I visited Fiji last winter when it had some of the strictest COVID-19 travel protocols of any destination, including testing before departure, testing on arrival, special mandatory insurance to cover potential quarantine housing, and on top of all that, some individual resorts had their own testing on arrival requirements. It was a lot of hoops to jump through, but it was worth it, because Fiji was wonderful, and is in many ways, is a true Bucket List tropical paradise, justifiably renowned as a honeymoon destination.
But now travel to Fiji is much easier, and last month, the country dropped the last of its strict requirements, eliminating both testing upon arrival and testing to board flights to Fiji.
As a nation of islands, the main appeals revolve around beaches and ocean. Relaxation and escapism are big draws, but Fiji is also a world-class Scuba diving destination, home to some of the very best diving in the world, and excels at just about every other kind of watersport, from snorkeling to fishing to surfing. But what really sets it apart from other beautiful tropical destinations like the Caribbean is its extensive range of boutique private island resorts, properties where a single hotel has its own island, often with surprisingly large acreage for a small number of guests. Almost all of these are independent and non-chain, in sharp contrast to the other big private island destination, the Maldives, whcih has many large name brand resorts.
The Fiji model is much more family-owned and operated, intimate, warm and friendly, and there is only one notable international chain operating a private island resort here. Even this exception is a relatively new management deal for a longstanding resort, as COMO Resorts was brought in to operate Fiji’s most exclusive property – and one of the world’s most over-the-top luxury hotspots – Laucala, better known as “Red Bull Island.” That’s because the resort – on a 3,200-acre island once owned by Malcom Forbes – it is the fantasy creation and passion project of Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, creator of the Red Bull energy drink company.
COMO Laucala Island is one of the world’s most famous luxury resorts, and has been home away for home for a bevy of A-List celebrities and tycoons, including George Clooney, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey. For just 25 oversized luxury residences spanning up to 8,000 square feet, it has five restaurants and an acclaimed 18-hole golf course by world-renowned architect David McLay Kidd, who also did the game changing original Bandon Dunes, the Castle Course in Scotland’s St. Andrews and many other very highly ranked layouts from Wisconsin’s Mammoth Dunes to Washington’s Gamble Sands to Hawaii’s exclusive Nanea. Laucala has its own modern international airstrip for private jets, an extensive spa, hiking trail network, horse stables, tennis center and full-service marina with its own fleet of dive and sportfishing boats. Guest can snorkel the inner reef just offshore right from their residences, there is kayaking and sailing, and a full PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) dive shop with a complete array of instruction and certification classes as well as guided dives and night dives.
Laucala is the priciest of Fiji’s private island resorts, for A-list budgets, but the rest of the options are much broader in appeal, including some very affordable luxury. In fact, you can stay in a sumptuous villa, or bure as the traditional thatched roof structures are known in Fiji, at an all-inclusive private island resort with meals and activities here for less than many urban luxury hotels U.S. charge just for a basic room.
Just minutes from Laucala by boat is Matangi Private Island Resort, an adult-only option that features just 12 bures on 240-acres. These include two honeymoon favorite treehouse units that have been featured on the Travel Channel. Matangi, like just about every other resort in Fiji, has its own full service PADI dive shop and boats, fishing, beaches and excursions, plus hiking trails around the lush island, and a spa. It also offers two very unique and special activities for visitors. First, it’s one of only two SCUBA centers allowed to offer dives with the resident hammerhead sharks at nearby Civa Pearl Farm. Among SCUBA aficionadas, hammerhead dives are an ultra-desirable pilgrimage trip, but this is the single most reliable place on earth to see them – in the three years since the dives began there has not been a single shark-free day. In addition, Civa offers tours and discounted direct sales and produces some of the most coveted pearls on earth, in every color.
Back on the private island, Matangi’s signature activity is a half day champagne picnic package to its very own Horseshoe Bay. Ringed by cliffs and accessible only by boat, Horseshoe Bay is private and hidden, with a gorgeous beach, a day lodge and watersports gear for just a single party at a time, and was chosen as an entrant in the original edition of the bestselling travel classic 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Direct booking rates at the exceptional (I’ve been) family-owned property start at just $750 nightly and include all meals, with sumptuous offerings showcasing local fish and produce. Fascinating Fijian cooking demos are available and Matangi has its own large farm plantation on a neighboring island providing fruits and veggies while local fishermen stock the kitchen daily.
Rates include all non-motorized and cultural activities, and like several top Fijian private islands, even more affordable packages are offered through the travel arm of big box giant Costco, which has quietly become a leader in vacation savings, and is especially powerful in this market. Basically, Costco’s agreements require resorts to offer lower prices and/or more inclusions in these turnkey packages than through any other outlet. But they are typically weeklong stays at a single resort, while many independent travelers planning their own trips, or better yet, using travel agents (another great way to save, read more here) might combine two or more islands for 3-4 nights each. If the Costco packages are a fit for you, they tend to be great deals, and for comparable quality of resorts, Fiji is far less expensive than other winter beach options like Hawaii or the Caribbean.
Another plus of visiting the country is the ease and cost of getting there. Fiji Airlines flies non-stop from both Los Angeles and San Francisco, and is usually at the inexpensive end of the long-haul spectrum. It offers epically good values for business class, complete with lay flat seats and excellent lounge access. When I flew, many of the passengers were Australians or New Zealanders heading home via Fiji, people who fly the route regularly because business class is substantially less than on alternatives Qantas or Air New Zealand. Once you land, just about every private island is one domestic short hop away, on what amounts to a s flightseeing leg. Fiji Airways is a member of OneWorld, so you can use or accrue points and status on American or other OneWorld carriers.
