Embrace position: Fiji's magical Turtle Island
An enchanting and remote Fijian island offers an immersive — and gloriously luxurious — cross-cultural escape, writes Elizabeth Meryment
The thing you should know about Fiji’s Turtle Island before you arrive is that there will be hugs. Lots of hugs.
Landing on the island after floating in from Nadi on the little dragonfly-like seaplane, you’ll find yourself greeted by a rush of islanders heading towards the plane, arms outstretched, the minute the propellers stop. “Bula!” the chorus chimes. “Bula!”
The dazzle of the island, with its stretch of postcard-pretty beach, palm trees and jetty over turquoise water, is momentarily blinding. Then two burly men in grass skirts pluck you from the plane and carry you over to the beach. Your bure “mama” — one of the village women assigned to care for you during your stay — comes forward with a hug. Not a quick, slap-on-the-back Western-style hug, but a full-strength embrace, her fleshy arms wrapped tightly around you, like your own mother if you had been away for a long time. “Welcome home,” she cries, almost tearfully, as if greeting her own child.
Hugger or not, you will go with it, and get used to it. Everyone hugs on Turtle Island. Turtle Island is not like other places.
In some ways this place rushes up to you, yet in others the reveal is slow. The beauty, of course, smacks you in the face, even before you step into the willing arms encircling your plane.
Turtle is part of the Yasawas, a string of islands flung to the far north of Fiji’s main island, and is as picture perfect in reality as it is in the promotional photography. The 14 bures, built in traditional island style, with thatched roofs, furniture made from local timber, and gardens of jungle flowers, are so discreet you may not even notice them scattered along the island’s main beach, a thin rind of sandy shoreline on the sheltered side of the island overlooking the calm, pristine lagoon.
A golf-cart trip along leafy tracks to the other side of the island reveals a slew of wilder, deserted beaches with romantic names — Honeymoon Beach, Nudie Beach, Devil’s Beach, Rose Beach and so on — that have made the island the stuff of Hollywood fantasy.
Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins shot the 1980 Columbia Pictures’ blockbuster Blue Lagoon here and the sensual shadow of the film lingers long over the place to this day. People talk about Blue Lagoon almost incessantly on the island.
The jewel-toned waters, particularly on the island’s lee side, shift from aquamarine to sapphire; you can see the abundant sea life without even stepping foot into the crystal water. Yes, there are turtles whose heads break above the surface to peer inquisitively at tourists. See, too, flying fish that skip joyfully above sea level at dusk, schools of stripy tropical fish that zoom around the jetty pillars in the sunlight, and, on land at dawn, the sweet tinkling of tropical birds whose presence is heard rather than seen.
Somewhere nearby, on another island, a film crew is shooting Australian Survivor, and you can see why the location was chosen. Around here it is at once rugged yet charismatic, gorgeous and distant, a picturesque escape from everyday life.
The very Fijian-ness of Turtle Island takes a while longer to work out. Expect to wake after your first dreamy night on the island to the gentle sound of village staff singing, hymn-like, in preparation for that night’s cultural evening, complete with Fijian fire dancing, a lovo (earth pit) feast and kava ceremony.
“Is that singing real?”, is a natural first response. But step out of the bure and the cries of “Bula” and the spontaneous hugs from staff seemingly overjoyed to see you again after an absence of mere hours confirm you are now deeply ensconced in Fijian village life. You are now a part of the village.
“Bula,” purrs Bill, the cultured island overseer, as you step into the breakfast room, while Jerry, his grinning 2IC comes over for a hug. Polite, quietly spoken Saki is on standby to take you on a trip to his village, a stone’s throw across the passage, should you desire to see meet his people. Maika, the grinning fisherman itching for time on the water, has the boat ready should the guests wish for the exhilaration of a day at sea with the big lines cast.
The rhythm of the days on island begins to assert itself. Western cares drift away. Each day the smiling, happy islanders enfold you a little more into their lives.
