Another day in paradise begins.
A dozen couples start waking up to either a soundtrack of tropical birds or the ocean in their well-appointed cottages (or bures - pronounced "burr-ays"). As they begin what promises to be a perfect day, painstaking preparations are made to ensure this side of paradise lives up to expectations. Tropical fruit and fresh-baked breads and pastries are invitingly displayed on a buffet table. Fresh coffee is brewing. Diving conditions are being closely monitored, even as exotic tropical fish flirt with the water's translucent surface. The "Bula Board" details the day's activities, as well as the Fijian phrase of the day.
As I set off for my morning hike, I notice that today's phrase is Sega ne lega, or "No worries!"
In a manner blending a favorite uncle and seasoned CEO, Turtle Island's owner and managing director Richard Evanson presides over the morning staff meeting alongside general manager Alex Weiss. With a few notable exceptions, Evanson proudly affirms he has not missed a 7:30 a.m. meeting in the 30 years Turtle Island has existed as one of Fiji's most exclusive destinations. Though corporations claim that their staff functions like a close-knit family, Turtle Island is the real deal. Many on staff have been with the property since it opened.
Since Evanson's arrival on Turtle Island in 1972 (then known as Nanuya Levu), over a million trees have been planted, transforming the nearly barren island into a lush paradise. Although Evanson enjoyed being a modern-day Robinson Crusoe, the arrival of Columbia Pictures in 1979 to shoot The Blue Lagoon gave him and the island a new lease on life.
In transforming the film set to a resort, Evanson insisted every detail be true to the Fijian way of life. Rather than go for broke with the most amenity-filled resort, he stayed with the vision that brought him to Fiji in 1972. It is a work still in progress that involves Green Globe 21 benchmarking of environmental management, preservation of mangroves and coconut groves, freshwater ponds to encourage bird life, a "Turtle Release" program to save endangered turtles, and a four-acre hydroponic vegetable garden supplying organic produce for guests and staff. Most recently, Evanson purchased $1 Million U.S. in solar equipment to make Turtle Island 100% solar-powered by May 2012.
January 1, 1980
Top-Drawer Turtle Island Guests
John McCain and his family (14 stays and counting), Al Gore, Eddie Van Halen (who sent the staff numerous guitars), movie producer Andrew Tennenbaum (The Bourne Ultimatum, Water for Elephants) John Cleese, Ringo Starr, and Brian Dennehy.
An Island of Your Own
The entire island can be rented for about $300,000 U.S. per week; cost includes all food, beverages, and most activities. Nightly rates typically range from $2,079 to $2,999 per couple per night.
The Yasawa Island chain, located west of Viti Levu, The Republic of Fiji's main island, whose cities include Nadi (the island's point of entry) and national capital Suva. Guests arrive by a seaplane transfer from Nadi.
Up to 80 people during the high season.
Turtle Island has 15 "bures" accommodating 15 couples and up to 30 guests. During "family time," guests can bring their children.
Each year $100,000 is donated for the education of Fijian children, including the families of Turtle Island's staff. In 1992, Evanson founded the Yasawas Community Foundation to provide assistance in local health, education, and transport.
While many resorts with this caliber of clientele are getting LEED certifications and their own organic gardens, Evanson insists this resort is not so much a trend-setter as it was something he developed to exist as a one-of-a-kind experience that could not be duplicated—something that would make Theodore "Ted" Levitt, one of his favorite professors at Harvard Business School, proud. Evanson's early embrace of cable television, which gave him the means to buy the actual island, shaped up the same way.
"Even if some people say they embrace competition, that's b-s," he sniffs. "Fact is, you need a monopoly to make an impact. This was true not just for Turtle Island, but also with my first cable franchise, which ensured I had exclusivity for Bellingham and several surrounding other communities in Washington State."
Evanson and I stroll through the hydroponic garden and, in conversation, his journey from Washington State University to Harvard Business School, San Francisco, and Fiji. Though he married into a wealthy family, he did everything in his power not to be married to a job proffered by his in-laws. He recalls advice he got from Ted Levitt:
"You have to (find your niche) in something that does not have ease of entry. It has to be difficult for others to complete either because you have a set of skills or talents other people don't have or the market for this product has specifics that not everybody has caught onto yet. There has to be differentiation of the product where there is a need for it, but nobody else is offering it. If you have competition, you do not make money."
Shortly after Evanson earned his MBA from Harvard in 1962, a chance invitation to a conference in Seattle about Community Antenna Television (CATV) provided him with an opportunity to find that niche hiding in plain sight. Though he did not realize it at the time, this kind of serendipity would allow him to repeat history on Turtle Island, but with a venture truly close to his values and childhood dreams.
"I realized this would revolutionize television, especially with rural communities getting poor or no reception for traditional television broadcasting," he recalls. "In those days, cable was essential for communities that did not receive signals from traditional broadcast television, as opposed to today, where people order cable to get a greater variety of channels. Once I identified several communities that did not have cable TV, I went to Bellingham to apply for a franchise, keeping in mind what Levitt had taught me."
In the early '70s, just as cable television was poised to hit mainstream America, the now-divorced but well-to-do Evanson was burned out. Though he looked to Australia for investment opportunities, a stopover in Fiji put his lifelong dream of owning his own island in reach. While relaxing at a bar in Suva (Fiji's capital), a man sitting next to him mentioned he had an option on an island. After a fly-over and a short bargaining session, Evanson paid the island's owners just under $500,000 US with the intention of living his cherished childhood dream of excitement and adventure.
While the island's rustic authenticity is a selling point, the property offers accoutrement of a luxury resort: expansive bures with hardwood interiors and their own hot tubs, top wines and spirits, dreamy bedding, and Pure Fiji® coconut-infused toiletries. Each couple has a Bure Mama or Papa, a personal butler who tends to their needs and requests.
Island produce is transformed into a wide range of global dishes under the guidance of French-Australian chef Jacques Reymond. Activities include scuba diving, snorkeling, horseback riding, kayaking, and private made-to-order picnics and waterfront dine-outs. Though a handful of guests keep to themselves, Turtle Island offers convivial group dinners every night, with different themes that ensure all visitors make friends that could last a lifetime.
"There is something about the Fijian people that will even put the most insecure or shy individuals at ease," observes Evanson. It is a rare moment where life transcends art, or at least the Hollywood magic that was first generated in the Blue Lagoon.
For more information, visit turtlefiji.com or call 800/255.4347