Fiji Island Throwdown, Round 2: Laucala Island

IMG_2596We spent the first day or so of our stay on Laucala Island (pronounced “Lauthala” in proper Fijian) in a state of stunned disbelief, wandering around our “villa,” its huge bedroom suite with sunken living room, walk-through dressing area, and enormous stone- and pebble-lined bathroom, across the breezeway to the “lounge,” out to the big plunge pool and the broad, sandy beach beyond.  You think you’ve got a grip on the place until you turn a corner and find a second (or is it a third?) outdoor shower, or the outdoor tub on the separate massage lanai, on the other side of the pool from the patio and dining area.  That all this is for just the two of you seems almost laughable, but the beauty of the setting –the soaring palms and mango trees, the hibiscus amidst the bougainvillea, the surf crashing a few yards away– somehow demand that you keep a straight face, act as though it’s all to be expected, and quietly gape in awe.

We were already a bit disoriented after our quick flight from Nadi on the resort’s private King Air, to which we’d effortlessly transferred from the Wakaya Club’s spanking new (but less luxurious) Cessna after having taxied up and parked 20 paces away. (For a review of the Wakaya Club & Spa, see the home page.) Upon alighting on Laucala’s pristine landing strip, we were met by a troupe of amused and amusing, sarong-clad guys with guitars who greeted us with a lively “bula”-song which, though sung in Fijian, could not have had a clearer message of welcome. That, and the huge milk-filled coconuts we were handed along with cold towels and leis, let us know we had entered a distinctly different world, where such corny gestures have reclaimed a modicum of sincerity we’d thought long lost. Our rather swishy Fijian “concierge” (interestingly, we discovered that he was one of several overtly gay men on the staff  — La Cage aux Laucala?) then drove us through the lush backroads of the island to the stunning central campus of the resort, a vast acreage of manicured lawns and towering palms, punctuated here with a huge pool and bar area, there with a stately plantation house, and yet over there with another pool and bar on the beach, all thatched and mahogany-timbered in traditional Fijian style, but with a decidedly modern patina. Tucked away along a meandering cobblestone path just wide enough for the personal golf carts that would be our mode of getting around the property, lay our aforementioned villa and its further invitation to leave reality behind completely.

It’s a big island and the resort property is enormous, far larger than we initially perceived.  On our first evening we got completely lost in the dark in our golf cart trying to find the Asian-themed “Seagrass” restaurant, partly because we couldn’t believe it was as far from the central campus as it actually is (2 or 3 miles, by my reckoning).  Having been rescued and guided there by a passing staffer, we had a wonderful teppanyaki meal prepared for just the two of us on a platform in the trees above the Pacific by a young chef who seemingly materialized out of nowhere.IMG_2570

Did I mention we were TOGOTI (the only guests on the island) again?  Yes, we had the entire billionaire’s paradise to ourselves, with the whole staff tracking our movements to anticipate our next whim.  Everywhere –in the several dining venues, on the beach, at the spa, at the gorgeous 18-hole golf course — they were one step ahead of us or very close behind, radiating that genuine warmth and joy in giving pleasure that we have come to recognize as distinctly Fijian, here combined with a European level of absolute professionalism.

IMG_2565All our meals, ordered from extensive menus around the resort, were not just delicious, but superb.  Wines and liquor, included in our tariff along with our extravagant meals, were all top shelf. We struggled to find comparisons for the elegant breakfasts, and could only come up with breakfast at Le Meurice in Paris or at Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda, but presented here with a minimum of fuss, abundant Fijian warmth, and a forest of palms spread before you in ordered rows stretching to the sea.  Dinners at the Plantation House restaurant could not be equalled by most of the haute cuisine venues in Manhattan or San Francisco, and its bar epitomizes the perfect blend of sophistication and island insouciance the so often eludes tropical resorts.

