In the tourist-brochure debates about the exact location of paradise, Fiji has one of the best cases. This South Pacific nation has a multitude of five-star resorts, each on its own private (or all but private) island with 20 or fewer bungalows. Small as they are, you never know who'll turn up. Once, a couple found Robert Redford among their impromptu wedding party, and when Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman broke up, their reservation at a Fiji resort was a bone of contention.
Until recently, the food in Fiji was not part of the draw. The expat chefs never lasted long (blame heat, boredom, unreliable supply shipments), and native chefs had been trained in a so-called international style. Few used local produce; instead, everyone covered up the fabulous fish with complicated sauces. These days, a number of the chefs are Fijians who've trained abroad, often in Sydney's best restaurants. Now, grilled mackerel comes not with a heavy sauce, but with a side of island-fruit salsa, for instance, and bele, a wild Fijian green.
Yasawa Island Resort
After a recent $2 million redo, Yasawa's cool, understated bungalows or bures (pronounced boo-rays), with their parson-plain black wood furniture, may now be Fiji's most beautiful. The details have been carefully thought out, from the orchids on the marble bathroom counter to the daybeds built into the deck.
Of all of Fiji's high-end properties, Yasawa also provides the most contact with village culture. Once or twice a week, guests can go to Bukama, the village where most of the resort workers live. A highlight is a visit to the school; some students walk for two hours barefoot in order to attend. It's a moving view of village life as it's been lived for centuries.
The chef at the resort is Yasawan-born Apenisa Samu, who recently cooked at Sydney's trendy Bayswater Brasserie. Samu keeps things simple. He'll bake a coral trout in banana leaves and serve it on a bed of warm rice dressed with lemon, chiles and butter; or he'll poach mahimahi and pair it with zucchini, grilled artichoke and an olive-caper salsa. He sometimes makes sushi and sashimi from fish that guests have caught themselves on the resort's game-fishing boatthe Yasawa waters are rich in all kinds of seafood, from yellowfin tuna to lobster. Most of Samu's ingredients eggplant, coconut, cucumber, ginger, fruitcome from the island. Then there's the meticulously selected 3,500-bottle cellar (doubles from $850; 877-828-3864).
Although Namale is on Fiji's second-largest island, Vanua Levu, the isolated 200-acre promontory on which it stands, surrounded by rain forest, gives it all the seclusion of properties on private islands. This is probably Fiji's most romantic resort, with 15 thatched-roof bures, their floor plans dictated by the topography. Some are perched on rocks amid trees; others are on crags overlooking the beach. Two of the houses have their own swimming pool. Inside, there are polished rosewood floors and mosquito netting draped over beds covered with crisp white linens. The new full-service spa, on a cliff above the resort's blowhole, a natural ocean geyser, is one of Fiji's first.
James Crandall, a caterer who divides his time between Namale and La Jolla, California, works with Namale's longtime chef, Jimmy Deo Raj, to create dishes that are fresh and light but flavored with island spices. That might mean grilling New Zealand salmon rubbed with garlic, chile, curry, ginger and herbs and pairing it with a spicy-sweet salsa of mango and watermelon. The other fish on the menumackerel, coral trout, occasionally snapperare local, as are the free-range chickens. When Crandall goes to the local market and sees something he doesn't recognize, he buys it to experiment with. Recently he was taken with a tool native Fijians use to shred coconut; he got one and began making coconut crème brûlée caramelized with brown sugar, with a bit of dark chocolate hidden at the bottom (doubles from $675; 800-727-3454).
Vatulele Island Resort
Vatulele, Fiji's most elegant and established property, occupies a white-sand cove on a grotto-filled limestone island. The 18 bures, spaced far apart on the mile-long beach, are ocher adobe with terra-cotta-tiled floors and soaring Fijian thatched roofs. The architectural details are striking: Tree-trunk columns are wrapped in coconut-fiber rope, and reproductions of petroglyphs from nearby cliffs adorn the bathroom tiles. This past summer, Vatulele added The Point, a two-story, one-bedroom house with two private pools that sits on a cliff overlooking the grounds.
When Henry Crawford, an Australian TV producer who developed his sophisticated taste in Sydney's restaurants, opened Vatulele in 1990, it set a new standard for food on Fiji. The longtime chef is Raymond Li, a Fijian of Chinese descent who periodically takes sabbaticals to pick up new techniques. He can turn out a tangy tom yum gai as easily as a thin-crusted wood-fired pizza.
Li treats fish with enormous respect. At lunch, entrées range from a Thai prawn salad with lemongrass dressing to poached coral-trout fillets served with a chile-soy dipping sauce. At dinner, guests can choose a secluded spot (like the beach or the wine cellar) or dine at a long, candlelit communal table outside. On some evenings, people stay at the table chatting so late that the bartender just gives up and goes home, leaving the margarita blender in the guests' hands (doubles from $1,100; 800-828-9146).