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Discovering Fiji

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Launch Slideshow
Photo: Gustavo Ten Hoever

Even on a detailed chart of Oceania, Fiji is way out there. Athwart the 180th meridian, the 322 islands belonging to this archipelago were once bisected by the International Date Line. No one here seemed to care about this technical quirk in the space-time continuum except that it may have spawned the local wisecrack: "Here today, gone to Fiji." Both culturally and geographically, Fiji is also on the dividing line between Polynesia and Melanesia, midway between Tahiti and Australia. Swirling out from "the mainland" island of Viti Levu, the volcanic chain reaches into the Koro Sea and South Pacific Ocean, a nebula of verdant rain forest, tan beaches, and piercing blue lagoons. In many ways, Fiji looks like a snapshot of Hawaii before the high-rises. (The tallest building here is only 17 stories.) This sugarcane republic still has fewer than one million permanent residents, only three airports with paved runways, and a single (two-lane) highway. For someone who has harbored South Seas fantasies fueled by old Errol Flynn films and Joseph Conrad novellas, making the long journey to Fiji has its payoff: It's one of the last untrammeled places, where steamer ferries still ply the straits, and barefoot bush pilots land on grass strips to deliver guitar strings and watermelons.

Historically, Fiji has always attracted a certain dreamer with the bravado, or cash, to carve out his own little kingdom. In the 18th century, William Bligh bobbed through on a lifeboat after being booted off the HMS Bounty by his mutinous crew. Traders in search of sandalwood and missionaries in search of salvation arrived next. During the 1840's, a rough-and-tumble Yankee sea captain named Benjamin Wallis controlled the lucrative bêche-de-mer, or sea cucumber, trade with Manila. His wife, Mary, made sharp observations about their voyage in her diary, subsequently published under the title Life in Feejee: Five Years Among the Cannibals. More recently, cult leader Adi Da, a.k.a. Franklin Jones, established a wacky hermitage on the island of Naitauba, and life coach Anthony Robbins conducted motivational seminars on Namale. Mel Gibson purchased Mago Island from a Japanese conglomerate and promptly installed a personal bowling alley. And while I hesitate to lump developer David Gilmour in with this motley group, it does take long-range vision to reform a 2,200-acre isle, uninhabited for 140 years, into an impeccable resort. On my quest for the real Fiji—rather than the Italian or Australian interpretations scattered across the islands—Wakaya Island is my first hop after clearing customs at Nadi International Airport.

Despite the long haul from Los Angeles, my dawn sighting of the whitecapped passage between Fiji's two largest islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, reinvigorates me as the Wakaya Club's eight-seat Cessna Grand Caravan soars due east over the trackless Nandrau Plateau. The plane is custom-fitted with tan leather seats and square bottle-holders for FIJI Water, also founded by Gilmour when he got fed up with importing Evian to the South Pacific. In a short time, the locally bottled artesian water has leapfrogged over traditional cash crops (sugar, coconut oil, trustafarian surfers) to become a globally recognized brand. After landing on a grass strip, I ride down to the shoreline in a suitably utilitarian truck, passing through a dense forest of giant ferns and tangled banyans and then fields where a herd of wild horses graze.

Before dinner, Gilmour and I meet at the Palm Grove bar in a communal bure, or bungalow, with massive support poles bound by intricate coconut-fiber rope. "I wanted to create an awareness of Fiji," he says, referring to the water plant, which he recently sold to Stewart Resnick of POM Wonderful. "If you look at wind-flow patterns, Fiji is one of the least polluted places in the world. And in Yaqara Valley, on Viti Levu, I discovered an aquifer. It's a taste of paradise." Gilmour's tenure in Fiji dates back to 1970, when he first "jumped ship" during a refueling stop on a Pan Am flight between Hawaii and Sydney. In 1991, he built an aerie called Vale O, with a view of two seas, on Wakaya Island's highest peak. Since then, he and his wife, Jill, have added nine cinnabar-red bures, an open-air restaurant, an orchid hothouse, and a spa at the edge of a lagoon. His most recent project is a two-bedroom bure with its own plunge pool, where celebrities will be able to hole up for a honeymoon without the glare of flashbulbs. However, Gilmour's legacy to Fiji has little to do with his rich-and-famous guests.

In the morning, my waitress, Ariette, delivers fresh pineapple-ginger juice and white toast with the crusts removed to a breakfast gazebo facing the house lagoon. Then, I wander over to the billiards room to view Gilmour's extensive collection of antique South Pacific maps and engravings, many depicting Fijian warriors and their encounters with early traders, like Captain Wallis. Manager Rob Miller guides me to an open bure, where a crew is roasting and pressing meat from coconuts gathered from Wakaya's old grove to extract sweet oil for the restaurant. (It's great drizzled on the grilled langoustines at lunch.) We also take a look at the new school in the staff village. He explains that many Fijian children lack educational opportunities (eighth grade is the typical cutoff in the backwater). Wakaya provides primary classes for the island's junior residents, and Gilmour has a scholarship program for secondary school education. The University of the South Pacific has a campus in Suva, Fiji's capital.

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