>Fantasy island FT.com / Travel


Fantasy island

By Felix Milns
Published: December 3 2010 22:56 | Last updated: December 3 2010 22:56

Laucala Island
He may own two Formula One motor racing teams (one of which has just won the world championship) but Dietrich Mateschitz is not to be found among the champagne-swilling motorsport set in Monte Carlo. The 66-year-old Austrian businessman founded the Red Bull energy drink company, expanded it into a business with a turnover of more than €3bn and created one of the world’s most visible marketing campaigns. There are Red Bull football teams from New York to São Paulo, an aircraft racing championship and Red Bull-sponsored athletes in sports from snowboarding to surfing, cycling and canoeing.
Yet despite being a master of creating publicity for his brand, Mateschitz is known for shunning the limelight (so much so that it’s often said that he bought Austria’s leading society magazine purely so he could avoid appearing in its pages). So, when it comes to holidays, there’s only one choice – a private island.
Seven years ago, Mateschitz was on business in Fiji and was told by his lawyer that one of the country’s most exclusive islands was for sale. When he set eyes on Laucala Island, he was instantly smitten.
A mountainous 12 sq km island in Fiji’s northern Lau chain, Laucala is surrounded by a calm lagoon of the deepest blue, encircled by a reef. Its coves, curves, contours and long stretches of white sand beaches are the very essence of the South Pacific.
In private hands for more than a century, it was initially run as a coconut plantation by a British family before being sold to Malcolm Forbes, of Rich List fame, in the 1970s. Forbes kept the island as a private retreat, with a small plantation house and staff quarters, for entertaining the likes of the Rockefellers and Elizabeth Taylor, so it remained undeveloped until Mateschitz bought it from Forbes’ heirs in 2003.
Since then, Mateschitz has been developing Laucala into a paradise retreat complete with numerous high-octane boys’ toys in keeping with Red Bull’s adrenalin-fuelled image. Only 25 super-luxe villas are spread along 4.2km of coastline, all sharing facilities that could happily service a large hotel. Moored off the jetty are a dive boat, three sailboats, a waterskiing boat, a game-fishing pleasure cruiser and three lightning-fast jet skis. “The best way to get a real sense of the scale of the island is by jet ski,” says an instructor.
The diving and snorkelling are superb, with 40m-plus visibility. The island has 25 dive sites – look out for schools of hammerhead sharks – and is only a half-hour boat trip from the White Wall, Fiji’s top diving location. It is definitely worth the trip – you drift along a 60m-high wall covered in iridescent lavender and white corals before swimming through a narrow passageway into a garden of corals in a thousand shades of purples, lilacs, yellows and reds.

Back on dry land, there’s an equestrian centre, tennis courts, mountain bikes and a perfectly manicured championship-level golf course designed by David Mclay Kidd, famous for the Castle course at St Andrews in Scotland and Bandon Dunes in Oregon.
Ten greenkeepers keep the course in immaculate condition, making it arguably one of the most beautiful and exclusive in the world. Those less fond of golf should not despair, however, as the course cannot even be seen from the resort, the main hub of which is built around a show-stopping swimming pool.
At 5,000 sq m, it is the largest pool in the South Pacific. There’s a stunning lap pool, a raised glass box that sits above a cluster of organically shaped pools that flow down over pebble-lined waterfalls into a vast lagoon with multiple sandy bays. It’s extravagant, bold and a little crazy.
As such, it epitomises the whole project. One fellow guest, a French banker on a seven-week worldwide honeymoon, put it succinctly: “We have travelled to some of the world’s best hotels but this beats everything. It’s like one man’s crazy dream. Yes it’s absurdly expensive but, even so, you know you are getting a bargain.”
The reason being that it has been built on such a grand scale for so few guests. Such is the air of exclusivity that, despite first opening in December 2008, the resort is still scarcely marketed and the management team is almost loath to see the hotel run at full capacity. There were three other couples on the island during our stay and, unless it was an exclusive booking, it’s unlikely you would ever share with more than 10 or 15 other guests.
With a permanent staff of 329, at first it seems almost criminally extravagant to offer such a high level of low-key yet immensely professional service for so few guests but that is at the very heart of the Laucala philosophy. Maja Kilgore, a co-manager, says: “We don’t want you to have to pre-book your diving or spa, whatever you want to do will be ready for you whenever you want.”
Unsurprisingly, it does not take long to get into the groove. Waking up one morning to some tropical rain, we put in a quick call to the spa over breakfast and saw out the storm with a three-hour treatment.
The same philosophy extends to the catering. There are five different restaurants to choose from, including a fresh grill at the beach bar, excellent Thai food at the Seagrass Lounge and fine dining at the Plantation House restaurant, plus the option of eating whatever you want, wherever you want, anywhere on the island.
Aside from the colonial-style Plantation House, which Mateschitz had rebuilt three times before he was happy with it, the architecture is rooted in a traditional Fijian aesthetic, with a very organic approach. There are no straight lines, only soft curves and free-flowing shapes.
The attention to detail is eye-catching. Not a single nail has been used in construction; instead the hardwood beams are joined by magi magi – coconut thread produced on the island – and all the buildings are thatched with local sago palm.
Some of the roof lines of the public spaces are particularly dramatic, the pool bar is almost a miniature of the Sydney Opera House and the roof of the beach bar opens up like the petals of a flower.
And yet the resort takes up only a fraction of the island, most of which remains a dense jungle, barring the farm in the south-west corner that supplies the restaurants. There is a tour of Laucala that provides a fascinating insight into running a private island.
When Mateschitz advertised for managers, he was looking for a couple with luxury resort experience as well as knowledge of forestry and farming, a spectacularly tight brief. But in Thomas and Maja Kilgore, he found exactly what he was looking for. Not only do they run the resort with an exacting eye for detail, the agricultural side of the island is thriving. To date the island is more than 70 per cent self-sufficient, producing most of its own fruit and vegetables, meat, fish and seafood. The farm rears pigs, sheep, beef (although they also import Australian Wagyu), chickens and ducks, while vast gardens and hydroponic greenhouses produce salads, herbs and vegetables.
After a golf buggy tour of the gardens and the back of house, we swapped to horseback for a ride through the avocado trees and fields of pineapples to the palm-fringed golf course. We trotted past duck ponds, grazing cattle and mangrove swamps but it was not until we reached Long Beach that we really let out the throttle, the horses happy to be galloping through the surf.
Getting to Laucala takes time – we flew via Hong Kong with a two-day stopover – but it is a quite remarkable island. And don’t worry about the jet lag – there’s Red Bull on tap.
Bailey Robinson (www.baileyrobinson.com) offers a 10-night package at Laucala Island (www.laucala.com) from £18,500, including all meals and drinks, activities and a day in the spa. Felix Milns travelled from London to Fiji with Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com; return flights from £1,050) and stayed en route at the Four Seasons Hong Kong (www.fourseasons.com/hongkong; double rooms from £378)

FT.com / Travel – Fantasy island

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