News & Reviews Rest of the World Fiji Review: Laucala, Fiji (2018)

Laucala

Laucala, Fiji
Room type: Plantation Villa
Duration: 29th August > 3rd September, 2018

As we arrived to Laucala for the second time, I have never wanted to hate a hotel so much.  I had 12,000 reasons to hate it.  Having booked non-flexible return flights with Fiji Airways, I was stuck on an 8 day stretch, yet learning from the lessons of the past, I took an usual risk: I only booked 6 nights.  We were going to have to find somewhere else to stay, or hope Laucala was gods gift to luxury.  I was not booking non-refundable nights at Kokomo only to discover I didn’t like it, nor booking 5 non-refundable nights at Laucala, just to find similar disappointments to last time.  Kokomo quickly proved not worthy of extending, so Laucala turned into a lose/lose situation.  It’s either great and costs another $12,000, or it’s so bad I have to find somewhere else, and I’ve already wasted so much money that I could have funded my own coup in Venezuela.

Sadly it proved to be a massive disappointment.  To my bank account.  5 nights became inevitable, as once again I got to experience one of life’s greatest pleasures: subsidies.  For that is all Laucala is: a billionaire kindly subsidising your own holiday, on his own private island.  There is no sanity to this wonderful island, only madness at every turn.  How else can you describe somewhere that’s sole purpose is a mystery?  It certainly does not exist to make money – everyone can figure that out within 5 minutes of arrival.  I can only assume this is the true origin story of Batman.

This is absolutely how Batman trained to fight crime.

Our arrival to the island did not warrant such a story; it was all very similar to last time: having to cut down a rain forrest to fill in endless waivers; one to confirm I won’t poison myself by eating food I’m allergic to; one to confirm that when their planes fall out of the sky, it’s my own fault, and another to validate that Red Bull does give you wings.  Just as I thought we were due to takeoff, another form came out.  I don’t even want to know what this one was for, but let’s just assume my first born will have to join a cult on its 5th birthday and will never be seen again. When you have this much paranoia around, you have to wonder what truly idiotic guest once stayed to cause it.  For once, not guilty.

Kokomo dropped us off less than 10 metres from the Laucala plane, so the commute was less effort than the form filling.  This did mean we never go to try out their recently built lounge, but because I’m nice, here’s a picture of it that I took prior to departure.

Overall, not bad. Cheval Blanc’s and The Brando’s are better, but neither of those have jets that will leave whenever you wish – at Laucala you will be waiting for only as long as you wish. They have 2 (soon to be 3) jets and will work to your schedule. Coming from LAX you’ll arrive before 6am and be in Laucala by 7am, then leave at 6pm on your final day to get the 9pm flight, giving you 2 extra days – all free, naturally.  Why charge money when it’s just an inconvenience to everyone involved?  The Ritz would have a shit-attack here.

The journey was all very civilised.  Kokomo’s plane is so loud that it was like spending the evening next to Ozzy Osbourne with a microphone, whereas Laucala’s was as quiet as a Voldemort whisper – it wholly allowed for pleasant conversation, if there is such a thing when I’m involved in 50% of it.  The only thing missing was the champagne, but plenty of that was coming.

As we arrived, once again that warm Fijian welcome embraced us.  This is so easy to get right.  Welcomed, not smothered – time to enjoy it, but also speak to management whilst being serenaded with a beautiful song.  Drinks were swiftly handed out, conversations took place and we were on our way.  I never thought I would have to write a manual on how to welcome anyone so it didn’t turn into the equivalent of an overly embrassive handshake, but alas.

If you can stare at this image, uninterrupted for 5 minutes, you can probably get a job at Kokomo.

