Having stayed at Iniala, North Island, Fregate and now Laucala within the last 4 months, I’m sure we can all agree on one thing: I know how to recklessly waste money and avoid paying into a pension fund.
Let’s ignore their atrocious website for a moment and just place your trust in me instead: Laucala is a property that is amongst the pinnacle of luxury travel. Owned by the co-founder of Red Bull, this is the rarest of gems: a passion project with no inclination to ever make money. And it shows. Whilst there are not many reviews on Laucala, all of them are full of praise for the property in every single way imaginable. Unfortunately for them, they had yet to have someone as fussy as me.
Room type: 1 bedroom Plantation Villa
Duration: 29th August > 5th September, 2016
Ever get the impression you’re talking to yourself? If you’re like me, chances are you just said the last sentence out loud and carried on as nothing happened to avoid the embarrassment of knowing it’s correct. You’re now fully conscious of this, but trying to ignore it. In the case of Laucala, it just felt like that. Communication was all rather slow, with repeated emails to explain the same things. All responses were in fluent English, so it was not a communication issue, leaving it only as a training problem. I still do not understand why resorts do not provide you to a different email address once you have paid a deposit, as you should be treated separately to people who send enquiries. We got there, but after numerous emails back and forth about the pillow I wanted, I didn’t have the heart to tell them they got the wrong one when I saw it on arrival.
Upon landing, we were immediately greeted by the airports Fast Track service. Right as scheduled, they managed to screw up one of our names, which is now a custom and somewhat of a hobby of ours. Let’s travel the world and see how often they can get our names wrong. Yeah, ok, I can’t see it replacing sports as the worlds most popular hobby anytime soon. This time my erroneous surname had just the right ring about it to sound like a South American dictator to it. It was a proud day in my life.
The normal fast track process took place, which wasn’t quite necessary seeing that there were no queues at all, but the day I don’t get it will be the day I end up in a security line behind a Henry VIII tribute group who refuse to ever break character and take off their costumes. After a walk through a major construction site formally known as an airport, we went into the domestic terminal and waited 10 minutes for our plane. This waiting area was certainly not going to feature in any magazines, unless there’s one out there called Waiting Rooms and has a weekly list of rooms with at least 15 seats per passenger. I was informed that Laucala will be the first hotel to open their own airport lounge next year in the newly developed airport. Whilst it will certainly not ruin your holiday to have to spend 10 minutes waiting for your plane in an area that had the charisma of a Victorian workhouse, it did not set the right tone for heading to one of the worlds most expensive resorts.
After 10 minutes of flicking through magazines that I made-up in my mind, there awaited our private jet. The plane came with all the mod cons you could want: seats, windows, wings and even an engine. 45 minutes of beautiful terrain, oceans and prayers to all the weather gods later, we arrived to a warm, Fijian welcome at Laucala.
Ridiculous is the word of the resort. Everything at Laucala is ridiculous. It’s maintained to such a high level and is so stunning that even the grass seems to salute you as you walk past. It is no secret that they have no desire to make any money. It could only exist in a world where someone has so much money that they know they will never run out of it, regardless of what they do. Well, Nicolas Cage thought that, but that didn’t end well.
There is so much to take in here that it came as no surprise that several guests on the island were staying for a month and that many had been multiple times. Whilst there is a beach, I would not describe it as a beach resort; whilst there is a farm with wagyu cows, you would certainly not call it a abattoir and whilst there is a submarine, you will not call it a navy. Perhaps that will come soon.
If you have ever been on a private island, golf buggies are quite common. Here too, but you’ll also witness a fleet of Land Rovers and other vehicles, as the island so large that you need something with a bit more umph.
How you describe Laucala depends on which area you’re in at the time and just how variable the weather is being. You can be sat above the rocks, walking through the jungle, laying on the beach or jogging through the grass. The beach was one of the areas that I found most surprising, as there really isn’t much of a beach to talk of. Just like North Island, the resort is focused around a small focal area that contains the pool and their beach. Based on this, I would have assumed they saved their best beach for this area, but evidently not. Laucala is definitely not barefoot luxury, as the beach directly in front of our villa has sand filled with shells and pebbles, so you cannot walk anywhere without sandals. The main beach doesn’t have this, but the sand is still not very soft. If you want a beach, go to North Island, Fregate or Amanpulo instead – there is no comparison. I did learn later on that the beaches are meant to be softer than they are now, yet the cyclone has caused disruption to the area.
