There’s an unfortunate truism when you have young children. It’s that you don’t go on holidays anymore but that you go on “trips”. The word “holiday”, after all, implies relaxation.
It makes it seem as if you’ll be able to enjoy yourself, to switch off from your everyday cares and have fun.
But anyone with children below the age of six or so will tell you that that is absolutely not possible, because your everyday cares are coming along with you, and they’re hungry and their legs are tired.
So no, you don’t go on holidays. You go on trips. A trip is basically parenting but in a nicer location. Sometimes it’s great and sometimes it’s horrible but it’s never perfectly relaxed. That’s just the deal.
Yet, here I am, about to challenge that notion, because I am visiting the one destination that can perhaps deliver a holiday to my partner and me, and to our four and two-year-olds.
This country is legendary in its friendliness to families, with tales of warmth and beauty and childcare moving from parent to parent in incredulous whispers. Fiji. You have to go to Fiji.
I’ve been to Fiji before, but never with children. I’ve never seen what this country can really do for tired, stressed-out parents and their unceasingly energetic offspring.
And so we are setting off for Nadi and then the island of Vanua Levu, to stay at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, a venue that even in Fiji is known as being particularly good for those with children.
Along the way mistakes will be made and lessons will be learned, and we will discover whether a “holiday” really is possible.
Everything needs to be easier than it is at home
This is a key difficulty of travelling with young children. At home, you’re pretty well set up. You have everything where you need it to be. You have a routine. You have space. And so to enjoy yourself on a “holiday”, you need everything to be at least as easy, at least as convenient as it is at home – and that’s hard to achieve.
In fact, we fail on our first night, a stopover at the Radisson Blu in Nadi. Our room is too small and the hotel isn’t well set up for young children: there’s no kids’ cutlery at the restaurant, for example, and no meals specifically for young children. Fortunately, however, there is a pool, so the kids do have some fun.
Silence is golden
The next day we have a short skip on a light aircraft to Savusavu, set on the south coast of Vanua Levu Island and on to check-in at Jean-Michel Cousteau. Encouragingly, there are a lot of other parents and small children on our shuttle bus to the resort.
Even more encouragingly, when we arrive we’re welcomed in and we almost immediately hear the strangest thing: silence. This is why parents stay at this resort.
Each child at Jean-Michel Cousteau has a personal nanny, a carer who is on duty from 8am until 9.30 pm. While we’ve been collecting our hand luggage and making sure we haven’t forgotten anything, those nannies have appeared, they’ve introduced themselves to the kids, and they’ve whisked them off for a tour of the “Bula Club”, where they’ll spend a lot of their time on this holiday.
Their parents, meanwhile, all sit around in the reception area and stare at each other in disbelief. Silence. The holiday has begun.
Don’t eat at the restaurant
“Dada, can you have a breakfast buffet for dinner?” That’s my four-year-old, checking in on the dining options.
We had him all pumped up for the concept of the breakfast buffet, but it turns out all meals at Jean-Michel Cousteau are a la carte. Technically that’s better, though he’s going to miss the chance to pile his plate up with an Eiffel tower of miniature croissants.
One lesson we do learn early on, however is don’t try to have dinner with young children in the main restaurant here.
It’s set up more for older kids and adults. What’s far easier is for us parents to head down to the Bula Club at 5.30pm and sit with the kids while they have dinner with all their new friends.
We select what they get to eat each night from a varied daily menu of healthy, tasty choices served in kid-friendly surrounds. Everyone yells and chucks food and no one cares, and a great time is had by all.
Later, we get the kids bathed and into bed, and head off for our own very good dinner while either John or Frances – their nannies – hang out at the bure.
Waterslides are the greatest
You can spend a lot of money and a lot of time and creative energy planning holidays and activities for your children. You can come up with all sorts of wild ideas. You can think outside the box and wow everyone with your amazing games and concepts. But all you really need is a waterslide.
That’s a big lesson on this trip. When we get to the end of our stay in Fiji and I ask my four-year-old what the highlight of his entire holiday was he doesn’t even pause: “The waterslide”.
Jean-Michel Cousteau doesn’t even have a particularly impressive waterslide. But for a four-year-old and a two-year-old it’s the greatest thing ever. They spend hours and hours, day after day, sliding down and climbing back up, sliding down and climbing back up.
This is where you meet people your own age
I’m in my 40s now. My partner is … well, close enough. We tend not to meet people our own age when we travel anymore. This isn’t like being a backpacker or a grey nomad.
