Fiji, to many Australians, means a fun and affordable holiday escape with little travel time. To me, Fiji brings back memories of holidays I spent there with friends in my 20s – traipsing from one island to another in a bid to find the next marine life-rich dive locales, exchanging stories with fellow scruffy backpackers over Fiji Bitters and saving pennies on the mainland by catching beat-up minivans in between Suva and Nadi.
Fast-forward a few years and the backpack has been replaced with a sturdy, four-wheel suitcase that, to my back’s delight, my toddler Maya loves to ride on in airports. Her pigtails and pale green dinosaur backpack bounce around in excitement as she shouts ‘bula’ (Fijian for hello) to everyone at Brisbane International Airport. We’re flying to Nadi with my sister Kate, who is finding the commotion all very entertaining. She has never flown with a toddler before.
A little over three-and-a-half hours after leaving Brisbane with no tantrums, albeit a messy encounter with the tiny loo change table, we arrive at Nadi Airport. Nadi (pronounced 'Nan-di'), located on the main island of Viti Levu, is the major transit hub for the rest of Fiji. A smallish and dishevelled-looking town with an old-school main strip and surrounded by green hills and cane farms, we’re greeted by the melodies chanted by ukulele-touting Fijians that distract Maya long enough to get through customs with little fuss.
Our first night lands us at Mamasakes, a sushi and Asian tapas restaurant recommended by our lovely host and aunty who lives in Nadi. Here adults delight in fancy and fresh local dishes like seared tuna and green salad filled with wonton slivers and covered in a tangy citrus vinaigrette, while around us even the fussiest of children revel in one of the best and healthiest kid’s menus I’ve ever seen. Maya enjoys edamame, Californian rolls and cassava chips made from the local root vegetable. Despite being two hours' ahead, she’s already asleep as we pass families boarding the restaurant’s free shuttle bus back to their hotels.
The next day Maya plays in the grey sands of nearby Wailoaloa Beach – a backpacker mecca full of horse riding on the beach, stand-up paddle boarders and frightened skydivers landing in front of us to keep her entertained (from a distance, of course!). An early lunch at boho café Taste Fiji gives the adults a much-needed caffeine and pastry hit as Maya draws on a giant chalkboard and chats over mini banana smoothies with new friends.
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Gone are my days of rickety minivan travel and after lunch we’re collecting our hire car. Make sure you arrange a child car seat ahead of time as they are not compulsory or common here. Toilet, food and tantrum stops and five hours later we arrive in Suva just in time for the fog to set in. Don’t drive to Suva in the dark – the fog is definitely a vision challenge. The smooth coastal roads, green farmlands, baby coconuts and bananas acquired at roadside stalls and slowing down for foot traffic in Fijian villages made for a fun trip.
Day four and five:
Maya enjoys the people watching in Suva as we pass unkempt British colonial buildings, pizza restaurants and movie theatres on our way to My Suva Picnic Park – a long park adjacent to Queen Elizabeth Drive in central Suva, meandering along the South Pacific Ocean’s edge complete with swings and slides that look new but remind you of the ‘80s at the same time. Older kids are spoilt for choice with regular rugby union games at Albert Park (it’s the number one sport here) and the weapons and cannibal forks of yesteryear at Fiji Museum.
For the little ones, even shopping for papayas and coconuts at Municipal Market on Rodwell Road – where sellers compete to sell local flowers, giant taros, fish and tropical fruits under one giant, steamy shed in town – leaves her wide-eyed and smiling.
Suva has the widest range of shopping in the country. Ramshackle shops and markets sit alongside shiny, grandeur malls like MHCC and Prouds Shopping Complex both on Renwick Road in town. Find a Jack’s for souvenirs – with all the ukuleles, ‘island time’ tees and Pure Fiji Beauty products you could ask for sans the need for bartering, thanks to reasonably set prices. By now you would have seen and tried natural beauty products from Pure Fiji – we stock up on discount moisturisers, body washes and the like at their Suva headquarter’s factory.
We arrive back to Nadi hours too early to catch the ferry to the final leg of our adventure, Sheraton Resort & Spa on Tokoriki Island. At about $AUD100 a pop for adults, the South Sea Cruises ferry is quite expensive for an hour’s journey made only slightly better with kids under five travelling free.
To a mother’s delight, we are able to check in at Sheraton’s Port Denarau Resort and take full advantage of the resort’s elaborate pools, cafes and kids playground before they shuttle us to our boat. From the ferry to a rough transfer on a smaller boat to the island (ask for a kid’s life jacket if it’s choppy), the first thing you notice on Tokoriki Island is how much whiter the sand and more sparkling blue the water is compared to the mainland.
A warm Fijian greeting later and we’re on the beachfront deck of our 5-star beach buré. Past the greenery of neighbouring islands within the Mamanuca group we stop still, in awe of a picture-perfect sunset as Maya enjoys her colouring books on the deck. Traditional wooden Fijian fixtures are complemented by white cotton bedlinen, a flatscreen TV, kitchenette and a white marble-looking bathroom – we said no to a private plunge pool with a toddler - and are pleasantly surprised by the large wooden shutters keeping little Miss from escaping yet not obstructing the views.
We start our first full day feeding small white fish in the ocean with one of the resort’s staff, before a full buffet breakfast where a chef specially make egg-free pancakes for Maya. I’m still laughing at her little bottom floating in the water as she giggles at the fish swooning past her.
Flying Fish Restaurant by Sydney-based chef Peter Kuruvita is the only restaurant at the resort but so varied, you don’t mind coming back. When a tantrum arrived on round one of a five-course tasting menu (the scallop and pineapple taster still melted in your mouth cold), the chefs wrapped up the courses and delivered them at intervals to our room.
The hospitality here is friendly, warm and welcoming. All of the staff got to know Maya within the first day and to her delight, greeted her like a rock star every time they passed her. Too young for Sheraton Tokoriki’s kid’s club (for three years and over), she was allowed full access to the play area with adult supervision and their park soon became part of our morning routine. If we wanted, we could have taken advantage of the $15 per hour qualified babysitters, who take kids on a journey of free resort activities like face painting, movies and basket weaving, as adults unwind with a pina colada at the pool bar or a jet-skiing and snorkel safari around the island.
On our last full day, we take a boat to a neighbouring island to tour the village and meet some of the cheeriest and songful kids of all time at the local school who sang all of Maya’s favourite nursery rhymes as she danced nearby. There was a ‘no hat’ policy on this island - strange, but doable if you apply plenty of sunscreen and stick to the shade (never under a coconut tree). Maya is easily distracted by a group of tourists doing water aerobics as my sister patiently gives her a swim lesson in the infinity pool later in the day. Or so I’m told; I’m off sneaking in a one-hour signature massage at the resort’s Tokoriki Retreat spa.
The next day, after our last swim we skip the boat and board a 15-minute helicopter ride to Nadi International Airport. With a two-for-one deal and another freebie for toddlers, it works out a fraction more than the ferry ride. Exhausted from fun – she enjoyed the golf buggy ride to the chopper as much as she did the flight – Maya falls asleep at check-in. She wakes briefly to whisper ‘vanaka’ – Fijian for thank you – to the flight attendant as we board the plane for home after 10 days in paradise.
All images: Jolee Wakefield
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