It was like baby cherubs were whispering into their ears when they gave us Villa #6 – they knew me so well; they knew my propensity to laziness and my desire to be as close to the main resort as possible. With Villa #6, we were the closest you could possibly be, which was pretty damn close. All I had to do was walk out of my villa, past the outdoor bath, past the outdoor pool, showers, outdoor lounge, dining area, yoga platform, outdoor loungers and private beach and I would be there. After North Island it’s hard to be impressed, but Laucala manages to do so. Sure, you may not have the kitchen or the gorgeous beach to walk onto, but it packs in a phenomenal amount elsewhere.
25 villas – only 6 occupied on our first night – meaning a maximum capacity of 80 guests. For an island that is 3500 acres in size, you may start to understand why “ridiculous” becomes the word of the stay. There are 3 types of villas, which range between 1, 2 and 3 bedrooms and are split into 3 areas: Plantation, Plateau and Seagrass. Every villa is almost identical in terms of features, but alter slightly in terms of the room layout and outdoor areas. The Plantation lead directly onto a beach right near the main resort, whereas the Seagrass offer more privacy with an elevated beach and more greenery around them. Plateau are the only standard villas without beach access, but offer the most privacy and the best views of the island. Then you have their 3 specialist villas.
After an island tour of the different villas on offer, and whilst realising that I do not own a drinks company that qualifies me as one of the worlds richest men, I would pick between the Peninsula or a Plantation villa if I were to return. The Peninsula is ~$2,000/n more than a standard villa, but this seems a bargain when you see how much is offered. With your own private beach that no one else can access along with a long path-way to your villa, privacy is guaranteed. Throw in elevated views of the entire island, a jacuzzi and huge amount of outdoor space and life is pretty sweet. The only downside is that all that privacy comes at the expense of proximity. If you want to head to the main resort and it’s raining, you will give it some serious thought, by which I mean you’ll likely call the coast guard in advance.
Each villa contains:
- Large bedroom with lounge area
- Living room, with sliding glass doors.
- A massive TV (in comparison to an iPhone). Fortunately they swapped our TV with the one in the Games Room.
- Wardrobes with desk area
- 2 outdoor showers and 1 indoor shower
- 2 mini bars + “health bar”, which is just a nice way of saying it has water in it.
- Their own natural made bathroom amenities. Immediately suspicious of this after Fregate, I was delighted to find these did not smell like a skunk had died besides the flowers before they were picked.
- Baths so big that Godzilla would have felt welcome
- A golf buggy for charging around the island.
- Mobile phone for calling concierge
Please don’t feel you have got this far into one of my reviews and believe I could not find fault with it. Even with all that space, all that investment and all that craftsmanship, you can bet I was not 100% satisfied.
- The tech needs to play some catch-up here, especially compared to North Island where you can use AirPlay to connect your music to their villa-wide sound system. They do have a Bose system, but having to physically plug your phone in was annoying, as it meant always having to walk to the bedroom if you wanted to change any songs. They went to the effort of including the sound system in the bathroom, but you cannot hear it in the shower. The GM is fully aware of it and has planned for upgrades next year. The most exciting part of Lauala is knowing that it will always get better.
- The mirror is so far away from the sink that shaving and not cutting yourself is a skill well beyond my capabilities.
- We had constant issues with the shower turning cold. 3 times we called for an engineer, yet every time it happened again. One minute it was warm, then it suddenly turned freezing. I was frequently making the sound of a man watching another man get hit in the groin.
- The lighting is so dark that even on their top setting of “High”, it was still virtually impossible to see anything and I say this as someone who frequently works in an office without the lights on.
- Many a time we would trip up on the steps leading out of the villa, as the drop is almost hidden. To make myself feel better that this wasn’t just me, the yoga instructor did it a few times too.
- The toilet is in a very small room, which means, well, how can I put this delicately? That your smells are more vibrant than otherwise. There are no scents in here and only a tiny window, so it can get, erm, fresh? There’s also no lock on it, so you better be sure where your better half is before you go. That they decided to only offer 1 toilet and have 3 showers is a strange decision. Just to add insult to injury, the wifi doesn’t work in the bathroom at all. If there was one place a man needs it….
- You also cannot get wifi in the loungers in the garden
You wont lose sleep over these points, but neither will I in knowing I find faults in paradise. Crisis adverted.
A 2,000 square metre swimming pool, made up of multiple different areas that leads directly onto the beach. And that’s just for starters. I’m quite sure that even if I wrote this review with the precision it deserves, I would still miss out on most of what is on offer here.