Sometimes I like to see how a property will deal with being asked, but not pushed.  Whilst I sent across the stay list, I wanted to see whether they would match the excellent of last time.  Regrettably not.  Perfection is walking into a room and never having to ask for anything, and here a few things were missing, some was not as impressively emphasised as before, and one was never dealt with – my beloved squash.  I cannot help but consider this the apex of my stay list, for the logistics of getting the English-made product must be a nightmare, although the cost of buying it within the UK is barely £5.  What can I say?  I’m a cheap date.  Previously I would have to have hidden under the bed to avoid the plethora of sweets they supplied, whereas this time it involved a treasure hunt too discover them – but they were there.  The Tempur pillow was provided, along with champagne that was immediately poured for Lucie and never stopped.  Unlike Kokomo, they never managed to get us a full-face snorkelling mask, nor never came back to me on it, but I’m sure any day now I’ll have an answer…

As much as I like the sound of my own voice, I will ignore repeating what I’ve previously said about the villas.  They’re pretty darn good with an insane amount of space and privacy that only North Island can compete with.  I could have spent the entire holiday in the villa, as they are simply brilliant.  But they’re far from perfect, although Laucala actually bother with indoor toilets so maybe deserve more credit than I’m giving them.  As I was reading through my previous notes, they were uncannily similar.  Most disappointing for us, but better news for you: all of this is apparently being refurbished before the end of the year, although last time I was told the same thing by a different GM, so I’ll wait before popping open yet another bottle of smuggled-champagne that somehow ended up in our fridge.

The refurb is definitely overdue in some areas – you know this when the floorboards are literally creaking and you’ve been slapped in the face by irony.  For a property where the mention of budget is equivalent to shouting racist remarks at your guests, it is most strange that their tech is so outdated.  The lights so user-hostile that a manual is a must – one which probably comes with a hammer to turn off the night light; the TVs looking like they were stolen from the same car-boot sale that Kokomo got most of their materials from; a Bose sound system, that runs off an iPod (children, ask your parents).  How did it survived this long?!  The Internet was incredibly inconsistent, at times unusable, yet within the same week we were leaving, they were upgrading it to 5x quicker and a different provider.  The pools are not heated, the air conditioning units, although recently replaced, became loud and ineffective,  so woke us up one evening, and one of the fridges just stopped working.  The exact issue I wrote about in 2016 was still here: the showers suddenly turning cold, just when you least expect it.  Add in a swinging toilet door that seemed fixated on killing me and the fact that weirdly there are 3 showers but only one toilet, and I can only conclude that engineering don’t like their job.

All of this is apparently going to be resolved in the upcoming refurb, except the addition of a new toilet as seemingly only I have a bladder so small I can’t keep hold of it for an extra few yards.  Apologies to the housekeepers.

On the plus side, the buggies are now like a monster trucks, so you can rush onto the nearest beach

I also had far too many moments of deja vu with the service at Laucala.  I could reference where they went wrong last time and see it repeated this time. No serious failures, just a combination of death by a thousand cuts. It had definitely improved, but not to the point of praising any seismic shift. The main surprise was the lack of surprise.  Little had changed in 2 years.

And just like last time, the newly appointed GM and Executive Chef are absolutely everywhere; every breakfast, every dinner, every time I tried to hijack the submarine.  They all did an excellent job, but they still cannot be everywhere – even though I kinda just said they were.  They must have brains like a Chinese satellite, as they picked up on everything we said.  Mention a food we liked?  There it was the next morning.  Discuss a preference?  Done, it’ll be waiting for you in the villa.

I loved some of the thought that went into the customer experience, and the warmth of Fijian hospitality is not to be doubted, but the consistency of it is the same as last time.  I loved how they started pouring me still water and Lucie sparkling, but then forgot on all subsequent days;  I loved that they put up the mosquito net, but then it would strangely be forgotten; I loved the foresight for someone to ask guests what activities they wanted to do that day, but then it randomly stopped; I love the immediate refill of snacks, but then saw it go missing entirely for days.  In a truly weird case, the curtains were not closed for 2 of the 5 nights.  It’s not earth shattering things, but closing curtains surely does not require management oversight?

The newly formed Curtain Patrol unit

The talk of the butler is back on the menu, and I truly hope they do it – they were meant to have last time.  North Island has implemented it to perfection and removes the need to even ask for things, as your butler knows you so well and keeps such a close eye on everything that it’s simply done.  There would have been no need to repeat things all the time, or find preferences not remembered, such as during our sunset cruise and champagne being offered to me.  It’s definitely not as attentive and cohesive as it could be, where departments pass around your preferences – just like Aman used to, or sometimes does if you’re very lucky.

