A visit to Laucala, the Fijian island owned by the mercurial cofounder of the Red Bull energy drink empire, reveals one of the most luxurious—and relaxing—new resorts in the world.
Author Kevin Gray Photography Jeremy Simons
American financier Malcolm Forbes once called Laucala, his stunning private island in the Fiji archipelago, heaven on earth. With about 3,000 acres of palm trees, white sand and rugged peaks—not to mention a kaleidoscopic reef of dazzling coral and graceful mantas—it was easy to see why. Of course, before Forbes’ death in 1990, the only way the average person could see Laucala (pronounced Loo-THAH-la) was to get a personal invite. Today, the island is open for business. With 25 private villas (from $3,800 per night up to $35,000-a-night for the entire compound), it is, without hyperbole, the most exclusive resort in the South Pacific, catering to the well-heeled seeking repose, pampering and the sort of discretion only the well-heeled expect.
The man holding the keys to this ultra-posh fantasy island is, not surprisingly, one of the most elusive billionaires on the planet: Dietrich Mateschitz, the Austrian baron of the Red Bull empire, who bought the island from the Forbes family for a reported $10 million in 2006 and set about remodeling it. A marketing genius who tied Red Bull’s image to the extreme sports crowd—sponsoring both NASCAR and Formula 1 racing teams—Mateschitz has tricked out Laucala with similar verve. But instead of extreme sporting, it’s extreme relaxation at its coolest and most tropical.
Opened at the end of 2008, the resort island is a Robinson Crusoe daydream come to life. Thatched beach villas, carved stone tubs, clifftop bars and jungle-canopied spas are all crafted from local mahogany and granite. The restaurants, spa, dive and fishing center, even the 18-hole golf course, look as if they were built by the natives. Indeed, many of the Fijian staff have lived here for generations and provide Laucala’s heart and soul. Whether you’re the Google guys or the Shriver-Schwarzeneggers (all past visitors), the local staff greet you with a song and a Fijian greeting: Bula!
Sandy paths connect each of Laucala’s independent, thatch-roofed villas (called bures in Fiji, each has its own butler and plunge pool and comes festooned with tropical flowers) with a self-sustaining farm, hydroponics nursery, five restaurants, a new golf course (designed by David McLay Kidd) and docks housing state-of-the art dive boats, jet skis, and fishing and sailboats. Finally, there’s the main lodge, a plantation house where Forbes once entertained Elizabeth Taylor. The two of them took meals here and looked out over the coconut palm plantation that marbles the far distance, all the way to an alabaster beach. Today, islanders use those fruits to make coconut oil beauty products, and soon biodiesel to run a self-sustaining farm and a hydroponics greenhouse.
Mateschitz’s private hideaway is a villa called Hilltop, and it can actually be rented—for $35,000 a night—in the unlikely event he’s not around. To reach Hilltop, you have to drive 400 feet up a secret road that leads directly from the island’s tiny landing strip. There is a main house as well as two guest residences that house your entourage, security detail and—if you’re the mess-making type—your maids. The master bedroom opens onto a huge teak deck offering a 360-degree view of the island and the surrounding reef, so a guest can take in the entire Red Bull kingdom in all its breathless splendor. A shaded library holds a collection of Fijian war clubs, brain forks and hardcover books on living in a handmade tree house.
The dimensions are staggering. The bathroom alone is 322 square feet; the handlaid pebble-lined shower is the size of a modest bedroom. The carved mahogany tub could fit a baby elephant. Outside, a series of interlocking pools, including a glass-walled infinity pool, beckon.
This is the great irony of Laucala: The energy drink baron’s domain may be the most laid-back place in all of luxury-travel-land. You’d be hard-pressed to find a can of Red Bull anywhere on the island. Soon after you arrive, you’ll hear the story of the couple who started breakfast at 11 a.m. under their plunge pool’s thatched hut and didn’t finish until 4 p.m., and you might ask yourself, Do I have what it takes to chill out that long? According to Rai Cavalevu, a 27-year-old hostess who attends to one of the bures, you do. “Everything is here for you,” she says, in an ethereal way that makes you want to say, Yes, Rai, yes it is.
There are five different exquisite restaurants on the island, each specializing in a version of island cuisine. A suspended plank bridge leads to the Seagrass Lounge and Restaurant, around which is wrapped a polished mahogany platform offering a view of a blue cove 100 feet below. Mango shooters precede the Malay meal of spicy tom yum goong soup with prawns, followed by steamed cod with a tangy lime sauce and sweet vegetable fried rice.
The best way to get around is via one of the new Trek mountain bikes. Paths thread past the beach club and the lagoon pool and head up a steep sandy road that climbs until the banyan and palm trees give way to shrubs, and suddenly there’s a 360-degree view of the South Pacific, with Fiji’s big islands to the west, Taveuni and then Vanua Levu.
“Over here, man,” someone calls. A pathway is cut between two black pitted boulders and leads to Laucala’s funkiest plateau, a lounge that hangs over a cliff, resembling a highly varnished tree house for grown-ups and is aptly named the Rock Café.
