Keeping the little ones occupied on holiday can be a troublesome thing – unless, as Donald Berkshire discovers, there’s a bunch of smiling islanders on hand.
It’s happy hour – in so many ways. Day is easing into night. A breeze wafts gently through the beachside bar where my wife is cradling a martini and I am contemplating life, and my second bottle of Fiji Bitter. All is quiet. It’s almost unnervingly quiet. As parents, this should be the crazy hour when the boy is dashing around, dodging controlling hands and brushing off barked commands to finish dinner, take a bath, get ready for bed.
But our little prince is nowhere to be seen, whisked away by a matronly restaurant hostess with strong arms and a booming laugh. We have no idea where he is. We don’t really care where he is. And the feeling is definitely mutual. “Cheers, darling,” I say with a wink at my better half as we clink glasses and gaze out at another mesmerising sunset.
Welcome to Fiji, where shirking one’s parental obligations on holiday is not merely a privilege, but a divine right. Few people on earth can match the welcome Fijians lavish on families or the patience they display for other people’s children.
Tropical resorts the length and breadth of Asia can generally turn out a half-decent kids’ club where tired parents can dump the little ones while they hit the floating bar, but Fijians go the extra mile. From the humblest collection of beachside shacks to sprawling five-star resorts, seasoned babysitters always seems to be on call to lull a baby to sleep with a Fijian folk song or take a brood of hyperactive brats out on a marine safari for a very reasonable fee.
Learning from experience
Travelling with kids should not have to be painful; and yet pain is often exactly the expression you see on frazzled mums and dads as their kids do everything but obey the most politely worded and reasonable instruction when on holiday. Of course, it goes both ways. Boredom and confinement are to kids what kryptonite is to Superman.
Our first holiday with the boy was to Japan, of all places. It seemed like a good idea at the time. He was only four months old, reasonably portable, fairly placid – how bad it could be? “Quite”, was the answer.
The Japanese often cross their arms as a sign to non-Japanese-speaking foreigners that means any of the following: “no / we don’t have it / it’s not permitted / I just can’t deal with you right now, please go away”. We saw a lot of that as we tried to wheel the pram into places where prams probably shouldn’t go, which was basically everywhere. Subway stations, skinny footpaths, tiny hotel rooms, poky restaurants with uptight proprietors paranoid about the effect of a baby on their spotless tatami floors. If we were looking for a baby-friendly holiday, this wasn’t it.
Lesson learnt, we booked tickets to Nadi (pronounced Nan-dee), the gateway to Fiji on the Pacific island’s northwest shore, imagining nice open spaces with sand and water ready for the boy to exhaust himself exploring.
After somehow surviving the flight with our ants-in-pants toddler, first impressions of Fiji’s child-friendly credentials were good. The queue to clear Customs was a mile long, but an official in a Hawaiian shirt whisked us over to a new line open only to families. I couldn’t help but glance smugly at the feckless, childless couples sweating in the longer queue, thinking: “Who’s your daddy now?”
The joy was rather short-lived as we were bailed up for not filling out our arrival cards, which are long-winded and numerous. Novels have been written more quickly than the time it takes to fill them out. Our advantage was quickly lost.
Fiji, however, is not a place to be in a hurry. After all, compared to other landmasses, it was very late to the party. It took volcanic eruptions as recently as 150 million years ago to finally make the scene and, to some extent, it’s still dining out on this grand entrance. Volcanic activity rumbles deep below the surface, washing nutrient-rich plumes through the reefs of the 300 islands, resulting in spectacular coral formations and excellent snorkelling and diving opportunities.
Our 18-month-old will be doing neither of those, not only because he would struggle to read the pressure gauge, but because, much to Dad’s chagrin, he’s not taken with salt water. In fact, he finds the turquoise-blue waters that lap the beaches at each of our destinations rather terrifying.
No, the boy just wants to hang by the pool where the floatie toys are colourful and the random Fijian resort staff can pick him up, cuddle him, tell a joke and make him giggle.
