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Swapping luxe for locals in Fiji

AAP logoAAP 9/10/2016 Jenny Tabakoff

As you drive from Nadi airport to the Coral Coast at 80 km/h, Fiji's Viti Levu reveals itself as an island of muscly hills and wide rivers. It's also clear Fiji is a developing nation. Cows meander on the road, and people of all ages wander along the narrow verge.

Houses - many of them shacks - line the route. If they have doors, they are inevitably open. Occasionally someone calls out "Bula!"

A smiling teenager on horseback carries a machete. Our driver explains Fijian men often accessorise with machetes to hack off edibles from the landscape - a coconut, a pawpaw.

Such glimpses of the "real Fiji" are rare after you've checked in to a five-star resort. But that's not necessarily so if you stay at the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort.

Once you've been handed your room card you can, of course, remain cocooned within Outrigger's luxurious world of thatched bures and bars, restaurants and spas, kids' clubs and meimeis (nannies), snorkelling and kayaking, tropical gardens and sparkling pools. Bliss.

There's never any need to leave. Outrigger's stretch of the Coral Coast is gorgeous, and its reef has any amount of colourful fish and coral. The staff is unaffectedly warm and welcoming, whether you're sipping cocktails in the Sundowner Bar, eating at any of the resort's restaurants, or handing your toddler to a meimei.

You can emerge looking your dazzling best from its Bebe Spa, high on a hill with dramatic views. (No wonder the Outrigger hosts a wedding nearly every day.) Everything here is so easy, right down to the way an Australian plug slips straight into the powerpoint. You can even buy all your souvenirs in the resort - a wooden kava bowl, a grass skirt, jewellery - from villagers who make and sell their wares in the meandering walkways.

You may never want to leave Outrigger - but you can have a different, deeper local experience. The resort, which has won industry awards for its community projects (including a new maternity wing at Sigatoka Hospital), gives guests opportunities to see "the real Fiji".

Outrigger's activities sheet includes not just fun within the resort (including cultural evenings of music and dance) but chances to mix with the community outside.

On Sunday morning, guests can attend a village church service. The Methodist service in Malevu is deeply moving. The old chapel was destroyed by a 2009 cyclone. Until its congregation gathers enough money to rebuild, services take place in a shack made of corrugated iron and shadecloth.

The minister welcomes visitors in English, and a child hands out hymn books so you can sing along in Fijian to familiar tunes. However, the congregation's harmonies are so good it's lovely just to listen. Among the crowd of men, women and children you may recognise some of Outrigger's smiling staff, enjoying a day off.

The resort also arranges visits to the school in another village, Conua. Here you may find yourself pushing a wheelbarrow of concrete or helping to paint the new kindergarten classroom that Outrigger is building, in conjunction with villagers, to replace the current shed. Afterwards, to show their thanks, the male villagers invite you to a kava ceremony in the meeting hall, which Outrigger guests also helped to construct.

Conua's children sing and smile enchantingly for photographs. Bring along little gifts to endear yourself: books, coloured pencils and balls are all welcome. On the day I was there both girls and boys lined up excitedly for stick-on diamante and pearl earrings.

Great fun - and an experience that's likely to make you appreciate how fortunate you are. Would you gain such an insight if you spent your entire holiday within the confines of a luxury resort?

One Outrigger guest was so moved by his Conua visit that, when he got home to Victoria, he sent the school a tractor. Now the school gets income by renting it out at modest cost to local farmers. A life-changing experience for everyone.

* The writer visited Fiji as a guest of Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE: Fiji Airways, Virgin Australia and Jetstar fly from Australia to Fiji.

STAYING THERE: Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort is on Fiji's big island of Viti Levu. Outrigger guests pay $F100 (about $A64) to visit Conua school. Proceeds go towards building materials for the project. Details: www.outrigger.com

* The writer visited Fiji as a guest of Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort.

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