Fiji Island Throwdown, Round 1: The Wakaya Club & Spa

img_2523.jpgThe Wakaya Club and Spa is located on the island of Wakaya in the northeastern division of the nation of Fiji.  You get there from the mainland U.S. by a 9-hour flight to Nadi (pronounced “Nandi”), then a 45-minute flight on the resort’s private plane (for which there is a fare of $300 per person).  The plane doubles as a ferry for employees of the resort, and our flight was full of quiet, polite Fijians, many of them sleeping, returning from visiting friends and family on the main island of Viti Levu, where Nadi is located.IMG_2468

The island is owned by David Gilmour, serial entrepreneur and founder of the Fiji Water empire, who bought the place in 1972, rather to the dismay of local Fijians at the time, who had hoped it would be returned to the state and made public land.

Our initial impressions of the Wakaya Club were heavily influenced by the fact that, for the first few days of our stay, we were “TOGOTI,” a Fijian word (that I just made up), meaning “The Only Guests On The Island.” This meant we were in a state of almost unearthly solitude and serenity, with the entire place at our sole disposal.  It was also a little weird.  In a bigger place, being TOGOTI would have suggested serious problems and sent us running; here, it merely made us realize that not many Americans travel to Fiji over Thanksgiving (when we were there), and that the members of the staff, who were uniformly welcoming and eager to please in that wonderful way that we quickly came to recognize as authentically Fijian, were working only because of us and were focused exclusively on us. This was both delightful and somewhat guilt-inducing.  We also had to wonder if the limited menus (only 2 choices of appetizer and entrée per evening) were the result of our being TOGOTI, or if this was standard even when the place was full.  (I can report that when a second couple arrived on the weekend, the choices did not expand.)  In any event, it was an experience unique in all our travels.

IMG_2554 (2)Our ocean-front bure was beautiful and functional, and steps from our own perfect little beach. The food was inventively prepared and consistently delicious, though again, dinner for two — and ONLY two — in the capacious Palm Grove bure took on a rather unreal air. Service was solicitous almost to a fault: at our first breakfast, the jovial “recreation coordinator” hovered over us for the entire meal, making us a bit uncomfortable.

One side effect of being TOGOTI is that, when other guests do appear, you become extremely–some might say unhealthily — curious about them (and they about you).  Whereas in the usual small resort setting we would avoid other guests, when the aforementioned second couple did arrive, we set about discovering everything we could about them, and were a bit crestfallen to learn that they hailed from Las Vegas, of all places, and not some more exotic locale. Seating for dinner — now for all of two couples at two separate tables — took on the unacknowledged comedy of which couple would get the “prime” spot that only we had theretofore occupied, and how on earth we could ignore one another enough to hold separate conversations.  All of this made us realize how much, in the normal course of things, we travelers derive anonymity and privacy from being part of a crowd.

IMG_2692 (2)The local activities were plentiful without being a distraction from relaxation. My wife and I had the snorkel/scuba dive of a lifetime a mere 5 minute boat ride from the marina. The nine-hole, par three golf course is charming and fun (but not to be taken seriously as a “golf course”). We were guided on an informative and only mildly challenging nature walk, which afforded us beautiful views of the island and its surrounding turquoise waters from a 700 foot cliff, from which chieftains of old reportedly leaped to their deaths to avoid capture by an invading tribe.

IMG_2535 (2)The Spa is small but so beautiful that my wife literally burst into tears when she first saw the interior, with its life-sized reclining Buddha and the ocean prospect beyond, and the treatments were warmly expert.  Laundry was collected, cleaned, and returned almost as fast as we could deposit it in the hamper in our bure, which was serviced several times a day. The only slight shortcoming in service is an absence of any offering of libations anywhere but in the bar — which was a good walk from our bure and beach chairs.  An occasionally circulating server would be a boon here, though I realize this might be thought to violate the pervasive serenity.  We also had to special-order good vodka and gin, as the offerings at the bar were surprisingly limited and downscale; our favorites were duly delivered, by barge from the “mainland,” two days after our arrival.

There were other minor lapses: hot water in our bure was not consistently available due to some inexplicable electrical eccentricity, though we eventually learned how to re-start the water heater on our own rather than repeatedly summon staff.  The thatched roof of our bure was in obvious need of repair. As mentioned, the bar, menu, and wine list are more limited than one would expect in a first-rate resort. But again, we were, for much of our stay, TOGOTI.

IMG_2537It’s also clear that, sometime in the next few years, someone (David Gilmour or some new owner) is going to have to invest heavily in the place to bring it up to current luxury standards and replace aging infrastructure, or what is now charmingly retro will begin to look rather dated and frayed around the edges (we were told that a two-month renovation is planned for 2015, but that sounds rather superficial).  It’s just on the edge of the line, but for now that old-school charm and the stunningly beautiful Fijian setting win out.

Would we go back?  In a heartbeat; my wife is already plotting our return.  Is the place perfect, or even what I’m sure it once was, when it was almost unique?  No, but the Wakaya Club and Spa comes as close to heaven as anyone, TOGOTI or not, could reasonably hope for.


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About Keith McWalter

Keith McWalter is an author and lawyer. His essays and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the San Jose Mercury News. He lives with his wife Courtney in Granville, Ohio and Sanibel, Florida.