Like many Pacific Islanders, Fijian resort workers double as guitar-strumming, sweet-singing troubadours and the welcome and farewell songs often leave guests misty-eyed. Within a day, it seems every one of them is on first-name terms with our lad, knows his favourite food (strawberry ice-cream, fried chicken) and the songs he likes hearing before bedtime (“Twinkle Twinkle” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep”).
“You can’t fake this kind of stuff,” says Rob, a Sydney-based businessman enjoying a cocktail as his three kids are taken on fishing trips and snorkelling adventures. “I’ve seen big, bulky Fijian blokes who look like rugby front-rowers having our kids eating our of their hands. They just love children here, and the kids respond so well.”
Some two-thirds of Fijians derive their income either directly or indirectly from tourism, and staff members have often travelled far from their home villages on other islands, meaning that many kids are raised by their grandparents and other relatives.
“Family has always been important in Fiji, but maybe more now than ever,” said one bartender at Vomo as he gazed at another stunning sunset off the island’s west coast. “This is often why we love seeing children. They remind us of our own families back home.”
WHERE TO GO
Fiji offers an excellent range of family-friendly destinations, but parents with small children might feel more comfortable staying on the main island of Viti Levu or sticking to the Mamanucas islands, a one-to-two-hour boat-ride off the coast or a 15-minute transfer by light plane or helicopter.
On Viti Levu
On the main island’s northeast coast, Denerau Island is a pleasant, sanitised and convenient clutch of top-end resorts only 20 minutes from Nadi airport. From there, you can take boats to other islands or shop at the adjacent Denerau Port complex, which also offers a number of bars and restaurants. Note that the beach and water, while clean, pale in comparison with those of islands off the coast.
For a slightly more adventurous family, a 45-minute taxi or shuttle from the airport will take you south to Viti Levu’s Coral Coast which also has a number of family-friendly resorts. The beaches are a cut above Denerau Island’s, while still not quite comparing to the coastal islands.
This exquisite collection of islands of all shapes and sizes played host to Tom Hanks in Castaway and now welcomes tourists of all stripes. The islands are invariably ringed by stunning coral gardens and often occupied by only a single resort that nevertheless seems to offer an endless list of activities to keep adults and kids happy for weeks on end. Note of warning: some of the best resorts have age restrictions on children out of deference to couples and honeymooners. Check the fine print.
WHERE TO STAY
Fiji Beach Resort and Spa, Hilton
One of the newer resorts on Denerau Island, the Fiji Beach Resort offers a raft of swish studio, one-bed and two-bed villas all facing the ocean and decked out with smart kitchens, huge flat-screen TVs and modern furnishings. Apart from decent beachside restaurants, the resort boasts a general store, a wine shop, and barbecues on the villa balconies for families who want to eat in.
Despite its celebrity appeal, this private island resort retains a distinctly laid-back and inviting feel, billing itself as Fiji’s only five-star resort to welcome children of all ages. It’s 90 minutes by boat from Denerau Marina, or a 15-minute helicopter ride. Although the 30-odd villas are well-appointed and the restaurant turns out top-notch cuisine, guests with a taste for the intrepid will also love Vomo, where you can stroll along the shore and spy reef sharks meandering through the shallows. The snorkelling and diving are world class, with sublime coral reefs and marine life a short paddle off the white-sand beach.
Shangri-La ’ s Fijian Resort and Spa
One of Fiji’s oldest five-star resorts, the Shangri-La looks a little drab from the outside, but the rooms are actually quite spiffy and the surrounding gardens are very pleasant indeed. Located on an island skirted by a lagoon on Viti Levu’s Coral Coast, the resort is like a massive amusement park for children with games aplenty and a very impressive fire-dancing show that concludes with an 80s-style conga line. For adults, the Shangri-La offers a lovely spa complex and a charmingly scruffy nine-hole golf course along with 25 diving spots a short boat-ride off the beach.
Getting to Fiji from Singapore entails a stop in Australia (Brisbane or Sydney) before a connecting flight to Nadi airport via Qantas, Pacific Blue or Fiji’s international carrier Air Pacific.
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