Barefoot and bare-chested, his muscular form emits boundless energy as he hops and sways to the vigorous drum beats, slicing the air with a lengthy parang-like tool, a menacing look in his eyes while his long grass skirt swishes in time with his motions. I watch mesmerised behind a coconut tree. He’s not alone. His brethren, equally as brown and brawny, accompany him in this ritual that serves to embolden the men before going into battle, following in the footsteps of their intimidating cannibalistic ancestors. Suddenly, they lunge forward with a startling “HAHH!!”
High-pitched shrieks are followed immediately by a small eruption of little giggles. The children in the front row seem tickled. Like a rollercoaster ride, scary can be fun. Had I sat up front nearest to these modern-day Fijian ‘warriors’, I’d surely have fallen backwards in fright. But these children, some no older than 7, seem to find the whole ‘Meke’ traditional performance entertaining.
Their ease might have something to do with the fact that the performers are actually staff members at the resort where we’re staying. Every Wednesday, Castaway Island hosts a Fiji cultural day, one of the ways that the resort offers its guests an authentic local experience, which culminates in lively performances.
The archipelago nation of Fiji is made up of more than 300 islands scattered in the South Pacific Ocean and Castaway Island is one of the 110 which are actually inhabited. Fortunately, getting to this island doesn’t require drifting in on a lifeboat or being washed ashore like Tom Hanks’ character in the similarly-named movie Cast Away.
Small puffs of altocumulus clouds dot the brilliant azure canvas above while below, the calm cerulean waters carry new arrivals to this South Pacific island via a South Sea Cruises catamaran. As a small transfer boat ferries me towards the palm-fringed sandy beachfront, the orchestral theme music from the popular 1970s-80s TV series Fantasy Island plays in my head. But... there really is music!
The laid-back strum of acoustic guitars accompanied by soothing vocal harmonies in a foreign language permeate the air, emanating from a small group of resort staff who’ve turned up on shore for the customary welcome gesture into this 4-star private tropical sanctuary that’s part of the Mamanuca islands, a group of islands west of Fiji’s main island.
They’re warmer than a red carpet treatment, I muse, casting the serenaders an appreciative smile. Turning my attention to my surroundings, I note that Castaway Island seems to have everything expected of an island resort.
Sweeping ocean views in my direct line of sight, and beautiful white sand that meets crystal clear waters. To my right is the water sports centre where several kayaks and other floating paraphernalia sit nearby on the shore. To my left is the main dining venue, a restaurant aptly called Water’s Edge, where the terrace is shaded by large white umbrellas. Behind me is a path leading into the unknown. While guests at the fictional Fantasy Island were hosted by the enigmatic, white-suited Mr Roarke, my guide is the ebullient, casually-dressed Meli Titoko, the personification of a ‘tropical cocktail’.
SURRENDERING TO FIJI TIME
As sales and marketing manager, Meli is eager to show us the main features, beginning by first explaining the resort’s concept. “If you look at our name, it says Castaway Island Fiji. It doesn’t have anything about resort and spa. We know you can get this white sandy beach anywhere, get motorised and non-motorised activities, the great island experience, the great F&B. you can get that anywhere. But for us, it’s the castaway experience. First of all, we limit your WiFi — just enough to send a text message and email — but not enough for a video. And when the system feels there are too many online users, it shuts down. Because you’re on... Castaway.”
I barely flinch when Meli utters those words but I imagine many digital warriors or online addicts would begin frothing at the mouth before throwing a tantrum over being unable to stay ‘connected’ to their life back home. There may not be any WiFi in the bungalows or on the beachfront, but at least there’s some WiFi in designated public areas.
No radio, no television, and no alarm clocks either in the rooms as guests are encouraged to lose track of time. Blackout curtains encourage sleeping in because there’s nowhere to rush to. Basically, guests are encouraged to surrender themselves to the island and enjoy ‘Fiji Time’, a local term that refers to a languid approach towards time.
As Meli leads the way inland, the unknown path takes us into lush tropical environs with coconut trees and hibiscus bushes on the fringes, alongside many other varieties of verdant life and an occasional burst of floral colour. While my ecstatic senses are feeding off this vibrant garden scene, my loquacious guide explains further that this resort doesn’t seek to be too modern like other places, thus retaining its rustic charms.
“When you walk in, it’s not flashy, it doesn’t stand out. About the only flashy thing are the beach umbrellas, otherwise the whole resort is thatched. It’s real grass, not fake, because we try to maintain as much authenticity as possible,” affirms Meli.
By the time he has pointed out features such as the adults-only pool, a family pool, the kids club, a sanctuary for massages, a tennis court and South Beach (the south facing side of the beach), I’m beginning to sweat. Not due to the bright rays enveloping the island with its gentle warmth, but because we haven’t even reached my lodgings yet. I’m already worried about how to find my way back to the starting point.
