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Experiencing a different Fiji in Savusavu — interviews with Delia Rothnie-Jones (Daku Resort) and Monica Laurence (Tavola Fiji)

Fiji is back in the tourism business.

The South Pacific Island nation closed its borders to international tourists in March 2020, and remained closed for nearly two years, reopening on 1 December 2021. During this period, all of us have had the opportunity to do some introspection. With a biblical plague at our doorstep we’ve had a chance to assess what’s really important in our lives. That’s’ where “Experience a Different Fiji”, the Savusavu Tourism Association’s new campaign, fits in.

Both Delia Rothnie Jones, who serves as Chairperson of the association, and her colleague Monica Laurence, a former Hollywood entertainment and Silicon Valley executive, reckon that it’s time to get back to basics. As Savusavu resort owners, Delia and Monica are in an ideal position to introduce visitors to the area’s natural wonders and connect them with local people.

I think they are on the right track and I believe you’ll enjoy hearing what they have to say.

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Rob: Now that tourism is opening, what protocols must be followed to get to Fiji and then, Savusavu?

Monica: Visitors over 18 must be vaccinated and test negative 3 days before flying. On arrival they must spend the first 3 days in a CFC (Care Fiji Commitment) accommodation, and have a Rapid Antigen test within 48 hours of arrival. Whilst in Fiji they are asked to download the Care Fiji app for contact tracing, and are further asked to avoid any areas that have low rates of vaccination – there are very few of these but some villages have resisted the vaccination. But generally visitors will be free to move around and enjoy the hospitality of a nation that has over 90% of the over 18 population vaccinated.

Getting to know Fiji: Bringing produce from the village to town. Bus station, downtown Savusavu

Rob: How did Savusavu businesses and restaurants weather the Covid tourism downturn?  What about the vaccination process?

Delia: Fiji closed its borders to international tourists in March 2020, and remained closed for nearly 2 years, reopening this week, on 1 December 2021. With borders closed, there were two phases of Covid in Fiji. For the first year, there was no Covid in the community and Tourism Fiji was active in promoting Love Our Locals packages offering stays and activities at excellent prices. Savusavu ran a successful marketing campaign encouraging locals to “Come Overseas to Savusavu”.  During this period the luxury resorts closed down, but the others stayed open with reduced staff hours, and managed to weather the downturn. The activity providers were harder hit although none of them have closed.

In the second phase the Delta strain entered Fiji via repatriation flights, and quickly spread through the community. This phase has been much tougher – inter-island travel was halted and there has been a significant downturn of business. To rebound, we focused our efforts on supporting the local health and welfare of citizens, while laying the groundwork for a global re-opening.

The Savusavu Tourism Association has been active in supporting the vaccination drive in our province. The Association teamed with local businesses to raise funds and organize transport and drivers for the hospital medical teams to get out to the remote areas.

Meeting local people is part of the Savusavu experience. Here locals get together to perform a meke, a traditional Fijian art form.

Here are some more figures behind the efforts of the last 4 months:

94 and 82.8: as of November 19,  94% of Cakaudrove’s population has received its first dose of the vaccination, and 82.8% has received its second dose. (Cakaudrove is the province in which Savusavu is located.)

20+: We have called on the services of over 20 individual drivers: Kiriata, Sarvan, Adi, Ally, Jay, Vijay, Soko, Deb, Delia, Tukai, Leanne, Suresh, Abed, Matthew, Nathan, Aundre, Paul, Ritesh, Sanjesh, Ledua….and very probably others who stood in when called upon.

15,000: One of those drivers, Kiriata, has been on full time duty throughout, and has covered over 15,000 kilometres in his vehicle.

113: The drive started on July 2 and finished last Sunday November 14: approximately 113 days (we didn’t go out on Saturdays but we did go out on many Sundays).

3,000: We used approximately 3,000 litres of fuel – the exact amount is impossible to calculate as some drivers donated their fuel, but we had roughly 2,400 from Total (paid for), a further 300 litres donated by Total, special contributions of 70 litres from Savusavu Hardware, and a fantastic weekly allowance of 200 litres from RPA.

Wasawasa Lodge, Inn, & Conference Center is a brand new property.

Rob: Anything new in town?  Properties, eateries, cafes, new construction, etc.

Delia: Wasawasa Lodge and Restaurant has opened; it’s on the estate belonging to Namale but runs separately. It offers great accommodation and a restaurant with a beautiful view of the ocean, an  ideal place for a meal just out of town.

Pettine Simpson at Vaga Gardens has turned her immense cooking skills to a pie business: once a week she delivers her chicken and beef pies to her customers all around Savusavu.

Ethan’s Coffee Heaven: a new coffee shop and restaurant.

