Take one tropical island, add a toddler and an ageing mother, and what do you get? A family holiday to remember – for all the right reasons “Are you mad?” was one of the comments when I shared my holiday plans. “Why on earth would you want to do that? It will end in tears,” was another. You would think I decided to take my precious seven days of leave in West Point, Liberia where clean water, electricity and other basic services are considered a luxury, not the island nation of Fiji, renowned for sunshine and smiles. The sticking point, it seemed, was not the location of the trip but more the travelling companions – I was taking my three-year-old son AND my mother. You’ll have your own opinions on this, especially at this time of the year, when you’ve either just enjoyed or endured a family trip away – how was that rainy camping ground? What is it about holidaying with multi-generational family members that makes it so tricky?
A few days before we leave, I’m reminded. “So love, you know how I lost my passport?” said my mother. “Um, no,” I replied, envisaging emergency documents, halted flights, off-the-chart stress levels. “Well, I called Internal Affairs…” she continued. ‘Here we go,’ I thought, forcing myself to take deep breaths. “And I told them I found it and they hadn’t cancelled it, so it’s fine,” she finished. Ah ha!! I knew it. I knew this trip away was going to be okay. I’d show those people who scoffed at whether I could make it a success or not. ‘Yes, I’ll show them,’ I thought as I sat on my suitcase with the hope of doing the zip up – kids need a lot of stuff when you go away. You see I had stacked the cards in my favour. I had chosen the wonder of Fiji. I’ve had a long-standing love affair with the country, for almost two decades. Over the years I’ve done everything there from camping on uninhabited islands to staying in uber-exclusive resorts.
Fiji is like the Disneyland of the South Pacific; there’s something for everyone. If you can’t have a good time in Fiji, then there is no hope. What’s not to love about sun, sand, palm trees, coconuts, cocktails and of course, the holy grail, island time? Just four hours after leaving Auckland airport, we’re poolside at The Hilton Beach Resort in Denarau. It’s 30°C with a light breeze, the kid is togged up and has found a friend to splash away with, the mother is lying on a lounger, the drinks aren’t far away. There have been no tantrums and no tears from the child or the mother. That’s the beauty of Fiji being just a three-hour flight away. I like to think of Denarau as acclimatisation to Fiji life – there’s just enough island culture to kick-start your relaxation journey but enough of the world you left behind to help your transition, plus it’s very family- friendly.
The Hilton’s apartments (all beach front, by the way) are so well kitted out you start to feel a little let down by your own house – especially your own bed. I swear they have done something magical with the Hilton mattresses, as I have the best sleep I’ve had in at least five years. The next morning my son and I enjoy a leisurely poolside breakfast (the novelty of the extensive buffet means he actually eats something, which in itself is a miracle), and while I could happily stay here for the next five days, I remind myself this is just an introductory offer to our family holiday vibe. After a two-hour South Sea ferry ride, where we’re lucky enough to see a whale performing aquatic gymnastics, we arrive at what I can only describe as Pacific perfection – Malolo Island Resort. A 100% Fijian-owned retreat with a maximum of around 120 guests. Rebuilt at a cost of more than $3 million in 2013 after a cyclone wiped out the original buildings, the result is a stunning colonial plantation-estate look, without the pretension or ‘faux Fijian bure’ that many larger resorts favour.
Our home for the next few days is the most darling white cottage just 10 metres from the sparkling sea. Mum settles into our beach-front hammock with a book while the child and I head straight to the pool. In the centre of the resort are two large plantation homesteads which house the restaurants and overlook the pools. While Malolo Island Resort makes no secret of its ‘family first’ attitude, adults are still well catered for with their own pool and day-bed lounging area. While I look longingly at the childless grown-ups enjoying their space, it’s soon forgotten as I join my son under the waterfall in the kids’ area. It’s during this time I’m reminded why I’m here, why I chose to bring the two most special people in my life on holiday with me.
It’s so nice to be laughing and playing instead of screeching orders – ‘Find your shoes’, ‘get in the car’, ‘hurry up’, ‘don’t do that’. Malolo, of course, offers a babysitting service and I would have no hesitation in trusting the delightful staff (who all know your ame within 12 hours of your arrival) with the care of my son but I’m here to spend time with him – a luxury in today’s busy life. There is also an awesome kids’ club, Tia’s Treehouse, for children from four years old. We don’t quite qualify in the age stakes but he’s welcome to go if I or a babysitter is accompanying him. This isn’t just your average kids’ club – one day they even go on a snorkelling turtle-spotting safari. Now that makes for some good school news stories.
As the resort sits smack-bang in the middle of a marine park, there is excellent snorkelling straight off the beach. I’m all for getting maximum benefit with minimum effort, so this suits me just fine. And for the more adventurous holiday-goer there is stand-up paddleboarding, sailing, jet skiing, kayaking, and paragliding on offer. Me? I’m more a ‘work my way through the cocktail list and menu options’ adventurer. When you take into account the logistics of getting food to an island that is practically in the middle of nowhere, it really is quite astounding what they dish up.
The adults-only restaurant offers excellent and varied cuisine and I enjoy a very nice platter of stunning seafood one night when I’m being a childless grown-up. In fact, I almost want to cry when I realise I just can’t fit any more lobster in. At the other end of the scale is the children’s buffet, which starts at 5pm. Every night it’s a selection of kid-friendly food and every night there is the same scene – groups of hyperactive chi dren with parents attempting to spoon-feed them. It’s like feeding time at the zoo but the staff isn’t fazed. It fact, such is their love of kids I think they enjoy the crazy chaos. It’s so nice as a parent not to feel judged in a restaurant.
The time starts slipping away, one lazy day after another. The only point when Mum and I argue is over my insistence she visit the resort’s spa again. Leilani’s (named after the resort owner’s daughter) definitely deserves a repeat visit. Picture this – an open air massage with Pure Fiji oils in the coolness of the trees, surrounded by the sound of the waves. Even just writing that makes me want to go back. Sometimes on holiday, you feel this incessant need to ‘do things’ and when you get home you realise while that was great, you didn’t get a break. While there’s plenty to do, you don’t feel like that at Malolo – perhaps that’s the island time thing.
In saying that, on day three we’re up at 6am and on a boat by 7am. I’m taking the child for a very special experience. One hour later we arrive at every little boy’s fantasy – their own private island. This is not just any deserted island either, this is the uninhabited island made famous by actor Tom Hanks and Wilson in the film, Castaway – the coconut shell ‘Help Me’ sign is still there. It’s just us on this little piece of land – we play on the beach, swim in the crystal clear water and enjoy fresh coconut. To say the child is well impressed is an understatement. It’s only been five days at Malolo but it seems like longer.
As the staff serenades us with their goodbye song I notice there are tears in my mum’s eyes. “Are you okay?” I ask. “I’m just really happy I got to come here,” she replies. Twenty-four hours later, after another great sleep at the Hilton (what is it with those mattresses?!), we’ve touched down in Auckland – relaxed and refreshed. I’m pushing the luggage trolley when my mum speaks up: “I’ve left my handbag on the plane.” ‘Welcome home’ I think with a sigh. Terse words are exchanged but I figure I’ve won the battle of family holidays. The handbag incident has, after all, happened on NZ soil… so yes, I’m taking the win.
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