For the past few weeks I have been suffering from PLSD – Post-Laucala Stress Disorder. Symptoms include involuntary salivation, verbal diarrhoea and incessant daydreaming about sipping white rum on a yacht at sunset, eating chicken that tastes like lobster, having an 18-hole golf course to myself and being chauffeured by jet boat to a secluded beach where a masseuse and champagne lunch awaited my arrival.
Set in the translucent blue waters of northern Fiji, Laucala (pronounced Lathala) is a whole-of-island resort owned by Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, co-owner of the Red Bull energy drink company, net value $US5.3 billion. After buying Laucala for $US10 million from the heirs of American publishing baron Michael Forbes, Mateschitz spent a sum rumoured to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars transforming Forbe’s low-key Melanesian hideaway into an self-sustaining Disneyland for adults.
Self-sustaining in that the property has its own greenhouses, hydroponic bays, an orchid nursery, a coconut plantation, bee hives, a boutique cattle farm, an abattoir, quail pens, subterranean coconut-crab enclosures, a piggery, a duck pond and more – a total of 240 acres of farmland that produces 80 per cent of the produce needed to feed Laucala’s maximum 89 guests and 370 staff. That’s a staff-to-guest ratio four times that of the average 5-star hotel.
Like something out of a James Bond movie, Mateschitz’s private residence is set on the island’s highest hilltop, in a jungle clearing with 360-degree reef and water views. There’s a master home and two guest villas each with individual sun decks, infinity-edge pools, jacuzzis and al-fresco dining pavilions – a resort-within-a resort that is nothing less than presidential. When Mateschitz isn’t there, the rack rate is $US40,000 per night.
The $5000 a night villa
If it sounds a bit rich, there are 25 ‘regular’ villas starting at $US5,000 a night. Set on private beaches, over lagoons and on cliff tops, they are concurrently high tech – outfitted with everything from Bose sound systems to mobiles with a butler speed-dial – and down to earth, influenced by natural materials like rainwood, driftwood, coral, palm, pebbles. And they are the size of houses.
The indoors section of my bathroom measured 30 square meters and featured a bathtub hewn out of a boulder, a monsoonal shower head and a toilet that looked as if at any moment it was going to take off. A Californian king-size bed framed the top level of a master bedroom that descended into a sunken living room with oversized sofas, custom-shaped rugs so thick and plush one could sleep on it, and a Laucala signature ‘jellyfish’ chandelier made of shells, corals and beads that came to life every time sea breeze breezes through the floor-to-ceiling glass doors.
Then there was the villa’s actual living room, with more couches, rugs, an espresso machine and three bar fridges overstocked with top-shelf liquor, wines, freshly squeezed and bottled watermelon juice and Red Bull, of course. At different times in the day, staff snuck in and left small dishes of Russian caviar, New York cheesecake or Iberian ham for guests to discover.
On my last night, they raided the bathroom, filled the tub with bubble bath, sprinkled orchid petals all over the place and left a magnum of Louis Roederer on ice alongside a silver tray with handmade chocolate truffles and a thank-you note from David Stepetic the general manager. “We aspire to be the best,” he says when I ask him if Laucala is the best resort in the world. After years of yawning at the self-congratulatory, adjective-laden press releases the travel industry has such a penchant for, Stepetic’s reply is a breath of fresh air.
Each villa is surrounded by at least 250 square meters of manicured tropical forests that come alive in the morning with the songs of kingfishers, parrots and Fiji’s fable orange doves. There’s a family-size swimming pool, a cabana, a second bathtub-in-a-boulder, two outdoor showers and three sun decks with sun beds overlooking the beach. Privacy is assured a team of 25 security guards that are never seen or heard and 15 square kilometres of private airspace for which Laucala pays the Fijian Government millions of dollars a year. Read: no paparazzi. When the gossip mags got wind that supermodel Elle Macpherson married billionaire Jeffry Soffer at Laucala in August, the images they printed alongside the story had to be lifted from Laucala’s website.
Laucla’s facilities are just as over-the-top. The main pool is ginormous, over 500 square meters in size with rivers, cascades, footbridges, a beachfront and, plonked above one section for no logical reason, a 20-metre lap pool glass box.
On one side of the pool is the Pool Bar, one of Laucala‘s five restaurants. Inspired by mighty plants with leafy canopies, it rises out of the ground like a Melanesian version of the Sydney Opera House – the perfect spot for a kokoda raw-fish salad and mango daiquiri lunch. On the other end of the pool is the Beach Bar, a high-end grill and five-minute gold buggy drive to Rock Lounge, a cocktail bar set on an eagle’s nest cliff top my partner and I had all to ourselves.
On alternate nights we tailed our sunset cocktails there with dinner at Seagrass, a Thai restaurant with a private tepanyaki alcove overlooking a coral reef, and the Plantation House, a replica colonial mansion festooned with black and white photo portraits and indigenous art. The executive chef is Martin Klein, formerly of Michelin-starred Ikarus, the signature restaurant of Hangar 7, Mateschitz’s retro-space-age aircraft museum in Salzberg, Austria.
Klein, who visited our table twice during dinner, concocted a six-course degustation menu with homemade breads, brown butter that had been caramalised for extra creaminess, truffle risotto, the aforementioned lobster-like chicken and capsicum sorbet. It was matched to vintage wines from New Zealand and Europe that also somehow tasted like butter.
There are plenty of ways to burn off those calories at Laucala, and to make way for new ones. There’s a gym that looks like something out of NASA; a yoga/pilates centre with a yoga/pilates instructor standing by; a horse-riding school where guests can learn show jumping and gymkhana; a 72-par golf course designed by David McLay Kid, whose resume includes The Castle Course at St Andrews in Scotland; a show-stopping spa that could double for the Garden of Eden that makes its own spa products using a coconut oil press; plus a money-is-no-object watersports centre home to a Dragon Class sail boat, a teak yacht, a 41-foot Riviera, a jetboat, half a dozen jet-skis, kayaks, scuba gear galore, underwater scooters, surfboards, sailboards and, wait for it, a $2 million submarine.
I played with as many of these toys as time allowed. Yet my all-time favourite Laucala activity (there were so many) was my daily swim in the lagoon in front of my villa where one morning, while breaststroking over a coral garden brimming with starfish, sea snakes and Technicolor tropical fish, I saw a hawksbill turtle larger than me.
KING OF THE CASTLE
Mateschitz, it appears, also has a predilection for the simple things in life. Late one afternoon, I saw him playing beach volleyball with a few of the Red Bull higher-ups he rewards with holidays at fantasy island. I considered walking up and introducing myself but thought better of it after a member of his entourage explained how much Mateschitz values his privacy.
The $5,000 nightly rate, the source told me, doesn’t even come close to covering the cost of running a 7-star property in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Even if Laucala operated at full capacity every day of the year (there were only 24 guests on the island when I visited in the height of the peak season), it would still run at a loss. On ingesting that information I understood the $5,000 fee is arbitrary, more of a bulwark against the general public than anything else: a wall Mateschitz uses to safeguard his privacy and keep Laucala as beautiful and peaceful as it is.
Calling Laucala or anything else for that matter ‘the best of the world’ is meaningless. Even as a seasoned travel writer, I don’t know what kind of private island resorts lay hidden in the deep blue. But I can say without reservation that Laucala is not only the best property I have visited in my career but several times more impressive than the runner up.
Laucala (l+679 888 0077) offers house-size villas with all meals, beverages (except for premium wines and champagne) and 2 x 90-minute spa treatments for US$5,040 a night for two people. Private transfers from Fiji’s Nadi International Airport are US$1,200 per person return.