Even though the trip commenced and ended last year, the memory is still as distinct as if I had just returned yesterday. It was a relatively long trip, to a relatively distant place: the Jean-Michel Cousteau resort on Savusavu, on the island of Vanua Levu, a larger northerly island in the Fiji chain. It took awhile to get there, and someplace over the International Date Line, we lost a day also, but the experience of this place, and this resort was unique and well worth the journey.
The fact is, there are many resorts on many islands in the world, but this one has an unusual ecological and eco-sensitive DNA, conceptualized by Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous oceanographer and videographer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The younger Cousteau had the vision to create this place as a substantial diving and educational haven for those who wanted to see this unspoiled part of the Pacific, as it had always been. Thus, this resort for years was considered, as it is still, one of the great resorts for the best ocean dives in the world.
Often, that would have been enough, but for Cousteau, and his team, this was only the beginning of the evolution of its eco-diverse and sensitive operations, and its sense of community with the Fijian population. These two things would ultimately become its profound green, communitarian legacy – one-of-a-kind for any high-end resort.
The thing is, in the operation of any eco-sensitive resort, there is often a marked difference between the front office – what a guest sees and feels, and the back office: how those sensuous and educational experiences are obtained and operationalized. And my memories of this resort lie in the subtle multiplicities of this combination. And the multiplicities go far beyond the diving and oceanographic experiences. The guests can still dive – snorkeling and scuba — and can go to the reefs and beyond, but the green legacy of this resort includes everything the guest experiences and is not totally aware of –much of the time, until later.
My immediate memories: the cool breezes through the floor to ceiling plantation shutters my Buré – one of the 28 thatched roof residences on the property. And outside, because no air conditioners were buzzing and humming, I could hear the birds – the best alarm clocks in the world. I never did know what types they were, but the sound combinations – of songbirds, and chatterers. always awakened me in a good humor, as I wondered what they could possibly be talking about and in such an animated way. The fact there was no a/c, no TV, no radio seemed like such a welcome relief from the clatter and bang of the world I came from. The only noise? The gossip of the birds, and the whistling sea winds.
My Buré was close to a lagoon also, where there were lily pads, with pink and white lilies in bloom. As I drew closer I could hear the frogs also. I took a picture of this lagoon with lilies and a frog underneath one of the lily fronds. Only later did I learn that this lagoon was part of Fiji’s first water reclamation plant, where treated water is pumped into a pond/wetland system, and eventually goes into lagoons.
I came to understand that water conservation was just one of many successful efforts of this resort to conserve and protect that exceptional environment where the resort lies. The Cousteau team’s vision was that the above-ocean and below-ocean eco-environments must work balance each other, through preservation and conservation of their exceptional Fijian resources.
So beyond the froggy lagoon, there have been many more accomplishments of this resort, in terms of eco-efficiency: low flow shower heads, low voltage lighting, recycled paper products, and cleaning products created from non-chlorinated sources, recycling of plastic and no Styrofoam on property. Also, this year in each guest Buré, a new line of Jean-Michel Cousteau bath amenities has been introduced, that include soaps with a seaweed extract, created from the seaweeds of Tasmania. It’s scent is NOT seaweed, but of coconut and apple. And even down to the Buré coat hangers and room keys, there is no plastic, so all can be reused.
