Fiji, Part I
Bula! (Rhymes with “hola” and is the universal greeting in Fiji)
We’re taking advantage of the break in school and going on our first family vacation as adopted Kiwis. Hopefully the first of many trips, our first vacay is to Fiji. We chose this location because of the short, direct flight from Auckland, the availability of a kids’ club, and the close proximity to fun things like a waterpark. To be fair, this isn’t a trip I would ever pick if I didn’t have two kids to entertain. Someone once told me there are two different kinds of holidays: trips with kids, and vacations. I’m aiming for more vacation, less trip with kid!
Getting Here: Fiji Airways
First off, make sure you leave plenty of time to check out the duty free shopping in the Auckland airport. There are tons of choices and some deals to be found! My husband was shocked to see a pair of headphones he just bought from Harvey Norman on sale for about NZ$100 less at the duty free shop. Plus, he got several bottles of booze for less than we can find in the stores near us.
Fiji Airways is not exactly rolling in amenities or luxuries, but for a short, three hour flight, it was fine. The planes aren’t new, the movie selection is very limited (though I did watch A Star is Born and balled my eyes out mid-flight, and my son got a kick out of watching Tom and Jerry), but they offered complimentary wine and a random meal service for a 1 pm flight that wasn’t terrible.
Going through immigration and customs in Nadi, Fiji, is relatively simple. However, unlike on my flights when the flight attendants would hand out customs declaration cards prior to landing so you have time to fill them out, in Nadi you pick up cards after debarking from the plane. Make sure you have a pen handy that can write while you hold the card up to a wall - there is very little counter space.
One piece of advice we got prior to our trip was to bring lots and lots of non-perishable food items with us as food and drink are quite expensive. I packed half a suitcase full of breakfast items like cereal, granola, and oatmeal packets, rice, pasta, a bottle of wine, some PB&J materials, and the like. It’s important to declare that you’re bringing in food, but I found other than asking me what I had in the cans (tuna) the inspectors didn’t think much of my food stash.
It was easy to arrange a transfer from the airport to the hotel through the hotel concierge. For NZD$45, we had a taxi driver waiting for us at arrivals. Be forewarned that the cars are beat up and old, but we arrived at the hotel without incident. I would recommend getting some cash at the airport as our driver turned grumpy when we mentioned we would include his fees in our room bill - something the concierge said we could do, but was obviously unpopular with the driver.
Where we’re staying: The Sheraton Denarau Villas
The Villas are fantastic for a family set up. We have a large master bedroom with ensuite bathroom, a decent living area and fully equipped kitchen, another large kids’ room with two queen sized beds, and a family bathroom with tub and laundry facilities. We chose a lagoon view room that has several balconies overlooking a large, curvaceous pool. By staying at the Villas, we have access to all of the amenities at the Sheraton and Westin hotels on either side of us.
Now for some reason there are no maps of the full property to be found either at check in or in the rooms. I finally tracked one down online, so you’re welcome:
I’d recommend saving this picture. There is no guarantee the internet will work well enough for you to reference this image later on. We were very frustrated with the quality of the internet. I don’t expect instantaneous downloads while at a hotel, but there were times, especially when the inevitable tropical storm would blow through, that it was impossible to stay connected to wifi. It just kicks off devices, seemingly at random, and it takes forever to get back.
If you choose to stay here, pay attention to all of the different discounts schemes available. For some reason, there are a million different ways to save money if you put a little effort into it. I can only guess that they make it so complicated so that people WON’T take advantage of the 10% off here or 15% off there. Fortunately, the individuals actually making the sale seem to be pretty good about asking and prodding you to request whatever discount is appropriate. Honestly, I wish they would just streamline the process so I didn’t feel like I was getting scammed at every transaction.
The Pools and Beach
The pools at the Sheraton are fantastic. We spent a large portion of our time at the lagoon swimming pool, the infinity pool, and the regular pool. The lagoon pool was a few feet deep - too much for my kids to stand up, but not so deep for adults. It was a great place to dive for swim torpedoes and hang out in our large kiwi raft, which they say isn’t allowed but we never had any problems with it. The infinity pool had a wonderful zero entry for little kids so they could stand and splash in the shallow end. The regular pool at the Sheraton also had a small area just for younger kids that was only a foot or two deep. My four year old loved this pool best as she could stand up throughout the whole pool.
The kids’ part of the regular pool is immediately next to the beach. The sand was perfect for castle building, and I loved that the kids could jump between the pool and beach and I could keep and eye on them from the comfort of a lounge chair. There’s poolside service here, too!
The food options are plentiful, but none are great. For breakfast, we have the choice of a large buffet (not my style) at the Sheraton, or an à la carte option at the Westin. There’s a third option, which is to eat the breakfast foods we brought with us, then top off mid-morning with a pain au chocolate (for the kids) and a cappuccino (for me) from The Pantry in the Sheraton lobby. It seems to be a good compromise between utter gluttony and no breakfast.
