Head to this Pacific paradise
THE sun is burning brightly but I cannot help but take my sunglasses off.
My eyes take a while to adjust.
I have to squint for ages but the polarised lenses just will not do the view justice.
The greens of the trees and the blues of the ocean have to be seen with the naked eye to truly be appreciated in Fiji.
The South Pacific island nation is a palette of colours strewn across the landscape.
I was fortunate enough to spend five nights in Fiji earlier this year.
At the time, the Fijians were barely three months out of the massive January flooding and, unfortunately, about to be hit by another weather event that would eclipse that.
My time there took in the days leading up to, and including, a severe tropical storm all too common in that part of the world at that time of year.
I saw the best of Fiji, and then some days of the worst flooding in the nation's history.
But despite the meteorological drama, Fiji is still a wonderful location and deserves a tourism lift to help get it back on its feet.
I know I'd go back in a heartbeat.
Until my visit, I never realised such a diverse and different world existed only three-and-a-half-hours' flight from Brisbane.
Our trip to Fiji, particularly our time at Castaway Island Resort, introduced me to that magical new place.
The journey, however, began at the Radisson Blu Resort on Denarau Island.
Here, guests enjoy the quintessential resort living you would come to expect from such a big name in accommodation and hospitality.
We were well looked after, finding a pleasant happy medium between the comfort of home and feeling a million miles away.
The pools, the restaurants and the entire resort atmosphere encouraged relaxation.
So it was easy to see just how popular this place is with families, both young and old.
Another one of the major advantages of the resort's location on Denarau Island is the proximity to many tourist attractions.
A short drive to Nadi gave us an authentic shopping experience of the markets and town centre.
From there, we took in the famed Garden of the Sleeping Giant in the foothills of the Nausori Highlands, and toured Viselsel Village on Vuda Point for a traditional and hearty Fijian lunch.
After a few nights at Denarau, we were primed for a bigger adventure: a trip to Castaway Island in the Mamanuca islands to see a snapshot of what the rest of Fiji had to offer.
Over our 45-minute boat trip from Port Denarau Marina to the island, we
passed what felt like hundreds of other islands on the way - each one beautiful in its own right.
It was hard not to feel pangs of disappointment as we sailed past each one and realised it was not our intended destination.
But that changed once we glimpsed Castaway.
We arrived to see an island you would expect on the front of a postcard - it was perfect.
The white sand, the water, the friendliness of the people and the pristine environment combined to create an amazing destination.
The staff greeted us with a song as we took out first barefoot steps off the boat and into the warm ocean.
We immediately realised Castaway seemed to have one general rule: No shirt, no shoes - no problem.
Our first afternoon getting to know the island was the best.
Basic water sports including kayaking, snorkelling and stand-up paddle boarding were free for all visitors.
But there was no better introduction to the island than a simple dip in the ocean.
Turns out we had arrived at a good time. The resort had just reopened after a major $3million, five- week refurbishment.
The big changes were to the guest facilities and amenities, as well as the central pool area, main restaurant, bar and the Sundowner cocktail and wood- fired pizza bar.
Another warm welcome to Fiji was the tremendous sunset I was treated to on more than one occasion.
The one that sticks out the most was from my first night at Castaway.
But it lasted only minutes.
The sun shone through the clouds to give off the impression of an empty noughts and crosses battlefield.
An American tourist ran from the bar to snap that idyllic shot from the beach but it was too late. That unique moment in time was gone ... and belonged to me.
You just don't get sunsets like that on the east coast of Australia.
Our accommodation was one of Castaway's 66 spacious, traditionally thatched Fijian-style bures.
I was lucky enough to have one facing the ocean - offering one of the best waterfront addresses you are ever likely to encounter.
One thing I did wonder when staying on Castaway Island was where the island got its name - and it still remains a mystery to me.
But apparently the name does not originate from the Tom Hanks film released in 2000, although the iconic paddle that finally took his character home from his deserted island hangs in the bar area.
"The staff came across it (the paddle) in the ocean one day," owner Geoff Shaw tells me over drinks. "They just found it out there."
That's hardly surprising as the movie was shot just couple of islands away.
Dinner was another highlight of our stay on Castaway.
Our Fijian Food Safari Dinner served up the best traditional fare available - from Waci Poke Tanoa (coconut-poached arancini wrapped in organic dalo leaves) and Tavu Toa (wood-smoked chicken, organic heart of palm and mandarin salad) all the way to dessert: a coconut flower salad infused with organic lemon thyme and vanilla bean.
Executive chef Lance Seeto was brought to the island three years ago to teach the staff his way of cooking.
His love for the region, the food and the people is evident to visitors.
"I've been developing, testing and sampling the unique world-class foods available here in Fiji and have developed what we believe to be a first for Fijian cuisine," he says.
"It's my strongest belief that as you travel so far to experience this wonderful destination, you should also experience and absorb the local cuisine and culture."
GOOD TO KNOW ABOUT FIJI
Virgin Australia has direct flights to Nadi daily from Sydney and Brisbane, and five times each week from Melbourne.
Fare options include Saver, Flexi and Premium Economy.
Visit virginaustralia.com, call 13 67 89 or contact a licensed travel agent.
For more on Fiji holidays, see Tourism Fiji Australia's website: fijime.com.au or phone (02) 9264 3399.
For more information on Castaway Island, visit castawayfiji.com
For more information on Radisson Blu Resort, visit radissonblu.com/resort-fiji
RADISSON Blu can set up your dinner IN the swimming pool. Called Lomani Wai, the entire dinner setting is moved into the shallow children's pool and the waiters serve you sitting with your feet in the water at this unique dining setting.
Out at Castaway Island, we set a 'feet in the sand' dining experience with table set on the beach, tiki torch flares surrounding the table and private waiter to serve you.
For both of these experiences, it is the set up that we are providing on a complimentary basis and guests can then simply select their dinner menu and beverages from the resort menus.
This exclusive offer will be for anyone travelling before 31 March, 2013 but must book no later than 31 May, 2012 and quote "LOMANI WAI & BEACH DINING OFFER". Conditions apply.