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By Ju Kuang Tan
Mention Fiji and the first things to come to mind are fine, tropical weather, breathtaking sunsets, and of course, rugby. But unbeknownst to most, this is also where you’ll find Natadola Bay Golf Course, arguably the top layout in Oceania.
Golf in Fiji? A reasonable question given that diving and idling under the sun by the beach are arguably the two most popular activities for tourists here. But if you do enjoy teeing it up when on your holidays, then you’ll be surprised by the quality, challenge and beauty of the Vijay Singh-designed course that is part of the InterContinental Fiji property.
Located in the southwest corner of the main island Viti Levu in Fiji (the country comprises of over 330 islands), the course and its accompanying hotel enjoy the famous sunsets that the country is known for. Planning a round in the late afternoon affords a glimpse at multi-hued skies and a straight-line horizon that is as devoid of boats as the eye can see.
The beachfront on the InterContinental Fiji
Taking your eye and attention away from the irresistible surroundings when playing Singh’s course is probably something you’d not want to do if you don’t want to find yourself losing too many balls or needing a calculator to add up your strokes. Though it’s “resort” in nature, the course crafted by the native Fijian major-winner throws up 18 holes that are as varied from each other as they are linked by their stunning countenance.
You’re never too far away from the water – whether it’s the ocean or one of the ponds and canals – when playing Natadola Bay. One of the great privileges is that the sea is visible on many of the holes. And on those that don’t afford that view, the tranquil hills and lush vegetation of the Fijian countryside more than makes up for it.
Given Vijay Singh’s penchant for practice and the high standards he puts on himself, it won’t surprise that the course kicks off with a testy, long par-4 that slaps you awake from the get-go. The 454-yard hole features a narrow fairway with bunkers on either side and a green that instigates all balls hit long and right to find the pond at the back. If you don’t hit it long enough, and can’t shape the ball left to right, be happy with a bogey and carry on.
It's worth mentioning again that the variety of hole designs at Natadola Bay is one of its many strengths. You’ll never know what you’re going to get if you don’t look at the nicely designed course guide before teeing off, which is really one of the many pleasures of playing here. My suggestion is to let yourself be surprised at each tee box and take the challenges as they come.
Many of the holes compete for signature status, and there is no clear winner. The fourth – noted as “the hardest and most scenic par-3” on the course – plays along the beach; the par-4 sixth has a tee box at the top of a cliff looking down at the entire hole with a view of the Pacific; the short but treacherous par-4 12th has the ocean beyond, and water all along the right; and the 16th is a delightful hole that demands a straight and true tee shot over a large lake.
Fairways that have more twist and turns than a Formula One track aren’t the only thing to contend with here at Natadola Bay. The location of the course lends itself to the strong winds that sweep in from the Coral Sea. And given that on several of the holes you will be teeing off on high ground, the stiff breezes can play havoc with those drives.
Your approaches onto the green complexes here also need to be on the mark. Many greens have fall-off sides that can lead your ball to places where getting up and down is more than just a tricky proposition.
But ultimately, the combination of challenge, beauty, and playability rue the day for anyone playing at Natadola Bay. Singh’s achievement in his homeland is a feather in the cap for a player who has brought golf glory to this small island in the sun.
It goes without saying that staying at InterContinental Fiji is almost a necessity when you intend to play at Natadola Bay – and even so if you’re just visiting the island. The resort reeks of high-end quality and offers nearly everything anyone needs or desires when looking for a tropical, seaside holiday.
Natadola Bay Club House
Spread across 35 acres, guests have the benefit of a variety of room and suite choices, several swimming pools (some adults-only), and a list of restaurants to choose from. Navo Restaurant offers a luxe experience for diners who want something special; Sansana provides all-day dining and a buffet spread that doesn’t leave any culinary stone unturned, and the more casual Toba Bar & Grill allows you to enjoy lunch and dinner right by the beach.
The spa at the hotel can’t be missed. In its exquisite setting, therapies run the gamut from body treatments, massages, scrubs to pedicures, manicures and waxing. And if you can’t make up your mind, then choosing one of the many packages lets you enjoy an entire suite of pampering.
It is true that Fiji is made up of over 300 islands, many of them uninhabited, but perhaps the most “famous” island of them all doesn’t require a boat to get to.
Denarau Island, located just 10km from Nadi where the airport is located, is reachable by road. In fact, you won’t even realize that you’re on the island given how well it’s connected to the “mainland”.
But over the bridge into this resort-cum-residential neighbourhood and you’ll see why many expatriates and visitors choose to make this their home or base when they’re in Fiji.
Several global-chain hotels can be found on Denarau, and one of the premier ones is the Sheraton Fiji Resort. Although the décor may reflect a 90s vibe, the spaciousness and grandeur of the property is likely to be something few resorts offer today.
