Laucala, an exclusive resort in Fiji, draws affluent travellers seeking ultra-luxurious isolation.
Live the castaway dream in luxury in Laucala
Imagine a place with no queues, no stress and no crowds; a place where the smiles are constant, the sun is always shining, the sea is warm and the food is so fresh your breakfast eggs are hand-carried from chicken to kitchen. It's a place where you won't have to share, where you never need a tee time, and where a small army of maids, dive instructors and chefs are at your beck and call.
Imagine is clearly what Austrian Dietrich Mateschitz, billionaire owner of Red Bull, did when he came across an island for sale in Fiji. It was 2003 when Mateschitz's lawyer told him Laucala, one of the northernmost of Fiji's 332 islands, was up for grabs. As the private retreat of Malcolm Forbes, the tropical hideaway of Laucala had welcomed more than its fair share of movers and shakers, including Elizabeth Taylor and the Rockefellers, and had always had a special place in the heart of the media mogul, who is now buried there.
Laucala had a similar effect on Mateschitz (193 on Forbes' rich list), who bought it for US$300 million (Dh1.1bn) and was determined to transform the 1,214-hectare island into a retreat for the new generation of wealthy travellers.
Mateschitz made his millions as a marketing guru, turning a Thai medicinal tonic into a globally recognised household name. Yet, despite owning two Formula One teams and being the creative mind behind some of the world's most spectacular and extreme sporting events, he is notoriously media shy, so the appeal of a remote and untouched Fijian island - which he reaches by piloting his own private jet - is understandable.
Fiji is a destination coming into its own. As the world gets smaller, hideaways such as Laucala remain the last frontiers for affluent travellers looking for blessed isolation. Lost in the seemingly endless South Pacific, the Fijian Islands - some mountainous, some little more than sandy atolls cropped with swaying palms - are becoming a firm favourite with the world's well-to-do. Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Keith Richards and Lenny Kravitz have all holidayed there; Mel Gibson even bought his own slice of paradise, Mago Island.
Mateschitz is pretty careful about who he lets in (or even fly over or sail around) his slice of paradise, and his guests are often just as wary about their privacy. Reservation at the resort, which opened in 2009, is upon application and access is via the resort's Beechcraft King Air plane, unless you, like many of Laucala's guests (including John Travolta, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Oprah Winfrey) happen to have your own. Guests can even be cleared by Fijian immigration in situ, their itineraries and identities kept tightly under wraps.
A fleet of gleaming black Land Rovers ferry newly arrived guests directly to their villa; the closest thing to a reception desk on the entire island would be the long bar in the beautifully recreated Plantation House, which Mateschitz had rebuilt three times until it reached his unwavering expectations.
Accompanied by manager/host/gatekeeper Maja Kilgore, who, with husband Thomas, rules over the island with a European efficiency, we pass between coconut palms and around the 5,000-sq-m main pool, which winds and ducks its way under bridges and around boulders, coming to rest on the sandy shores of the Beach Bar's man-made lagoon.
As you can probably tell, Laucala isn't your average resort. No expense has been spared, no desire unanticipated. The island boasts only 25 super-luxe villas strewn across the island's southern flanks and along a 4.5km stretch of indulgent white sand. There are three decadent penthouses, including Hilltop, located at the summit of the island's highest point. Mateschitz has his own colonial-style estate home tucked away above the main pool, which is one of the largest in the South Pacific.
Our villa, number six, is a thing of castaway dreams. The living room, poolside sala, master bedroom and outdoor bathroom branch away from the entrance like arms embracing the white sandy beach and azure seas before them. An inviting plunge pool lies at the villa's centre, shaded by a ring of palm trees.
Every villa has its own persona and despite the exposure of outdoor showers (emphasis on the plural), a deep outdoor bath fashioned from volcanic granite, and multiple sun decks, there is little in the way of strategically placed shrubbery and lockable gates, simply because there's no need. The space between the Stephen Albert-designed villas is ample, meaning plenty of privacy, yet the whole resort only takes up 10 per cent of the island. Management are also clearly reluctant to run at full occupancy; it takes us two days to meet the only other couple of guests, and there are only ever a handful of lucky souls checked in - despite a staff of 330.