- 18 hole golf course
- Rock Lounge
- Games room, with Playstation 4
- Kids play area
- Basketball court
- Football area
- A bazillion outdoor areas
- More boats than I have fingers
Certainly not an eye sore, but perhaps a missed opportunity to have made this a truly great area. Even though it is a 5 minute drive from the main resort, it does not lead to anywhere with as spectacular views as I would have hoped for, but it does take you to a very peaceful area, surrounded with a series of ponds, trees and flowers.
As Laucala somehow consider their entire offering so paltry that they need to throw in two 90 minute massages for free, I decided I’d give it a go. Of course they once again use all natural ingredients from the island, but there was a large discrepancy between the standard of the two massages: one from a Thai woman, which was excellent, and another from a local who seemed desperate to leave as soon as possible and get on with her day.
There may not be enough space on the Internet to cover this area. There certainly was not enough space at Laucala for them to write it all down, as they didn’t cover themselves in glory regarding what was on offer, even if they did have a rather clever advert running on the TVs in the villas that flicked through just some of the options available; a wonderful touch, as everything it featured was already included in the price, so it did not feel like penny pinching.
Find me anywhere else in the world where you can go from a private submarine tour, to using an underwater scooter to get around the 2000sqm swimming pool, to horse riding on the beach? The idea of swimming is now repulsive. When there’s this much space, there’s probably unfound areas of the pool that house mermaids. Everything else seems to exist at Laucala.
During our stay, we ended up doing the following, which is probably only somewhere around a quarter of what is on offer:
- Sunset cruise
- Farm tour
- Kayaking in their wonderful glass kayaks, which allow you to see all the way down the reef. We experienced such a beautiful view as we were drifting out to sea and nearly needing to be rescued.
- Scuba diving
- Horse riding. Across the beach, through the jungle, in the sea and climbing the hills.
- Underwater scooter
- And of course, the submarine.
- Jet skiing
- Playing football with staff. A great experience, but I hate to think what happened previously, as the doctor and nurse were both there!
Everything within the reef is included in the price. It is no great surprise that they make no money.
The only activity I would have avoided with prior knowledge is the waterfall tour. Concierge just didn’t care to mention that it was on another island and would take nearly 90 minutes to get to. With a 10am start, this was made worse by our schedule having another activity at 2pm and lunch at 12, making it impossible to do. To add insult to injury, as it was outside the reef, it was therefore charged for it, even though no one ever told us. I did complain about this and am due to receive a refund.
The GM is ex-Raffles Seychelles, so we’ve had many a good discussion about North and Fregate, to which I mentioned the chef visiting us every day on both those resorts. They said they could have the chef come talk to us daily, but he’s currently on holiday and is not back until we leave. Interestingly, on North Island the chef was away during a few nights of our stay there and it resulted in a similar situation of any unique food choices we wanted not being able to be prepared until he was back. My experience in cooking closely resembles a badgers knowledge of physics, but I would have thought it would still be possible to do this without the reliance on a single person – 2 of the highest regarded resorts in the world seem to think otherwise and I’d assume they’re slightly better informed than I am.
- Seagrass Restaurant including Teppanyaki area
- Pool Bar
- Beach Bar
- Plantation Restaurant
The food at Laucala is one of the major selling points. It was really, really good. The Teppanyaki was perfectly cooked, the calamari amongst the best I’ve ever had, the desserts are genuinely making me salivate thinking about them, although that could also be that I had Cornflakes for dinner and I’m hungry. Even their beef burger was amazing. The beef burger is my default meal when nothing else appeals; try this, take a few bites and at least I’ve eaten something. At Laucala they have elevated the beef burger to levels that give me hope that one day McDonalds can win that coveted Michelin star. On the first day they do a tasting-menu for breakfast for you, which was a wonderfully unique touch.
They had a few lapses along the way; one too many meals taking too long, the wrong things turning up, no bananas being available to begin with (first no oranges at The Goring and now this) and my beloved stay list being ignored. Our room was setup perfect with no sparkling water (something I state is a hatred of mine), yet in the first restaurant they offered it and also shrimp, even though it’s on my allergy list. There were some strange inconsistencies in the food as well. On day #1 I had beef carpaccio, yet on day #3 I asked for it again at a different restaurant and it was not the same. I mentioned this inconsistency prior to ordering it for the 3rd time and even provided a picture of what I wanted it to be (taking 5,000 photos really did come in handy), yet it still came out differently again. After emphasising this once again, we got there in the end. These are all minor points – the biggest issue once again feels the service.
