Likuliku Lagoon Resort: Fiji’s reptilian retreat

This idyllic Fiji island resort offers laidback luxury while saving critically endangered reptiles with a crucial breeding program.

One of the many reasons to travel is to experience something new and here I am, certainly doing just that as a 50-centimetre-long iguana digs its needle-sharp claws into my forearm and bicep and makes its way up my arm to sit on my shoulder.

Named Malolo, this reptile is one of a handful of rare Fiji crested iguanas who have found a home in a breeding colony at the luxe Likuliku Lagoon Resort. This magnificent male specimen, with its bright yellow nostrils and long tail, which almost reaches down to my wrist as he perches on my shoulder, is named after the island the resort sits on, Malolo Island, in the Mamanuca archipelago of Western Fiji.

Malolo the iguana is perfectly happy to hang out on me, says Keli Nacewa, Group Environment Manager for Fiji family-owned Ahura Resorts, which operates the adults-only Likuliku and its family-friendly sister property, Malolo Island Resort, just around the headland on the neighbouring beach. Fiji crested iguanas wear their emotions on their scales, darkening in patches when stressed, Keli says, but Malolo is a lovely pale green, calmly staring off into space, thinking reptilian thoughts.

Fiji crested iguanas were thought to have been extinct until three juveniles were found within the grounds of Likuliku Lagoon Resort in 2011 and identified by specialists from Sydney’s Taronga Zoo and San Diego Zoo in the United States. The discovery has transformed this exclusive resort into a leading example of eco-tourism: a captive assurance colony was established here in 2011 to protect the critically endangered population of Fiji crested iguanas from predation, and in 2017, Likuliku became a Fiji government-sanctioned iguana breeding facility that now houses four pairs of these rare creatures.

Adopting a two-pronged approach to saving the iguana that will be familiar to anyone who has stayed at the Arkaba luxury lodge in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges, resort staff work to eradicate feral predators like rats and cats from the island while simultaneously striving to restore the iguanas’ natural habitat.

The herbivorous reptiles spend most of their time high up in the canopy of the tropical dry forest that once covered this island, but only pockets of this unique ecosystem survive, including around the grounds of Likuliku. Ahura Resorts has spent the past eight years propagating seedlings of 12 tropical dry forest plant species that the iguanas rely on and planting thousands of saplings in the area to expand and connect the remaining patches of tropical dry forest.

The result? There are now around half a dozen separate wild populations of Fiji crested iguanas on Malolo Island, as well as the resort’s breeding pairs and their offspring. And while the species remains on the critically endangered list, their future looks as bright as their scales, if not the fluorescent tips of their faces.

Likuliku’s environmental efforts don’t end there: Keli and his team also raise mangrove seedlings and revegetate this crucial inter-tidal zone on the lagoon and encourage the regrowth of the seagrass turtles feed on.

“We call ourselves the Super Coral Avengers,” Keli says as he explains how his team installs coral planting frames offshore to reverse damage to the island’s coral reefs.

There’s plenty of food for thought as Malolo returns to his sanctuary (watched over by security cameras to discourage poaching) and we head upstairs to eat at Fijiana, Likuliku’s onsite restaurant. It’s a breezy, open space that looks out to a string of overwater bures, the first of their kind in Fiji, and the tiny man-made island bridge that hosts boat arrivals. (It’s around 45 minutes by water taxi to the port of Denarau and Nadi International Airport on the mainland; you can also arrive via helicopter or seaplane.)

The leisurely lunch begins with chilled shots of blueberry and ginger cooler and a yellowfin tuna crudo, followed by a bowl of wild rice, pickles, and greens, or a reef fish burger for those with a bigger appetite, and a choice of three equally tempting desserts. It’s all fresh and uniformly delicious, which will come as no surprise to anyone who had the good fortune to eat at Hartsyard in Newtown, Sydney where Likuliku Executive Chef Gregory Llewellyn formerly worked.

Ambling back to my bungalow to relax in the tropical heat after lunch, I pass a smattering of loved-up couples reclining on lounges around the infinity pool — the path to my beachfront bure crosses a narrow section of the pool via stepping stones. The pool looks inviting, with overhanging trees perfectly framing the gorgeous view of the ocean and nearby islands, but more inviting is the shaded cabana and plunge pool on the timber deck of my bungalow.

It’s a glorious way to spend a lazy afternoon, in between indulgent meals. I fall into a cycle of reading a few pages of a novel before gazing out at the aquamarine hues of the lagoon, stepping off the deck, digging my toes into the sandy beach, and plunging into the warm waters of the lagoon.

I could happily spend the rest of my time here splashing about in the shallows off the beach, snorkelling along the coral reef looking for turtles, and watching the tide come in and out, but there are plenty of adventures awaiting in deeper water.

Of the many optional activities available to Likuliku guests, a must-do is a morning island-hopping tour by speedboat. We’re whisked away from the lagoon to bump over the waves from one gorgeous tropical island to another, passing boats ferrying local islanders to work. The highlight of this South Pacific odyssey, though, is landing at tiny Monuriki Island, made famous as the location of the Tom Hanks film Cast Away, to snorkel its pristine reef and get up close to a dizzying stream of tropical fish cruising the coral.

We return to Likuliku to freshen up before a 15-minute boat ride to Mociu Island, a private hideaway that’s so picture-perfectly romantic it’s been dubbed Honeymoon Island. Ahura Resorts leases the whole island, so only Likuliku and Malolo resorts guests can enjoy the pretty beach and the thriving reef just steps offshore.

For the next phase of the iguana breeding program, some of the offspring of Malolo and his sanctuary roommates will be introduced to Mociu Island. In the meantime, the boat returns to Likuliku and it’s just us here for a few dreamy hours with a gourmet picnic, towels, and snorkels. There’s so much food in the picnic hamper, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if the boat failed to return in time and we’re cast away for the rest of the afternoon.

Rates including all meals (excluding drinks) range from around AUD$1,275 per night for a garden beachfront bure to around AUD$2,000 per night for an overwater bure.

Mark Sariban travelled as a guest of Likuliku Lagoon Resort, Fiji Airways, and Tourism Fiji.

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