But this is just one level of the Resort’s eco-sensitivity. As I walked from my Buré, to the restaurant, I remember what I was told by the General Manager, Mark Slimmer, one of the few non-Fijians who work at the resort. Similar to the structure of the Fijian village, the Bure that is the largest and tallest is the one that demands the most respect: usually in a village, it is the Chieftain’s. At the resort, it is the restaurant’s. And no wonder – the Chef, Raymond Lee, defines a type of farm, or in this case often ocean, to table organicity, certainly another type of eco-sensitivity. Raymond is of Chinese descent, grew up in the Fiji islands, and speaks four languages: Fijian, Chinese, English and Hindi. He is one of those rare chefs who knows how to elicit both spicy and much more subtle flavor combinations from his knowledge of the different types of curries, and in addition, can make fresh Sushi. The fish he buys is locally caught, and all the fruits and most of the vegetables are from the 15 year old organic garden that thrives on the property. Breadfruit, banana, papaya, soursop, passion fruit, mango, OKRA, tomatoes, avocados, lemon, limes, corn they call maize, chives, many types of basil including licorice and lemon, all grow and thrive here. I was also taken into the nursery and greenhouse where many of the herbs are grown, including a variety of Indian and Mexican chiles, different varieties of oregano and rosemary. His culinary expertise reflects a delicious fusion, made all the more meaningful because the food too – like the bath amenities, like the Buré interiors — are organic and natural.
This year, the resort now features the Chef’s Junior Assistant Program. Kids aged 6 to 12 join Raymond and a Club representative where children can help Raymond create a meal from start to finish – they can even suggest the meal for the day. The “Junior Assistants” – equipped with a chef’s jacket and hat – receive a kitchen briefing on safety and hygiene, take a tour of the organic garden with Raymond, hand-picking herbs and garnishes, and assist the Chef with final preparations, plating and serving of the meals to the Bula Club, the kid’s club at the Resort.
But just as Raymond’s expertise defines an unusual type of culinary eco-sensitivity and sustainability, so too does the resort’s full-time resident Marine Biologist, Johnny Singh carry the Resort’s commitment from the resort itself out to sea. He is a native Fijian, and is always available to help explain the island’s flora, fauna, sea life and the resort’s unusual focus on their preservation and nurturance. I remember him as being youthful, engaging and extremely knowledgeable about the sea life that envelops Fiji. He guides coral reef explorations, explains Mangrove reforestation, takes the guests to a nearby rainforest, and takes guests to a nearby island where he explains the sea life near the tidal flats. His newest project is a small Coral Farm. He started the farm in May of this year and now has its first stage of 87 fragments in the waters off the Resort’s pier.
The Coral Farm was started to assist the reefs by utilizing local corals that have been broken naturally from the parent colony and have very low chance of surviving without help. Corals belonging to the genus Acropora are especially sought, as they grow quickly are quite fast growing — almost 12cm per year. Johnny collects these naturally broken live fragments on dives and adds them to the farm.
This Coral Farm is working side by side with the Giant Clam Farm established by Johnny a number of years ago. The Giant Clams are in a large mesh enclosure off the resort pier, protected from natural predators and harvesting by people. These clams spawn and assist in new clam growth on the surrounding reefs.
The Resort, in conjunction with the local traditional coastal landowners and nonprofit environmental conservation organization Seacology, established a local Marine Reserve in 2009. This Marine Reserve surrounds the Resort and encompasses some 25,600 acres of shoreline and coastal reef, protecting the fish and marine life for future generations to enjoy, a major component of the Resort’s green legacy.
Finally, in an extremely unique and laudable example of environmental stewardship and community, the resort not only has over 200 native Fijians working at the resort, the resort also is part of the Savusavu Community Foundation, that offers free dental clinics at the resort. The Savusavu Community Foundation also funds eye clinics, and dermatology clinics at the Savusavu Hospital.
This kind of caring and certainly communitarian spirit folds back on itself in many ways at the resort, but the most obvious is the genuine kindness and happiness of the Fijian people who work there. For me, the memory experience of this resort, even after nine months gone, is one of gemütlichkeit, a German word meaning a kind of friendliness, belonging and happy security all mixed together. The heart of the resort lies in the genuine friendliness of the Fijians, who work at the resort. This, plus the memory of the perfect balance of sustainability in all areas – my guest experience at my Buré, the organic food from the garden, and the sensitivity of all the employees to preserve the delicate eco-balance all around them, allows me and all of the guests, to live the green legacy of this resort for many years to come.