Veer off Denarau and discover what decorates Fiji’s outer islands. Ashley Ropati explores the upper echelon of culinary delights tempting taste buds on the Mamanucas.
It’s 9 o’clock on a miserably wet, Sunday night. Forty-something weary travellers are parked up on the tarmac at Auckland International Airport, restlessly waiting for a flight that’s now delayed six hours. Crammed on a muggy shuttle with a handful of equally disgruntled, pint-sized passengers – a tropical-strength cocktail, white sandy beaches and tepid, turquoise waters couldn’t feel further away.
Fast-forward to Fiji, the glittering crossroads of the South Pacific – a mere three hours by plane from Auckland. The island paradise draws hordes of travellers every year and enjoys an influx of sun-seeking families come school holiday season, thanks not only to its proximity but also to its kid-friendly reputation, endless activities and balmy temperatures.
It’s no secret that Fiji ticks a whole lot of boxes, but when asked to enumerate its selling points on one hand, ‘spectacular cuisine’ is rarely among them. But two luxury locations are shifting the way we perceive Fiji’s eat-in resort reputation. You can now lap up the gorgeous weather and enjoy a host of degustational delights while you’re there – just a sandy stroll from the comfort of your room. This resort renaissance can be credited to two wildly talented Aussie chefs.
“When I arrived, the kitchen was importing fish and produce from the mainland. It made no sense to me,” says Ryan Ward, executive chef at Malolo Island Resort, as we approach the first of six unbelievable seafood courses – light, buttery gnocchi in roasted lobster shell sauce – on Malolo’s sun-soaked balcony. “It’s been a challenge, for sure. They’re a great team; there just wasn’t that understanding about sustainability practices. It’s about not taking more than you need from the ocean.”
Ryan earned his stripes working in some of Australia’s most esteemed culinary regions, before relocating to Fiji with his partner, a little over eight months ago. Ryan, originally from Queensland, credits his smooth transition to ‘Fiji time’ to fellow Aussie and acclaimed chef Shane Watson, located a bay away at Likuliku. “I love fishing,” Ryan says. “It was something I did all the time as a kid. I was lucky enough that when I arrived, I had Shane to show me the ropes.”
We devour everything from Painted Cray Antenna served with Pickled Kohlrabi to Wadigi Spangled Emperor Wing, paired perfectly with Veuve Clicquot.
Ryan is still experimenting with the menu and remains conscious not to stray “too far into fine dining territory” and alienate holiday-makers. “There have been times when the fishermen would show up with dozens of crays at a time. I’d explain little kids probably aren’t going to be eating half a lobster,” he laughs.
Malolo’s nautical beach houses and white-washed wood exterior have a Hamptons-style aesthetic more akin to the Caribbean. The resort takes pride in its small size and intimate offerings, to avoid feeling overrun with kids. You’ll be lucky to hear so much as one screech echoing from the swimming pool; a rarity in school holiday season. Neighbouring Likuliku Lagoon Resort, operating under the same hospitality umbrella, markets itself as an adults-only, top-tier couples’ retreat. But Malolo is the next best thing, a respite for young families seeking the best of both worlds. Champagne on arrival and the added offering of a round-the-clock Kids’ Club, thanks to the resort’s beloved staffers.
Likuliku boasts Fiji’s only over-water bungalows, expansive beach-front bures and uninterrupted sea views. We scurry off the Mamanuca speedboat (operating between the two resorts, with bookings available on request) and are greeted by beaming Fiji smiles, crisp passionfruit cocktails and Coco, the resort’s friendly labrador and unofficial ‘director of guest relations’.
Likuliku, the honeymoon location to trump all others, is a high-end offering, with a price tag to match; rooms start at $2200 NZD per night. For resort general manger and our host, Steve Anstey, ensuring all elements of a guest’s stay adhere to a certain standard is paramount. “Food is a major component in our resort experience,” Steve says. “You’d never come to Fiji for the food, and I thought ‘Right, I’m going to change that.’ And we did. Shane (Watson) pulled it off and we’ve pulled together an amazing team.”
Food for thought
“It’s about connecting with people,” says executive chef Shane. “This morning I received three phone calls at 6.30am; it was the local fishermen. There are about six little fibre glass boats that’ll go diving for us now, and they’ll bring us lobster and vavaba, which are the local bugs. That’s been my main thing, liaising with these guys. Firstly, we give them good prices, and one of the simplest things we do is give them leftover sweets, a lot of pastries – they love their sugar,” he laughs. “They go out beyond the reef, where the break is. Once you get past the outer reef, it’s the wild Pacific. They’ll go out, the four of them, in these little wooden boats; they’re tiny. They’ve got a stove, a little kitchen. I can’t imagine going out at night on that reef, with nothing but a torch. It’s pretty hardcore.”
The menu at Likuliku changes weekly, allowing Shane and his team to experiment with new ingredients – a surprising number sourced from Likuliku’s own backyard.
“Have you tried our honey? It’s beautiful,” Shane smiles. “When you’re harvesting it, the volume you get is surprising. We’ve harvested twice in the past few weeks, 21 kilos the first time. We’re almost self-sufficient now.
“I started the garden in my spare time, pre-opening. The first thing I did was build one big plot, and planted bok choy. That was ready, seed to harvest, in six weeks. But once we opened,
I stopped going down there. By the time I did, it would have been about four weeks, the weeds were 7ft tall. That was a real lesson, that if you’re not looking after it every day (it won’t work). So we settled on herbs, and garnishing dishes. It’s starting to come back, it’s pretty cool.”
As we set sail to watch the sun set on a sublime week in paradise, enjoying French cheeses and honey from Shane’s sustainable garden, an acoustic cover of Elvis’s ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ strums us out. And just like that, the wet, windy New Zealand winter feels so very far away.
The Fiji experience
1 EAT: Culinary oasis Executive chefs Ryan Ward and Shane Watson have created culinary oases at their respective resorts. Menus, echoing the best of contemporary bistro dining, change weekly. Meals are inclusive with your package at both resorts.
2 STAY: Luxury resorts Malolo Island Resort sets the bar when it comes to the perfect family holiday. Packages include all meals and start at around $2667 NZD for six nights. For an adults-only option, Likuliku offers three different room packages and, like Malolo, is a cashless, all-inclusive resort. Room rates start at $8288 NZD for six nights.
3 PLAY: Sea and land Head out for a scuba dive with the highly experienced Likuliku staffers. Enjoy the glittering reef and finish the afternoon with a picnic lunch on a private beach. At Malolo join guide Tom for a hike to the summit; the walk starts at 7am and will get the heart rate up before breakfast.
Departing Port Denarau, South Sea Cruises stops at all main resorts on the outer islands. The journey takes around two hours and is best pre-booked online. If you’re flying, Pacific Island Air virtually cuts the journey in half. The trip offers spectacular views of the islands from above. Back on the mainland, Rosie Holidays offers exceptional service and ensures you get to where you need to be.