The pool at Sheraton Fiji Resort
The rooms here are well spaced out, located on low blocks that offer quiet and privacy. They’re larger than the usual hotel variety, and most come with balconies by which you can enjoy the balmy seaside breezes that blow in from the beach at the property.
One of the greatest advantages of staying at the Sheraton Fiji Resort is that you can just walk across to the Denarau Golf Course on the other side of the road (the hotel offers a buggy ride).
Opened in 1993, the course is truly resort in nature, featuring wide, palm tree-lined fairways and little undulation. But designer Eiichi Motohashi put together 18 fun and highly playable holes that stretch 6,538m, so it’s no pushover by any means. Mangrove swamps and marine-shaped bunkers and greens are unique to Denarau, and 15 of the holes have water hazards.
Having a hit while on a beach vacation is one thing here, but this is also a great place to hone your game. Lessons and clinics are available, and the practice facilities include chipping and bunker areas, and a very nicely appointed putting green.
Sheraton Fiji Resort
Another advantage of staying and playing at Denarau is that there are dining options that extend beyond hotel restaurants. Bulaccino, situated next to Sheraton Fiji offers meals prepared from ingredients straight from the restaurant’s own 30-acre organic “garden farm”. And for something more familiar and hearty, Rhumba-Ba & Denarau Yacht Club offers breakfast, lunch and dinner, and a rum list that features over 100 labels from around the world. Rhumba-Ba is also a great place if you come in a big group, and its setting right by the marina should put everyone in a great mood to have a great time.
If you have time, and the desire, to play one more course in Fiji, you may want to venture south to Pacific Harbour where you will find The Pearl Resort. Like Natadola Bay and Denarau, The Pearl Championship Golf Course is associated with the resort of the same name and is located conveniently next to it.
You may want to keep your expectation in check when you bring your clubs here, though. Although this Robert Trent Jones Jr layout is a gem, you may need to look past the fact that the course has suffered the test of time.
The Pearl Championship Golf Course
If you do, then this Trent Jones Jr design is a hoot to play. The 18-hole course was where Greg Norman won his first professional title and was ranked the country’s number one layout shortly after it opened in 1978.
You’ll see a little bit of everything on this rather exotic track. Thick tropical foliage gives way to open expanse of farmland. The 6,285m course comprises several rivers, and ponds filled with colourful water lilies. Water hazards are found on 12 of the 18 holes, so keeping away from them is a key strategy that you’d like to take note of.
The par-4 16th is a rather unique hole where you need to park your buggy on one side of a road, then cross underneath it to get to the elevated tee box. From there, you have a view of the entire hole. And if you play it around sunset, the skies are illuminated gold, red and blue, dampening the difficulty of walking away with a par here.
Pacific Harbour where The Pearl Resort is located is known as the “adventure capital of Fiji”, most notably for its position where myriad outdoor activities may be had. Boats depart from here to dive sites just a little yonder, and visitors can opt for inland visits to waterfalls and cultural villages to get a closer glimpse of traditional life in a Fiji.
Island hopping by boat
Of course, just staying at The Pearl Resort, enjoying its many facilities, is a viable option. The accommodations here are contemporary in design, and the many dining choices here allow you to taste from the best Fiji has to offer. Of these, you can’t go wrong with Seduce, the waterfront restaurant that boasts dishes from locally sourced ingredients amidst a setting that oozes tropical sex appeal.
Whether you’re coming for the golf, for the sea, or simply to get away in a land where the temerity of urban living is overcome by the tranquil of the tropics, there is something for everyone in Fiji. Most of all, wherever you go, and whoever you meet, the smiles and warmth of the Fijians will make your experience one you’ll never forget.
Natadola Bay Golf Course
Maro Road, Natadola, Fiji Islands, www.natadolabay.com, +679-673-3500
Denarau Golf & Racquet Club
Denarau Island, Nadi, Fiji Islands, www.denarau.com , +679-675-9711
The Pearl Championship Golf Course
The Pearl Resort, Pacific Harbour, Fiji Islands, www.thepearlsouthpacific.com/play/golf/, +679-773-0022
InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa
Maro Road, Natadola Bay, Natadola, Fiji Islands, www.ihg.com , +679-673-3300
Sheraton Fiji Resort
Denarau Island South, Nadi, Fiji Islands, www.sheratonfiji.com , +679-675-0777
The Pearl Resort
Queens Road, Pacific Harbour, Fiji Islands, www.thepearlsouthpacific.com , +679-773-0022
Port Denarau, Fiji Islands, www.rhum-ba.com , +679-770-7486
Discover Fiji Tours
This adventure outfit operating out of Navua offers several tour itineraries that include jet boating and whitewater rafting. Their Jewel of Fiji itinerary lets visitors ride on longboats up Navua River to see Magic Waterfall, and end with a visit to a traditional Fijian village with a delicious, authentic meal provided by the inhabitants.
PO Box 171, Navua, Fiji Islands, www.discoverfijitours.com , +679-346-0480