Our shoes have been collecting a powdery layer of sand for days. We abandoned them on arrival at the door of our cottage – or bure as they are called on Turtle Island – and we’re not putting them on again until we leave.
Clothes have become somewhat optional, too, as we settle into lazy and languid days swimming with turtles, snorkeling over giant clams, sipping chilled Fijian beers and eating lobsters under palm trees at one of the island’s seven secluded beaches.
If all this sounds like a scene from The Blue Lagoon – minus the company of Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins – it’s because the romantic stranded-in-paradise movie was filmed here in 1979.
Thankfully, life at Turtle Island – a small but beautiful private resort basking in the Yasawa archipelago of Fiji, east of the main island Viti Levu – is infinitely more luxurious, welcoming and leisurely than the cinematic version.
With its wonderful islander staff, traditional but very comfortable thatched-roof accommodations, new spa, beautiful beaches and reef-fringed waters, this is one paradise in the Pacific that I’m very happy to be stranded on for a few days with my husband James.
After our 12-hour flight from Los Angeles – Fiji Airways flies daily from LAX – we are met at Nadi International Airport by Mary, a tall Fijian woman with a resounding laugh who greets us with a warm embrace.
She whisks us to a private hangar, where we board a six-seat seaplane. Half an hour later, we land on Turtle Island’s blue lagoon and palm-lined beach to be greeted by the resort staff singing Fijian songs and cheers of “welcome home.”
Mama Lai steps forward and introduces herself as our “bure mama,” Fiji’s equivalent of a personal butler, and says she’ll be taking care of us for the week. Life is suddenly looking very good indeed.
On our first morning, we wake to watch the sunrise over the lagoon from the comfort of our waterfront bure, one of only 14 that comprise the resort’s guest accommodations.
With separate sleeping, dressing and bathing areas, each bure exudes traditional Fijian charm with the comforts of an upscale island resort: a king-size bed swathed in a mosquito net, hot tub, bar fridge stocked with drinks and fresh fruit, iPhone docking station and a veranda with a daybed for napping in the shade.
But Turtle is not the place for lounging indoors, and a few hours later, a boat from a neighboring resort arrives to take us scuba diving.
The late Jacques Cousteau once described Fiji’s waters as the clearest in the world. We dive for an hour over giant cabbage coral, encountering shoals of clownfish guarding their anemones, a solitary turtle swimming through the reef’s deep valleys and an octopus attempting to hide from sight.
On our return, Mama Lai is waiting for us on the beach with cold drinks while taking photos of us in our dive gear. She explains that she’s making a photo album about our stay, which will be our parting gift. Turtle Island is that kind of place.
Days roll effortlessly from morning swims and beach walks to alfresco lunches at a communal dining table with other guests and on to sundowner cocktails and dinners under the stars.
All the vegetables served are grown on Turtle Island, and the fish is locally sourced. The steak and lamb come from Australia and New Zealand respectively.
While the island offers optional activities like hiking, biking, snorkeling, horseback riding and diving, many guests simply hide away in their bures or on one of the island’s private beaches.
American entrepreneur Richard Evanson bought the island for $300,000 in October 1972 and moved there six days before Cyclone Bebe. It was exactly the tropical paradise he’d been looking for after growing up in rainy Vancouver, Wash., and selling the cable TV business he had built over many decades.
Evanson first arrived on his newly acquired home, Nanuya Levu (he later renamed it Turtle Island), by ferry, armed with a tent, generator, whiskey, beer, canned fish and packets of seeds to start a vegetable garden, which eventually grew to three acres.
It wasn’t the most auspicious start. Cyclone Bebe destroyed most of the island’s vegetation, as well as Evanson’s tent, but he pressed on regardless, replanting his garden and building a more permanent thatched-roof cottage.
Years later, he built many more bures and started welcoming paying guests in 1980, offering an all-inclusive, eco-efficient and sustainable luxury island resort experience.
As the days pass by, we get to know Mama Lai like an old and trusted friend. She and her husband, Jerry, work on Turtle Island for six weeks at a time, then go to their home island to see their toddler son for a week. She says Evanson is a kind employer and well respected in Fiji for providing work to villagers on neighboring islands.
For the past two decades, Evanson has also provided free dental care to the three nearest villages from specialists who come to the island each year and subsidizes several government programs, such as solar panels, to power entire villages.
The best part of every evening on Turtle Island is bonding with the staff over cups of kava – a Polynesian and Melanesian peppery drink resembling diluted mud, made from the roots of Piper methysticum.
At first, everyone sits quietly around a wooden kava bowl, carved in the shape and size of a turtle. But as the kava flows, so does the conversation, along with amusing island anecdotes.
Arthur, a tall and jovial Fijian and Turtle Island host, confides that he and his wife conceived their first son on Devil’s Beach, one of the island’s private beaches, under a full moon. James and I book the same beach right away for the following afternoon.
Mama Lai leaves us at Devil’s with a radio (to call for a ride back) as well as sun loungers, a sun umbrella and a picnic cooler stuffed with lobster, quesadillas, shrimp, brownies and cold beers. We spend one of the most peaceful and relaxed days there that I can remember.
After returning to the lodge and cooling our sunburned skin with copious amounts of aloe, we board Turtle’s sunset cruise with all the other resort guests, their mamas, Arthur and two guitarists.
We dance to Fijian songs but most importantly we bid in an auction of three turtles that have been kept in a pool on the jetty. The resort regularly buys turtles from fishermen to auction them to guests who then release them back into the ocean.
The auction winners paint their names on the shells so that the turtles have no further value and can’t be sold again. We return to land where a Fijian cookout of grilled fish and meats awaits under the stars.
On our last night, the staff and guests participate in a typical Melanesian dance. The women move softly, curling their wrists and arms to resemble waves, while Arthur struts his stuff – swaying his hips furiously to the rhythm of drums in a warrior dance before inviting everyone to join in.
It’s not all perfection in paradise: beach towels have holes and tears, wines are passable but could have been better, bures could be better screened with vegetation to make them more private and the dive operation seems disorganized. The boat came consistently late and one morning they forgot to pick up James.
Gripes aside, on the morning of our departure we feel much like Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. As we say goodbye to Mama Lai, we can’t help but get teary-eyed. Vinaka – Fijian for thank you – is all we can say for now.
Image Credits: Photos courtesy of Turtle Island.