The staff speak in reverential tones about Turtle’s owner, one Richard Evanson, an American former cable TV executive who bought the island in 1972. The enigmatic octogenarian still lives here, but is rarely seen on account of poor health. Luck strikes us one night when his son, Richard Evanson Junior, emerges from somewhere for cocktails. Young Richard turns out to be a charming 30-year-old Melbourne-educated part-American, part-Fijian who now oversees the island.
He engrosses us in stories about the time his father was island-hopping his way to Sydney but was waylaid in Fiji. Another American showed him this island he owned to the north of Nadi — one of Fiji’s handful of freehold islands — and flew Richard Senior over it for a look at it. Evanson bought it that day for $US500,000. The resort has been a half-century work in progress.
The story could be its own movie.
These days Turtle Island is designed primarily for wealthy and successful people to deep dive into relaxation. The place is filled with a curious assortment of Americans, as well as some Australians and Kiwis, either here to honeymoon or unwind.
There is no Wifi in the guest bures, nor is there any television or newspapers on the island; instead, there is the daily ferry in or out, and the gentle coming and going of the seaplane dispersing new and dispatching departing guests.
An on-island yoga teacher holds daybreak yoga classes (well, 8am), a fully stocked bar is open all hours, there are private dining experiences — book to have dinner on a pontoon under the stars and your meal will be delivered by boat, your table lit only by candles — and morning breakfasts to take with the other guests. By mid-morning, the private beaches are open to explore. Picnics and wine are part of the daily beach deal.
The adventurous can go fishing or snorkelling at nearby Blue Lagoon; the stressed can order massages at the spa. Everyone has a sun bed in front of their bure and a daybed on their private veranda. Inside the bures, the king beds, fluffed with down pillows, are stripped daily to avoid sand between the sheets and draped with mosquito netting for an atmospheric touch.
There is an emphasis on being part of the community, so be prepared to have dinner some nights around a communal table. If this sounds like it might not be your thing, stick with it — guests during our stay prove as fascinating as the villagers.
Billionaire Texans rub shoulders with Puerto Rican doctors and a couple of lovely Australian dentists. A travel writer from Boston and his marketing executive boyfriend regale us over margaritas with hilarious anecdotes from the East Coast. One night a retiree couple from Carmel, California return to their bure to eat hamburgers alone after the South African head chef, who cooks international-standard food, draws the line at allowing Americans to eat hamburgers at the communal dinner table.
After dinner, every night, there’s kava with the entire village, singing, talking, cocktails and, always, hugs, before you are bundled off back to your bure with nothing but the sound of the sea lapping against the shore to will you into a deep, deep island sleep.
Elizabeth Meryment was a guest of Turtle Island
TURTLE ISLAND: WHAT TO KNOW
Resorts are a dime a dozen in Fiji. Denarau Island, on the mainland, is sprinkled with huge five-star properties featuring dozens or hundreds of rooms, big pools and kids’ clubs.
Turtle Island is not like that. Twice a year it has block-out periods when families can come to the island — each child receives their own local companion, or Bula Buddy, to look after them 24 hours a day — but for the rest of the year this is an adults-only resort.
The family weeks are becoming the most popular times on the island, however, with these weeks often booked out a year in advance.
Kids can eat together or with their family, with all meals on Turtle Island prepared and served either at one of the communal tables or at a private dining experience.
There are a few communal table experiences. Most nights guests eat together at the main table beachside under the big communal bure. Other nights, some are split off to dine in a grill where chef Simon cooks teppanyaki-style in front of diners. Some nights the entire guest community dines together on the top of the island, winds permitting.
Private dining experiences can be found on one of two pontoons, accessible by small runabout, or on the island’s cliff point. The wind that picks up at night sometimes ruins these plans.
By day, dine in room, on the main beach, at the communal table or at your private beach, nominated for you each day.
Much of the food is grown on the island and most of the power is generated from solar-power plants recently installed behind the resort (used in conjunction with generator).
Turtle Island is accessible by seaplane or, in inclement weather, ferry, although this can take up to six hours to reach the mainland.
TURTLE ISLAND, FIJI
Rates start from US$2100 per night per couple and are all inclusive of food and beverages (including alcohol). Seaplane transfers are $US1000 per couple return.
For first time families, the nightly rate for a beachfront bure starts at US$2600.