Construction continues on Nawi Island; I don’t really have details but it’s all going ahead.

Rob: What’s happening with the creative/artistic community on Vanua Levu?

Monica: Only today (December 1) a pop-up market shop has opened.

A pop up art fair is now regular event in Savusavu.

The shop will be carrying items from a number of local artists: Lynne McLaren, Mayvian Popese Smith, Iretta Micskey, Asenaca Luisa, Katrina Brown, Anaseini Laweibau and Maria Simpson, and covers a range of media: acrylic paintings, fabrics, hand crafted jewellery, locally made villagers’ handicrafts, Katrina Brown’s beautiful mosaics and Lynne McLaren’s signature pieces of hand-crafted concrete.

Lynne is the driving force behind the project. “There are a number of us in Savusavu who sell our work on Saturdays, and we’ve been looking at ways to establish a more permanent display. This is a first step towards that: it’s a pop-up market for the month, using space generously provided to us by the non-profit organisation Love In Action (Fiji), and it will give us the chance to see what the market will bear in Savusavu.”

Lynne has also been travelling out to some of the farther flung villages of the district, encouraging the women to bring her their creations. “It’s not as easy as you might expect,” she says. “Many women in the villages have considerable responsibilities within the village and finding time to make mats or baskets or masi cloth for a market that is a long way from home is daunting for them. We’re trying to show them a path to economic opportunities but it will take time.”

Meanwhile, the artists of Savusavu will be bringing their items in and the shop opens on Wednesday December 1. It will be open from Tuesday to Saturdays from 9.30 – 2.30 each day, and could be the perfect place for you to find a rather special Christmas gift.

Main Bure at Tavola as you enter the property.

Rob: What’s new with Tavola Fiji ?

Monica: As we found ourselves without the option option to welcome international guests, wethought it the perfect time to tackle some projects and further enhance our guest experience.

Here’s what we did:

  • created an organic herb and veggie garden, including fresh tomatoes, green onions, mint, eggplant, cucumbers, lemongrass.
  • got creative in the kitchen and styled our menus, adding more dishes inspired by international chef Yotam Ottolenghi and a bit of playfulness like the morning “Pop-mosa”, a spin on the mimosa, but with an icy popsicle dunked in champagne.
  • upgraded our pizza oven and perfected thin crust pizzas inspired by a trip to Rome.
  • lovingly refinished the hardwoods and decks in the villa, stripping, sanding and returning the natural and gorgeous luster.
  • refurbished our fiberglass long boat, so it’s sparkling and ready for fishing and snorkeling excursions with guests.
  • teamed with a local conservation initiative to plant coral nurseries, making this unique underwater experience available to our guests.
  • in addition to our exclusive and bespoke private villa experience for couples or multi-generational families (tavolafiji.com), we have on offer week-long consciousness and wellness retreats called Stillness (stillnessfiji.com) in February and October 2022.
  • explored the island of Vanua Levu, discovering new waterfalls and adventures to share with our guests.
  • became certified with the Care Fiji Commitment so we can welcome international guests.
Vista of Savusavu Bay from Tavola is stunning.

At the outset of the pandemic, we packed meals and delivered them to local families, along with notes of hope and encouragement. We feel most fortunate to live in our tight-knit and supportive community. This is a place of resilient and good-hearted people.

Rob: How did you end up in Savusavu and come to acquire Tavola? 

Monica: I had the good fortune to be inspired and mentored by my uncle Richard Evanson. He was a maverick and eco-visionary who pioneered tourism in Fiji in 1980 and created the sustainable, 5-star, luxury private island resort Turtle Island. I spent a lot of time with my uncle, both learning and laughing, and over the years I came to think of Fiji as my soul’s home. Fiji is a natural and wild place where I feel free, creative and simply happy.

Accommodations at Tavola are both luxurious and minimalist.

I find those qualities allow me to be my best in life and in all my entrepreneurial endeavors. I wanted to share this special place with other creative visionaries, giving them a place to come home, rejuvenate and connect with what is true and meaningful in life. To power down in order to power up.

In all of Fiji, I chose the island of Vanua Levu for my quest as it is remote and still natural. Savusavu is called “the hidden paradise”, and that it truly is. We are less populated than the busy tourism destinations of Denarau, Mamanucas and Yasawas. We move with the rhythm of nature. We slow down. We chat. We laugh. We are present to the moment. So, I searched all of Vanua Levu before discovering Tavola Villa, an exquisitely designed, boutique resort stunningly situated on 8 private, waterfront acres overlooking Savusavu Bay. It felt like home, and that is exactly how I want my guests to feel.

Daku’s property is just steps away from Savusavu Bay.

Rob: Any new developments with Daku Resort?