“Welcome,” says a lanky Fijian waiter named Josefa Tukana. It’s nearly 7, and the sun is setting. “You know what Fiji time is?” Tukana asks as he blends a mai tai. “Easy man. Nobody is in a rush here.” He points to the clear water below. The shadowy shape of a manta glides past. “It’s not like you been taught,” he says. “Easy.”
This region of the South Pacific is home to some of the best-preserved coral reefs in the world. The dive center is a quick walk past majestic, umbrella-shaped banyan trees to the beach. Gordon Wakeham, the dive instructor, pilots a dive boat out to a reef called the Great Yellow Wall.
At about 4 p.m., the Fiji sun is strong. The boat comes to a rest over a 1,200-foot wall of coral teeming with fish. The top of the reef, only 15 feet under water, is brown, like late summer grass on a prairie, but below it is alive with bright, moving coral, such as flaming orange sea fans and impossibly purple brain coral. Comical parrotfish dart past. A little gray reef shark about the length of your arm lazily drifts past. Far below, where Wakeham has descended with the scuba gear, a sea turtle the size of a Volkswagen gracefully waggles its stubby flippers.
No Deitrich Mateschitz enterprise would be complete without an exquisite toy that salutes extreme sports. At Laucala, that toy is a million- dollar, 41-foot Riviera fishing boat that sleeps six. Nothing follows an evening of diving like a morning of fishing. Just across the pristine Tasman Strait from Laucala, outside Fiji’s North Passage and not far from Bligh Water, Captain Manoa DuGulele, a toughened 40-year-old fisherman, seeks out yellowfin tuna, marlin and wahoos. “We don’t use the sonar, even though we have one,” says DuGulele. “We use birds.” He points out a flock of gulls dive- bombing the waves.
He and Wakeham set cigar-size plastic lures on several lines and drop them overboard as we begin to troll. Beneath the birds, you see hundreds of little silver fish jumping along the water. Eventually, DuGulele will catch a dozen eight-pound yellowfins.
It’s an action-packed end to a day. Somewhere, Dietrich Mateschitz raises a chilled glass of Red Bull in approval.
Since returning from Laucala, New York City–based writer KEVIN GRAY has been late to every appointment.
Red Bull honcho Dietrich Mateschitz isn’t the world’s only big-name, big-ego proprietor of an exclusive island resort.
Sardinia • Costa Smeralda
Purchased in 1962 by the Aga Khan—billionaire, jetsetter, philanthropist and spiritual leader of nearly 20 million Ismaili Muslims—the 35-mile-long island with pristine sandy beaches and dramatic stretches of rocky coastline was originally envisioned as a private paradise for the Khan and his friends. Nowadays it’s a favored haunt of Hollywood stars, oil-rich Arab princelings, Russian billionaires and their paramours, and (of course) Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
HOW EXCLUSIVE IS IT? It’s open to the public and offers some (comparatively) affordable accommodations in spots, but it remains chiefly a playground for big money. In 2007, for instance, Bruce Willis threw a fit after doormen at the Billionaire nightclub refused to let him into a party held by Lebanese jewel magnate Fawaz Gruosi.
HOW DO YOU GET THERE? Fly to Olbia airport on the island or take a ferry from Genoa or Livorno in Italy.
WHAT TO DO? The beaches are world-class, and the party scene is, shall we say, something to behold, but Costa Smeralda also has an array of gourmet restaurants and luxury shops, ample opportunities for tennis and water sports, and an uncommonly tough golf course by legendary course designer Robert Trent Jones.
Lanai Island • Hawaii
Lanai Island was just a rustic outpost off the coast of Maui when billionaire David Murdock bought the company that owned it in 1985. Prior to Murdock’s arrival, the 140-square-mile island was known chiefly for being the world’s largest pineapple plantation (once owned by Dole). Over time, Murdoch replaced the pineapple bushes with two Four Seasons resorts, a couple of golf courses and a smattering of luxury homes. Now he’s riling up the locals with a proposed $750 million wind farm to be erected just off the coast.
HOW EXCLUSIVE IS IT? Bill Gates married his wife here in 1994, but Lanai isn’t prohibitively exclusive. The Four Seasons are on the pricier side, but there is also a less expensive option on the island.
HOW DO YOU GET THERE? Take a ferry from Maui.
WHAT TO DO? Besides golf and lie on the beach? Hike around the otherworldly moonscape of the Garden of the Gods, go four-wheeling up to the 3,370-foot peak of Lanaihale or kayak out to the iconic Sweetheart Rock and paddle among the spinner dolphins. www.gohawaii.com/lanai
Oracabessa Bay, Jamaica • GoldenEye
In 1946, James Bond creator Ian Fleming bought a piece of land on Jamaica’s northern coast, which he had fallen in love with while working as a naval intelligence officer during World War II (one of his missions had been code-named GOLDENEYE). The spot inspired him, and he went on to write all 13 of his Bond novels in the bungalow he built here. In 1977, 14 years after Fleming died, Jamaican-born Island Records founder Chris Blackwell snatched up the property to use it as a private retreat.
