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© Culture Trip / Nadia-Elysse Harris
© Culture Trip / Nadia-Elysse Harris

Can Luxury Travel and Cultural Immersion Successfully Co-Exist?

Picture of Nadia Elysse
US Editorial Team Lead
Updated: 20 December 2017

A small group of smiling faces greeted us when we exited the tiny plane that brought us to Turtle Island Fiji. Their voices swelled in song and we, the unassuming guests on what would become an unforgettable journey, had no idea what was in store. What we did know, though, was that it was going to be something unlike anything we’d ever experienced before.

Luxury travel often boasts amenities that allow guests to enjoy both adventure and extraordinary convenienceroom service, swimming pools, yacht and jet ski excursions, spa and health clubs, restaurants. However, travelers hoping to have an authentic cultural experience in a new place sometimes have to forego luxury to achieve immersion. Turtle Island attempts to merge both worlds, combining the convenience of having everything at your fingertips with the opportunity to learn about the intricacies of Fijian culture. But is that even possible?

The “curious traveler”

Lead hotels have dubbed people seeking both luxury and emotional connection with a destination “curious travelers.” A 2016 Luxury Insights Report funded by renowned Fairmont Hotels & Resorts found that emotional fulfillment in the form of creating an actual connection with a place is just as important for guests as the amenities are.

“Luxury guests are not only looking for warm and engaging service when traveling to world-class destinations, they are also following their hearts,” said Fairmont’s Vice President Jane Mackie.

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Turtle Island Fiji, October 2017 | © Culture Trip/Nadia-Elysse Harris

And she’s right. According to Luxury Travel Magazine, curious travelers are what many in the hospitality industry would consider the ideal consumer. They take upwards of seven trips per year, tend to be trendsetters in the travel community, and are willing to splurge a little for the perfect accommodation. And “perfect” accommodations, for close to 70 percent of those travelers, include some form of cultural immersion.

But for most hotel and resort brands, it’s a delicate line to teeter on—wanting to appease the curious traveler without offending their sensibilities. Authenticity shouldn’t be jarring and luxury shouldn’t come at the expense of core values. So how does Turtle Island Fiji measure up?

The magic of “home”

Turtle Island combines luxury, sustainability, and glimpses into Fijian culture in a way that almost feels transcendent. I visited in early October, which isn’t quite peak season for the small island in the South Pacific. I arrived on the island an excited (somewhat skeptical) traveler hoping to escape the daily New York City grind, and I left a true believer in Turtle Island’s magic.

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Turtle Island Fiji, October 2017 | © Culture Trip/Nadia-Elysse Harris

Bula! Bula!” They’re the first words one hears upon arriving on Turtle Island, and as your stay on the tiny island continues, they are the words that make it feel more and more like home. Bula carries many meanings in Fijian language (“welcome,” “hello,” “health,” “life”), but is used primarily as a greeting. When guests arrive on the island, they’re given a crash course in Fijian language. Bula and vinaka (“thank you”) were the terms I found most important, and the ones I used most frequently during my stay.

Turtle Island, Fiji | © Nadia Elysse Harris/Culture Trip

Turtle Island, Fiji | © Nadia Elysse Harris/Culture Trip

But language is only the surface layer of guests’ immersive Fijian experience. Themed food nights complete with Fijian barbecue (lovo), lessons on homeopathic Fijian medicine using resources right on the island, nightly kava ceremonies, and even the opportunity to visit a local village perfectly encapsulate the Turtle Island stay. And the island does not forego luxury in order to achieve that.

At any given time there are no more than 14 couples (or 28 people) on the island as guests, except on special “family weeks” when parents are afforded the opportunity to bring their children along for the ride. Before arriving, guests choose the food and drink they want stocked at their home away from home. Upon arrival, everything from your initial greeting to the sign above your door is personalized with your name and for your needs.

Each guest is assigned a “Mama” who essentially acts as a personal concierge, but also offers hugs, encouragement, and (in my case with Mama Elie) a few good laughs.

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Turtle Island Fiji, October 2017 | © Culture Trip\Kimberly Page

The food is fantastic. A majority of the produce used to make the delicious cuisine on offer is grown on farms on Turtle Island. The food is as consistent as it is customizable. The island has several private beaches and a private infinity pool that any guest can request. Each home has an indoor jacuzzi pool and a large, multi-head shower. And just steps outside each home are beautiful white sand beaches leading to turquoise water that, on early mornings, look so vast it makes you search for breaths.

In conversations about Turtle Island since my stay, I tend to describe it as “magic,” because the experience feels almost spiritual…and luxury travel rarely does that. The people of the island, the brief glimpses into Fijian culture and customs, and the thoughtfulness of the tiny details make it the perfect home away from home.

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Turtle Island Fiji, October 2017 | © Culture Trip\Kimberly Page

Special thanks to Turtle Island Fiji for an amazing stay.