North Island, Fregate and Iniala have a big push around food being “any time, anywhere, anything you want”. Laucala actually has the same principle, but I would never have known it if I had not spent so long talking to the GM on our 3rd day. The chef apparently comes and talks to guests about what they want, but he was away the majority of our stay and only during our last 2 days did this happen. Then the good times started to roll, as he was creating dishes specifically for us. It just once again showed the lack of communication, as staff never gave the impression we could order what we wanted and even made it sound like we had to order before 10:30, or we couldn’t eat at all, whereas management was telling us this just wasn’t the case and we could order whenever we wanted.
The sense of freedom was also not to be found elsewhere. The room service menu is very, very restricted, but it turns out you can actually order anything – so why offered such a small menu? The breakfast menu the same, but then why not offer some specials for the less imaginative amongst us? One day they had no yoghurt available, but no alternative is suggested, even though that means about 1/10 of the menu is missing. They offer excellent food, but they need to offer an excellent experience as well.
This is always an area that I feel can be improved, it’s just to what amount. At Laucala the service is friendly and with a smile. Everyone stops at every opportunity to wave at you and give you a warm, Fijian welcome that brings back memories of Amanpulo. That goes a long way, but it doesn’t make up for the lack of thought that has gone into their guest interactions. I felt disappointed at North Island with the service outside of the villa, but at Laucala you do not have a butler at all, so therefore the entire service becomes an issue. The main saving grace was the GM, who was easily the most knowledgeable, hands-on, friendly and entertaining GM I’ve ever met. It surprises me how many GMs are ultra-luxury resorts have never been to similar hotels, so I cannot see how they expect to understand their own clients expectations. That was definitely not the case here, as we could talk all day about luxury properties, including North Island. His partner is the Sales and Marketing director, so we were invited to have dinner together one evening at the Plantation Restaurant, which was a great evening.
The biggest issue is the lack of butler. I know just reading that sounds terribly snobbish, but believe me, I couldn’t be further from a snob – I sometimes even wipe my own bum. With no butler, the number of people you can speak to over a single point can become bothersome, especially when after all that effort it still doesn’t happen. Take for example our last night: we enquired about a special dinner on the beach; 2 staff asked us when we wanted it and what we wanted, then chef came and asked us the same questions. And then it didn’t end up with what we asked for.
Your main contact is supposed to be the concierge, but it was nowhere approaching slick. On one occasion we phoned the operator, but they could not put us through, so we had to use the provided mobile phone to call concierge. They then tried to put us through to the F&B team, yet for whatever reason were unable to, so they said they would just call us back. The dining team then calls back and says they’re not the right team.
There were too many times where it felt a hassle to get anything done. The blessing in disguise is that butler service is going to be introduced – I don’t feel it can come soon enough.
- Several times we found housekeeping did not thoroughly clean the outdoor areas, so had used glasses with insects all over them – at one point it was there 2 days later.
- The laundry service is really impressive, with almost everything returned just a few hours later. On the one occasion I really needed my shoes to be cleaned, due to getting them wet on the waterfall hike, so I phone and ask someone to pick them up. 3 hours later and still no sign of anyone.
- Having to phone concierge feels very impersonal, especially on a resort where there’s approximately 950 staff per person. It is much better to see someone face-to-face on a regular basis and go through things, rather than phoning up and frequently asking for multiple points. As noted above, one of the frustrations then came when we realised after a few days that we had to keep notes of what we asked for, as there was a good chance about 25% of it would not be done. When concierge finally came to organise our activities, they went away and had 3 activities missing out of a 3 day schedule. They also told us if we wanted to organise the submarine that we should walk over to the Diving Centre, but why they could not just do it for us, I don’t know.
- I found the lack of proactivity and/or thought really apparent.
- We were cold on the beach and no one offered anything to us – we were covered in towels as a makeshift blanket.
- On our first massage, we asked for a buggy to take us to the spa. He arrived with it pouring and the wind lashing against us, but did not have any protectors installed. We got absolutely drenched. On the return they picked us up in a Land Rover – a slight upgrade. He knew he screwed up and was very apologetic.
- After calling 3 times about the shower issues, not once did anyone ever tell us that someone had been, so it was guess work as to whether they had attempted to fix it but could not, or they just never turned up.
- There was a real strange sense of what “ready” means. After using the submarine (yep, I too still can’t over how awesome that sounds) for the first time, we just had to stand around for 20 minutes whilst waiting for them to configure it. Learning the lessons, for the second dive we called in advance to see that they were ready. Indeed they were, we were told. So we got there and they had not even started yet, so once again stood around for 20 minutes.
- Fijian time is mentioned a few times – even one of the ex-pats mentioned how much it annoyed them and how much training the locals require, as they have not seen how it would be done in European/Asian countries.