The food was nowhere as inconsistent, but as consistently inconsistent as last time.  Sometimes.  The only change I was not keen on was the Pool and Beach Bar having an almost exclusively based salad option for lunch, but at least you still have 2 other restaurants to choose from.  The new menu gives the illusion of choice by having an entire page dedicated just to salads; choose what sauce, what extra ingredients and the oil.  They accidentally gave me the old lunch menu one day, and damn did it bring back good memories.  The only “miss” dish was a Thai salad that blew my mind one day, only to ruin my appetite the next with a smothering of vinegar like the chef was trying to baptise it.   But the biggest issue falls back into what I’d still fall under the service category: speed and attention to detail.  Salads were taking north of 40 minutes to arrive, then to add insult to my newly discovered healthy lifestyle, they still managed to come wrong, with a caesar salad arriving without a caesar dressing.   Just as I was praising the kitchen for always removing ingredients I disliked without even asking, suddenly some wasabi turns up on my plate.

But let me not take away from the overall quality here, as it was outstanding.  The Plantation’s tasting menu was reduced down to 4 courses, but each night the chef would essentially change the entire menu if you so wished, as he came by each table to discuss it.  The new Australian team quickly learnt that anything involving beef should immediately end up on my plate, and they kindly obliged. It was a thing of beauty.  On our final evening we had an in-villa BBQ which was an absolute joy and further display of absolute generosity; it was without doubt the best BBQ we’ve ever had.

So…with so many complaints, you are right to wonder why stay here?  Properties ten times cheaper can deliver more refined service, so at times it played on my mind as I had a little grumble and then spoke to the GM at the end about it. Yet none of them can offer what Laucala can in terms of facilities and the supreme wow factor.

Having recovered from their typhoons in 2016, the beach was now perfect and the setting easily amongst the most astonishing I’ve ever seen – think frequent changing colours of clear, blue ocean and a large marine ecosystem to add to the natural kaleidoscopic.  The sand was flawless, allowing me to walk around barefoot – a trend I took towards playing golf and horse riding. I’ve never even played golf before; in fact, I’ve spent the last 10 years telling my father how it’s “a good walk, spoiled”.  No better time to start, when you get one-on-one tuition, unlimited time, unlimited drinks and a staff keep reminding you it’s “the only golf course in the world where you can do what you want”.  I’m going to take up golf whilst horse riding next year to really test this.

And that’s the real reason to visit Laucala: for what’s on offer.

Nowhere else on the planet can you jump into a swimming pool with a 2,000m diameter, go horse riding right on the beach outside of your villa, decide to go for a swim with the horses, jump in a submarine (sans horse) and then go play on an empty 18 hole golf course whilst the instructors race after you to pour you more champagne.  Where yachts are just part of the package, and jet skiing around the island takes an hour and gives pause to jump in and see the many turtles up front; where the pool is so large that you can take a sea bob around it – something that just typing brings me more joy than the prior 30 years of my life has managed.

The only disappointment was their cultural evening, due to some miscommunication that meant the dancing didn’t take place until the next evening, that ultimately resulted in a 15 minute exercise in watching some men making a drink of Kava.  But they still turned it into a pleasant evening to meet other guests and staff.  As it turns out, another guest was here due to my previous review, so that worked out at a 50% hit rate of guests on the island because of me, or because they were me.

I will accept unlimited horse swimming for life as payment.

Nowhere else exists like Laucala.  Nowhere where it feels this dedicated to you, whilst having so much available.  If you’re thinking whether you need to book something, you have not been here long enough to realise it’s pointless.  30% occupancy was probably like peak for them, so you can just jump in and do as you please, when you please.

It is without a doubt the most generous property on earth.  Our final bill was $75, which was probably their largest income of the day.  I imagine they had a staff party, where all 400 of them rejoiced.  Almost everything is included, and what is not is now so fairly priced that I cannot imagine it will cause upset.  You can get married at Laucala and it’s simply included in your day rate; if you’re after help, nannies are included complimentary and not a single activity we did came with a cost.  Two 60 minute massages are included, yet when asking if one of these can be changed to a facial there was not even a moments hesitation.  Of course you can, it’s Laucala.  The spa has also experienced a few upgrades, with two steam rooms and Vichy showers.  I still cannot help but love The Brando’s spa, but Laucala’s is a showcase how to build one that looks part of the environment.  If fitness is important to you, the gym is also abundant with equipment.  And Red Bull.

