Our love affair with Fiji began in December 2009 when we first touched down in the island nation. A mother at my daughter's school had been on a holiday to the Shangrila Fijian Resort, and over coffee, her stories touched my heart. I had never spoken about Fiji before, nor had desire to travel there.
So when we decided to book a trip for Christmas that year, it was a shock and quite upsetting to the extended family that we would be skipping out on our traditional family celebrations.
We had been on a few family holidays before; a couple of cruises (one which missed Fiji due to bad weather), and trips to the Sunshine Coast. Incidentally, it was those family holidays to Caloundra which saw us move there in 2007 from Brisbane.
The concept of an international flight with a one and a six year old was a little daunting, having not done it before, but the idea of skipping the Christmas silly season (presents, trifles, and stress!) made me, in particular, excited. We told the kids that Santa would find them in Fiji (which I'm happy to report that he did!)
**Mum Note: regarding Santa and Christmas - We wrote to Santa before we left home asking if he could drop the prezzies to me early so I could take them in the luggage, luckily for us he was kind enough to oblige - he is not able to find most Fijian kids so make sure you can explain that one to eager six year olds who may ask! Same goes with the Easter Bunny and when we experienced Easter for the first time in Sigatoka - no eggs - now they are pretty common, especially in Suva.
I will always remember the first time we stepped off the plane in Nadi International Airport - the smell of Fiji. Burning wood for outside kitchen fires mixed with coconut oil, and the heat - it is intoxicating! I absolutely love the smell of Fiji. It has not changed yet. And ever since that first time stepping on Fijian land, whenever I arrive in the country and smell it again, my heart fills with love.
Shangrila Fijian Resort did not disappoint, we stayed in Lagoon Room 28, I know this because its the same room we've requested each time since. Once we were very blessed and got upgraded to a Beach Bure - I won't lie, it was amazing!
The people were gorgeous, and it was from that very first trip we have met life-long friends. A taxi driver we met on a day trip has become one of our closest family friends, and it is at his house with his family, where I stayed for 6 weeks on my own in 2014 to start my business there.
We stayed 14 days, with each day better than the one before. We reached a state of relaxation we hadn't felt since being footloose and fancy-free (pre-kids!).
We met a fabulous nanny called Kiti, who has been a part of lives ever since. I have experienced many life-changing moments with her, especially with regards to the process of our family trying to adopt her Brother's daughter.
However, it was on a day trip to Natadola Beach (Fiji's best beach) that my Hubby and I had a discussion which changed the course of our life. It started with a throw away comment.
"Wouldn't it be great to live here, go the beach everyday, feel this relaxed all the time".
We both laughed as we walked through the shallows of Natadola. It was then the spark was lit.
We spent Christmas Eve the most relaxed I have ever been in my adult life. By the pool, with cocktails... Six year old swimming with a new friend, one year old fast asleep in the air-conditioned room with our new bestie, Kiti. Buffet dinner with no dishes, no family fights... Kids to sleep early, a few drinks for us on the patio. Santa came. Kids woke up to a few happy surprises. Again, no cooking brekky or lunch or dinner! Again, no dishes or family fights. And no shopping! Come on, you know how bad shopping centres get in the lead up to the big day - Crazy!!!
We went for a traditional Fijian lovo for Christmas Lunch at the home of a waiter we met. His home in Laselase village in Sigatoka was the first village home we'd been to. They laid out an amazing spread and then watched us eat it all. We felt embarrassed, and didn't know at the time it was all part of that fabulous Fijian hospitality we have come to know well and love. The concept of welcoming strangers into their home, cooking for them (without probably even being able to afford it) and then praying for them. Wow, it could most certainly teach us Aussies a lot!
When the time came for us to head back home to Australia, there were big tears and a strange feeling of malaise over us. We told Kiti we'd be back and that we'd see her soon. She smiled that great Bula Smile through her tears, and hugged us tight.
Months later when we did see Kiti again, she admitted to me that there was no way she thought we were serious. "Guests at the hotel always say that, but we never see them again!"
In fact, we were so deadly serious that within three months, we were boarding another flight bound for Fiji, but this time to live. Little did we know at the time, it would be the first of the many relocating adventures we were yet to experience! On this first adventure, we lived in Sigatoka on the Coral Coast.
When I think back now, with eight years of hindsight and time to reflect, and as the specific details of that first holiday get blurry - gee what a great holiday it must have been to have the power to change the course of our life.
Perhaps it is Shangrila who we owe a big vinaka vakalevu to... or perhaps it is the mother at my daughter's school whose stories of the place enticed me to go and see it for myself. Regardless, I know one thing for certain... it is where our love affair began!