- On our last day, and after 7 days of eating almost the same thing for breakfast, the usual waitress was not here and therefore all our preferences were forgotten. At Amanzoe even the cleaners could have told you what we wanted for breakfast by that stage. In the same restaurant my hot chocolate would be empty for 20 minutes without anyone asking. Then when I did ask for their banana pancakes it took another 20 minutes to be told they didn’t have any bananas. I have no issue with a private island not being able to source ingredients, but I do with it taking that long to know they don’t have any.
- We were due to go at 3pm for farm tour sans horse riding, yet didn’t know how to get there or what time we would need to leave. I call concierge at 14:25 and ask her to send a car to take us, which results in her saying she’ll send one right away. I then ask if this is too early and she rethinks and says at 14:50 she’ll send someone. The lack of information and knowledge within the staff was quite apparent, as we frequently got wrong or contradictory information.
- Staff were always asking when and where we wanted to eat that night, so they could ensure that restaurant stayed open. Whilst I’m absolutely aware that with 4 restaurants you cannot leave them open all night, it bordered on pestering at the rate they asked us and with our jetlag, it was something that I felt hard to answer, but answer I must.
The proactivity that I would expect at these prices was absent from almost everyone, except the GM, Sales & Marketing and Executive Chef. That’s 3 out of 450 staff. The issue is that, just like North Island, you can feel value everywhere, so you begin to start to think the service should not matter as much, but the reality is that not only should it matter more, but they are such easy and cheap things to implement. Sometimes when there are no budgets, the small things begin to get lost.
Unless you’re a billionaire and money means nothing to you, I need to keep emphasising that it’s $6000/n here for a room. Even with the absurdity of everything else going on around you, this needs to be perfect. It’s really, really not.
I could give many, many more examples, but having spent so long giving feedback to the GM that he ran out of paper, I feel that says it better than anything. I have a feeling I’m not going to be on their Christmas card list. There was no rudeness or major complaint, but everything felt like too much effort. The theme of the holiday is relaxation, but this seems to spread to the staff as well. None of these points were enough to ruin a wonderful holiday, but they were so abundant that it’s a shame I could note down so many areas that could be improved upon.
Laucala offered to pack our suitcases, so we were more than willingly to accept. Fortunately we were compos mentis, as we decided to check everything and found they had somehow managed to steal the poor Yoga instructors clothes and send them with us as some kinda weird goodbye present. On the bed were the real goodbye presents, which are some rather comfy knitwear for him and her. Then back to the airstrip it was, where another, beautiful Fijian song greeted us before we headed onto yet another jet.
I was really struggling to understand the concept of the coconuts that you have for your room, until it was explained to me in the most simplistic way: the green means people can enter your room at any time and make-up your room. I was unsure of it, as even without it, people would knock and then just enter. It’s like the Bat sign, but instead of criminals running scared, house keeping runs to you.
- Some of the best food I’ve had in a resort.
- Amongst the highest staff count per person in the world.
- No expense spared; no penny pinching; no desire to be anything but ridiculous.
- Service was not to the standard you would hope for at this price point.
- The beach isn’t going to win any awards anytime soon – until the cyclone has buggered off, at least.
- Getting there.
- A freaking submarine!
- Incredible villas with over 1000sqm of space
- More activities than a swingers party
Laucala is about the best overall holiday you can imagine, but it is far from the perfect product that I saw everyone talk about. The most exciting thing is that they are continuing to improve everything on offer, so it will only get better and better. I hope to see that happen.
In conclusion to having visited the creme de la creme of resorts in the last 9 months: none of them are perfect. Each has their faults and each can improve, but each is absolutely spectacular in their own way. It’s most telling that when I talk about service, I do not speak of a single property, but elements from each of Aman-i-Khas, Amanpulo and Iniala. Yet if you cannot enjoy Laucala, I feel sorry for you, as there’s little else more impressive.
So here’s what I say to ye: go to Laucala. Go for the madness of it. The overwhelming joy of experiencing something you cannot anywhere else; the lunacy of a place with no intention of ever making any money; the passion project that may not last forever.
Would I return? It is of course very expensive, but it offers so much; it is so remote, but feels like a home; it will go to any trouble to make you happy. The biggest consideration for myself is the journey to get there and jetlag, which are of course more subjective than anything else in this review, as it entirely dependent on where you’re coming from. But for me, Laucala was not a place where I felt the same level of relaxation as somewhere like North Island. I perceive Laucala as an activity based holiday and as I did all the activities I wanted to do, I’d have to think about what it offers to me on return that I may not be able to get a bit closer to home. So it’s one to think about, but what a life it is when deciding between Laucala and North Island is something that keeps you occupied.