Fiji has always been known and loved for its tropical islands and palm-lined beaches, but some visitors are under the impression that the food is nothing short of remarkable.
Fashion designer Karen Walker first visited Fiji at the age of 4 on a family vacation and has visited Fiji at least 20 times as an adult.
“I think there’s a misconception that the food is terrible,” she told Stuff Travel.
“And maybe, once upon a time, the idea of eating pizza and lasagna and potato chips all heated up. I think there’s something hanging in Fiji.”
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But on a recent trip with husband Mikhail Garman and daughter Valentina, their first visit in six years, Walker admits to being blown away by what was offered.
“It really was a different place in terms of food and service.”
Many luxury resorts are transforming Fiji’s culinary reputation, turning Fiji into a serious foodie destination.
Replace fried foods and all-day buffets with farm-to-plate, sea-to-plate dining experiences that take full advantage of the fresh produce and seafood bounty the island nation has to offer.
You can savor this transformation before landing at Nadi International Airport. In December 2021, Fiji Airways appointed New Zealander Chef Richard Cross as its new Executive Chef. The task is to completely revamp Flag’s career menu and build it around local flavors. An example is the cava and cinnamon ice cream served in Business Class.
On Walker’s most recent visit, she stayed at three resorts. She revisited one of her favorite girlfriends, Dolphin Island. Located 20 minutes by boat from the northern tip of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, is her private retreat that only accommodates her eight guests at a time.
For the first time, she experienced the celebrity favourite, the Wakaya Club & Spa. This is yet another of her private island resorts accessible by propeller plane from Nadi an hour away. 2018 was the year that luxury wellness and hospitality brands expanded into the South Pacific.
Walker has found that locally sourced, seasonal produce is at the heart of what is offered at all three establishments.
At both Iruka Island and Wakaya, she liked that the menus were not fixed. Rather, staff are aware of their guests’ dietary requirements and design meals based on the freshest ingredients available that day.
At Dolphin Island, which Walker visited three times, manager Dawn Simpson “is like the most loving mother or grandmother I’ve ever met,” she said.
Meals were served family style.
“‘What do you want? Something you don’t want to think about on vacation.
“It feels like someone is putting their arm around you and saying, ‘You look tired. Sit down. I’ll make you dinner.'”
Impressed by its on-site farm and extensive tropical gardens, Wakatani uses ingredients harvested directly from nutrient-rich soil.
A vegetarian, Walker explained that he snacked on raw cauliflower with cumin dip and enjoyed the best salad he’d ever had.
Care was taken not to make the dish overly complicated, she added.
“When I’m in the tropics, I don’t want haute cuisine. I want something lighter.”
With three restaurants and a gourmet deli, Six Senses also focused on comfort food. The resort has its own on-site organic farm and herb garden that is used in the spa as well as the kitchen, allowing guests to create their own scrubs and face masks using ingredients from the garden.
“I don’t think there’s anything on the menu that feels heavy or makes you feel a little sick,” Walker said of the food.
“But it’s so well done that I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.”
For chefs at these resorts, a focus on local ingredients is as essential as following food trends.
Creating world-class cuisine in a country with so many imports is a clear challenge. Being on a private island adds complexity.
Wakaya Executive Chef Mariel Hadji moved to a resort far from Mexico City seven years ago. She ran her own catering company there.
“Coming from a big city where you get a list of whatever you want, it was a whole different experience here. said.
“When I said, ‘Could you bring me tuna or Spanish mackerel,’ they stared at me and said, ‘Well, let’s see what we can do.'”
Raised in Mexico but with Lebanese roots, Hajji, who has worked in kitchens in New York and Paris, said some resorts need to cater to guests from all over the world and offer international menus. But the focus on produce has opened up a whole new dining experience, she said.
“The most important thing is to get it hours or minutes before you cook or plate it,” she said.
“It’s really, really fresh. I think that makes a difference.”
Six Senses facilities around the world are known for their sustainable approach. This is what inspired Winston Fong, who became executive his chef at the Fiji resort in August.
Determined not to waste anything, he has been experimenting with using seafood the same way he treats meat, including aging it and making sausages from leftover scraps. He said the response from has been encouraging.
“I [fish] “I went to my guests a while ago and they said it was the best thing they’d ever tried,” he said.
“You can’t get wagyu beef here. But you do get aged tuna and fresh crab.”
For guests like Walker, there’s always something better than piping hot pizza from the buffet.
Dolphin Island: Dolphinisland fiji.com
Wakaya Club & Spa: wakayaresort.com
Six Senses Fiji: sixsenses.com
access: Fiji Airways operates direct flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to Nadi. Visit fijiairways.com
More information: Fiji travel