Laucala is Eden on Earth
In a bar-side game of oneupmanship among colleagues vying for the title of having visited the most luxurious golf resort on earth, I hoisted a quickly evaporating scotch and proclaimed myself victorious, seeing as how I’d once experienced the exclusive Raffl es Canouan Island in the lower Grenadines— what, with its private jet connection from Barbados and glass-bottomed massage huts in the ocean, and all.
And then I heard about Laucala Island, and immediately felt as though I’d been to a Holiday Inn.
It seemed as mythical as Skull Island or Shangri-La, or perhaps Phil Mickelson sporting a six-pack—this vast, all-inclusive South Pacific island resort of just 25 thatched-roof villas and 300 staff, where room rates begin at $3,800 per night (plus 20 percent tax). The top of the food chain among the island’s accommodations is the sprawling three-bedroom, multi-pooled Hilltop Estate, which runs $44,000 a night. But then even the “standard” villa (which is like saying the “standard” Greek god) has a private pool and roughly 2,000 square feet of living space.
“There were no other guests on the island after our first night. Seriously— none.”
So, having eagerly secured an assignment from a national golf magazine, there we were—my girlfriend Mary by my side—at the arrival gate of Fiji’s Nadi International Airport. Greeted by a Laucala staff member, we were promptly whisked through customs and onto the tarmac to an awaiting turboprop Hawker 200—two pilots and ourselves and a 45-minute flight.
It was sort of like flying into the Kingdom of Heaven, drifting quietly through cottony puffs of cloud made phosphorescent by the rising sun, with occasional gaps below revealing some of the 800 islands and islets that comprise the Fijian archipelago.
As the plane touched down on this volcanic 4.6 square-mile isle, skyscraping coconut palms swayed in the breeze. I wasn’t sure if Mr. Roarke and Tattoo or King Kong would greet us. Fortunately, playing the role of the former were then-general manager David Stepetic, his wife Risako and a troupe of traditional Fijian dancers and singers.
A former coconut plantation, Laucala was built as a private island retreat by Malcolm Forbes and acquired and upgraded in 2003 by Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz. Essentially self-sustaining, it has its own airplane hangars, sewage treatment plant, medical clinic, farms and gardens. Island-sourced organic ingredients fill the menus at the five bars and restaurants and at the world-class spa, where freshly picked herbs, spices, flowers and fruits soothe and rejuvenate. Even the tap water is as pure as it gets. Filtered by the island’s volcanic rock, it’s bottled in re-sealable glass containers for use throughout the resort. The island even features a separate marina for staffers, most of whom arrive daily from neighboring Qamea Island prior to sunrise.
The wide variety of activities here celebrates the stunning geography: from snorkeling and scuba diving among a forest of rare corals, to deep-sea fishing and horseback riding. But Mary and I couldn’t wait to meet head pro Tony Christie at the island’s golf course—a jaw-dropping work from the hand of David McLay Kidd, whose award-winning creations include Bandon Dunes in Oregon, the Castle Course in St. Andrews, Huntsman Springs in Idaho and the exclusive Nanea in Hawaii.
Every guest is provided free club rentals and a dozen Titleist Pro V1s before they tee off—testament to the relentless, occasionally punishing test that follows, not to mention underbrush so dense it could conceal a tribe of Oompa Loompas. But seriously, who cares? The layout undulates across inspiring terrain, infused with photo-op memorability at every turn, from the monster par-4 dogleg-left over a creek to a raised green at No. 2, to the dramatic drop into a valley at No. 4, to the beachside green at No. 12.
I had a hard time keeping tee shots on the island, but had a good excuse—an engagement ring I’d kept in my pocket since the first morning we’d left Toronto, which I finally presented to Mary at the course’s halfway lookout during our second round. She said yes. Any other answer would have made the rest of the week inordinately awkward, as there were no other guests on the island after our first night. Seriously— none. In fact, the highest occupancy rate in the resort’s seven years of existence has been 14 villas of couples and families.
Lest you think it might be uncomfortable being alone with 300 staff, there is no shortage of activities to keep one indulged. Hell, we barely wanted to leave the twinkling waters at the huge lagoon-like, palm-studded pool bar…and that meant having to drag ourselves from our luxurious Plantation villa No. 2. As with all the island’s residences, it featured mahogany-floored pavilions constructed with timber beams and exquisite stonework. A huge stone tub and an eight-foot alcove shower with a pair of showerheads appointed the rotunda-like bathroom. And if that proved too mundane, two more showers and another tub waited in the lush gardens outside. Beyond the kingsize bed, an ocean-facing wall accordioned open to offer an unobstructed view of our private infinity pool and the beach.
One room over, the bar was fully stocked, but I already knew its contents since Laucala sends guests questionnaires in advance to ask what activities they might like to partake in, as well as the sorts of food and beverages their hearts most desire. But we never touched a bottle, since everything is free once you’re on the island, and there were many more heavenly spots to kick up our heels and propose a toast.
One of the best is The Rock lounge, which hangs on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. The other is Seagrass Restaurant, where you can have dinner cooked in front of you by Chef Sera Tuicakau as waves splash below. Or maybe God whips up his own main course, which was the case at the restaurant’s lookout platform on the night of our engagement, when the sky blazed in amazing hues of orange and crimson. The menu should have read “Story by Stephen Spielberg; sunset by George Lucas.”
What else would you expect at a resort where laundry is collected each night and returned folded the next morning; or where cards with quotes from famous authors are left bedside and adorned with native flowers; or where tiny cakes and appetizers arrive mid-afternoon, just in case the array of five-star epicurean delights somehow hasn’t sufficed.
And then there’s Laucala’s incomparable staff of mostly native, impossibly happy Fijians. As long as guests are out at night enjoying their dining bliss—no matter how late—staff will not leave their posts at any restaurant, just in case you might happen by….even when you’re the only two people on the island…even when you tell them in advance that they can go home early. And so, making our way back from Seagrass in our private lighted golf cart, we came across rows of lighted torches at the pool bar. So we stopped to uncork a bottle of champagne to celebrate with bartender Joeli.
A moist, warm breeze blew through our hair and the scent of wild orchids filled the bar. “Positively heavenly,” I thought. This is not to say Laucala is the Garden of Eden. I mean, I went to a Catholic school and have absolutely no recollection of Eden having satellite TV, WiFi, a David McLay Kidd golf course and electronic room switches to control your villa’s tiki torches.
But I’m sure it’s a pretty nice place too. Probably like Canouan Island, I expect.