Fiji is surely the blueprint for barefoot luxury. After all, it is so luxurious that celebrities - from Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban to Kelly Brook and Billy Zane - head there in their droves. And it is so "barefoot" that even the pilots go without shoes.
Or so we discovered, as we squashed into the six-seater seaplane that was to deliver us to our paradise island. We were bound for Yaqeta, one of the string of pristine islands known as the Yasawas. Situated to the north west of the archipelago of Fiji, these 20 or so idyllic spots of land are locally famous for their sandy beaches, lush rainforests, and clear waters with abundant sea life. And they are quieter and more laid-back than some of Fiji's other island groups, such as the Mamanucas.
We were heading for Navutu Stars on Yaqeta, a brand new boutique resort created by two young Italians who recently left their high-powered jobs in London to move to what they describe as "one of the most uncontaminated places on earth". At the time of our visit, the resort had not yet officially opened, and so we were the first guests to arrive by seaplane from Fiji's tiny city of Nadi. As we cruised over the sparkling blue waters, I was almost too busy taking in the crystalline sea below us to notice the pilot pull out his map. But I needn't have worried: about 40 minutes after take-off, he set us safely down in the calm, turquoise waters off Yaqeta.
We waded through the warm, ankle-deep water to the shore and were met with singing and the welcoming shouts of "bula" - a far cry from the greeting given to Europeans in times gone by when cannibalism was still rife. These days, Fijians famously exude hospitality, and once on dry land we found ourselves wreathed in garlands of hibiscus and presented with coconuts filled with a delicious - and potent - cocktail.
Accommodation at Navutu Stars is in nine bures, traditional-style thatched villas. Each has an enormous bathroom, CD player and a choice of music, but in keeping with the owners' philosophy, no telephones or televisions. After running around my new home like an over-excited child, I armed myself with a Fiji beer, and dived straight into the hammock on my veranda. And as I lay there, gazing out over the calm lagoon with the lush hills in the distance, I could only think I must have done something extremely good in a previous life to deserve this.
If anything, life under water was even more beautiful. The abundant hard and soft corals here provide a kaleidoscope of colours and teem with vibrant reef fish - regal angel fish, shimmering Moorish idols, schools of batfish, clown fish valiantly guarding their anemones. Snorkellers and novice divers are catered for in the calm inner-reef waters while more experienced divers can explore the ocean-side of the island's barrier reef - where dolphins, sharks, manta rays and turtles can often be seen. During our stay, we took several boat trips around the Yasawa islands, and we frequently found ourselves on remote beaches of impossibly white sand, where we swam, snorkelled and sunbathed without meeting another soul.
Back at Navutu Stars, we were keen to get a taste of Fijian culture, and joined a ceremonial kava-drinking session with some of the island's villagers who had come to greet us at the hotel. Made from the woody, pulverised root of a plant from the pepper family, kava is not an alcoholic drink but it does have some narcotic qualities, numbing your tongue and generally slowing you down so that you feel very relaxed indeed. The drinking of kava (also known as yaqona) is part of traditional Fijian life. It is ritually consumed to welcome visitors, make deals, name boats, cast spells, settle old arguments and more, with participants usually sitting on a mat on the floor, gathered together in a circle around a large wooden bowl filled with the drink.
As instructed, we clapped our hands once before taking a small coconut-shell bowl of the liquid (which resembles dirty dishwater), and knocked back the contents. Then, to complete the custom, we handed our bowls back and clapped three times to say thank you.
The drink left us feeling quietly euphoric, and we sat in the silver moonlight at the water's edge listening to the soft harmonies of the villagers singing along to the strumming of a ukulele. The act of sharing a drink of kava is said to create an invisible bond between the participants, and that evening we felt completely at home in the ancient magic of these islands.