Most people our age, with kids our age, are not moving to Spain for a year like we did. They’re not driving around Victorian wine country like we did. But what they are doing is going to Fiji. So that’s one of our highlights.
While our kids all have fun together in the Bula Club, while they roar around picking up hermit crabs and learn to weave baskets and play in the big treehouse with their carers, we can hang out by the adults’ pool and grab a cocktail or two and chat to people our own age about the things we’re all going through.
Parenting can be fun
You get lost sometimes in the slog of it all, in the routine of wake-ups and meals and cleaning and entertaining. Perhaps the greatest gift that Fiji and Jean-Michel Cousteau can give, the most important thing we can be reminded of, is that parenting is fun. Kids are fun. We love this.
And the way to love it is by having the luxury of dipping in and out of it whenever we feel like it. The kids head off to the Bula Club in the morning and we get to do our own thing. I can go scuba-diving, my partner relaxes by the pool. And then we can join the kids for a while to play on the waterslide, to go out searching for hermit crabs, before another break for lunch.
The same happens in the afternoon. The real work is taken care of by other people here. All that’s left are the fun parts, the shared joys, the simple pleasures. And everyone is having fun, kids and parents. There’s no trade-off.
“I almost started crying, I was so happy,” another parent says to us one day, after realising what her stay here was going to be like. “I crawled over the line for this.”
All parents think their kids are the worst behaved
A small lesson, but an important one. We’re convinced we’ve failed somehow with our kids, that ours are the ones making the most noise, throwing the most food around, causing everyone problems. I could swear that over at the table next to us at breakfast on the first morning, while our kids tip juice all over the floor and yell about the food they want, these little angels are just quietly reading books. Books!
But, the more you chat to parents of children the same age, the more you realise everyone is just as certain that their kids are the worst. We’re all just trying our hardest. And here, no one cares if you fail.
Get the private island
Jean-Michel Cousteau has a private island. Naviavia is a small outcrop just off the coast, a tuft of sand and trees that has been kitted out with a day bed, a table and chairs, a couple of kayaks and a hammock.
There’s an option for guests to book the island for a few hours, to take a banana boat over there with an Esky full of food and maybe a few beers and just hang out and relax. You can take the kids, too – that is, if you want to.
If you don’t, you can leave them in the safe hands of sweet, sweet Fijian childcare, one nanny per child, and spend time on the island with absolutely no one else around. No sound but the gentle flutter of wind through palm fronds, and water lapping hot sand.
Nothing to do but lie in the hammock and drink a beer and consider how you can make this sort of thing happen in your own daily life. Trust me, you want to get to the private island.
Don’t do too much
There are a lot of activities in Fiji, particularly at Jean-Michel Cousteau. There’s scuba-diving, snorkelling, glass-bottom boat rides, stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, eco-tours, reef-walks, cultural interactions, village visits, fishing, and more.
It’s tempting to give everything a whirl, to make the most of the chance to be here in the same way you would in times BC – that is, before children.
But that would be a mistake. The idea now is to relax. You need those hours with nothing to do. And kids don’t always need organised entertainment, when just walking up and down the shoreline looking at little fish brings so much joy.
There’s a moment for us, sitting around the adults’ pool one morning, while we’re sipping coffee and reading books. We glance around and catch the eye of other parents doing the same thing and we share an understanding: this is what it’s all about.
Five days is not enough
Every day here is amazing. The kids love it. They get to have those idyllic childhood days that they haven’t had the chance to experience before. They spend all day in the pool, their eyes stinging from chlorine, their skin all wrinkly, never wanting to get out.
They eat lunch sitting barefoot on the grass in the shade of frangipanis. They’re bursting every evening with stories of wonder and adventure. They fall asleep instantly when we put them to bed.
Five days isn’t long enough. We could stay forever; or, at least another couple of nights. We spend a good portion of the last morning googling similar properties to plan our next trip. (Barely any exist, at this level.)
There’s deep sadness among all of us as we wave our kids’ carers goodbye and hop on the shuttle headed for Savusavu airport. The holiday is over. The real holiday. We’re back on a trip. My four-year-old turns to me in the bus and asks: “Dada, can we come to Fiji every day?”
Fiji Airways flies from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch direct to Nadi, with connections to Savusavu. See fijiairways.com
Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji is in Savusavu, in the island of Vanua Levu. Rooms from $1425 per night, for two adults and up to two children under 13. The price includes all a la carte dining, non-alcoholic drinks, airport transfers, guided snorkelling trips and other on-water activities, Bula Club access, and one dedicated nanny per child under six. See fijiresort.com
Ben Groundwater travelled as a guest of Tourism Fiji.
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