How I Fell in Love with Turtle Island in Fiji in Just 5 Days
Recently I spent five days with my fiancé in Fiji at the all-inclusive Turtle Island Resort, a privately owned island in The Yasawa Island chain. My experience at Turtle Island, from its spacious Grand Bures, complete with personal attendant, known there as a “Bure Mama” to its ingratiating, multi-talented staff and fourteen private beaches can best be described as falling madly in love.
Here is an open letter to Turtle Island for each day of my visit, recounting our courtship from the first impression stages to meeting the family to finally a genuine soul mate connection that I hope will last a lifetime …
Day 1: The Peacocking Stage
Dear Turtle Island,
You make an incredible first impression. The seaplane ride from Nadi to Turtle Island’s gentle shores was not just considerate in that it only took a half hour compared to the island ferry’s travel time of five, but it was also spectacular. As we splash down, your staff greets us with traditional, complexly harmonized Fijian song, dance, hearty smiles and handshakes that turn to hugs.
You were wise to let me sneak a peek at so many of the other islands during our flight from the mainland. You are without a doubt, the most beautiful of all with your crescent beach, spaced out bures, and powdery sand. As the bright-eyed Mama Sala introduces herself, not with a “welcome to Turtle Island,” but rather, the phrase “welcome home.” It is said so earnestly, it felt awkward but deeply familiar.
Once at spacious, airy two-room Grande Bure, Mama Sala runs down a list of activities that you have planned for us over the next five days, including scuba, snorkel, deep-sea fishing, village visits, sunrise horseback rides, and champagne lunches on private beaches, I can’t help but think we have something special together and I want this relationship to go further.
You impress me more when, shortly after our arrival, we have a seafood lunch on the sand made up of fresh fish, shellfish, octopus, and sea grapes that were taken from the surrounding waters just hours earlier. Not only are you resourceful when it comes to cuisine, you can cook. You invite your entire staff to join the guests for lunch and in our first hours together we aren’t “the served” and “the servers.” We are all one. As I spend the rest of the happy afternoon snorkeling among the stingrays and starfish of the reef right off of the shore of my beautiful bure, I find myself wondering if you could even be real.
Day 2: Getting to Know You
Dear Turtle Island,
So you can cook and sing and you are stunning, but today, I get to learn what makes you tick. I learn that you were once, in the early 70’s, an empty island whose vegetation had been stripped bare by wild goats. No one wanted you. But one man, your “father” as it were, Richard Evanson, saw more in you. He bought you, covered you in mahogany trees, imported iguanas and parrots and soon Hollywood came knocking to use your shores for the movie The Blue Lagoon. From there, he had a vision to turn you into a private resort island, to be called Turtle Island, where a lucky few at any given time could enjoy your exclusivity.
Next, I learn how you’ve grown into a mature, beautiful, responsible resort. All produce eaten by guests and staff alike, is grown on the island and all energy is solar. On the island is a woodshop where local craftsmen use wood from the island trees to make everything from the bed frames to salt shakers and souvenir photo albums. The flower arrangements that Mama Sala places on our beds, countertops, and even toilet tanks are always made with wild picked hibiscus and palm leaves.
Not only that, one can only be hired to work on the island if they are recommended by a current employee. The seventy-plus staff is made up of friends and of family and live in villages in the surrounding islands. Turtle Island keeps the villages running and keeps the kids of employees educated by paying for their schooling.
Given your namesake, it is only logical that you would be in the business of saving the sea turtles that populate your waters. You have a program where guests can bid for the right to write their name on the back of a sea turtle’s shell that has been inadvertently captured by local fishermen. The process, which is 100% humane, also raises money for sea turtle conservation and means that the shell is no longer valuable to poachers.
There is far more to you, Turtle Island, than reefs and ukulele songs. As I sit alone, on the wind swept beach where years ago, The Blue Lagoon was shot, I begin to have a new idea of what real beauty truly means and while I feel like I’ve known you forever, still we’ve just only met. And it’s a plus that you’re a movie star.
Day 3: Meeting the Family
Dear Turtle Island,
Yesterday, you sold me on your soul and today you wine and dine me then steal my heart. I’m vulnerable to you now. I trust you and I believe in you. You might say, I’m circling the “L” word.
The day begins before sunrise. Horses roam free on Turtle Island and can be seen trotting through the woods, eating fallen coconuts or galloping along stretches of sandy beaches. Two of your horses, Deek and Nemo are tame and we ride them along your longest stretch of white sand facing east as the sun slowly rises and the beach comes to life with scurrying crab and cooing doves. We have pastries and sip coffee and champagne. By the time we are finished, it is only 7am and the day is long.
