Resort food gets an upgrade in Fiji

The earth oven (lovo) pork belly on Mana Island Resort.
The earth oven (lovo) pork belly on Mana Island Resort. Photo: Chef Lance Seeto

In a tiny little pocket of an island in the Fijian archipelago, where the bluest of waters laps on the shore of soft, white sand and palm trees sway gently in the breeze, I sit on a private deck, hoeing down on Chef Lance Seeto's coconut chicken slider. The base of the plump, white bread has been languishing in coconut milk, and while deliciously sticky, it's a few mouthfuls of creamy heaven. As if the surrounds weren't enough.

Welcome to the new Fiji. Where local produce is the hero and you can get more than burgers and fries at a resort. Because if we're honest, resort food hasn't had the best reputation, but after a recent visit we can report that's changing.

No more soggy vegetables to turn you off at the buffet. No more "fried food only" choices for lunch.  A number of resorts are focusing their attention on upping everyday scoffing snacks, plus a fine dining option if you want a fancy dinner with your sunbaking.

Mana Island Resort.
Mana Island Resort. Photo: Mana Island Resort

Chef Lance Seeto, an Australian-born chef, is leading the charge. He started his Fijian journey on Castaway Island and has ended up at Mana Island, a virtual piece of paradise plonked in the middle of the ocean (and also where the 34th series of Survivor was filmed).

He's been instrumental in transforming the way Fijians have traditionally thought about resort food. One of his aims has been to use Fijian produce, rather than import food, which is what most of the resorts had done up until he arrived.

"It seemed crazy to me, to import fruit and vegetables, when Fiji has all this amazing produce which is naturally organic as they don't use industrialised farming methods," Seeto says. "One of the first things I did was to rejig the menu here at Mana to hero Fijian produce."

Luxe accommodation at the Outrigger Resort Fiji.
Luxe accommodation at the Outrigger Resort Fiji. Photo: Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort

That brings me back to dinner on the deck, overlooking the ocean, where Seeto is cooking up a five course meal. The "national dish" kokoda is a favourite everywhere, he explains, and the most common ingredient in the dishes is of course, coconut.

They're rampant, those coconuts in Fiji, picked straight off the trees and ending up in everything from mains to desserts (which, by the by, is a "coconut" chocolate shell, filled with coconut icecream, charred plantains and a salted caramel sauce - and dreamy enough to make me swear to cook with coconut back home).

On Mana the focus is about lifting the quality of the food from fish and chips of years gone by. If you don't feel like his modern interpretation of Fijian food cooked over a lovo (basically a hole in the ground over fire), Seeto has set up a teppanyaki restaurant in the resort. Genuine teppanyaki in Fiji is unheard of, and hard to beat when your biggest decision on holiday is what to eat next. Keeping things fresh and simple in a land where the buffet restocks every 15 minutes is a welcome culinary intrusion.

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Back on the mainland at the Outrigger resort, I'm greeted daily with a pre-dinner drink and snack. Then nightly with a nightcap and dessert bite. They certainly have their service sorted. While the fine dining restaurant doesn't have the same flair as Seeto's on Mana Island, their everyday buffet experience is the one that other resorts should model from, stat.

Here, the star dish on the menu is an Indian curry, an homage to the country's large Indian population which has melded with the locals. You see this on Fijian streets in Denaru: vans selling Indian naan bread sandwiches at the local markets, an authentic blend of the two cultures.

But it's the improved quality that's the difference in Fiji these days. Cape Grim beef is on offer at the Outrigger: grass-fed, the same as you'll get in a Neil Perry restaurant here. They sell New Zealand Natural Icecream around the pool. And they take cocktails very seriously, which, on a tropical holiday as you would know, is absolutely mandatory.

Radisson Blu Fiji.
Radisson Blu Fiji. Photo: Radisson Blu

At the Radisson Blu, parents paddle to the swim-up bar well before the acceptable midday, while their children frolic on the waterslide, and by mid-afternoon the bar is full, serving up the usual cocktail suspects to really make it feel like you're away. Alcohol, of course, is best served with nibbles, and if you're drinking around the pool you'd best pair those fruity glugs with a burger, juicy and full of flavour.

The Radisson has deviated from the usual resort path and in the last year, it's launched a Thai restaurant. "Our food has gone from number 21 on Trip Advisor to number one, and it has stayed there consistently for the last six months," says Suzie Jones, director of sales. "We did our research and knew we had the opportunity to have a Thai restaurant as it was not being catered for [on Fiji] in an authentic way. We knew we had to get a chef from Thailand to ensure this was truly authentic."

True to their word, the Thai food at Radisson Blu has less of that gluggy, too-sweet factor so often prevalent in Australian Thai restaurants. The tom yum soup doesn't have the same from-a-packet flavour that you find at your not-good-enough local, it's made from scratch, and the curries are spicy and delicious.

The national dish of Fiji, kokoda on Mana Island Resort.
The national dish of Fiji, kokoda on Mana Island Resort. Photo: Chef Lance Seeto

But even better than all of that, is good coffee. And the Radisson comes up trumps with its barista-brewed lattes and a la carte breakfast option serving up fresh bacon and eggs. Sure, you can get the bacon from the bain marie at the buffet if really want to, but good bacon makes a world of difference when you have a hard day of swimming ahead of you.

Getting there: Fiji Airways has recently added an A330 airbus to their fleet and flies from Sydney and Melbourne daily. fijiairways.com

Getting around: South Sea Cruises will take you island hopping, or even just on a day trip. Visiting the islands is a must while you're there. ssc.com.fj

The writer travelled to Fiji courtesy of Tourism Fiji