With a mischievous grin, Meli adds that there are no direction signs to help find one’s way (again, this is intentional as part of the Castaway experience). Damn! It’s too late to do a Hansel and Gretel and leave breadcrumbs behind me while walking. I detect a secret plot by my guide to take me on a complicated route that would plunge me into confusion through the leafy labyrinth.
JOY IN SIMPLICITIES
Soon, we arrive at the North Beach where resides my ‘bure’, a traditionally-inspired thatched bungalow housing a spacious interior, equally imbued with a traditional style that embraces natural rattan, local timber and hand-painted ‘Tapa’, a decorative Fijian cloth made from the softened bark of trees.
With 66 ‘bures’ across the resort, guests can choose from the Beach, Ocean view or Island units which can accommodate a maximum of five people. A much larger bungalow is also available if you’re travelling with an entourage. Some bures are merely two seconds away from the beach. Mine, however, require a longer trek to reach the soft caress of sand — a lengthy 30 seconds.
Snapshots of peace soothe my sight. Hammocks, reclining deck chairs and wooden benches are scattered near the beach. Children frolic in shallow waters or build sandcastles with a parent or two as Fijian nannies babysit little ones for guests. With internal glee, I notice that this scene is devoid of crowds and tourists thanks to the resort being the only one on the island, taking up approximately an eighth of the island’s 70ha while the remaining undeveloped land is home to hilly slopes and a tropical rainforest. The more energetic can make a trek to the top for panoramic views of the ocean and nearby islands.
A TRADITIONAL CONNECTION
My plans to bury my nose in a book and play in the water have to be put on hold as a speed boat is waiting to whisk me on a trip to check out the ‘neighbours’. I discover that the Mamanuca Islands are a popular location for TV shows like Survivor. Then there’s the Hollywood movie Cast Away which was filmed on nearby Modriki (Monuriki) Island and can be visited by Castaway Island guests via a private speedboat. Meanwhile, my excursion takes me past the little rocky island where Hollywood actor Tom Hanks stayed while filming the movie, followed by a visit to floating restaurant Cloud 9, before heading to surfers’ paradise where it’s surprisingly exciting to witness surfers live in action.
Back at Castaway Island, I meet the resort manager, Marian Khan, from whom I learn a bit about the island’s traditional roots. It seems that every island has a traditional owner, a chief who is a Fijian native. “Castaway has a traditional Fijian name called Qalito. This island used to be a safe haven for the chief and his tribe. When the Americans came, there was a period when the explorer Captain Wilkes declared war on the natives, burning their villages, so they fled and sought refuge on this island till the situation calmed down.”
Adding, Marian shares that Castaway is known as the chief’s sacred island because of its traditional past as a haven and a place for solace. “I haven’t had this kind of feeling in previous islands where I worked. Here, you can feel like it’s connected to the chief, to the people. it’s connected traditionally.”
Hence, during the resort’s development, the-then chief was involved. “Structural plans were shared with the chief and every step of the way, everything required traditional permission to develop,” reveals Marian. The resort opened in 1966, a time before even Fiji gained independence and just last year, the resort’s 50th birthday was celebrated with a big fanfare.
“We always want to keep the cultural connection,” continues Marian, adding: “That’s why you see a lot of tradition here while other places are moving away from tradition. For example, the bures have hand-printed tapa made from tree bark. That’s what gives them their unique character.”
By the second day of my stay, I feel totally connected to the island, greeting people with a cheerful Bula! and tucking fresh flowers behind my ear like the resort staff. Navigating the walkways has become intuitive, giving me the confidence to try a faster and easier route towards the Water’s Edge Restaurant. Taking the opposite direction, I check the beachfront for a possibility, noticing suddenly something familiar further up — kayaks! A short walk along the sand and I find myself once more at the main entrance, grinning at the realisation that I could never really be lost on Castaway Island.
Details at www.castawayfiji.com
Getting to Castaway Island Fiji
• The fastest way from Malaysia is via Singapore where Fiji Airways flies direct to Fiji
• Fiji Airways currently operates twice-weekly flights departing from Singapore on Wednesday and Saturday.
• A third service from Singapore to Nadi, Fiji, starts April 2018, during peak travel periods
• The airline has introduced a ‘resort check-in‘ feature across selected resorts whereby guests can check themselves and their bags in for their Fiji Airways flights from the resort lobby.
• Visit www.fijiairways.com for more information
• From Port Denarau Marina near Nadi, air-conditioned catamarans depart for Castaway Island three times daily. Alternatively, get to the island in a water taxi, by helicopter or seaplane.