This is going to be good, I think when the booking forms arrive in my inbox. “Please describe your child’s dominant personality trait so we can custom-match their ‘bula buddy’ to their personality” it reads. I’m asked to name my favourite tropical drink to be handed to me on arrival. I’m eager to watch as my kids enjoy their new surroundings, make new friends and leave their comfort zone to experience new customs.
Turtle Island in Fiji’s northern Yasawa Island group is, for most of the year, a couples-only haven of white sand and glorious clear waters. The setting for both the 1949 and 1979 versions of The Blue Lagoon, this romantic island with its seven private beaches turns into a playground for families just three times a year during Turtle Island Family Week.
Only on Fijian soil for less than five minutes, I’m reminded why this South Pacific gem is a consistently smart choice for families. They don’t just “tolerate” children here – they positively love them. Even the customs officers smile and chat with the kids. Through the gates, our Turtle Island representative, Mary, is waving to us. Within five minutes, we’re wearing shell necklaces and my two-year-old is sitting atop the luggage on the trolley feeling like lord of Nadi Airport.
A 30-minute seaplane flight later and we are shoeless, stepping onto soft, finely textured white sand, music playing in our honour. We’re all carried out of the seaplane, my welcome drink is placed in my hand by our new ‘bure mama’, Elle, and I can see my kids being welcomed by their bula buddies, Illy, Maca and Milly.
Walking to our oceanfront bure, the path lined with pavers etched with the names and messages of former Turtle Island guests, we get a thrill to see our names on a wooden plaque above the door. Inside, flowers are everywhere including on the white cotton bedcovers, leaves that spell out “Bula! Welcome home!”
The open-air kids’ village is a short stroll down the beach. There’s a communal table where the kids can have meals, activity tables for puzzles, drawing and board games and a sandpit which my youngest spots instantly. There are also hammocks, kayaks and the constant sounds of staff singing Fijian songs to strumming guitar accompaniment.
Back at the main dining area, I become acquainted with some of my fellow guests. I meet a couple from Sydney’s northern beaches who have brought their children and grandchildren here for a holiday on their seventh trip. Other families of grandparents, children and grandchildren are here from New Zealand and also Seattle. Another couple, emergency room doctors from Louisiana, are here on their third visit – they honeymooned here and have since returned twice with their children. It seems many couples return again and again. One Australian couple had a party thrown in their honour to mark their 50th visit – quite a commitment considering it opened in 1980.
The accommodation and dining quarters are truly “barefoot luxury”. As seven-time visitor Karen says, “People don’t come here to wear their stilettos at dinner, they come to be a part of the village and the Turtle Island family”. It’s true. I spend most of the week barefoot (except on vigorous walks to the top of the mountain, where I’m rewarded by panoramic vistas).
I join my children in activities such as fish-feeding, visiting the nearby village and the local school across the bay, and taking a guided horse ride along the beach – sometimes we just splash around in the calm blue waters right outside our bure. The kids hang out in anticipation for their bula buddies to appear along the beach. Before I can yell “put your hat on!” they’re racing off to discover more new adventures.
Private picnics can be arranged at any of the island’s private beaches. Private pontoon dining is also an option and afternoon tea is delivered daily to our room. On one occasion, staff make their way along the beachfront to form a small choir outside our bure and then serenade us. The bures all offer beautiful water views. Some have spas, but with a two-year-old, I’m thankful ours didn’t. That didn’t stop my other two from finding their way into the bure of a new friend where they all splashed around. The ideal age for children here is probably four to 12 years old.
Adults can go for a walk, swing in a hammock, enjoy one-on-one time or a spa treatment comfortable in the knowledge their children are having the time of their lives, cared for by staff who treat them as their own. There is no WiFi (only outside the gift shop) and no TV – exactly the way I want it.
On the morning of our departure, we are invited to say a few words to the new friends and behind-the-scenes staff who work hard so we can relax.
As we head down to the jetty, after etching our names in our own stone, staff sing a farewell song and wreaths of flowers are placed around our necks. As the propeller blades fire up on the Turtle Airways seaplane, we cast our flowers into the water. My nine-year-old son has tears rolling down his cheeks as he waves goodbye to his new Turtle Island family. This has been a magical week, one they will remember for a lifetime.