December 20, 2014
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Peace. Love. Play.

Why would you ever leave Fiji's Turtle Island, as it brings to life your travel fantasy of pure, pampered delight?

If the perfectly turquoise waters and the relative isolation don't convince you that you are in for the most relaxing vacation ever, maybe the welcoming bure mamas will.

If the perfectly turquoise waters and the relative isolation don't convince you that you are in for the most relaxing vacation ever, maybe the welcoming bure mamas will.

The End …

    The sweet, hymn-like words of Isa Lei, the Fijian farewell song, float across the Blue Lagoon. Our seaplane glides through the glassy water, scattering a school of blue and yellow tropical fish. Tony and Larissa, the honeymooners on board with me, are blinking back tears. Behind us on the dock, our two beloved “bure mamas,” Dockman Erami, Papa Jerry, island manager Alex, our beloved server, Shakira, and several other members of our Turtle Island family call out one last “bula bula,” their arms extended wide as if beseeching us to turn back before it’s too late.

    “Take off your garlands,” says Captain Ollie. “You must toss them into the water as we leave Turtle Island.” But I don’t want to toss out this gorgeous hibiscus lei laced with fragrant fresh basil. I had seen Mama Wainise perched on a low stone wall at the beach, weaving its thin, satiny palmetto strands. She slipped it over my head with a kiss on the cheek just before I stepped into the seaplane.

Forget your watch. The Turtle Board is the only thing you need to keep your relaxed schedule.

    “Tradition says that when your garland returns to the island, it is a promise that you also will return,” the pilot explains.

    Fine. I watch my wreath float back toward the shore as though on an invisible silken cord. The late afternoon sun casts a golden glow on the few pointed thatched roofs still visible through the jungle foliage. It’s just as well that I can’t see my own beachfront bure (bungalow). At this very moment some other bure mama is probably setting out tiny turtle-shaped soaps beside a fresh bottle of Pure Fiji body lotion, filling my cookie jar with homemade tavola nut cookies, and spelling out bula bula in palmetto letters on my four-poster bed. It’s just not right.

    I dig into my purse for the watch I had put away six days ago. On Turtle Island, all you need is your bure mama and the Turtle Board. Your mama is your personal housekeeper, fairy godmother, companion (when you want one), photographer and organizer. She’ll be as visible or invisible as you desire, but she’s always accessible via radio. If you can’t remember whether today is your lobster feast on Devil’s Beach or your champagne picnic on Nudie Beach; if you’re due for snorkeling on the reef or deep-sea fishing with your personal guide, you only have to consult the Turtle Board. It tells you whether tonight’s dinner will be served on the mountaintop, tucked into some picturesque tropical cove, or by candlelight on a floating dock, just the two of you.

    Breakfast is served at a long communal table on the beach, accompanied by guitar and ukulele music and the reading of the Turtle Board. Just before dusk, serenaders stroll the length of the beach, singing traditional Fijian songs and hymns—your cue to start thinking about dinner. If you’ve scheduled an appointment for the resort’s signature fourhand lomi lomi massage, your mama will remind you. Horseback riding at dawn? She’ll call softly through your window. Why would you possibly need a watch?

    The seaplane is airborne now. Captain Ollie circles the island for Tony and Larissa’s last look at Vonu Point, Bure No. 1, where they began their married life. It’s the most sensuous of the bures, perched on a craggy rock overlooking the Blue Lagoon and the other Yasawa Islands. We can see the thatched roof of the new Vonu Spa, Dockman Erami’s radio shack, and the flagpoles that fly the national colors of Turtle’s guests. I’m pretty sure there will be no serenaders to cue my flight boarding times, so, reluctantly, the watch goes back on. I smile as I remember the moment I removed it from my wrist …

Bula bula! The Beginning.

    My seaplane is descending toward a lush green fantasy island, fringed with curving coconut palms and surrounded by a shallow, coral-rich aquamarine sea. We swoop low over the white sand beach, where a cluster of islanders wait—some with guitars and ukuleles—squinting up into the afternoon sun. Two hold a huge banner: Welcome to Turtle Island! Bula bula!

The author's vacation bure (above).

 

Wilson, the privacy monitor (above).

 

Bure mama Wainise threading leis (above).

    Bula bula is the happiest phrase in the Fijian language and it is lavishly used. It means, roughly, hello-welcome-what-a-fabulous-day-I-wish-you-a-joyful-life.

    After a soft splash landing into Blue Lagoon, the seaplane swooshes toward the beach and comes to a stop in ankle-deep water. Two Fijian warriors in native costume with red hibiscus blossoms behind their ears wade in. Making a seat of crossed hands, they carry my royal self to shore. “Bula bula, Karen,” calls a symphony of voices. In this most intoxicating of welcomes, I’m not certain when the pink tropical drink was placed in my hand or the seashell necklace slipped over my head. A woman with a shy smile steps forward. “Bula bula, Karen. I’m Wainise, your bure mama, and I’ll be taking care of you.”

    If you need a definition of understatement, this is it.

