Culture, on a Fijian family holiday? Of course we have done culture.
Take, for instance, the time our five-year-old and eight-year-old boys went wandering from the Denarau resort pool and it took us a good 10 minutes to find them down at the kava hut, clapping hands around the bowl with a costumed warrior.
Or the time my son and I caught a bus from the resort to a place on the main road, where a local Fijian-Indian woman gave us a massage.
Out the back was a house where an old man sat on the front doorstep. He and Mac drew pictures of their respective houses in a small notebook I’d brought to entertain my son.
“Mum, they didn’t have any toys or a kitchen,” Mac delightedly told me later. The roof of the house was thatched and the cooking pots all outdoors.
Just like so many Kiwi and Australian families who save up for six days of mid-year sun, our cultural experiences had been limited to the all-you-can eat breakfast bars and economical nannies who watch the kids at night.
The island for us has meant little more than sun, warm water, tropical fruit and a rendition of the Isa Lei song when you leave.
Until, that is, a recent trip to the laid-back, yet stylish Outrigger on the Lagoon Hotel on Fiji’s Coral Coast.
This more traditional 16ha resort, which is establishing an adults-only pool area and has added a gorgeous spa complex with rooftop bar in recent years, is near urban centre Sigatoka.
It’s from here that a couple of cultural and eco-friendly attractions are changing the way tourists experience the real Fiji.
The activities desk at the hotel offers much more than a rented sail boat or hot stone massage at the spa (though the latter is highly recommended).
Now, guided walks on world heritage sand dunes, nature reserve reptile parks and day trips to real villages are all luring travellers away from the pool for a few hours and putting money into local hands in the process.
If you are going to attempt the truly spectacular Sigatoka Sand Dunes, dubbed their first National Park, then make sure you don’t have too many cocktails the night before and head out early – it’s hot here.
And if you’re with children or still nurturing your inner child, bounding and sliding down the dunes is just about as much fun as a water slide.
For $6 ($10FJD), a walk through native bush onto the dunes and down to a wild, driftwood-strewn beach is great exercise for two-and-a-half hours and an ideal way to enjoy nature.
It makes the buffets back at the hotel that evening less of a guilt-ridden indulgence.
By far the highlight of this trip – bar Outrigger’s daily butler service complete with 5pm drinks delivered to the room – was a speedboat ride down the Sigatoka River to a village.
Here, our group of about 30 visitors were treated to a walking tour, a very traditional lunch in the hall made by the women and a surprisingly fun sing and dance along.
Less tourist tacky and more of a cultural exchange, the participating villages reap financial rewards and get to show off their enviable lifestyle.
It’s more primitive than I was expecting – one TV, the church as the centre of town and lots of gorgeous children practising their English.
At $140, the riverboat ride and community visit isn’t cheap, but it’s authentic, sustainably managed and was a highlight of any of my visits.
Back at the resort, over a delightful seafood dinner where rugby star Jonah Lomu was charming the staff, the exhilarating boat ride and village visit was the chatter of our group and is something Kiwi kids would never forget.
Our final stop was at the Kula Eco Park – lots of green lizards, frogs, the odd bored-looking turtle and snakes. Children here seemed to be having a ball, though I was dreaming
of my book and a deckchair.
Best news is it’s not far from Outrigger – a five-minute buggy ride and an hour whip around the boardwalks would more than justify the spa and bar
in the afternoon.
Fiji for me has always been a place of tranquillity, peace and relaxation, but on the strip of Denarau resorts it can feel like Takapuna beach in the tropics.
Here on the Coral Coast, where the pools are still cool, the staff a delight and the food better than most Auckland restaurants, it’s not difficult to combine luxury with adventure. And yes, even a cultural awakening as well.
Sarah Stuart was hosted by the Outrigger on the Lagoon, Coral Coast and Air Pacific.