We’ve met your staff. We ate seafood with them and have laughed over drinks in your open-air bar. They’ve sung to us at sunset and no matter what, always greet us by name and a cheerful BULA, the Fijian greeting that has now become my mantra. This afternoon, we are leaving our island and going across the channel to the small village where much of the staff lives.
Life, we see in the village, is simpler than most of us have seen. Accessible only by sea, there are no roads into the village. There are no shops, no police, no hospitals, and not even doctors. The food comes from the sea. And while the houses, with their limited water and rudimentary outdoor kitchens are small, the soul of this town is enormous.
We watch as your kids play rugby. No one seems to wear shoes. You show us your church and talk to us about how much God means in village life. We share in the time old tradition of the Fijian Kava Ceremony. We gather around a bowl filled with water mixed with powdered, anesthetic Kava Root. The village elder hands each of us a hollowed out coconut shell full of the ashy water. As it goes down, we relax as the musically inclined of the village perform traditional Fijian dances. Life is how it has been for hundreds of years in that moment, and probably how it should continue to be forever.
That night, back at the resort, we have dinner on a floating platform out in the middle of the ocean. As the thousands of stars begin to reveal themselves in a way that only happens on remote islands, our eyes are drawn across the channel to the scattered lights of the village. Many have solar panels. Some don’t. As I bite into lobster, I can’t help but take an inventory of my life and be both humbled and grateful. With all of your beauty, ingenuity, talent, and culture, you are making me a better person.
With Love, Matt
Day 4: Crisis
Dear Turtle Island,
I walk to the little gift shop outside the dining area and the only spot where there is Wi-Fi to check my email. I get some difficult news. No one had died, but the news is life changing in every way, none-the-less. I considered what one might do to feel better in such a circumstance and all that came to mind was to focus on breathing — go deep within and focus on what was good and beautiful.
Five minutes later, I was on a boat headed once again across the channel to one of Fiji’s most famous reefs to go diving. I could imagine no circumstance, where I would be without a choice but to focus on depth, breathing, beauty and the complexity of life. Giant stingrays, sea snakes, octopus, resplendent coral and an overall life-in-abundance, seems to be your way of telling me, that despite it all, everything is going to be okay.
That night, instead of joining the other guests for dinner and movie night, we sat on the balcony of our bure. This sudden change meant I’d be moving back to my home state where I hadn’t lived in fifteen years. As I sat there thinking about what exactly my home was, my mind wandered back to Mama Sala’s first words when I arrived to Turtle Island. “Welcome home.” Thinking about all that beauty you had revealed and the kindness you have extended, I couldn’t help but feel that home, as I was beginning to see, was far more than just a city.
Day 5: Surrender and Farewell
Dear Turtle Island,
It is Sunday, our last day here. We could either go snorkeling again or go back to the village for a less “arranged” church service. The first time we’d been in the village, despite its power, we’d felt a bit like outsiders; separated from their simple world by our own privilege and a camera lens. There seemed to be something so raw and connected about going back and going to church, to visit not just as an onlooker but to participate in prayer and song as a fellow son of God. The church was sweltering hot and many of the villagers couldn’t make it because the night before, they’d had too much kava. Geckos crawled all over the ceiling and women in the choir fanned themselves as the preacher delivered an impassioned sermon in Fijian. The energy was palpable and just as the priest was building to something that felt certain to change lives; certain to make even the non-believers believe, something amazing happened.
There, in that tiny village with no roads, no stores and no doctors, as a preacher fired the gospel with divinely inspired island fervor … a cell phone rang.
A child sheepishly bolted for the door, his angry father behind him. You, Fiji … You Turtle Island, reminded me in that moment, that no matter where you are in the world, when you’re in the house of God, you make sure that your cell phone is off. And with all of your virtue, you no doubt have a wonderful sense of humor because the look of horror on that kid’s face was hilarious.
As we return to the island, I begin to feel emotional. I remember all the times I scoffed at people who say a beautiful experience changed them. I go to the gift store and want to buy a Turtle Island shirt, hat, stuffed animal and a pot with our names carved in it by one of the guys from the village. We’ve named a reef after ourselves and I have a relationship with the local stingray … When we learn Mama Sala had to take a ferry back to the mainland and didn’t say goodbye, we are crushed. It is time to go. The staff and even the island’s horses are on the beach as the seaplane arrives to pick us up and take us back home, wherever that winds up being. Once again, they sing and it sounds as good as ever.
As we take off, I look out the window at the island disappearing and I don’t see reefs, water, and palm trees. I see much more than that. I see true beauty. I catch my reflection in the window looking out with my new tan and think to myself … I look happy. I look in love.