    My bure is straight out of the movies. A queen-size daybed on the veranda faces the lagoon. The posts and beams are hand-hewn by native Fijians from the island’s casuarinas trees; each piece of furniture is crafted of local mahogany and monkey pod. My bed, draped in gauzy white netting, is artfully decorated with more hibiscus blossoms, a Turtle Island sulu (sarong) and a hand-woven palmetto hat. Wide shards of sunlight slash through the island-style jalousie windows, where white draperies billow ever so softly. There’s a huge hot tub and walkin shower, where “bula bula” is spelled out in mosaic tiles. The bure is stocked with snorkel gear, reef walking shoes, and other necessities for a week on a fantasy island. There’s no phone or Internet connection—you have to sit in the bar pavilion for that—but you’re welcome to a nice selection of romantic CDs. There’s Fiji water, champagne and fresh-squeezed lemonade in the fridge, along with island fruits, snacks and wines. Breakfast in bed? Afternoon tea? A sulu-tying lesson? An audience with the island medicine man? Mama will take care of it. I may be the only solo female guest of Turtle Island in the history of the world, but I’ll try to make the best of it.

The Backstory

    In the late 1970s, cable industry entrepreneur Richard Evanson, suffering burnout, bought himself a remote and barren 500-acre, goat inhabited island. He was happily carving out a macho guy’s survival experience when Columbia Pictures showed up with a similar idea, only much more romantic. Thanks to a young starlet named Brooke Shields, a blonde curly-haired hottie named Christopher Atkin and a movie called Blue Lagoon, Richard’s destiny was changed forever. By the time the iconic film came out a couple of years later, Richard was putting the final touches on the most sensuously luxurious private island the South Pacific had ever seen. Relics and reminders of the filming are still scattered around the island, and the movie is shown weekly in the bar pavilion. Ironically, in the late 1990s, Hollywood would show up in Fiji again, this time with Tom Hanks. The filming of Cast Away takes place on an uninhabited island not far from the one Richard discovered nearly a quarter of a century before. Today, in honor of Cast Away, each bure has its own white-painted coconut on a moveable stand. It has a serious face and its name is Wilson. Guests desiring privacy simply place Wilson to block the path.

Feasts and Warriors

    Although all three couples sharing the island when I arrive are honeymooning, communal meals, kava ceremonies, a sunset sail and other island experiences will bring us together throughout the week. Especially, the lovo. It begins with palusami, a traditional Fijian feast of fish, meats, yam, taro, tomato, onion and other island veggies and herbs, drenched in coconut milk, bundled in banana leaves and smoke-steamed in a stone pit. Next comes the meke, in which fearsome warriors perform ceremonial spear dances of the ancestors. The honeymooners rarely skip the communal gatherings. Without the restriction of watches, time miraculously expands to accommodate plenty of private adventures, from paddleboarding and reef fishing to serious hammock napping, or (as the case may be) romantic rendezvous on uninhabited beaches.

Honeymoon beach and the "Leave Me Alone" rock from Blue Lagoon.

Jungle of the Stone God

    Today is my first private beach day. Every guest gets exclusive access to at least two secluded beaches each week. Today, Mama Wainise and Papa Jerry drive me over the mountain and through the jungle via golf cart to my first selection: the most picturesque beach imaginable. The imposing black outcropping that gives Devil’s Beach its name is, by ancient legend, a diving board for evil spirits. Just 100 yards into the dense foliage lie the remains of the Stone God, a Styrofoam altar created for those Blue Lagoon scenes involving bloody human sacrifices. While I’m weighing my bravery quotient about trekking in there for a look, Mama sets out my lobster feast in the tiny clearing. Jerry strings up a hammock, fluffs it up with pillows, and then sweeps the pine needle path to the beach. Not far offshore is the island oasis named Paddy’s Island after an eerie scene in the movie. With a wave, Mama and Jerry are gone. The silence is complete except for the raucous scream of a bird landing atop Devil’s Rock. Or maybe it’s something else. I decide to stick to the sparkling sand and turquoise water, skull-white driftwood and cowrie shells, leaving the Stone God for another day.  Or never.

Kava Ceremony

    Those who crave immersion in an exotic cultural ceremony, who love

    Pacific island music, camaraderie and a feeling of belonging— and who savor the taste of crunchy liquid mud—will find heaven on earth in a Fijian kava ceremony. A couple of hollowed out half-coconut shells of the murky concoction will leave you with a deep sense of relaxation and well-being. Also numb lips and a tingling tongue. The recipe is simple: strain wet, ground-up kava root through a piece of tapa cloth, and squeeze it into a large hand-carved ceremonial bowl. A century ago, young village virgins chewed the root to grind it; nowadays more modern implements are used. After the chief or most prominent guest receives the first shell (bilo), guests in turn clap once and call out “bula!” Holding the bilo in cupped hands, one must toss back the golden brown liquid in one gulp, clap three times and again say “bula!”

    The good news—if you can get past the concept of narcotic mud—is that there’s no impairment in judgment and no hangover. Your entire being exudes peace and love. As if there weren’t plenty of that on this island already.

A Fijian warrior after a kava ceremony.

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Essentials

q Turtle Island accommodates up to 28 guests in 14 beachfront bures. Rates are $2,499-$2,999 per couple per night. You can rent the whole island for your wedding, reunion or house party at $300,000 per week.

q Fly Air Pacific directly from L.A. to Nadi International; meet your concierge for the seaplane flight to the island. Check schedules at airpacific.com, but let Turtle Island make the arrangements.

q Start dreaming here: turtlefiji.com; (800) 255-4347.

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