As a singleton, I could never understand the attraction of Fiji. By all reports, the food was lousy, the service appalling and there were screaming children everywhere. Now, as a tired old mother of two, Fiji is my favourite family holiday destination, despite the repeated coup attempts and sporadic deportation of newspaper editors.
The reason is clear from the moment you step off the plane. A blanket of heat envelops you, relaxing both body and mind. The Fijians give new meaning to the term 'warm welcome' - the kids tickled, rumbled and hugged to within an inch of their lives. By the time we reach our destination, the Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa on Denarau Island, they're Bula-ing (hello) and Vinaka-ing (thank you) their heads off.
Denarau is a bit like Nusa Dua in Bali. Just 20 minutes drive from Nadi airport, Denarau is a gated community housing all the top resorts, a golf course and tennis complex, plus a new marina. The beaches are nothing to write home about (volcanic sand), but there's ample compensation in the luxurious accommodation, superb food and friendly, efficient service. Being negligent parents, we head straight to the kids' club to see how soon we can check the little blighters in.
Thankfully, the kids' club ticks all the boxes: qualified nannies, healthy food options, a cubby house and slide, PlayStation, playdough and buckets of Lego. Much of their time is spent outdoors, with activities like coconut painting, fish feeding, crab racing, shell collecting and Fijian dance lessons. Kids happily ensconced, we don our swimmers (threatening to blind people with our winter tans) and head for the enormous hammocks, conveniently located beneath palm trees on the beach.
Fijian cuisine has come a long way since the 80s. At the Sofitel's V restaurant, we dine on duck liver and cognac pâté, followed by a warm salad of braised Yaqara beef cheek with a mustard and cabernet dressing. The best thing about Denarau is that you can walk along the beach to a different restaurant every night. In our four nights, we had more child-free dinners than in the previous four years! At the new Port Denarau Marina, you can choose from a dozen restaurants and cafés, or stock up on food at the gourmet Yees deli. Almost 40 per cent of Fiji's population is of Indian heritage and, at Indigo's restaurant, we enjoy the best butter chicken we've ever tasted.
Beyond the gate
While it's incredibly relaxing to remain within the gated community, to get an idea of the real Fiji you need to travel beyond Denarau. The bustling town of Nadi is well worth a visit, its main street a jumble of sari and jewellery shops, poky eateries and fresh food markets. At the end of the street, you'll find the largest Hindu temple in the southern hemisphere - a riot of colour and intricate sculpture. Our driver weaves his way through the lush countryside, thick with banana and mango trees, Poinciana and sugar cane, to a local institution, the Sigatoka markets.
You're supposed to haggle
Our trip becomes Pythonesque as we become lost in the middle of the markets. The outer stalls are heaving with fresh fruit and veggies, everything from tapioca and snake beans to dragon fruit and tropical flowers. "Somebody touched my cheek," the toddler squeals, as the lovely ladies swarm over the small blonde child. We're shuffled into the inner sanctum, where Fijian Indians stand cheek by jowl selling jewellery and trinkets. When I offer to buy a necklace for FJ$10, I'm told, "You're supposed to haggle". Hubby steps in and, using his best negotiating skills, walks away with one necklace, two bracelets and a wooden cat for the same price. Driving away, we spot a sign for "Shoes for big feet ladies".
Kula Eco Park
About 10 minutes drive from Sigatoka is the Kula Eco Park, a must-see. Set in a coastal rainforest reserve, the park is dedicated to the conservation of Fiji's indigenous animals, especially the critically endangered crested iguana. The kids are delighted with this educational, hands-on experience. Our guide takes one of the iguanas out of its cage and puts it on our daughter's head. "I like 'guana," she says, as our son is handed a small tree snake. The kids hand-feed a pool full of endangered turtles, which are being hunted for their shells and meat. Take the time to wander along the boardwalks through the beautiful tropical gardens, a cool respite from the heat outside.
Some of the best snorkelling in Fiji can be found along the aptly named Coral Coast, one of the main tourist areas on Viti Levu. The oldest, and most famous, of the resorts here is the Shangri-La Fijian, fronting a white sand beach and aquamarine waters. It's a sprawling complex dedicated to families, with the Little Chiefs Club one of the best organised kids' facilities in Fiji. Although a little tired, the resort is worth a visit for lunch, on a deck overlooking a sparkling, sheltered lagoon.
Now, we understand. Fiji is the perfect destination for a family; a place where you can leave your kids with complete confidence, and dine like kings for a reasonable price. Lying by the magnificent pool at the Sofitel, we manage to devour one book a day. Despite the occasional coup and deportation, you feel safe within the confines of your resort, surrounded by the ever-smiling, friendly Fijians.
Your ultimate guide to family friendly resorts across the Fijian archipelago:
Denarau, near Nadi
- Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa
- Fiji Beach Resort & Spa, Hilton
- Sheraton Fiji Resort
- Radisson Resort Fiji
- WorldMark Denarau Island
- Sonaisali Island Resort
- Warwick Resort & Spa
- Naviti Resort
- Outrigger on the Lagoon Fiji
- Hideaway Resort
- Shangri-La's Fijian Resort & Spa
Northern Islands and Kadavu
- Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, Savusavu
- Plantation Island Resort
- Musket Cove
- Malolo Island Resort
- Castaway Island Resort
- Mana Island Resort
- Treasure Island Resort
- Beachcomber Island Resort
When to go
The dry season is between April and October
How to get there
There are cheap flights aplenty on
Pacific Blue and Qantas
What to do
Kula Eco Park
Hindu Temple, Nadi
Meke - traditional Fijian dance
Lovo - Fijian feast
Where to eat
Port Denarau Marina
V Restaurant Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa
The Westin Steakhouse Bar & Grill
This article is brought to you by Out & About with Kids magazine. www.outandaboutwithkids.com.au