Island life ... reef swimming. Photo: Getty Images
Nicola Walker and her extended family, including a reluctant nephew, find a week's holiday in Fiji is barely enough.
Offered a week in Fiji during winter school holidays, my 14-year-old nephew wasn't keen. Sure, he'd loved the Fiji Hideaway Resort on the Coral Coast when we went two years ago, but we were suggesting somewhere different. It's a dog's life when you're forced to holiday with your mother, grandma, sister, aunt and cousin Iris. (The toddler doesn't count.) It's only seven measly days, we say; and so off our little party goes to Fiji's Amunuca Resort and Spa.
It's on the northern-most island of the Mamanuca group, 35 kilometres off the mainland. Getting there involves a speedboat ride at night. It's on the itinerary, but we'd somehow overlooked the timing. Ploughing through an inky sea in the pitch black for 45 minutes is vaguely alarming. The Fijian lady on board starts laughing as we draw close to the island, and tells us to prepare for a "wet landing". Amunuca has no jetty. Fijian blokes carry us one-by-one to the beach, which sets grandma shrieking. She can be heard over the "bula" welcome song a group is singing.
We do like a bure, that is, a cottage of sorts, as opposed to a hotel room, and we enjoyed our connecting sea-front bures at the Fiji Hideaway. Amunuca has various-sized bures in a pretty garden setting, but the promised "four great-size bedrooms" of our "family bure" are in reality small (with fridge, TV, airconditioning and a kettle). Being three rows back from the sea, ours gets less of a breeze than those nice ones right on the beachfront, and there seems to be a problem with the sewage pipe just behind the bure. My cot request has been ignored for the reason that there is no space for one.
We strip down to T-shirts and thongs - oh, the bliss of bare feet again - and hurry along the garden path to Amunuca's terrace restaurant. It's French night. We've booked a breakfast and dinner package, so two of us choose lobster thermidor. It's soon apparent that the chef has more pretension than ability. Denied the consolation of wine, my teenage nephew puts his head in his hands.
Things do get better, but for the time being it's wobbly. The pool is small, the water slide is for young children, there's no pool table, we wait for 90 minutes for dinner on a busy Saturday and the toddler goes on a hunger strike. Yet the beach is lovely, the sea is warm and inviting and, unlike the Coral Coast, does not drain away at low tide (which means we can swim any time). The staff are delightful, the view from the restaurant terrace dreamy and, heck, we're on holiday.
I organise a sitter for the toddler each morning, and Kulae is terrific with him. We visit the Let's Get Wet office - operator of all sorts of trips, from swimming with manta rays to deep-sea fishing to scuba-dive lessons - and end up whizzing to nearby Monuriki island, made famous in the film Castaway, starring Tom Hanks. Captain Tim's sidekick shimmies up a palm tree and collects coconuts. The milk is so pure babies can drink it. We snorkel off the beach, spying plenty of fish but only the odd bit of coral. My nephew enjoys his first ever snorkel and we enjoy his company.
At the Fiji Hideaway, he had quickly bonded with boys ranging in age from seven to 16 and we barely saw him again. They looped between the pool (with water slide), table tennis, pool table and the restaurant all day and half the night. The staff kept an eye on them, and they didn't look at a screen for the week.
Here at Amunuca, there are fewer boys and many kids seem younger than 14. While seven-year-old Iris is playing in the pool and making friends, it takes a Fijian dancing night to get the older two off the ground. Soon, the nephew is joshing with twin 12-year-olds who arrived the day after us; his sister judging the dancing competition. Other activities include a Polynesian music night in which staff swap uniforms for grass skirts, a hermit-crab race and lovely choral harmonies from Yanuya villagers. Yanuya is on the island opposite, and one morning Captain Tim drops off a boatload of us with a guide. It hasn't rained for three months, a major headache for locals and a key reason the islands are so popular with tourists (although it does mean buying countless bottles of water). The village is poor. It's worth taking change to put in the donation box for the kids who attend Yanuya's ill-equipped school, and for the handicraft market.
One morning, with Kulae minding the toddler, we grown-ups abandon the other kids (it's safe) and take a 10-minute stroll to the leeward side of Mamanuca island. There we find paradise, otherwise known as Tokoriki Island Resort. It's expensive, but it's gorgeous and for adults only (kids under 13 are prohibited). The bures are all sea-facing and exquisite; the garden a haven of orchids. This is where grandma really belongs. Guests from Amunuca are welcome to mingle with the patricians at the reportedly excellent restaurant.
Back at Amunuca, my sister and I swim to the dark blue water ringing the bay and find ourselves at the reef's edge. It is indescribably lovely: a fantasy world teeming with absurd fish and vibrant coral. A gang of zebra fish think I'm an anemone and start nibbling. This is Amunuca's star attraction, and we find it on our last afternoon. Better late than never.
Kulae sticks a flower behind the toddler's ear and gives him one last kiss. Other staff, beautiful in their red dresses, sing us a farewell as we descend the steps to the beach. We must clamber aboard the speedboat ourselves, which takes us to a ferry waiting beyond the reef. Grandma gets soaked. The rest of us, even the nephew, agree that a week is too short.
Air Pacific has a fare to Nadi from Sydney for about $530 and from Melbourne for about $620 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Nadi (3hr 35min from Melbourne and 2hr 50min from Sydney); see airpacific.com. Virgin Australia flies non-stop from both cities to Nadi; Jetstar flies non-stop from Sydney only.
Amunuca Island Resort and Spa has four-room family island bures (sleeps eight) from $F973 ($517) a room a night. One-bedroom beachfront bures (sleeps four) cost from $F873 a room a night. Meal packages are extra. See amunuca.com.
Fiji Hideaway Resort and Spa, Coral Coast, has two-person bures from $F549 a night. Lots of sightseeing trips are on offer. See hideawayfiji.com.
Tokoriki Island Resort has deluxe beach bures for two from $F1092 a night. A perfect place for honeymooners. See tokoriki.com.
Let's Get Wet Water Adventures has dive courses and tours. Snorkelling gear is free. Phone +679 717 0621 or book through Amunuca Island Resort.