Lost in Turtle time at Turtle Island, Fiji
The stunning South Pacific setting of the movie "The Blue Lagoon," exclusive couples retreat Turtle Island becomes a family destination just three times a year when, as Susan Borham discovered, a few families get to roam barefoot and carefree in a tropical island paradise.
By Susan Borham | Published #60, Spring 2014
The boys with their Turtle Island buddies
The Blue Lagoon, the 1949 movie about two children fending for themselves on a tropical island paradise after a shipwreck in the South Pacific, was shot on one of the tiny islands in the Yasawa group of Islands in the Western Division of Fiji. When the director of the 1980 Hollywood remake starring Brooke Shields was scouting for a location, he ruled out many possibilities throughout the world to finally settle on the exact location of the original.
At the time of filming the idyllic South Pacific island, known as Turtle Island, was inhabited by an eccentric American named Richard Evanson who had bought it reportedly for a few thousand pounds.
Other islands of the Yasawa group of islands, by order of the Fijian government, were closed to tourists up until 1989. Cruise ships had sailed through the area with frequency from the 1950s onwards but the passengers had not been allowed ashore. As a result, and as was the intention, the tiny villages scattered throughout the islands had remained little affected by the rest of the world and even today, much of traditional village life on these islands is as it has been for centuries.
Turtle Island, still owned by Richard Evanson, is best known these days as a romantic private island retreat for couples but just three times a year, it does accept reservations from families. They call it “Family Time on Turtle Island” and that’s where our family of four headed for the Australian April school holidays.
At 6:30am on a dark, cold Sydney winter morning we climbed aboard a Fiji Airways flight to Nadi. The Fijian flight attendants wore fresh frangipanis behind their ears and just three-and-a-half hours later, the temperature at Nadi airport was around 28 degrees and we’d arrived in summer. It was another 30-minute seaplane ride across a cloudless sky and turquoise seas to Turtle Island.
From the air we could see young Fijian warrior men in grass skirts on the beach waving to us. When the noise of the propellers stopped, we could hear ukuleles and their voices singing out across the water. The chorus of their song was “welcome home”. This was a delightful welcome at what would prove to be an extraordinary family holiday.
Our boys (nine and 11) were carried from the seaplane, giggling, across the water in the arms of their buddies, two young Fijian women assigned to be their constant companions for our stay on the island. Their feet had barely touched the sand before they all made their way along the beachfront towards the south end of Turtle Island’s main beach. They were headed to a place called the Kids’ Village, the invention of Alex Weiss, Turtle’s current general manager. It’s nothing like a typical kids’ club but rather an outdoor camp set up in the spirit of a typical Fijian village with bures (bungalows) scattered under palm trees around a shady open-air area. This would be the base from which they, and the 17 other kids on the island, would venture out with their Fijian buddies and return over the next few days. The children’s meals are served there around a long table and a drinks bar with snacks addresses appetites between meal times. Alex said: “Richard Evanson wanted Turtle to be all-inclusive. Parents at resorts are always signing room bills every time their child orders a soda from the pool waiters. Here there’s no need to worry about that.”
In fact, the concept of a buddy-per-child combined with the kids’ village entirely relieves parents of supervising and entertaining their children. (And a space especially for the children means the adults have an area entirely of their own.) Friendships formed fast down at the kids’ village and there was so much adventure and fun to be had from volleyball and soccer on the sand to fishing expeditions, visits to sleepy villages on nearby islands, snorkeling and horse riding along the beach, that persuading the kids to occasionally join their parents for a private dining experience — a dinner out on the pontoon or in the Teppanyaki room, or a picnic lunch on a private beach – was a regular problem.
While the boys were meeting their fellow campers at the other end of the beach, we were shown around our bure and introduced to the way things work on Turtle Island. “Your Bure Mamma is your best friend on Turtle,” it was explained to us. “At other places, you have many different housekeeping staff attend to your room each day. And you have butlers. Here it is always your Bure Mamma. Same person every day. She knows your family and you know about hers. She looks after you and makes everything good for you. She arranges your activities and your food. You need to talk to your Bure Mamma about everything. You call her Mamma.”
I wondered how the adult guests of the 13 other bures on the island took to their own Bure Mammas. My fellow guests, as I found out over dinner that first evening, were almost all leaders of one kind or another in their various fields. They were no doubt used to being in charge of their children, their workplaces and their own activities. (Former US Vice President Al Gore is a regular visitor to the island and Republican Presidential nominee John McCain has been a return visitor).
With the children happily propped up eating chicken drumsticks and sausages around their own open-air long table down the other end of the beach, at around 6pm each day the adults make their way along the sand (all of the bures are beachfront) to Turtle’s beachside bar for pre-dinner cocktails hosted by Alex, the perennially barefooted GM. Stories of the day are exchanged before Alex seats the guests around the long table for dinner and conversations continue over entrée, main and desert accompanied by well selected wines.
Alex claims a 50 per cent returning guest rate for Family Time on Turtle Island (a 35 per cent return rate for other times of the year) but it became apparent over dinner on our first night that more than half of the guests seated around the long table were return guests, some of whom had returned several times and planned to come again. One first time guest told us she was there on the recommendation of a colleague who comes regularly to Family Time. Alex knew him, his wife and named his three kids. Another of the guests (Rupert Murdoch’s nephew) had come to Turtle for Family Time as a boy of nine, had remembered it as a magical time and had been back four times since, this time with four of his own children. This, according to Alex, is a common story. He said: “The children of the people sitting around this table tonight are for sure our future guests.”