One of the easiest options to reach is Royal Davui Private Island Resort, with just 16 villas located off Fiji’s main island of Viti Leveu, where the international airport in Nadi is. Transfers can be done by boat and propeller plane, boat and driving or directly by helicopter. I’ve also visited Royal Davui, and it’s great. Like Matangi it is adult-only, but while the larger Matangi island is more about privacy and beach bum toes in the sand flair, Royal Davui has a more social feel with nightly gatherings at the main bar, live music, a high number of annual repeat guests in addition to honeymooners, and lots of scheduled activities. The island is smaller (10-acres) but has extra amenities some competitors lack, like a fitness center. While most private islands in Fiji go with traditional thatched bures, Davui offers more contemporary luxury bungalows, complete with private plunge pools and outdoor showers.
The resort island sits in the gorgeous and pristine Beqa Lagoon, has white sandy beaches, and the reef surrounding the island, easily accessed for snorkeling, is within a sacred marine reserve. No fishing is allowed within a mile of the island, keeping the waters fully stocked with colorful undersea life. There is also an uninhabited small island, “Castaway Cay,” nearby, where Davui offers private boat transfer picnics. Royal Davui has a full service PADI dive center and excellent fishing (more than a mile out), and if a guest catches a fish, it is often made the centerpiece of the evening meal for all island residents with extra platters of sushi or sashimi during cocktail hour. Food is superb and all-inclusive rates cover activities such as kayaks, stand up paddleboards, Hobie cats, snorkeling gear, as well as guided reef snorkeling trips, beach picnics, and lots of lawn and beach games, from sand rugby and volleyball to croquet and bocce, plus cultural activities like cooking classes. Royal Davui also has a full-service spa.
Current offers at Royal Davui include a 7-night stay with free plane and boat transfers from Nadi international airport for just $6000 per couple, or less than $850 a night for two with all meals and a wealth of other inclusions. Like Matangi, Royal Davui also offers packages via Costco Travel.
Wakaya Club and Spa, on its own Wakaya Island, is also surrounded by a Marine Protected Area, ensuring vibrant coral reefs. The island resort has just 10 beachfront bure suites and two luxury private villas. This is Fiji, so of course there are stunning beaches, but the resort has taken the tact of setting itself apart via culinary offerings. Wakaya Club & Spa has two on-site organic farms and heavily promotes food experiences for culinary-minded travelers looking to immerse themselves in local culture. Chef Marielle Hajj has worked with chefs around the world including Alain Ducasse and Daniel Boulud, and here promotes her own take on South Pacific culinary traditions using fresh, farm-to-table ingredients. Guests can forage daily with Chef Hajj and her team, then enjoy a hands-on cooking class prepared in a traditional lovo fire, piled with volcanic stones. Other culinary options include a private picnic, where guests are taken to a remote beach with a curated picnic hamper and left to enjoy their oceanside meal, or a group picnic with a Fijian barbecue on the beach. Guests can even catch their own fresh fish for dinner. There is a 9-hole golf course, game room, fitness center, tennis, guided hikes, spa, dive center, and Wakaya is one of the only private island resorts in Fiji that includes alcoholic beverages in its rates, even fully stocked mini-bars in each accommodation.
While many Fijian resorts are adult-only, there are family friendly exceptions, and the most notable is the famed Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, a larger, full-service property. This is not on a private island, but does enjoy an isolated beachfront location for its 25 bures, and has a private island just offshore for escapist picnics. The all-inclusive rates feature more activities than most competitors, including tennis, glass bottom boat rides, guided eco and nature walks, daily yoga classes, and more. It also has a full children’s club program with daily activities, as well as spa. But this resort is most famous for its diving, considered one of the world’s best SCUBA spots, with a 5-Star PADI center and resident marine biologist.
VOMO is another top Fijian luxury private island resort in the Mamanuca Island group. The 255-acre island is home to signature feature, Mt. Vomo, which can be hiked to the summit for stunning 360-fegree views – best enjoyed for sunrise. It is family friendly with baby butlers and a kid’s village, easily reached from Nadi and has beautiful beaches. Snorkeling is readily available on your own, and they also include daily guided snorkeling safaris, as well as complimentary fitness classes with the resort’s personal trainer, and hiking. The extensive range of lodging options skews luxury, and consists of 34 unites, including hillside villas, beachfront villas and larger and more lavish “Residences,” each unique but with extras like full size swimming pools, gourmet kitchens, private dining areas, butler service, and tons of room. Another thing that sets VOMO apart is the island amenities, including a 9-hole pitch and putt golf course, tennis courts, full 24-hour fitness center and extensive network of hiking and running trails. VOMO is a top choice for both families and the active-minded, and of course, the island has its own PADI scuba center and excellent access to great dive sites nearby. All-inclusive nightly rates begin at about $1,000 per couple, but there are multi-night packages that discount this 20-40%.
There are lots more options including 52-acre Savasi Island, with just eight villas and three beachfront bures. spa, and dive center. Nukubati is a unique private island resort for just a single party takeover, accommodating a group of up to 10 guests in five beachfront bures – with no strangers. Its location on the Great Sea Reef, the world’s third largest barrier reef, makes it especially popular with divers. But then so is pretty much all of Fiji.