Life's a playground, baby
THERE is a magical children's playground in Fiji. It's nothing much to look at it. Just a simple slide, fort and jungle gym. It's not even in the most idyllic part of beautiful Malolo LaiLai, an island which elsewhere has soft golden sand beaches lined with palm trees and delicious, see-through water.
But tonight, as the sun takes its typically laid-back time to set, this playground in front of Ananda's Restaurant is crawling with excited kids.
My almost four-year-old daughter Mia is flying down the slide with her new Aussie mates Lucy and (big) Mia in tow. She's beaming.
Then there's 7-month-old Katie sitting happily in the buggy beside our table being lavished with attention - and cuddles - from the adoring waitresses.
It is a truly magical time - near mythical, I tell you - because the kids are looking after themselves and my wife, Libby, and I are enjoying our dinner and a lovely bottle of wine at our leisure. Which is important because while family holidays are all about the kids, what's the point if you're not going to enjoy yourself and leave feeling like you've had a break too?
Ananda's, a restaurant 10-or-so minutes walk from popular Plantation Island Resort where we were staying, is just one example of how kid-friendly Fiji is.
It's set up for kids. Be it the lovely, friendly Fijian people who adore the little ones, to the pre-schooler friendly beaches where you can plant your bum on the beach and watch them frolic in the shallows. Our kids sure love it here.
Rewind a few days to the four of us landing in Nadi. Mia was saying "Bula, bula, bula" to anyone who would listen. Katie grinned with glee when the lovely lady from Rosie Holidays - who ferried us, our pram and many bags about during our seven-day stay - put a shell necklace around her neck.
At the Radisson Blu Resort in Denarau, where we stayed for a few days of five-star bliss before heading out to the islands, Mia high-fived the bag man and held hands with the lady who showed us to our room. Once she saw the sprawling, adventure playground-style pool just outside the front door of our room she was hooked on this magical place.
Though the Radisson is ease-free luxury, and recommended for a blissful stay, it's islands like Malolo LaiLai where the most beautiful Fijian beaches are found.
So it's all aboard the rickety yet reliable Malolo Cat for the 45-minute ride to Plantation Island resort.
As soon as we come around the southernmost point of the island Mia gets fidgety with excitement as the palm tree-lined beach beckons. And when we arrive at our beachfront bure, and stand on the verandah looking out to sea, she can hardly believe her eyes. She has been to many beaches in her four short years, but never anywhere as beautiful as this. She's so excited she giggles maniacally and starts ripping off her clothes until she's down to her undies. Before she jumps in the water she stands by a palm tree, does a dance of delight, poses for a few photos, and then she's off.
And that is how Mia - and the rest of us - spend the next four days. If we're not lolling about in the shallows, we are going for a swim, a kayak, or a snorkel, or reclining on the deckchairs reading. And if we're not doing any of that, then we are eating.
For breakfast and lunch we opted to self-cater rather than having the buffet at the resort restaurant. We went there once and didn't have a great experience, with the waitresses a little surly and the food pretty average. Disclaimer: we are real foodies and while we don't mind basic food we like it to be good.
So we make yummy sandwiches and wash them down with fruit at our bure. Papaya and a dash of lime juice anyone? And of course lunch while on holiday in paradise wouldn't be the same without an ice cold beer.
Before we left for Plantation we stocked up on snack food, wine, and fruit in Nadi (ask a local to point you in the direction of Namaka Market for fruit and veges) and there is a basic superette next door to Ananadas for bread and other essentials.
It's a good idea to take cutlery, a few plastic plates, a couple of wine glasses, washing up liquid, and a chopping board to make the self-catering experience possible. Plantation is not luxury accommodation, and if anything the popular and well-lived in resort needs a bit of a spruce-up. However, the rooms are clean, tidy and functional.
But most importantly, the beaches (especially on the "200 side" of the resort), the swimming, and the snorkelling - with a colourful, lively coral reef full of fish only 60-or-so metres off shore - are five-star perfection.
The resort offers all sorts of activities for children, from hair braiding to mini golf, and if you want to offload them for a while there is a kids club.
But that isn't for us and the beach is so beautiful - and safe - we don't want to leave.
Having a beach front bure also means Katie has her two daytime sleeps without either Libby or I stuck back at the room babysitting.
So while Katie is sleeping, Mia is splashing and learning to snorkel in the shallows. Then she's ready to tackle something more challenging and wants to jump off the pontoon "like the big kids". So we grab a kayak (free to borrow from the resort) and paddle out into the lagoon with fish darting around beneath us.
Though she doesn't jump off the pontoon, she loves bobbing around in the sea with her life vest and snorkelling mask on as she looks down into the crystal-clear depths and marvels at the fish. There is everything from small Nemo-like tropical fish, to larger, more stealthy underwater creatures, and most beautiful of all, are the many bright blue starfish stuck tranquilly to the rocks.
When we get back to shore Katie is togged up and ready for a paddle and it's Libby's turn for half an hour of underwater bliss.
Come 4pm our nightly ritual kicks in. Mia and her Aussie mates from next door chill out and watch a movie on our laptop (Finding Nemo is a popular choice, funnily enough), while we have a few drinks with our neighbours.
At around 5.30pm we pop Katie in the pram and head off to Ananda's for dinner. When we arrive Wame, the kava-drinking singer and guitar man, is already in full swing playing everything from How Great Thou Art and Nikita to a mash up of Pokarekare Ana and Waltzing Matilda.
And though the food is simple the helpings are generous and wholesome. Mia devours her fish and chips before heading back to the playground.
With the sun about to set we saddle up and wander slowly back to our bure. Mia is sitting on the front of the pram, with Katie kicking her affectionately in the back, and they laugh and giggle together all the way home.
Fiji is fun and relaxing for the whole family. My wife and I got home after seven days feeling like we'd had a holiday, even with the little ones in tow. And there is no doubt the kids had the time of their lives too.