Australia's love affair with Fiji is at an all-time high luxury is more affordable than ever, and the travel time is so short it may as well be a domestic flight. As a result, some five-star hotels feel less exclusive than they once were. That's not the case at the InterContinental Golf Resort & Spa Fiji, where the concept of a "resort within a resort" is actually a reality.
Resort in a nutshell
On the clear-blue shores of what Forbes magazine has labelled one of the top 25 beaches in the world, Natadola Bay, The InterContinental is one of the newest five-star hotels on Fiji's main island, Viti Levu.
Open since 2009, this 35-acre all-villa resort is secluded on the island's east coast in Sigatoka, far from the main resort hub on the manmade Denarau Island. The Intercon has the benefit of a white sandy strip of pristine beach, while Denarau sits on a mangrove swamp.
The resort is all modern island luxury: Lush tropical gardens, spacious villas with beachfront, lagoon or garden views, and four restaurants and bars awash with the tropical breeze. There's a kids' pool, an adults-only pool, and if you're in a club room, a private in-villa plunge pool (a bit chilly, but perfect for a spot of navel-gazing in the afternoon).
Nutshell in a resort: You'll find me in the club
The club sits, somewhat symbolically, on a hilltop above the rest of the resort (a true "resort within a resort"). If being treated like a king or queen (or self-elected Fijian prime minister, who I rub shoulders with at breakfast) is your thing, prepare to surrender yourself to the throne.
Club Intercontinental has 55 villas with said outdoor plunge pools, ocean views, ridiculous amounts of space (hello, a Fijian family of eight could fit on the living room banquette), and the true mark of exclusivity: a private guest-only lounge.
The club lounge is a gathering spot without the crowds of the lower part of the resort. Honeymooners, baby boomers and the odd Fijian politician shoot the breeze sipping cocktails and nibbling canapés with a panoramic vista of Natadola Bay from up high.
The turquoise reef teases on the horizon, but in closer range is a 25m pool mirroring that same light ocean hue. Surrounded by teardrop-shaped wicker-basket lounges, the pool is breathtaking in any language.
In fact, it's so pretty I haven't seen one person swim in yet (I remedy that situation fast). Everyone else is at the adults-only infinity pool for people-watching by the beach; but it is low season, and remarkably peaceful up at the club pool.
Entry into the lounge is reserved for only those who have paid a premium club rate. That includes a la carte and continental breakfast, afternoon tea (highlights: macaroons, fresh scones and freshly spiced chai lattes), free twilight drinks and canapés, and the romance of having a space to call your own come sunset time.
The real perks: Private butlers, romantic dinners and community aid
Couples are the real winners in this part of the resort. The club rooms are sexy and they know it; open-plan and chocolate-beige in tones, with that aqua outdoor plunge pool and an open-air Cleopatra bathtub that fits two comfortably (pull the modesty curtain for a solo bath, and enjoy the views). The his-and-hers marble bathroom has Pure Fiji bath amenities that make every shower or bath a coconut cleanse.
Villa vantage point: All club villas have sprawling ocean views.
One hiccup involves a bottle of Fiji Water, the trendy American-owned company that sells the South Pacific island's natural resource, and gets endorsed by Hollywood celebrities. I open a bottle in the bathroom and have a gulp, only to find my mouth slammed by a vaguely familiar tang. Vodka! We blamed the guest in the room before us, who our butler tells us "liked to party".
Having a private butler on call is not something I'll ever get used to, but it's a great way to get to know a local. The club's new Itokani butler service (Itokani meaning "at your side" in Fijian) is pitched by the Intercon as a "PA for your holiday".
In-hotel butlers have been doing their thing for years in resorts like this. The Intercon sets itself apart with butlers who can plan guest's itineraries before and during their stays. Any whim is catered for: surprise island picnics, local community activities, cave tours, snorkelling, kayaking, exotic bathing rituals and luxurious private three- or five-course candlelit dinners in the comfort of your private villa.
I choose the "Terrace Dining" experience a three-course seafood extravaganza prepared on my deck just in time for sunset. Lobster, oysters, mussels, prawns, chilli mud crab, sponge fish, bugs, sashimi, sushi and other locally caught marine foods hold my partner and I in delicious awe.
The butler comes in to check on us only once, so there's not much to interrupt possibly the most romantic dinner at the resort, let alone the whole island (for a not-too-ridiculous $217).
Outdoor terrace dining on a balmy night: Now this is living the life.
There is a sense of Western guilt at having a butler wait on hand and foot for you, but the hotel does employ and train staff from the local villages. Numerous butlers, porters and waiters I speak to boast about the benefits of working for the Intercon; free buses to and from work, world-class hospitality training, and many opportunities for career development.
"I didn't have an education, they gave me a job," says airport transfer driver Pantu. "Other hotels want experience."
Pantu had previously worked in the sugar cane fields for 25 years. Through his work at the Intercon, he now supports his family in a nearby village not far out of Nadi.
Finau, one of the butlers, has better manners than you'd find in most resorts in Australia. "Definitely" is his response to any request, although my favourite moment was hearing him singing to himself when no guests were around. Boy are they missing out!
Josaia, an always-smiling recreation activity staffer, tells me of how he won Employee of the Month, which included a trip to Sydney at the Holiday Inn Potts Point.
"Wooh, Kings Cross!" he recalls. "Sydney so busy."
"We are now in Fiji time so that's on holiday time," he add later.
Life might not always be a holiday for Josaia, Pantu, Finau and friends, but the impact their personalities make on guests at the Intercon is genuine, and more valuable than the admittedly incredible in-room pools, buffet dinners and massage oils.
One of the highlights of my experience is Josaia's guided visit to the local Malomalo Primary School, in which the hotel built the kindergarten. Playing soccer, singing and dancing with the kids is a privilege, and meeting like-minded hotel guests with a social conscience is another plus.
Ultimately, it's a reminder that five-star doesn't equal detachment from the real world.
For more information
The Intercontinental Golf Resort & Spa is an hour and 20 minutes' drive from Nadi International Airport. Club rooms start from $694 per night (subject to availability). For full details, go to www.intercontinental.com/fiji.
Virgin, Air Pacific and Qantas fly daily to Fiji. The best time to travel is from May to November, with average temperatures from 19 to 29 degrees Celsius.
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