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Palmlea Farms Lodge & Bures-- Gourmet Fiji Travel on a shoestring-- Part 1

This is the first of a two part series on Palmlea, a Vanua Levu resort you don't hear about much but certainly should.  I had the opportunity to visit over December 2011. Opened in 2009, Palmlea Farms Lodge & Bures is located 18 minutes from Labasa Airport on the northern coast of Vanua Levu.  Pronounced “Palm-Lee”, it is one of the newest and most appealing properties in all of Fiji. 

So what’s different about Palmlea?

First off, it’s is a working farm or in the words of the owners, Joe and Juli Smelser, an “eco agri-tourism resort that offers environmental and organic themes.” They cultivate a variety of vegetables, tropical fruits and herbs. They also raise ducks, goats and even bees. If you’re into hot sauce, Joe produces a propriety product called “Volcano” which 

is aptly named. It’s not just growing the food. Both Julie and Joe are inveterate cooks, consumed by the need to create healthy, tasty food.  

The resort can legitimately claim to be eco-friendly and entirely off the grid. They have their own well and the property is fueled by photovoltaic panels. In the evening the resort is powered by an array of batteries.  There are a couple of backup generators by necessity but Joe and Julie are committed to making a small energy footprint.  They recycle and amend their extensive garden with goat manure and compost.

How they ended up owning a hotel in Fiji is a story in itself. A native Oklahoman, Joe had been a globe trotting architect for 45 years, specializing in the design of small hotels.  He and wife Julie (who worked internationally in the gaming business for over 30 years) had just completed a world cruise on their yacht.  Both wondered what the next chapter in their lives would be. They decided to purchase land in Fiji because of the people and the availability of freehold property. (Joe notes that Fiji has never expropriated land belong to foreigners).  When they got to Fiji they purposefully wanted to be far off the beaten track.  They knew something about the hospitality industry and it seemed natural to build the hotel of their dreams.  “Build it and they will come”, said Joe.

Palmlea is about as far as you can get from the mainstream and still be close to an airport. The Labasa area is one of the least developed tourist areas in Fiji and to this day, remains undiscovered by visitors. That is very evident if you got to public market or walk down the main drag. 

Although the property is 15 minutes from town, it’s in a very rural setting surrounded cane land and grazing cattle. Overlooking the Great Sea Reef (the third longest continuous barrier reef system in the world) the resort caters to a maximum of 12 guests. There are great seascapes but no swimming beach.  It has one and two bedroom bures furnished with queen or king-size beds and private bath. 

For more info contact Smelser Palmlea Farms Lodge & Bures Tele +679 828 2220 Fax +679 828 3220 email

(top photo, view from dining room; middle shot, potent home made hot sauce; third shot parrot fish at Labasa Market)  All photos by Robert F. Kay

I'll continue the review in the next installment.

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