Delia: We have remained open throughout the pandemic. In 2020 we welcomed many visitors from Suva, Nadi and other parts of the main island, and hosted a number of conferences with government agencies and NGOs and local groups. We are a fully CFC certified property and have now started to welcome back our first international guests.

We drew on our experience of running workshops to do a series of our own workshops and retreats. We brought over yoga teachers from the main island and held some successful 5 days retreats. Liti Miller, Fiji’s pre-eminent Zumba teacher, ran some  high energy sessions which left us all breathless and happy.

We also offered a couple of wonderful one-day workshops to the local community: Angie Rakai-Niumataiwalu taught a day of fabric art, and Katrina Brown taught a mosaic workshop. Not only were these fun, and provided an income to the artists, but they also gave new skills to some of the women attending.

Shane Bower, a local sculptor, is a shining star of the Savusavu art community, which is supported by Daku.

Most did it as a hobby but a few have used it as a new source of income, and Angie in particular was so encouraged by its success that she spent the next 3 months running sold-out workshops across Fiji.

Our support for the local artists’ community has continued: last October (2020) we had an exhibition of local artists’ work which brought together a lot of the local community. Since then we’ve been involved with talking to various national arts’ bodies about an event for the North, although the clamp down on inter island travel has put that on hold.

Within the resort, we have re-furbished most of the accommodation and upgraded the central area which has the restaurant, lounge and swimming pool. We have also built a new two-bedroomed house on the estate which is for sale to anyone who falls in love with Savusavu – as so many do!

Rob: How did you end up in Savusavu and come to acquire Daku?

Yoga is a big deal at Daku.

Delia: I first came to Fiji as a tourist in 1988. I was driving across Vanua Levu with my husband in a hired car, and we came to a crossroads: straight on to Labasa or turn right to Savusavu? On little more than a whim, we turned right – and Savusavu has been part of our life ever since.

We stayed at Daku Resort which had only just opened – we were some of its first guests. In those days it was owned by the Anglican church. We loved it – and the following year we came back. It was then that the manager suggested we build a house on the property and gift it to the resort, but would have annual use of it for the rest of our lives. That house, built for US$14,000, still stands. We fell into a happy pattern of bringing the kids over for school holidays until 2004, when the property came up for sale. Concerned that we’d lose our house, we bought it! And that’s how we fell into the tourism business.

Since then, we have expanded the property, building new bures, improving the old ones, and adding villas with private pools.

Daku has a variety of accommodation including the above Beach House.

Rob: Do the two of you have anything else to add?

Delia & Monica: The Savusavu Tourism Association has been active in its marketing efforts and during 2021 has developed a campaign “Experience a Different Fiji”. As international travel resumes, we realize that many travelers will be looking for a way to enjoy nature and connect with the people of the country, seeing what makes them tick and embracing a different experience. It’s not the “Fly and flop” holiday that Fiji does so well; it’s a market seeking something more. We are ideally placed to offer that with our stunning scenery, soaring mountains, pristine reefs, vibrant village culture and inimitable friendliness. When we encourage people to experience a different Fiji, we’re encouraging them to step out of the easy packages and come to a place where they will connect with all those experiences that make it a deep, rewarding and resonating vacation that lives with you for years to come.

The Savusavu area is chock full of wonderful things to experience.

One other area worth mentioning: OceanVentures Fiji in Natewa Bay have a coral conservation project. They have established 10 rope nurseries on 5 reefs; 3 – 4,000 corals have been planted; the community engagement aspect of the project is a work in progress with varying levels of community participation.

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Delia Rothnie-Jones spent her twenties in London in advertising, her thirties and forties exploring the world with her husband (they covered over 80 countries) and bringing up her kids, and since then has tumbled into tourism. It was never a plan but has yielded fascination and fun. Daku Resort has gone from being a tiny 8 room property to a thriving mid-range resort with 35 rooms. Delia has also developed Paradise Courses, vacations offering week-long art, writing and singing courses and yoga retreats, and occasional three week yoga teacher training courses.

Delia Rothnie-Jones

Monica Laurence is a serial entrepreneur and conscious explorer with a passion for life. After decades as a leader in global enterprises, Hollywood entertainment and Silicon Valley technology startups, Monica launched into hospitality with Tavola Fiji, her luxe private villa and inspiring venue for creativity retreats. As well, Monica is the creator of Quantum Surfing, a community and creation method that teaches purpose-driven entrepreneurs to combine neuroscience, applied enlightenment and quantum mechanics to predictably create lucky outcomes and accelerate venture impact.

Monica Laurence

Getting there: Fiji Airways, the national carrier, has re-established weekly, direct service from Honolulu to Nadi.

Rob Kay

Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner Rob Kay wrote the original Lonely Planet Fiji Travel Guide, and is Founder of Fijiguide.com.

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