Here’s a trick question: Where do you end up when you leave Los Angeles, fly 11 hours, 5500 miles and skip ahead 19 hours? Answer: The South Pacific Food & Wine Festival on Denarau Island, Fiji. And it’s well worth the lengthy journey!
We flew Air Pacific’s 747 from LAX on Sunday night and landed in Nadi International Airport on Tuesday morning as the sun was coming up. Travelling such long distances can be gruelling – but it was made easy by the gracious and efficient service provided by the airline’s staff and the people at Rosie Tours who greeted us at the airport and got us organized to start our Fiji adventure.
Air Pacific, Fiji’s international airline has been connecting the world with the South Pacific for 60 years and has been recently listed on Conde Nast Traveler’s Top 10 Best Small Airline Readers’ Choice Awards. Whether travelling in Tabua (Business) Class – or Pacific Voyager (Economy) Class, the natural island warmth of the cabin crew will ensure the journey to the destination begins with a smile. Air Pacific’s fleet of Boeing 747s and 737s fly between Fiji (Nadi) and Australia (Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane), New Zealand (Aukland and Christchurch), North America (Honolulu, Los Angeles), Asia (Hong Kong) and the Pacific Islands (Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, the Soloman Islands, Tuvalu and Kiribati). All flights allow a Fiji stopover and include checked baggage and in-flight entertainment with a range of meals and beverages available. For more information, visit www.airpacific.com or call 1-800-227-4446.
Castaways Island Resort
Castaway is a AAA accredited 4-Star island resort covered in tropical rainforests, graced with white sandy beaches and surrounded by the pristine turquoise waters of the South Pacific. As we neared the resort, we boarded a smaller launch vessel that brought us to shore and a waiting group of singers from the Castaway staff. Leading the welcome serenade was Steven Andrews, Manager of Operations. He was not only an enthusiastic singer, but also an excellent host, getting us settled into our rooms and providing a quick tour of all the resort had to offer.
Rooms at Castaway are called bures – small villas with traditional grass-thatched roofs and modern, stylish interiors. Many of them face the water and are spaced just far enough apart as to make you feel like you’re on your own private beach. When I got to my bure, Steven made a point of informing me that there are no TVs present and that internet is available only in one public space. A holiday here is all about enjoying the spectacular natural setting from either a hammock or a hiking trail. Or for the more athletically inclined – you can choose among such activities as tennis and various water sports.
Castaway also offered us a truly Fijian cultural experience to complement the usual resort fare. Our first adventure was to Solevu Village on a neighboring island to meet the Chief of the region Tui Lawa Ratu Sevanaia Vatunitu Lalabalavu. We joined the Chief and his tribal officers in the ceremonial bure to share cups of kava and exchange warm greetings.
From there, we crossed the village to visit the Malolo District School and meet the headmaster and nearly 100 young Fijian school children as they practiced their English and math under the shade of an enormous tree.
We finished the day back at the resort with a specially prepared dinner at the Chef’s Table. Castaway’s Executive Chef, Australian Lance Seeto, travels Fiji’s outer islands to discover and promote local organic produce. Dinner that night featured coconut miti, lobster kokoda, guava wood-roasted Duruka, Waci Poke (a spinach and coconut delicacy) and organic root crops cassava, dalo and kumula. The highlight of the dinner was most certainly the chocolate volcanic fondant made with Savusavu chocolate. It was so rich and decadent that it took everything we had to finish it.
Back to the Mainland
Our next adventure took us back to the mainland – to the Sheraton Fiji Resort which would be our home for the next four days during the South Pacific Food & Wine Festival. Top billing at this event included Master Chefs Manu Feildel, Ben O’Donoghue, Michael Meredith, Peter Gordon, Robert Oliver and Peter Kuruvita among others. Our mission – which we gladly accepted – was to sample the creative genius of these renowned chefs through a series of Master Classes and lunch and dinner tasting menus. These exquisitely designed dining experiences took place in the restaurants of the Sheraton Fiji Resort, the Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa, the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa and the Radisson Fiji Denarau Island Resort.
The culmination was the Taste of the Pacific Gala Dinner at the Sofitel Ballroom courtesy of Tourism Fiji and a bevy of corporate sponsors. Each Master Chef was responsible for preparing one of the courses.
Chef Peter Gordon opened the meal with a seared tuna with nori sauce, dashi pearls, mango, papaya and coriander salad with crispy buckwheat accompanied by a 2011 Oyster Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. That was followed by Chef Manu Feildel’s ceviche of prawn and a 2011 Pewsey Vale Riesling. Next up, Chef Robert Oliver presented a plantain soup, with lolo (coconut milk) and curry praline dust. This was served with The Villa Maria East Coast Gewurztraminer.
For the main course, Chef Peter Kuruvita prepared seared sea run salmon with pea mousse and puffed quinoa. This dish came with a choice of a 2008 Soho McQueen Central Otago Pinot Noir or a 2007 Villa Maria Reserve Marlborough Chardonnay. The second entrée by Chef Ben O’Donoghue was a miso-cured Meltique beef with avocado and fried shallots. We washed this down with a 2004 Henschke Keyneton Estate Euphonium.
Dessert came in two stages. To start, Chef Michael Meredith’s Coconut Kaffir lime cream, with tropical fruits and honeycomb paired with The Yalumba Hand Picked Wrattonbully Botrytis Viognier 2006. The night’s feast finished with Chef Willie Harcourt-Cooze’s Madagascan truffle chocolate with caramelized Fijian crunch served solo.
More Than Just Food
Our visit to Fiji included some adventures around the island of Denarau that gave us a chance to walk off all the calories we ingested. One of our favorite stops was the Nadi Town Outdoor Market. It is here and the market in Suva that many of the chefs went to discover the local foods that Fiji had to offer as they devised their menus for the Master Classes and the gala event. Another favorite was the Garden of the Sleeping Giant. It was founded by the actor Raymond Burr in 1977 to serve as a home for his orchid collection and today is serves as a unique showcase of the many different floral species that populate Fiji in brilliant color. Word of advice: take a big bottle of water with you. Walking through the Garden of the Sleeping Giant is to walk through a tropical jungle. Hot is the word.
Our final stop on the trip before getting ready to head home was to the First Landing Beach Resort & Villas where Executive Chef Darren Braddock treated us to a beachfront lunch among the palm trees and ocean breeze. Imagine the horror of having to eat delicious fresh ceviche again!!!