathing to calm me down.
Although it’s undoubtedly a highlight, the shark sighting is just one reason I’m also happy to be back on shore. The other is the connection to culture. Many resorts across the globe boast local connections, but to the inquisitive visitor at least, it seems the links between the resort and the local villagers are the real deal.
A small fee from every room goes directly to a separate foundation (the Savusavu Community Foundation). This registered not-for-profit has raised more than $2 million for the local community to run eye and dental clinics, build infrastructure such as water tanks in local villages and help keep the local hospital in good shape.
“We try not to change the culture,” says resort manager Greg Taylor, over a virgin pina colada in the bar that night. “Instead, we work with it,” he says. Working with it means that the majority of the resort’s 200 staff are from the local Nukubalavu village, and that locals always get preference over outsiders. If staff turnover is any indication of happiness, employees here seem content: many of the waiters, masseuses and cleaners who make up the small army of workers keeping this luxury resort going have been here for more than a decade.
Luckily, my stay includes a Tuesday—the one day each week when resort guests are invited to visit staff members’ village, just a few coconut groves along the sand. Visiting a traditional Fijian village is not to be taken lightly, so local resident Mario preps those interested over a morning coffee. Using a meandering tale about a local girl on a nearby island as his metaphor, Mario lets us know that when visiting the village we must follow a few rules. Don’t turn your back to the chief; cover knees and shoulders; and be willing to participate.
Arriving at the village later that day, I needn’t have been nervous. We’re greeted by a swag of smiling locals who play music, teach us their dances and offer kava (the local alcohol, made from a root soaked in water). Although the connection feels genuine, it’s closely monitored—we’re here on the villager’s terms, and once our time is up, we head back to the resort.
Back in Savasana on my last morning there, I’m reminded how connection comes in so many varied forms. “Let your breath wash over you like the waves of the ocean,” Torika says, to the sound of the gently lapping sea. “Let yourself feel hope and joy and inspiration,” she guides. Relaxed and rejuvenated by this impressive eco-resort experience, it seems an easy thing to do.
Sue White is a freelance writer and hatha yoga practitioner based in Sydney.
GETTING THERE Fly from Australia to Nadi on Virgin or Air Pacific. From there, take a short flight to Savusavu on Pacific Sun. Be warned: Air Pacific is notorious for delaying flights, so leave plenty of time between connections.
STAYING THERE There are only 25 rooms (bures) on the 17-acre resort. All feature thatched roofs, cross breezes from the nearby bay, and a serene, upmarket accommodation experience. Daily rate starts at $1074 per night for two adults or two adults and two children. Rate includes all gourmet meals, afternoon tea and most resort activities. Regular specials usually mean you can pay for a few nights and get one or two free. For more info, visit www.fijiresort.com.
IN THE AREA While the resort’s daily activities, including village visits, mangrove tour and rainforest hike are included, it’s also worth getting out to Namena Marine Reserve. This coral reef is well known throughout the diving world and L’Aventure dive outfit, located onsite, can organise dive trips.