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Posted: Monday, Jul. 14, 2008

Put on flip-flops, report to work

John Bordsen
Published in: Living Updates

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Greg Taylor, 57, is general manager of the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, in the Melanesian island nation of Fiji. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Taylor and his wife have lived in Fiji on and off for 14 years. He has been at the Jean-Michel Cousteau resort for six.

Q. I'm calling from the Eastern U.S. at 5 p.m.; where you are, it's 9 the following morning. Does this get disorienting?

Frequently. It's almost bizarre to see what is happening all over the world – the urgency and the drama – and then look out the window and see coconut trees, and smiling Fijians laughing and drinking kava.

Q. Kava?

It's a drink made from the root of a family of the pepper plant. They grow it in the hills of Fiji. After five years, the plant is dug up and the roots are dried and pounded into a sort of powder that's mixed with water. This kava is poured into a half-coconut and passed around to people sitting in a circle. It's kind of the Fijians' Jack Daniels.

Some countries prohibit the import of it, but kava is commercially available here in Fiji. You can grow it yourself or go to some of the local open-air markets and buy the roots, take them home, pound it up and drink it.

Q. So it's liquor?

There's no alcohol, but a mix between a mild sedative and very slight hallucinogen. It's legal. You'll often go into government offices and see the police – or other people who are supposed to be razor-sharp – sitting around having a few bowls of kava. It's very much a part of the society.

Q. What does it taste like?

Muddy water.

Q. Fiji is about halfway between Hawaii and Tasmania and is a common stop for trans-Pacific flights to New Zealand and Australia. Getting a lot of fly-through traffic these days?

Qantas, Air Pacific, Korean Air and some low-cost carriers are now coming and going quite frequently.

But we're increasingly seeing people who chose to come to Fiji as a destination, rather than as a stopover. For closer neighbors like Australia and New Zealand, it's just a four- or five-hour flight. People generally come here for one or two weeks.

Q. What's the back story on Fiji?

A bit larger than Hawaii in terms of area. Fiji has about 330 individual islands, but only 880,000 people in the whole country. Many islands are uninhabited.

In the mid-1800s, a famous chief approached the British and asked if they'd administer the islands, to unite the warring tribes. Britain did a great job for about 80 years, but when Fijians felt they wanted to run their own islands, the British happily left in 1970. You still see pictures of Queen Elizabeth II – of her much younger days – hanging in schools.

Our resort is on Vanua Levu, the second-biggest island. It's in the north of Fiji and is known for lush, untouched reefs with fish and other pristine reef life.

Walk 50 meters into the rain forest, and you have waterfalls.

Q. So nature's the big draw?

Probably only 50 percent of our guests scuba dive. The rest enjoy sailing and fishing. The snorkeling is fabulous. In the last week alone, guests have seen many varieties of sharks – including tiger shark and a big whale shark, humpback whales, manta rays, barracuda, Spanish mackerel and banded sea snakes.

Q. What's the local food like?

Traditional Fijian food is not what you and I would call “high cuisine.” It's a lot of root crops – taro, cassava, sweet potato – planted in the ground and left alone to grow. With the introduction of Indian workers to the islands about 100 years ago, there's now an element of curries and traditional Indian food mixed in, as well.

Q. Your resort has “Cousteau” in its name. Any connection to famous marine explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau?

Jean-Michel is his son. We see him a couple times a year. He spends time with the dive operation particularly, plus meeting with guests.

Q. How big is your place?

It's on 20 acres and has only 25 rooms that in Fijian are called bures (“bur-Ays”). We have a staff of 220. We pride ourselves on service, and the size of the staff also gives guests the opportunity to spend time with Fijians if they wish. We're the only resort in Fiji, and one of the few in the world, to have a resident marine biologist on staff.

About 8 kilometers (about five miles) from the resort is a town called Savusavu, which the Fijians refer to as “The Hidden Paradise.” It has a beautiful harbor and a small yacht club. There are a couple funky restaurants, a general store and post office, and a few open-air markets.

Q. Does your island get sail-in visitors?

Out the window, I see a few out front at the moment. They're usually sailing around the world, so they sail up to the resort and drop anchor. They might paddle ashore and ask to have a drink at the bar. They often end up staying for a week.

The minimum stay here is three days, by the way. The entry-level room is about $700 U.S. or a little less, per day, per couple. This includes all meals, which is a great deal.

Q. It's 9 a.m. on a weekday. Are you wearing a necktie and a suit?

I'm wearing a red floral shirt with frangipanis (flowers) all over it. Shorts. Flip-flops. That's about as formal as I get. If things get real formal, I wear this same shirt with a resort logo on it.

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