As if Mana Island wasn’t beautiful enough, we island hopped to neighboring Castaway Island next, just a 20-minute easy journey. Known in Fijian as Qalito, this island is said to be sacred, and is one of the only ones owned by a local chief.
From the cruise ship, we boarded a smaller boat with the smiling locals. Castaway Island sparkled in the emerald sea, with just a tiny mound of lush greenery sloping into a cluster of thatched roofs ringed by powdery sand. The sand jutted out into the sea in a white halo, framed by rings of bright turquoise punctuated by formations of dark green from the reef below, before dissipating into a deep blue that stretched out in all directions endlessly. It was the most beautiful setting I’d seen in Fiji, and the sight of it left me awestruck.
On shore a welcome party in tropical shirts and sulus (wrap-around cloths) sang and strummed guitars cheerfully, barefoot in the sand below the swaying palm trees. Is this not the most iconic island welcome we conjure up in daydreams from our air-conditioned offices back home?
South Seas Luxury
The only thing on the private island of Qalito is Castaway Island Resort. The resort is small, luxurious, and gorgeous, with just 66 bure, or bungalow-style rooms, most right on the beach. Our oceanfront bure was an adorable thatched roof bungalow with masi (bark-cloth) ceilings just steps from the crashing waves. The sand began at our doorstep, and a bucket of water with a single red hibiscus floating in it sat on the front porch to wash the sand from our feet. Out front was a hammock. At night, swaying in the hammock under the stars to a symphony of crashing waves, I couldn’t help but feel paradise sink in all around me.
Gourmet Cuisine in the Middle of the Pacific
One of the most unique things about Castaway Island is the food. While most of the food in Fiji is delicious and fresh, it isn’t usually cutting edge cuisine. Exotic island fusion dishes are surprisingly absent from most Fijian menus, which stick more to island staples prepared in classic ways, or island takes on Western favorites like burgers and fries or fish and chips. Not the case on Castaway Island. This is due to the fact that Chef Lance Seeto, arguably one of the most prominent celebrity chefs in Fiji, is castaway on Castaway Island.
Meeting Celebrity Chef Lance Seeto
An award-winning travel writer, author, chef, and host of a popular series on Fijian cooking, Chef Seeto is originally from Australia. Over dinner he spilled his intriguing story to us about how he came to be on this speck of an island in Fiji. Dissatisfied with his life back in Australia, he happened to interview for the job in Fiji on a whim at a friend’s suggestion, never thinking he would actually take the position. But after the strangest interview of his life, he became intrigued and decided to take the leap and move to Fiji.
Lance’s original contract was only supposed to be for a year, but in Fiji he experienced an awakening of sorts. Lance was inspired by that perfect unison that occurs when the essence of a place collides with a time in your life where you are spiritually and mentally ripe for a significant change. Things just clicked for Lance in Fiji, and the result was a flowering of ideas that produced a personal renaissance of sorts which in turn spilled out into all aspects of his life and beyond, creating waves felt by the world around him. Lance began learning about Fiji’s love affair with Kava and became a connoisseur. One cooking show turned into two, which turned into a series. Before he knew it he was a full-blown Fijian food expert. As a year came to an end, he couldn’t bring himself to leave. The same thing happened each year after that, and at this point Lance has no definitive plans to leave Fiji.
Instead he has painstakingly formulated a gourmet safari that focuses on fresh, local island ingredients, yet brings an outsider’s twist to the classic traditions in Fijian food culture. Lance’s menus showcase thoughtful combinations of island staples updated with a modern, international sensibility.
Candlelight Dinner by the Sea
The setting couldn’t have been more perfect for our tasting dinner. The table was beautiful—lit by flickering candlelight and pure moonlight. Perched right over the waves with the sound of the ocean as a background track, we got to taste course after delectable course of Lance’s gourmet creations. Castaway Island Resort offers a special chef’s menu called “1808,” which is centered around the Chinese culinary influence on Fijian cuisine, with an entire pamphlet written by Lance himself (who happens to be Chinese-Australian).