We set off in the morning in one of the island's souped-up golf carts for a behind-the-scenes tour with a difference. Laucala is 80 per cent self-sufficient - it's not exactly an eco resort but it does more than most - and crossing through thick native jungle we enter the Farm. Here, Laucala produces everything - its own beef, chicken and quail eggs, coconut oil, lettuce and sparkling water. There is an emphasis on organic produce, energy efficiency and sustainability that you wouldn't expect from such a lavish retreat.
As the sun grows tired in the sky, my wife Maggie and I make our way up manicured paths to the vertiginous Rock Bar, one of the island's five dining venues. It's a long (by golf cart standards) and steep climb up to the solitary cliff-face watering hole, but one that's well worth the effort. We're greeted by flaming torches and fresh fruit mocktails - wherever you go on Laucala, the staff seem to be able to anticipate your arrival with Nasa-styled precision - and settle in for a stunning Fijian sunset of peach and violet plumes. The Rock Bar is a popular spot, and even if they never discover the chic colonial lines and fine dining menu of the Plantation House, the Mediterranean tapas of the Pool Bar, the seafood grill at the Beach Bar or the Asian delicacies of Seagrass Restaurant, guests always find their way to the Rock Bar.
We wake early the next morning to a breakfast laid out on a beachfront dining table and the pounding of the waves nearby. I don't know if it's the sunshine and smog-free air or if I've just been living in a grey-toned existence, but every colour seems intensified in Fiji; I've never seen a fruit salad so bright, sand so sparkling and an ocean so inviting.
The island's "navy" includes a deep-sea fishing boat, a leisure cruiser, three yachts and a duo of high-powered jetskis. We board a custom-built dive boat and head out to one of the nearby reefs with a whole team of dive instructors all to ourselves.
Laucala is a great destination for divers, thanks to 40m visibility and the proximity of the White Wall, Fiji's most popular dive spot. With so few guests, a dive excursion can be organised in mere minutes.
My guide and I dive deep, following a mesmerisingly colourful coral wall towards the sea bed, where we find shoals of trevally, goat fish and a handful of inquisitive white-tipped reef sharks gliding effortlessly through the current. Unlike those coral reefs located near populated areas, Laucala's is vivid and intense in its hues, and I follow my guide as he floats with the current, silently pointing out coral plumes, shy silvery fish and flowerlike blossoms that, with a finger's touch, quickly retreat into the rock. It's an exhilarating way to start the day.
I spend my afternoon playing golf with the island's resident pro Tony Christie. The resort's 18-hole championship course was designed by Scotsman David McLay Kidd and is more challenging than your average resort course. The course - which sees an average of 60 players every year, making it quite possibility the world's most exclusive - winds beautifully through the island's natural valleys, and is dotted with ancient trees. Lunch is served at a halfway house on a cliff, complete with butler service and chilled coconut juice.
You get a real scale of Laucala's size by circumnavigating the island, and Maggie and I take to the lagoon on powerful jetskis, passing cliffs pounded by the surf and preserved mangrove forests that help reduce erosion. The jetskis are exhilarating - a taste of Red Bull's adrenalin-junkie credentials - and the journey around the island takes a full hour.
We return to Laucala's little marina in time to set out again, this time for a sunset cruise on the resort's luxurious day cruiser. As the sun sets behind neighbouring Taveuni island, we're plied with freshly cut fruit and locally caught snapper sashimi before a ridiculously romantic vista from the vessel's foredeck.
The day, and our Laucala stay, finishes with dinner at the Seagrass restaurant. Located at the south-eastern tip of the resort, the timber-clad eatery epitomises the best of Fijian alfresco dining, with dishes such as kokonda (fresh fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk) offset by fiery Asian curries. After dinner, guests can lie in welcoming deck chairs for post-meal star gazing.
On the drive "home", down moonlit paths between coconut palm silhouettes, we contemplate setting an alarm for our early morning flight back to Nadi, but decide that with the "airport" only two minutes from our villa, the pilot will forgive us for lingering just that little bit longer.
If You Go
The flight Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) to Sydney cost from Dh6,940. Air Pacific (www.airpacific.com) flies to Nadi from Sydney from $635 (Dh2,332). Flights to Laucala cost US$600 (Dh2,203) per person, per trip
The stay Stays on Laucala Island (www.laucala.com; 00 679 888 0077) are full board, and cost from US$4,560 (Dh16,750) per night for a one-bedroom villa, going up to US$42,000 (Dh154,275) for the Hilltop Residence. Prices include taxes