In the late ’80s, he expanded it and turned it into a small resort. It was closed for renovations in 2007 and reopened in October of this year.
HOW EXCLUSIVE IS IT? Anyone can go if they’ve got the means. High season rates start at $832 a night for a lagoon suite and go up to $2,280 for a cottage. For hardcore 007 buffs, Fleming’s bungalow can be had for $6,800 a night.
WHAT TO DO? Laze in an outdoor tub in your shaded garden, swim in the lagoon, drink a martini or just wander the lush grounds checking out the trees planted by Blackwell guests like Johnny Depp. www.goldeneye.com
Finding a beach in Sydney is as easy as finding a crowd in Manhattan—they’re everywhere—but it takes resolve to get to Resolute Beach. There are two options: Either hike two-and-a-half miles on a sandy trail down a hill through Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park, or take a small boat. The boat offers stunning views of nearby Barrenjoey Head, while the trail offers hikers a chance to see aboriginal art at Red Hands Cave. However you wind up getting there, you’ll be rewarded with a quiet, secluded beach sheltered by trees, perfect for swimming (and, if you hiked in, for resting).
Beach fare from around the globe.
Piragua // Luquillo Beach, Puerto Rico
Vendors hawk these snowcones from colorful pushcarts along the beach. For the full tropical experience, try parcha (passion fruit) or tamarindo (tamarind).
Kalua pig // Smith’s Tropical Paradise // Kauai, Hawaii
Smith’s hosts traditional luaus, complete with hula and fire knife dances, but the real draw is the tender kalua pig—roasted whole in an imu underground oven.
Ca chien sot tieu // The Palm Tree // Phu Quoc, Vietnam
This beach café specializes wrapping a whole fish in tin foil with peppercorns and the island’s local fish sauce, and turning out a crispy, delicate meal perfect for capping off a day at the beach.
Grilled octopus // Panormos Beach Bar // Mykonos, Greece
Watch the grillmaster sear the octopus over an open flame, and then wash down the crispy, tender tentacles with a leisurely glass of wine or two.
Fish tacos // Ensenada, Mexico
This Baja port town is widely believed to be the home of this magnificent, oft-imitated concoction: beer-battered cod, shredded cabbage, sour cream and pico de gallo on a corn tortilla.
Four of the world’s coolest seaside hotels.
Amankila // Bali // Opened: 1992
The exterior of the main building of this secluded cliffside resort hotel is made of mossy stone, which gives the place an ancient vibe, but the heft is offset by the thatch-roofed suites and the three-tiered infinity pool overlooking the Lombok Strait. www.amanresorts.com
Club Hotel Casapueblo // Punta Ballena, Uruguay // Begun: 1958
Uruguayan painter Carlos Páez Vilaró built a small hut on this promontory outside of Punta del Este, and over the years he added to it piece by piece, as though it were a living sculpture. The end result resembles a mud nest built by an indigenous South American hornero bird. www.clubhotel.com.ar
The Library // Koh Samui, Thailand // Opened: 2007
This complex of boxy, low-slung villas built around a glass- fronted library balances minimalist white spaces with wooden details and splashes of color—such as a dark red swimming pool. www.thelibrary.co.th
Hotel Básico // Playa del Carmen, Mexico // Opened: 2004
Inspired by a 1950s Mexican oil rig, Básico offers concrete walls adorned with exposed pipes and rubber curtains, rooftop cabanas fashioned out of old trucks and a row of soaking pools made of retired oil tanks overlooking the Caribbean. Still, there are more than enough softening touches to create a playful, approachable vibe. www.hotelbasico.com
Jake Shimabukuro, the world’s greatest ukulele player, offers his eight favorite beach tunes.
“Wipe Out”—The Surfaris // “It’s about getting wiped out by waves, but it’s also a great jamming song.”
“Misirlou”—Dick Dale // “I played it a lot when I was a kid. It became very popular after Pulp Fiction came out.”
“Surfer Girl”—The Beach Boys // “The sense of harmony Brian Wilson showed on this one goes above and beyond everyone else.”
“Hallelujah”—Jeff Buckley // “If I’m sitting out and there’s a beautiful sunset, this is the song I want playing.”
“Come Monday”—Jimmy Buffett // “I used to tour with Jimmy, and the first time I played with him we played ‘Come Monday.’ It was an incredible moment.”
“In My Life”—The Beatles // “I’m on the road ten months out of the year, and whenever I’m home and I go to the beach by myself, I like to think about all the things going on in my life.”
“Beach in Hawaii”—Ziggy Marley // “I actually played this track with Ziggy on his album Love Is My Religion, which won a Grammy. It’s a great, chill tune.”
Jake Shimabukuro’s new album, Peace Love Ukulele, comes out in January.