The courses were outstanding, each outshining the last. We began with a chai tea palette cleanser, then tried the “Heavenly Beef,” spicy flame-grilled marinated organic beef, accompanied by green papaya salad, black onion jam, orange zest, and roasted almonds.
Next came “Garlic Blue Prawns,” giant prawns flame-grilled with Asian garlic butter, mango, and chili aioli. Why stop there? We sampled steamed “Ma Po Tofu” with wok-tossed shiitake mushrooms, bush ferns, and water chestnuts in chili bean sauce. Then we tried “Scorched Coconut Fish,” which was a wild Fijian fish fillet with scorched coconut, herbs, and Fijian greens all wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.
The “Masala Chai Lamb” was a standout dish, with barbecued lamb rump fillets marinated in spiced tea, and served with sun-dried ambarella kuchla (a chutney made from a fruit that resembles a cross between an apple and a mango), and medicinal honey. Another exceptional course was the “Tamarind BBQ Duck,” made from locally raised Peking-style duck with tamarind chutney basted and flame-grilled, accompanied by spiced marmalade. To balance out all this great meat and seafood we had a “Cucumber & Coconut Salad,” which was delightfully fresh and consisted of cucumbers, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce garnished with tropical fruit like pineapples, oranges, and coconut.
As if my taste buds weren’t already in heaven, it was time for dessert. The “Five Senses Vakalolo,” featured a puree of coconut poached pumpkin, with saffron, coconut ice cream, sea-salted pistachio, black sticky rice, and orange marmalade. Finally we ended the indulgent meal with “Ginger Sticky Date Pudding,” a steamed dessert infused with fresh and crystalized ginger, butterscotch sauce, and vanilla ice cream. After an evening with Lance Seeto, I have to testify, the food alone is reason to come to Castaway Island.
After our decadent dinner the night before, the gourmet goodness continued the next morning as well. For breakfast we headed to the Sundowner Bar where they serve up breakfast pizzas (another brilliant Lance Seeto creation) accompanied by a fresh fruit and juice buffet. The “Spicy Sausage & Egg Pizza” was a thin-crusted oven-baked pizza topped with scrambled eggs, chorizo sausage, olives, and pineapple jam. Another standout breakfast pizza is “Jemesa’s Breakfast Pizza” the chef’s special of the morning, which in this case was a pizza topped with scrambled eggs, avocados, mushrooms, prosciutto, and cheese.
Getting into the Water
With all the eating we’d done, it was time to get out in the water. Even though the island is small, activity-wise there’s more than enough on Castaway to entertain you for days. The resort has a full menu of water sports from paddle-boarding to kayaking to snorkeling, surfing, water skiing and more. You can take dive tours, hike around the island, or simply chill out at one of the resort’s pools which are lushly landscaped with flowers and waterfall fountains, and include a swim up bar.
We grabbed a kayak and set off on a course around the island which is small enough to circle in under two hours. Once you get out a little way past the resort, the water gets deeper. From here I could see coils of sunlight reflecting in the water, which was so clear you could see tropical fish swimming near the surface and even glimpse parts of the coral reefs. To my delight, a school of clear baby moon jellyfish swam by, followed by a sea turtle!
Another Starry Night
After a day spent in the sea, I emerged at sunset and strolled along the beach past blackened ancient coral formations. Along the coast there were fruit bats flying overhead, their distinct bat shapes silhouetted against the darkening sky. The lights were just coming on, the stars were coming out, and a Fijian dressed in the traditional warrior costume, which is mostly just a straw skirt, ran around lighting tiki torches one by one. It was shaping up to be another perfect star-filled night on Castaway Island.
Did you miss our Fiji adventures in the rain forests of Savu Savu, along the Eastern Coral Coast, taking part in a traditional Kava Ceremony, exploring the Western Coral Coast and building fish houses or exploring Mana Island? Interested in reading more about Fijian culture? Check out our Fijian Culture Guide or explore all our Fiji articles here.