I mentioned the Bure Mamma arrangements to one of the other regular guests and she whispered: “You have to do what your Bure Mamma tells you to do.” I replied: “What if I don’t want to?” She said: “Just agree and then make other arrangements with dock man (the island’s equivalent of a concierge who sits at the dock with a radio phone coordinating the movements of guests and staff). That will be perfectly fine.”
Vonu Point Premium Bure
At about 7am each morning just after the sun had risen over the ocean in front of our bure, the buddies were waiting out the front for the children to come out. By now, every type of foot ware has been abandoned and the boys are barely awake before they run to join their buddies for the stroll along the beach down to the kids’ village where the breakfast buffet of pancakes, sausages and scrambled eggs awaits.
The adults who survived the after-dinner Kava ceremony the night before can meet for breakfast at the long table but for those who prefer, Bure Mammas deliver breakfast in bed or lay it out for them on day beds on the bure verandahs.
For lunch on our first full day on the island our Bure Mamma had arranged a private beach picnic lunch. She travelled with us on a golf cart to the beach, stopped briefly on the track at the entrance to erect the sign that indicated the beach was occupied and then set up our picnic table before heading off in the buggy leaving us, the kids, the sun, the sand, the pacific ocean, our lobster lunch and a radio phone to use when we were ready to be collected.
The number of bures on Turtle is limited to 14 so that the guests in each bure get to have a picnic lunch every second day of their stay on one of the island’s seven private beaches. On the days the beaches were all taken, the barbecue lunch at the long table was not a poor alternative. An interior section of Turtle Island’s 500 acres is farmed with fruit, vegetable and herb gardens and beehives for honey. Chickens and roosters are kept and fresh seafood is delivered off boats by local fishermen from surrounding island villages.
When it came to shooting the 1980 version of The Blue Lagoon, the director wanted to film mainly at sunrise and sunset, when the light for film is magical. The story goes that he couldn’t get the locals, or for that matter his own, mainly Australian, crew who’d joined in the kava ceremonies the night before, to arrive on set on time, so he ingeniously set the clocks on the island back one hour. “Turtle time” today is euphemistic shorthand for the way time on the island is a negotiable concept. When you ask what time anything is; lunch, horse riding, anything, you’re given two times half an hour apart. If you ask which it is, the two times are restated.
This is one of the ways guests get into the way of things on Turtle Island and if that doesn’t suit them, perhaps Turtle Island isn’t for them. With the exception of Alex, who although he has been living in Fiji for about 15 years, is originally from Germany, the entire staff is Fijian and many are from one of the nearby tiny villages. As a result, much of traditional Fijian culture permeates the way the island operates. According to Alex: “The staff run this place. Managers come and go and they don’t make much difference to how things operate.” The nature of the relationship between guests and staff has a slightly different tone to what westerners might have come to expect from luxury hotels in other parts of the world. In the same way money doesn’t talk very loudly in traditional Fijian villages, the commercial underpinning of this relationship seems to take a back seat on Turtle Island. The staff are the island’s (deservedly) proud hosts and visitors are treated as honoured guests. When you’re a guest in a Fijian village, as with anywhere in the world, ideally you’ll be a respectful guest. In return, you receive the warmth and generosity Fijians are famous for. You won’t just be a room number. The staff call you by your first name (there are no honorifics), the white toothed smiles you get on the way to breakfast are genuine and they all know which are your kids and probably their ages.
Fijian culture requires deep respect for elders and the Bure Mammas are often older than the bure inhabitants. Just as it wouldn’t work to have guests issue commands to their hosts, it wouldn’t work to have younger people delivering orders to an older person. A butler-style relationship wouldn’t be comfortable for the Fijian staff and while the Bure Mamma style relationship requires explanation, the result is a warmer, more casual and authentic Fijian experience.
Evanson and Alex share a passion for the authenticity and open-heartedness of the Fijian people, the collectivist nature of their culture and importantly their lack of regard for the value western cultures place on money and status. Both men have married Fijians (in Richard’s case five times) and both found their way to these remote South Pacific Islands from the northern hemisphere in search of a life that was more about happiness and connectedness than wealth and status.
Slightly strange then that the travel experience masterminded by one and overseen by the other should now find its market from among the leaders in the western world, people who have brilliantly negotiated the fiercely individualistic cultures of the west and who have excelled to attain both wealth and status. Not really. It is a private island, a sanctuary from all of that, where to the Fijian staff who run the place each guest, for this brief time in their lives, is just Mike or Sally here from Oklahoma or Melbourne. Not a CEO or a one per center. Their time on Turtle Island is perhaps a genuine respite from being themselves and the responsibility attached to that.
And anyway, Turtle Island really isn’t for everyone. With only 14 bures the resort can be selective about who comes to stay. In fact both Alex and Richard worry a lot about the guest mix and delve a little in social engineering to make the long table concept work. For example, the bures are for couples (and during Family Time, their kids). Richard Evanson found early on that an interesting or attractive single person at the long table each meal time could be disruptive for the couples. Turtle Island received its first paying guests in 1980 and with a few upgrades here and there, the addition of a new bure now and then and the construction of a gift shop, spa and Teppanyaki room, it has been operating along similar lines, under Richard Evanson’s ownership, ever since. These days with the proliferation of tourism properties at the higher end, there are perhaps a couple of more fashionable Fijian private island retreats prospective guests could choose but, just like the director of The Blue Lagoon, many come back to the original.