(The following article first appeared in the April edition of Golf Canada magazine)
It was like flying into the Kingdom of Heaven, our private plane drifting quietly through layers of cloud made phosphorescent by the rising sun, the cumulus puffs occasionally parting to reveal a tiny dot of land below. Only minutes earlier we’d been met after disembarking our 747 from Los Angeles, whisked through customs and a security checkpoint at Fiji’s Nadi International Airport, and helped aboard the turboprop Hawker 200 awaiting us on the tarmac for the 45-minute connection to Laucala Island.
One of more than 800 islands and islets that comprise the Fijian archipelago, lying 5,100 kilometres southwest of Hawaii in the South Pacific and a three-hour flight from the Australian and New Zealand coasts, Laucala (pronounced Lauthala) is a resort unlike any on Earth.
Built as a private island retreat by Malcolm Forbes and acquired and upgraded in 2003 by Red Bull CEO Dietrich Mateschitz, the resort is set upon 3,200 spectacular acres that link mountain to beach. Virtually self-sustaining, housing its own airplane hangars, medical clinic, sewage treatment plant, farms, gardens and even a separate marina for staff, Laucala is the ultimate all-inclusive for the uber-rich. The exclusive resort is an eco-conscious Shangri-La that incorporates island-made products in the spa, native ingredients in its menu and a range of activities that celebrate its distinctive geography.
Upon arrival we were greeted warmly by staff and native singers before being led to Plantation Villa No. 2. Called Maqo (Mango), it’s one of just 25 villas on the island – each a collection of thatched-roofed, mahogany-floored pavilions constructed with timber beams and exquisite stonework. Our rotunda bathroom included a huge stone tub and an eight-foot alcove shower stall with a pair of showerheads. There were two more showers and another tub in the lush gardens outside. Each of the villa’s ocean-facing walls slid open accordion-style to fully expose the beach and our private infinity pool.
Inside, the bar was well-stocked with a sterling assortment of wines, beers, liqueurs and softer beverages. Even the tap water is as pure as it gets, filtered by the island’s natural volcanic rock and bottled in resealable glass containers.
No detail is overlooked. Laundry is collected and returned folded the next morning. Flower-adorned cards are left bedside each evening with quotes from famous authors. Tiny cakes and appetizers arrive mid-afternoon, just in case the expansive all-inclusive array of five-star food and beverages throughout the day somehow hasn’t sufficed.
Lured from Austria, French Head Chef Martin Klein and his talented apprentice Oliver Scarf dazzle taste buds with ideal portions and a menu rich in local fruits and vegetables at the elegant Plantation House. Even our morning eggs and their adorning fresh herbs might well have been collected just hours earlier.
Lunch in the 54,000-square-foot main pool complex, with skyscraping coconut palms bending overhead and a turquoise ocean beyond, is simply spectacular.
Then there was the indulgence of a private barbeque at our villa, where we were serenaded with traditional song as a huge bonfire blazed on the sand nearby.
But nothing compared to the view from The Rock lounge, perched on a bluff overlooking the ocean. Nothing, that is, except the experience of dinner at Seagrass Restaurant. Chef Sera Tuicakau at Teppaniyaki, Seagrass’s Japanese dining option, prepares dinner in front of guests. Fresh cod, crisp bok choy and colourful peppers sizzle on the grill while waves thunder off the rocks below.
In a visit filled with superlatives, the most sublime setting of all was the sunset view from the restaurant’s lookout platform on our second-last night – a private table with the backdrop of a sky ablaze in hues of crimson, pink and orange.
Upon our late-night return to the villa, a sea of torches alerted us that bartender Joeli had kept the pool bar open, just in case the urge struck us. And so we stopped to share a bottle of champagne to celebrate an unforgettable night and day that had begun so many hours earlier at the island’s crown jewel – its golf course.
It’s a breathtaking, unforgiving work from the hand of David McLay Kidd, whose award-winning golf architecture includes Bandon Dunes in Oregon, the new Castle Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, and the exclusive Nanea in Hawaii. Although it’s a relentless test, Laucala’s layout is infused with memorability and distinctive looks from every tee box.
From the monster par-4 dogleg-left over a creek at No. 2, to the awe-inspiring drop into a valley at No. 4, to the beachside green complex at the 12th, McLay Kidd has made the most of the jaw-dropping terrain. Not that there aren’t a few minor issues to be addressed. A shallow base of bunker sand makes it difficult to competently extract the ball, but they’re being redone in the near future. Also scheduled for renovation are parts of the putting surfaces at Nos. 2, 4, 13 and 17, the slopes of which have become a little too severe in spots as the greens have settled since their 2009 unveiling.
Guided by head professional Tony Christie, an affable and highly skilled Kiwi, I found myself plagued by a recurring block slice into the jungle on day one. Searching for errant shots was almost pointless, so dense is the underbrush. At least there are no dangerous native species for players to worry about, save for the occasional falling coconut.
My less-than-stellar play continued during our second-last round, as I lost six balls in the first eight holes. But this time, at least, I had a legitimate excuse for the lack of focus. In a land where romance is virtually unavoidable, I proposed to the love of my life, Mary, at the halfway lookout. And she said yes.
Finding privacy to celebrate such an occasion was hardly an issue. The resort’s highest occupancy rate ever has been just 14 villas of couples and families; it was even more exclusive on this trip. After an Austrian couple departed on our second morning at Laucala, my fiancee and I were the only guests on the island, setting up an improbable staff ratio of 369 to 2.
The musical sendoff we were treated to on the final evening was memorable, to say the least. Handshakes and hugs at departure from General Manager David Stepetic and his wife Risako left us feeling as though we were leaving close family. David, meanwhile, thanked us for leaving a legacy – the island’s first engagement.
Laucala Resort - www.laucala.com
Phone: (011) 679-888-0077
Rates: $3,800 – $40,000 per night
Fiji’s national airline, Air Pacific, is changing its name this year to Fiji Airways and replacing aging 747s with three brand new Airbus A330 aircraft. The Airbus 330s will mark a welcome upgrade for those flying economy during the 10.5-hour journey from Los Angeles to Nadi (or connecting from Vancouver), not only offering more comfortable seating, but the new Panasonic eX2 IFEC in-flight entertainment system with 9-inch screens, power outlets and USB connections.
As with almost all activities on Laucala, golf is complimentary, as are the brand new Titleist and TaylorMade rentals. Guests are also each provided with a dozen Titleist Pro V1s.
Average daily highs hover around 30 C, with humidity more of a factor during their summer (our winter) months.