During my last stay, the GM told he was incredulous at being told of guests crying as they left.  Yet much to his surprise, he saw it regularly.  No chance, I said.  2016 came and went, and not a drop.  Keep calm and carry on, I say.  This time, clearly a bit of sand must have caught my eye, just as they sung goodbye to us and a 6 year-old boy from another family was bawling his eyes out on having to leave.  His Fijian nanny of the prior 10 days started crying back.  Fuck you, Laucala.  I haven’t had these feelings since The Crown S2 ended.

The Good

  • Even though we left at the same time as that family of 5, we had our own jet. The final, lasting memory of Laucala’s utter madness.

The Bad

  • The service still needs work
  • Even though I never once saw nor heard a mosquito,  something repeatedly was coming for me. Everything is better here so the mozzies are likely upgraded with some Predator clocking device, which explains how they escape the twice daily fogging.
  • I am addicted and have to go back

The Luxurious

  • All of it.  Every single square cm.

Conclusion

There is nothing I can say to summarise Laucala.  I am no wordsmith, but even Lord Smith of Wordsville would took a bit steamy shit on your desk and immediately quit his life-long job, when asked how to describe this island.  It is the most batshit thing I’ve ever seen in luxury hospitality, but somehow managed with pure class.

The fact that Laucala and Miavana are the same price goes to show that Laucala is either the bargain of a lifetime, or Miavana are insane.  I suspect it is both.  You cannot come here and just think it’s ok.  No one walked around and grunted in disappointment, especially if their entire pre-arrival view of the property was based on that (still!) god awful website.

Coincidently, I arrived into Laucala two years to the day from my first stay.  Not much had changed during that time, except my recently acquired knowledge that there is nothing better than this.  I’ve put the hours in, and the painstaking research – trust me.  I got a lot luckier with the weather, sure, but mostly the luck is in experiencing this property twice.  Over a billion people reckon when we die that we’ll go to heaven, but if we all ended on Laucala it would be a crowded mess.  So piss off with your beliefs and let me one day die in peace, knowing Laucala is, and will forever remain, at low occupancy.

We booked our second visit to Laucala for 3 nights, just to see if the service had improved. It had not, but I still happily extended to stay 5 nights. I know that Laucala and North Island are amongst the most expensive properties in the world, but having tried both twice, I feel they are justifiably so. Reassuringly expensive, you might stay.  A new GM had only been in place for 3 weeks, but his background seems to suggest he will succeed. I cannot be too optimistic, as a lot of what he wants to implement his predecessor spoke to me about in 2016. Time will tell. I hope to see it next year, as we have picked Laucala for our honeymoon. Like everywhere else, it is not perfect, but it is an unbelievable joy to experience.

It is already amongst the elite, but here’s what I would do to make it unequivocally the king:

  • Redo the pre-arrivals guest experience; use it to understand what makes the guest tick and what they may like, down from food to detailed activities.
  • Focus on the guest pre-arrival requirements and work out a way to make them happen, or make it clear if they cannot
  • Implement a butler service
  • Carry out the refurb: brighten the rooms and rethink the entire tech
  • Borrow inspiration from some of the newer water sports on offer at Velaa
  • Heat the damn villa pool
  • Speed up the food service

There is also one, vital, last thing: Four Seasons Landaa Giraavaru now has a submarine, and it’s better than Laucala’s.  This is not a drill; repeat, not a drill.  They have a 3 seater DeepFlight, launched from a raft, and all yours for $1680/h.  Laucala used to charge similar, yet when the owner found out he was furious – he wanted it to be free so every guest could enjoy it. Now let’s hope Four Seasons makes him even angrier and we end up with some nuclear submarine available to take us for complimentary tours around the Pacific.  Venezuela, here we come!

Laucala

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 14th Sep '18

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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