This Fiji holiday began as our others had, with the traditional arrival song Welcome Home played on a ukulele and sung by Fijian men wearing grass skirts at the entrance to the resort. The song, with its wistful tune and lilting Polynesian melodies, promised all the dreamy clichés of a south pacific paradise yet it hadn’t ever sounded sadder to me. The previous day, our old, family dog had, with barely a few hours’ notice, passed away. “This will be the worst holiday ever,” our 10-year-old son announced as we had set out.
Months earlier, we’d settled on Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort. It is one of the three or so luxury properties in Fiji that take children plus, we’d planned scuba diving courses and Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the world-famous ocean explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau, took diving expeditions there in the 1980s and 90s.
On the night of our arrival, we ate at the outdoor table by the private pool at our villa (number 25) overlooking the ocean and just a few steps from the beds we’d fall into to finally put an end to what had been a sullen day. Just before dinner arrived, the ten-year-old had another announcement. He wouldn’t be going to any kids’ club this holiday.
While we ate, we read aloud the Bula Club program for the 6 to 12-year-olds. It started at 7:00 with a kayak race followed by a church service and then decorating the Christmas tree, a snorkel trip, a game of Marco Polo in the kids pool, lunch with the other kids around outdoor tables, a trip on the glass bottom boat, play time in the big tree house, a tennis challenge followed by kite flying and a hunt at the point to collect hermit crabs for that evening’s race at the lounge bar with the adults, afternoon tea and then soccer, boys versus girls, then more pool games before dinner. At 6:30, an Island Dance troupe would perform and then there would be a game of chess staged on the oversized chess board back at the Bula Club before popcorn and board games. Bedtime was planned for 9:30pm.
In a classic ten-year-old about face, he declared: “Okay. I’m going to do all of that except for the Church Service.”
For us, other than strolls to the main pavilion for breakfast, lunch and dinner and a few around the resort using the Bula Club program to track down our son, that day was passed on an outdoor day bed, under a whirring fan, with the occasional tropical bird call interrupting what was otherwise a still, humid, silence.
Jean-Michel Cousteau resort is on the northern tip of Fiji’s second-biggest island Vanua Levu, in a region called Savusavu. It is small, with just 25 bures, and employs around 200 locals from the neighboring settlements (like suburbs) and four traditional villages. For some of the staff, home life is not that different to the way Fijian village life was centuries ago. They observe traditional rules and social order, and practice old customs. They are also as friendly as they are regularly reported to be.
The Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort is owned by Canyon Equity, a small, private equity group based in San Francisco. Among its other four tourism holdings are two Aman resorts and a Four Seasons property, so they understand luxury. But Cousteau is not a chain and general manager Bart Simpson (yes, that’s right, but born in 1972, he can lay claim to being the original) is free to run it as he sees fit. “Happy staff, happy guests” is his mantra and it appears he and the staff share a genuine warmth.
On our second night, dinner was brought to us at the end of a long, timber jetty. Every now and then, to the mild astonishment of the 10-year-old, a patch of the ocean seemed to jump up and we could see the moonlight on the silver bodies of dozens of fish. Our waiter, ApaKuki (Kuki) Delai, explained they were chasing the baitfish. Kuki is a tall, gentle and athletic 20-something Fijian man, less languid than his colleagues and with a full set of white teeth.
While we sipped on Chilean Chardonnay from Cousteau’s impressive wine list, Kuki told us stories passed down from his ancestors, and that his clan is still the guardian clan of Savusavu’s land and oceans.
As the children sit down to dinner each night, it’s cocktails on the house for the adults who can either make their way to the main bar – where Kelemete (Kele) Kulanikoro mixes a very fine Peach Martini, Pineapple Caipiroska or Mojito – or have cocktails delivered to their bure. The latter would be a missed opportunity because, as a member of the Bati Leka and trained in the use of warrior spears and clubs, Kele also has ancestral stories to tell.
So too does Dominiquo Wainiu, who runs the dive centre. According to Kuki and Kele, Wainiu, a member of the Herald Clan, is one of the most reliable sources on the history and culture of this area.
On my last morning, I resisted the temptation to return to sleep following the 4:30am cock-a-doodle-do of the resident rooster, and stepped outside to watch the sunrise. These people, I thought, with their proud histories, important clan stories, and wide smiles welcomed us to their home. When connections can be made across oceans, cultures and time, the universe seems a little less indifferent and life after our chocolate Labrador a little more bearable. And on the flight home, the 10-year-old declared it had been our best Fiji holiday so far.
Family fun at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, Fiji