Hotels & Resorts

This Is Where You Need to Go in Fiji to Find Nemo

Explore the world-famous Coral Triangle using the eco-luxe Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort as your base. If you’re lucky, you might even get to scuba with the longest-serving diver in the world.

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort Fiji

Jean-Michel Cousteau diving

By Jenny Hewett

Mar 23, 2022

Green Edit

I’VE ARRIVED IN SAVUSAVU, a sleepy seaside village on Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu, in the dragging heat of the mid-afternoon. This is the gateway to some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving, but at the moment, resistance is digging a trench inside me. I scan my honeymoon oceanfront bure where I’ll be sleeping for the next five nights, one of 25 traditional eco-luxe stays stretched out along this still sliver of bay.

The bure is made up entirely of floor-to-ceiling louvered windows. There are no walls, no AC. A quiet panic sets in. As someone who has long been conditioned (no pun intended) to sleep in the cold through Southeast Asia’s sweltering seasons, this is a comfort that has become ingrained in me. And in many others. It’s an eye-opening reminder of how at odds we are with our natural world.

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort Fiji
Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort. Photo by Chris McLennan

“We were an eco-resort before it was cool,” says Bart Simpson, general manager of Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort. The stay is named after French explorer Jacques Cousteau’s eldest son, Jean-Michel, now 83. It should be noted that the late conservationist and inventor of scuba diving, who would have been 112 this year, never actually dived here, but it’s hard not to think his personal ethos permeates the place.

Jean-Michel discovered this patch of paradise more than 30 years ago and has been returning ever since. “Not only was Jean-Michel Cousteau moved by the Fijian people and culture, part of his dream was that he wanted to show the world that tourism could be done in a holistic and ethical manner,” Bart says.

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort Fiji
Coral reef at Namena Reserve. Photo by Brett Monroe Garner

Bart has been at the helm of this resort for 13 years and lives on acreage with his wife outside of town, where they grow kava. His tenure here is an anomaly in this industry, but the philosophy behind it is what makes this resort so special. Bart says ‘99.9 percent’ of the staff are Fijian born and the majority of the genuinely warm and caring faces I meet have been working here at least 10 years, excluding operations manager Kitty, who is in her 21st year at Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort and has had the chance to dive with the man himself. “Jean-Michel wanted this to remain a Fijian resort and it’s still the guiding light by which we operate,” Bart says.

“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.”

― Jacques Cousteau

INVESTING IN STAFF is just one example of the commitment to sustainability here. I’ve been traveling through Fiji for three weeks now reporting on various luxury stays, so I’ve become accustomed to the mod-cons that you might expect somewhere charging upwards of US$1,500 a night. But in keeping with their conservation and sustainability ethos, Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort does five-star very differently: with a conscience and the desire to create change. That initial resistance I feel is blown away with the balmy ocean breeze on the first night in my bure, albeit with the assistance of fans.

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort Fiji
Oceanfront view bure

Designed to emulate a traditional Fijian village, the bures are minimally decorated and have high ceilings and grass thatched roofs made from river reeds. Louvered floor-to-ceiling timber shutters allow you to control both ventilation and privacy and are further protected with fly screens. Waking and going to sleep with the sounds of the outside softly on in the background make you feel as if you’re in harmony with nature, as it was always meant to be.

FROM LEFT: Resident marine biologist, Johnny Singh; Singh teaching guests about marine life, photo by Chris McLennan

This resort has conservation at its core, from the visits to the local village and pearl farm to regular talks by in-house marine biologist Johnny Singh (who is currently working on a reef check and mangrove restoration program) to the kid’s club, which is conservation-focused. Even the cassava chips at the bar are made from produce picked in the resort’s adjacent farm and orchard, as too are the fruit jams served at breakfast. Each guest is also required to make a small donation to NGO Savusavu Community Foundation as part of their stay to help support local community projects.

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort Fiji
Private Oceanfront Dining

“The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.” 

― Jacques Cousteau

JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU STUMBLED upon this resort, originally a backpackers built by two Aussies, in the 80s. Having been home-schooled on his father’s research boat RV Calypso, he was in a way Jacques’s protégé. “Jean-Michel is the longest serving scuba diver in the world,” Bart says. “He’s dived in the most diverse places on the planet and even dived over the date line on the millennium.”

Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort Fiji
Jean-Michel Cousteau swimming with a sea turtle

Known as the soft coral capital of the world, the reefs surrounding Savusavu are part of the Coral Triangle, a fringing reef formed by volcanoes and home to the greatest biodiversity of marine life on the planet. Worried that the gorgeously placed accommodation would be demolished during a Fijian coup, Jean-Michel found investors in California to buy the property and gave his name to what is now the resort.

There are a number of underwater appeals, many of them just a two-minute boat ride from the resort’s pier. But perhaps the greatest is Namena Reserve, a protected barrier reef about an hour’s boat ride from the resort. I have snorkeled in some of the most incredible places, including the Great Barrier Reef and Indonesia’s Raja Ampat, so I’m hard to impress. I almost choked on my snorkel, so blown away I was by the sheer scale and vibrancy of the coral at Namena. It’s so inspiring that Pixar artists dived here before drawing the animation for Finding Nemo, making Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort their base.

FROM LEFT: An abundance of blue starfish, photo by Chris McLennan; mangrove reforestation.

The next day over breakfast I watch ‘bubble blowers’ in the pool preparing for their PADI certification. It’s a lucky dip for the guests who happen to time their visit with the resort’s namesake, who still comes to stay twice a year and dives with guests.

As for the fate of the planet, Jean-Michel firmly believes it’s the next generation that will be able to create and affect change for the ocean and environment. He carries on the Cousteau legacy through his Ocean Futures Society programs aimed at children, which uses fun lessons to imprint on them. “Grown adults don’t change much,” Bart observes. “Jean-Michel knew the answer was in the future generations.”

Same goes for luxury resorts, whom responsible travelers now expect to do more than look pretty. A shift in mindset is now the ultimate aspiration.; from FJ$2,090 for a garden-view bure; two children under 13 stay free.

All photos courtesy of Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort, Fiji.


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