With a loud “crack”, Coconut Joe whacks his machete to open a fresh green coconut he’s holding, slips a straw in the opening and hands it to me with a wide grin. “Bula!” he shouts and the gathered staff members break into the Fijian welcoming song outside the open-air lobby of Kokomo Island resort.
Then my butler introduces himself and guides me to my bure – traditional thatched roof, but chic and modern beneath, surrounded by hibiscus and bougainvillea fluttering with dragonflies and butterflies. I have my own infinity pool metres from the sandy beach, an indoor and outdoor shower, and a pool-sized bathtub. In my luxurious open-concept room awaits the chilled champagne, feather pillows and snug bathrobe I chose in an extensive pre-arrival questionnaire that landed in my inbox weeks ago.
Only 15 minutes earlier my pilot had banked his Bell helicopter after an hour-long scenic flight from Nadi towards the remote Kadavu Island Group. “That’s Yaukuve Island,” he said, pointing towards one in an exquisite cluster of sea-fringed islets with a dock extending from a blindingly white, palm-lined beach. That sandy strand is calling me, so I grab a mask and snorkel and slip into impossibly clear, balmy water to float above an aquarium flickering with neon-coloured fish – including several clown fish hiding among the anemones. Within moments, one of the resident turtles glides by.
Officially opening its doors on 1 April, Kokomo is Fiji’s latest five-star luxury private island resort. It’s an ambitious project and a labour of love for Australian billionaire property developer Lang Walker, whose projects include the redevelopment of Parramatta’s city centre and the Collins Square development in Melbourne. Walker bought the island on a whim in 2011 with the goal of spending A$10 million to start a luxury resort. He called it Kokomo – as he has all his boats, from dinghies to yachts – given his personal affection for the word and not in connection with the Beach Boys’ tune.
Kokomo Residence dining
“The last figure I heard was that he was up to A$160 million,” resort manager Martin Persson tells me as we lunch in the al fresco Beach Shack restaurant on baby octopus with coconut, papaya salsa and lemon balm with a main course of line-caught coral trout with pea puree and asparagus from the resort’s garden. The specialties prepared in the spacious open kitchen are often based on the staff fishermen’s fresh morning bounty; 42 chefs staff the resort’s three eateries and private residences, and create custom meals in the villas.
Walker is on a mission to make Kokomo Fiji’s top resort and it’s one of the South Pacific’s most expensive, plus a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Guests arrive on his helicopter or seaplane and are pampered in one of the 21 one-, two- and three-bedroom seaside bures on two beaches; a butler for every three bures. On the hilltop are the five- and six-bedroom residences that come with a private chef, butler and nanny. Walker’s own personal villa can be rented and, eventually, the private residences will be sold or leased.
For a tiny island of 57 hectares, there’s a lot to do and activities are easy to arrange, either through my butler or via an iPad in my room that has everyone in the resort at my fingertips. I head to the state-of-the-art, air-conditioned gym, do some kayaking, and hike to the island’s summit for expansive views across the string of reefs. Then I stroll to the tranquil spa – set amid trees, surrounded by small bures for individual treatments – and let Marica use fragrant Sodashi aromatherapy oil to massage away my jet-lag.
There are also bicycles, Hobie Cats, Lasers and stand-up paddleboards. Try waterskiing, wakeboarding or fishing; head to a remote island beach for a gourmet picnic; take a guided medicinal-plant walk or a glass-bottom boat tour. Go world-class scuba diving. For children there’s an innovative pirate ship-themed playground and a kids’ club alongside a large pool and pool bar/restaurant.
Kokomo will be a game-changer for the largely overlooked Kadavu Island Group that, until now, had primarily been a magnet for scuba divers. They would stay in a handful of mom-and-pop style resorts on Kadavu and Ono islands to explore the Great Astrolabe Reef, the world’s fourth biggest.
Catch of the day
I’m here for the diving too and make my way along Kokomo’s shell-strewn beach to the PADI five-star dive facility where Luke Caldwell, Walker’s yacht captain and overseer of the dive centre, takes me on two spectacular dives just minutes offshore. We see white and black-tipped sharks, eagle rays and a stunning array of fish life and coral including Fiji’s famed yellow and white soft corals. We spot dolphins on the trip back. At certain times of the year there are humpback whales nearby and magical manta rays to dive with.
The resort’s interior is elegant yet informal with the occasional stylish Fijian art accent. Hardwood furniture was sourced from Mel Gibson’s Mago Island cinnamon trees. It’s calmingly wicker, white and beige throughout, but highlighted with stunning blasts of indigo, magenta, turquoise, yellow and chartreuse in the form of abstract paintings; some as big as the main lodge’s 6.9 x 2-metre contemporary mural. All are created by Australian artist-in-residence, Chris Kenyon, whose work Walker has been collecting for years. “I came here in June 2016 for a commission of 67 paintings. I’m still here and we’re up to 225,” Kenyon laughs. “Lang keeps finding walls!”
Kenyon is also an architect and was set designer for the first two Mad Max movies so it made sense that Walker asked him to design a “fish shack” restaurant at the end of a wooden walkway around a cliff, just away from the main resort. Using recycled fish netting and maritime relics collected from ship-stripping yards, he crafted the character (and pun) rich Walker ‘da Plank where chefs serve creative takes on Asian street food and Fijian cuisine. It’s a delightfully casual venue where I spend my evenings nibbling sushi, wrapping roasted duck in lettuce leaves, dipping pork belly sate into a spicy sauce and sipping Fiji Bitter to the ukulele rhythm of a local band as the sun sets.