The decor, by London’s hotel design diva Lynne Hunt, is over-the-top opulent, mixing Polynesian themes (dark woods, thatched roofs, huge ceiling beams bound in coconut husk) with hipster-organic flourishes (nouveau shag rugs, chandeliers in the shape of jellyfish).  Some of this excess, while striking and mostly tasteful, just doesn’t work, and represents the elevation of design statement over practicality: drapes of any kind have been banished, making it impossible to keep out the morning light (sleeping masks are instead provided, which certainly require less fabric); the infelicitous placement of a hanging lamp obstructs one’s reflection in the bathroom mirror; pretty glass vials of body wash and shampoo sit in the pebble-clad shower stall, ready to break and impale someone; near-prone seating at the “Pool Bar” renders dignified eating impossible for anyone who isn’t a yoga instructor or a Hobbit; and the themed electronic lighting system in our villa was unnecessarily fussy, requiring two days for us to understand it sufficiently to turn off the outdoor lights beaming through our drape-less bedroom windows at night.

IMG_2573Yes, yes, I did ride in the much-ballyhooed two-man submarine, and as a diver myself found it more fun in concept than in execution.  While you do feel like you’re in a James Bond movie, after forty-five minutes of pre-launch falderal, one finally gets into the water only to discover that the glass bowl over your head mightily distorts your field of vision, making me long for the simplicity of a mask, regulator and tank. It’s strictly for snorkelers, folks, and non-claustrophobic ones at that.  But still, to put such an extremely rich man’s plaything at the disposal of the random guest?  That’s hospitality taken to a new level.IMG_2576

This brings up an oddity about Laucala Island that the lawyers among us might find interesting.  Long before you arrive, the resort sends you a legal form to sign, which turns out to be a quite comprehensive release from liability and an indemnification against the guest’s and any third party claims.  One expects this when one undertakes an inherently risky recreational activity, like skiing or diving (indeed, in places like Colorado it’s part of your lift ticket), and I was duly presented with a second such waiver, specific to the submarine outing, before I climbed into that expensive machine. But I’ve never been asked to waive all claims against an establishment that I was paying to provide me with lodging, and I suspect that in most parts of the US such a contract would be unenforceable as against public policy.  (Can you imagine the Four Seasons New York trying to extract this sort of thing from prospective guests?) But hey, we’re in Fiji, the owner is an Austrian, he’s letting you ride in his submarine and his golf carts, for God’s sake, and if you can’t pay for your own broken bones or your drowning as a result, maybe you shouldn’t be here, you ingrate!  Evidently I was the first person ever to question it, and having done so, meekly signed.IMG_2605

Apart from these legal shenanigans, the only downside to being here was our timing: Laucala sits in the wettest precinct in Fiji, and November starts the rainy season, so not a day of our stay passed without abundant rain, some of it so heavy as to keep us indoors (hardly a burden in these surroundings).  The golf course was too wet to tour, let alone play, and diving/snorkeling conditions were less than optimal. Nothing could diminish the natural beauty of this place, and the weather heightened the jungly ambience, but we went for almost a week without seeing the sun. Each interval of non-rain, usually in the morning, cried out to be exploited, leaving us feeling more scheduled than we would have liked. Fijians regard their winter — June through August — as prime time here, which presents a quandary for Americans wanting to escape their own winter.  Next time: October.

I had hoped to conclude the “Fiji Island Throwdown” with a comparison of the Wakaya Club with Laucala Island, given their ostensibly similar target clienteles, their similarly astronomical rates and all-inclusive pricing philosophies, and the fact that both are owned by billionaires, but in the end there is none to be made.  Laucala is so vast and grand and opulent, its ethos so thoroughly wish-fulfilling, as to defy any comparison and place it in a category of its own. This isn’t to say that Wakaya doesn’t have its own unique charms — intimacy, old-world simplicity and human scale among them — but it rather pales by comparison to Laucala.  And in fact each is likely to have its own distinct clientele: for Wakaya, the returning families of CEOs who started going there back in the Eighties, buddies of the owner, and the occasional newlywed couple whose parents remember it as the time of their lives.  For Laucala it’s the L.A. crowd between film assignments, European moguls, Chinese oligarchs, and the inevitable Russians who can afford the staggering price of a place that will nonetheless never pay for itself, but remains the extravagant, brilliantly-executed hobby of its owner.  No matter how much you’ve paid, it still seems a privilege to be there, and that’s a feat in itself.

Laucala Island is an unbelievably beautiful and well-managed property.  We can say we were there.  We can hope we’ll be back.

See more photos at the Traveler Magazine version of this article:

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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 Wall Street Journal. He lives with his wife Courtney in Granville, Ohio and Sanibel, Florida.