Our favorite place for lunch is the Water’s Edge, which overlooks both an infinity pool and the ocean. I tried a traditional Fijian dish, Kokoda, and I absolutely loved it the first day, but the second lunch I ordered it, I was disappointed. It is basically a ceviche in coconut milk and a perfect, cooling lunch item. The bar at the Waters’ Edge also services the pool area, and there is nothing quite as vacation-y as ordering a fruity, frozen drink from a chaise lounge. I recommend the Pink Coral! Though again we had a problem with consistency: the first day the drinks were great, every time after that, they ranged from disappointing to downright bad.
There are quite a few dinner options that run the gambit from casual to island upscale. The prices for dinner seem to be the most exorbitant, and, to be honest, the kids have been so exhausted by the end of the day that we’ve been hesitant to go out for a decent dinner for fear of a complete breakdown while we wait for our meals. The service at all of the restaurants is on Fiji-time, which is to say, not rushed.
We tried the buffet at Feast one night and left less than impressed. There was a decent spread and choice of food, but, like most buffets, the dishes weren’t quite right in either flavor profile or temperature. There were a few standouts including a sesame encrusted seared tuna, short ribs, spicy cucumber salad, and pistachio mousse with chocolate cake. I would’ve loved to show my kids how a chocolate fondue fountain works, but there were no sticks out with the fruit and marshmallows next to the three-tiered chocolate tower. No one left hungry, but it wasn’t a quality dining experience.
We also tried the Asian/Indian restaurant, Zing one night for dinner. The kids loved the butter chicken, but that was about the only good thing from that meal. The service wasn’t great. We were charged for food that we never received. There was a flashing light strobing above me all meal long despite a request that they either turn off the light or change the bulb.
The best dinner we had in Denarau was at The Kitchen at the Westin. Fire dancers put on a show, and the food was legitimately good. I had a wonderful catch of the day in an aromatic coconut broth that was delicious. Unfortunately, though we sat down at 6:30, our food didn’t arrive until closer to 8, and the kids were practically asleep in their chairs by then!
Somehow when we made our hotel reservations, we got some sort of kids-dine-for-not-much-money deal. I’m not sure if it is offered to everyone, or if we did something special to deserve it. Basically, our kids have orange wrist bands that get them FJD$5 kids meals at most, though not all, restaurants. In addition to the kids’ discount, we also get a discount for being Bonvoy members. The higher your Bonvoy level, the more of a discount you can get at the different eateries around the resort facilities. Make sure you have your number with you to claim your discount.
The Sheraton Villas are totally fine for kids. The buildings are showing signs of age and wear and surely are due for a revamp soon, but the dings on the wall and nicks on the wall mean that I don’t worry about the additions my kids undoubtedly left behind, like a little extra sticker glue on the table. My biggest problem with the facilities are the lack of signage. As I mentioned before, I had to search online for a map of the facilities, and even while walking around there is very little information to point you in the right direction. Case in point, can you spot the sign for the gym in this picture?
I couldn’t find it either. Finally, a woman from the spa next door pointed me in the right direction. The sign is underneath the thatch overhang and is undetectable unless you are directly underneath it. There was a similar lack of signage to other important places, like the kids’ club.
Speaking of the kids’ club, it was an absolute bust for our two. Once we finally located it, we walked into the dark, rather depressing couple of rooms where a handful of kids sat around with hired nannies coloring Easter-themed pages. The kids took one look around and said, “please don’t leave us here!” and I couldn’t blame them. Technically it is for kids 4-12, but it definitely looked skewed to the younger set. At that moment, our Fiji adventure turned from “vacation” to “trip with kids” as we lost our childcare option. Big time bummer.
The Heavenly Spa at the Westin was an interesting experience. My masseuse, Sirinjin, gave an excellent massage, but like everything else at the Sheraton, there seemed to be a complete lack of attention to detail. When I was led to the changing room, there were no robes or slippers in the lockers for guests. The attendant hurriedly grabbed a clean robe out of closet, but there was no sash to keep the robe closed or slippers available. Each masseuse has an indoor/outdoor bungalow, which could be such a wonderful environment for a massage, but I could see old bed linens hastily thrown behind a pony wall and could hear the street noise and someone in the midst of a terrible coughing fit throughout my 90 minute signature massage. When I went to shower off after my (admittedly awesome) massage, the hot water didn’t work in the steam shower.
The service throughout out trip was mediocre at best. Everyone is trained to greet each and every guest with a “bula” no matter what, but we found it forced and contrived. The servers at the restaurants weren’t particularly attentive, and people seemed a bit disoriented and unsure of what to do. Frankly, I was surprised. Everyone told us how friendly Fijians are, and I expected decent service or at least a friendly demeanour. I felt like the people working at the hotel were going through the paces a little pissed off that they have to wait on foreigners for a living. It’s tough to put a finger on exact what the problem was, but there is something boiling under the surface at the Sheraton.
Now it may sound like we had a terrible experience at the Sheraton, but to be honest, we would totally go back. The kids had a wonderful time splashing in the pools, digging in the sand, and hunting frogs in the evening. We had some wonderful excursions to the Big Bula Waterpark and Castaway Island. These were incredible highlights to the trip, and I’ll link my future posts when they’re available.