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Protecting what we love – International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development

In celebration of the UN-declared International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development, Signature’s editor Cathy Wagstaff acknowledges Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, Fiji, as an exemplar of both luxury and the three pillars of sustainability.

The heavy doors swing open. Taipa greets me warmly, her massage table set up pool-side on the deck that connects the pavilions of the Presidential Villa. She seats me in a wicker chair, placing my feet in a bowl of fragrant water. As I have VIP status, my welcome foot spa will be followed by a full-body ‘Bobo’ massage using locally produced ingredients.

Taipa intuitively knows where to focus and works for an hour releasing all the tension from my body. Totally at peace with my surroundings, I slip into the sunken Jacuzzi sprinkled with petals, further lulled into serenity by a tumbling waterfall in the palm-filled garden beyond the floor-to-ceiling glass of the bathroom.

My villa is so seductive I don’t want to leave it. I pour a glass of Veuve from the bottle on ice and stroll a few steps to the water’s edge. Standing on the shore, I look back at the villa, soaking in its beauty and wishing my home looked like this. Wicker chairs, sun loungers and a day bed piled with colourful cushions nestle beneath the thatched-roof pavilions that bookend the timber deck; an outdoor dining area overlooks an infinity pool; and tropical garden beds spill on to a manicured lawn, steps from the sand.

The Cousteau philosophy

This is the modern face of sustainability. You might not see it at first glance, but everything at Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Resort has been created with the natural world in mind. The stately door of the Presidential Villa is cut from a native semi-hardwood, dakua makadre, and its gardens are filled with flourishing native plants. Traditionally inspired architecture maximises natural light and air flows, negating the need for air-conditioning.

The 24 bures (plus my elegant villa) of this intimate all-inclusive resort are spread out over nearly seven hectares at Savusavu Bay, one of the most idyllic locations on Fiji’s second island, Vanua Levu. Jean-Michel Cousteau gave his name – and his philosophy of sustainability – to the property in 1995. The French environmentalist, ambassador for the oceans and documentary maker began bringing diving groups to the reef in the mid-1980s as part of his ‘Ocean Search’ programme, an innovative experience to introduce participants to nature, culture and ideas for a sustainable future.

Even today Jean-Michel cannot stay away from Savusavu. As the resort patron and its environmental architect, the 78-year-old returns twice a year to dive the reef with guests.

The three pillars of sustainability – environmental, social and economic – are founding principles for the resort, showing that through caring for the environment comes balance elsewhere. Luxury becomes a means of both supporting and encouraging an understanding of the natural and cultural surrounds. It gives credence to the assertion of Jean-Michel’s father, oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, that “People protect what they love”.

A submarine kaleidoscope

As a lifelong ocean voyager, the focus of Jean-Michel’s eponymous resort is most evident around the sea. His Ocean Futures Society may be based in Santa Barbara, California, but its spiritual heart is Savusavu, providing a microcosm to inspire and educate visitors to act responsibly for the ocean’s protection. Resident marine biologist, Johnny Singh, shares his passion in talks at the resort, on eco walks and glass-bottom boat tours. He points out mangroves that have been restored for ecological balance; giant clam and coral farms that begin to redress some of the damage wrought by Cyclone Winston in February 2016; and marine reserves, including around the resort, that have been put in place to conserve the underwater world.

I head out on daily snorkelling tours to see Jean-Michel’s submarine realm for myself. My favourite destination is Split Rock, where coral thrives in a stone crevice. Zebra fish greet me when I jump in the water. As they disperse, a living kaleidoscope shimmers before me: majestic angelfish, brilliant blue parrotfish, anemone fish, trigger fish, damselfish and butterfly fish of all sizes and colours.

On the private island of Naviavia the three protected beaches each face in a different direction so that you can bask in the sun at any time of day and snorkel the calm waters. We circumnavigate the little island twice on kayak before settling in for a sumptuous beach picnic, served with a flourish on white linen with fine china and Champagne.

Understanding luxury

Environmental sustainability even extends to executive chef Raymond Lee’s kitchen, which sources fruit and vegetables from the resort’s organic garden, and other ingredients as locally as possible.

At Vale Restaurant, Lee serves up delectable dishes of Fiji beef fillet, traditionally cooked lovo pork, curries of all flavours and crisp-fried deep sea snapper by night, finished with apple tart, coconut cheese cake and cheese plates.

Ninety-nine per cent of the staff are locals, and every single one is adept at the most nuanced aspect of luxury service: anticipating your needs. I don’t emerge from my villa one morning and my breakfast arrives, the same order I have had each day. I am further impressed when I still have not appeared at midday that a glass of freshly made lemonade arrives unbidden.

Despite the resort’s status as a perfect destination for families, you never get the feeling of being overrun. Families have their own wing of the restaurant as well as a dedicated pool. For everyone else, it’s as if there is a ‘seen not heard’ policy in place, but children will feel like the centre of the universe at what is widely considered one of Fiji’s best kids’ club, the Bula Club. Each child is paired with a nanny or buddy, who quickly becomes a friend they will inevitably struggle to leave at the end of their stay.

They’re not the only ones. It’s rare to find a place that feels so in harmony with its environment as well its people and culture. By the time I leave, I am part of the Jean-Michel community, a new custodian of the ocean. It is only through embracing experiences like these that we can truly learn the value of sustainability.

Fiji Airways flies from Australian capitals to Nadi, then a domestic flight to Savusavu takes one hour and 10 minutes with Island Hoppers. For authentic and luxe Fiji hospitality, Fiji Resort is the place to create life-long memories. For more information, click here