Virtuoso Life March 2019 The Private-Island Resort Aiming to Keep Its Corner of Fiji Pristine

The Private-Island Resort Aiming to Keep Its Corner of Fiji Pristine

Kokomo’s private beach.
Kokomo’s private beach.

It took 45 minutes by air to get to Kokomo Private Island from Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu. Heading southeast, our helicopter flew over lush mountains, ribbons of aquamarine sea, and kaleidoscopic coral mazes. With every minute that passed, the vastness of the South Pacific took hold: The ocean’s blues appeared deeper, and remote islands and their white-sand beaches seemed to grow farther apart.

While Fiji has been known for years for its beautiful beaches and resorts, there are still places beyond its main islands where the people and landscapes feel far removed from the modern world. Yaukuve Levu – the island that’s home to Kokomo – is one. Australian billionaire Lang Walker visited the island on a yachting trip and became enamored with its deep, protected harbor; abundant marine life; and the people who call it home. He opened Kokomo, his 26-villa retreat, shortly after, in 2017. It’s the first luxury resort in Fiji’s Kadavu Group of islands, which are known for their proximity to the Great Astrolabe, the world’s fourth-largest coral reef system. The reefs, a diver’s dream, are home to an array of species, from spinner dolphins and humpback whales to manta rays and gray reef sharks.

Kokomo’s seaplane. 
Kokomo’s seaplane. 
My arrival at Kokomo began with a golf-cart ride to the Beach Shack lounge, where dozens of staff members shouted “Bula!” (a common Fijian greeting that means “hello” or “well wishes for good health”) and dropped what they were doing to welcome me and the other new guests with traditional music, flower garlands, and coconuts pierced with straws to sip from. I listened, but my atten- tion was pulled toward the water – the brightest, bluest, and clearest I had ever seen. There wasn’t a boat or even another visitor in sight.

My villa was my own Fijian sanctuary: Inside the resort’s one- to six-bedroom accommodations (which are built with local and sustainably sourced materials), contemporary furnishings and bright, abstract paintings by Kokomo’s in-house artist Chris Kenyon are arrayed beneath vaulted plantation-timber ceilings, secured with traditional woven-coconut-husk rope called magimagi. Outside, beyond the private infinity-edge pool, a hammock beckoned, strung between two coconut palms. A path led to the beach and the House Reef just off the coast, where guests can snorkel or swim.
Not your average beach shack.
Not your average beach shack.
Walker’s vision to make Kokomo a vehicle for environmental and cultural conservation started with the Great Astrolabe. He hired marine biologist, conservationist, and dive instructor Cliona O’Flaherty to help protect the resort’s House Reef, a 656-foot-wide designated no-fishing zone around Kokomo. She and her team have developed a nursery in its shallow waters by cultivating samples of living super coral from the reef. With aid from guests, who help attach juvenile specimens to the super coral in the nursery, they’ve grown more than 2,000 of the marine invertebrates, which are later replanted in the House Reef.

“With rising water temperatures due to global warming, corals around the world are bleaching and dying,” O’Flaherty says. “The reef restoration program maintains the health of the Kokomo House Reef, where we do the majority of our diving and snorkeling instruction.”

The waters around Yaukuve Levu have been a source of sustenance for the island’s residents for years. For Kokomo, they present another opportunity to operate sustainably. Executive chef Anthony Healy recently helped the resort become the first Fijian member of Dock to Dish, a United Nations Foundation program that connects small-scale fisheries and local seafood supply chains to resorts and restaurants around the world.
Fiji from above.
Fiji from above.
Guests can see this program in action on a visit to the nearby islands of Buliya and Dravuni, where they meet the fisherwomen who, for generations, have cast for a small, bony species called bussa, standing knee-deep in a lagoon using lines and hooks baited with bread. This technique is disappearing among locals, Healy explained, as younger Fijians become dependent on processed and frozen foods from Asia. By giving them an outlet to sell bussa, Kokomo created a financial incentive for these women to continue their practice and hand it down to their children.

Healy and his team serve the fresh bussa at Kokomo’s three restaurants – the Beach Shack, the Pool Cabana, and the charming Walker D’Plank, a menuless, catch-of-the-day space inspired by Walker’s favorite beach bars around the world. To source larger fish, Kokomo employs its own fisherfolk, purchases from local villages, and prepares guests’ own catches. One day, I reeled in a 30-pound Spanish mackerel (with significant help from the crew), and at Walker D’Plank a chef cooked it for me three ways, accompanied by greens, broccoli, and snow peas grown in the resort’s five-and-a-half-acre, on-site organic garden.
A villa soak. 
A villa soak. 
Days at Kokomo revolve around the water – even yoga classes are held beachside, and treatments at the Yaukuve Spa Sanctuary incorporate seaweed, marine minerals, and seashells. Everything is customized, and the Fijian staff make guests feel immediately at home.

“Their warmth is a part of their DNA,” says Kokomo general manager Martin Persson. “There’s a natural happiness and element of hospitality that’s always there.”

This is where Kokomo nails its final principle of sustainability: Support the culture of the people who have lived and worked on the island for generations. One morning, a group of us boated to nearby Kavala Bay, where our barefoot guide, Viliame Ikatamata (who goes by the self-appointed nick- name of “Bill Gates”), led us on a two-hour hike to a hilltop waterfall. Along the way, he pointed out a crimson shining parrot that flew overhead, dug up the famous kava root that’s used throughout Fiji to make ceremonial tea, introduced us to families he’s known for years, and told us how Fijians depend on one another to survive.
“If we don’t have money, it’s OK. We can fish to eat,” he said. “But if we don’t have our families, we will die.”

Just spending a few days with these Fijians reveals their connection to the water, the land, and each other. And now I felt woven into that fabric too. When we made it to the 160-foot waterfall, Viliame helped me climb up the rocks so I could dive into the warm, spring-fed waters at its base.

When it was time to leave the resort, Kokomo’s staff again lined up, to wish us farewell with music. The resort’s seaplane waited at the end of the dock while all the people we had hiked, swam, fished, and laughed with gathered to say goodbye. Their song told a traditional story of friendship, and how proud they had been to share their home. I climbed aboard, and, as the resort faded into the distance, I hoped that its people and its reefs would endure.

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