Esther Shaw travelled as the guest of the Fiji Visitors Bureau (0800 652 2158; bulafiji.co.uk) and toured the archipelago with Rosie Holidays (00 679 6722 755; rosiefiji.com) and Green Turtle Tours (00 679 672 8889; greenturtletours .com). Navutu Stars Resort (00 679 664 0553; navutustarsfiji.com) costs from US$348 (£204) per night (including breakfast) for two sharing a 'bure'. Fiji is served by Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) which flies from Heathrow via Los Angeles and Auckland from £939. Onward travel in the archipelago is by private or scheduled seaplane, ferry, private boat or helicopter - individual resorts will advise as to the best options. Navutu Stars, for example, can arrange transfers by catamaran, Turtle Airways seaplane, private seaplane or private helicopter.
TEN TOP ISLANDS STOPS
1. Denarau Island
The island, a reclaimed mangrove swamp, is linked to the mainland of Viti Levu by a causeway, and is 20 minutes' drive from the airport at Nadi. It's an ideal starting point for trips to the Yasawa and Mamanuca island groups. Beaches are not a big feature here as the sand is dark grey. Attractions include the market and the Swami temple in Nadi. Adrenalin junkies can try the Jet Fiji experience - shooting down the River Nadi in a jet boat. (00 679 6750 400; jetfiji.com).
WHERE TO STAY The Sheraton Denarau Villas (00 679 675 0777; sheraton.com has deluxe rooms from $315 (£182) for a deluxe guest room and $625 (£367) for a two-bedroom villa.
2. Yaqeta Island
One of the Yasawas - a chain of volcanic islands stretching 55 miles (90km) to the north west of Viti Levu - known for endless white beaches, turquoise lagoons and spectacular reefs which offer great diving and snorkelling. You can also fish or trek in the rugged interior.
WHERE TO STAY Navutu Stars Resort (00 679 664 0553; navutustarsfiji.com) offers 10 'bures' (thatched huts) along three bays. Double rooms start at $348 (£204) per night, based on two sharing, for a minimum of three nights.
3. Turtle Island
Also in the Yasawa chain, this resort is set on its own 500-acre island with 14 sandy beaches - one for each couple staying at the resort - where you can lounge with a sunrise breakfast or champagne and lobster picnic. Or visit one of the projects run by the Yasawas Community Foundation.
WHERE TO STAY Turtle Island (00 61 3 982 38300; turtlefiji.com) has 'bures' from $2,222 (£1,307) per couple, per night.
4. Tokoriki Island
This volcanic island, lined with tropical rainforest, is the most northerly of 20 islands in the Mamanuca archipelago, set in a lagoon formed by the Great Sea Reef and Viti Levu. Dive, snorkel, sail, fish surf or explore the smaller neighbouring islands: one of which was used in the film 'Castaway'.
WHERE TO STAY Tokoriki Island Resort (00 679 666 1999; tokoriki.com) offers 29 deluxe beach 'bures' from $478 (£281) per night and five recently built honeymoon 'bures'.
5. Navini Island
This tiny coral island is in the middle of the Mamanuca islands and is surrounded by a white-sand beach fringed by an offshore reef. As a result, the snorkelling is excellent just off the beach. You can spend your days in blissful isolation too, as daytrippers are kept at bay.
WHERE TO STAY The Navini Island Resort (00 679 666 2188; navinifiji.com.fj) has 10 beachfront 'bures'. Prices start at $288 (£169) per couple per night.
Vatulele resort's motto says it all: somewhere between five stars and heaven. This is an idyllic blip of an island south of Viti Levu, just eight miles long and blanketed in dense rainforest - with a long stretch of pristine sand. A barrier reef forms a lagoon on the eastern and northern ends. Don't fail to visit the sacred red prawns that live in tidal pools and caves around the coast. Legend has it that anyone who tries to steal one will suffer a shipwreck when they leave the island.
WHERE TO STAY The island's only accommodation is the Vatulele Island Resort (00 679 672 0300; vatulele.com) with its 18 thatched 'bures'. These start at $1,521 a night (£894) per night for two sharing, with a minimum four-night stay.
7. The Coral Coast
This stretch of coast along the southern edge of Viti Levu begins at Momi, about 12 miles south of Nadi. The highway meanders past spectacular scenery including villages, sugar cane fields, coral lagoons and beaches. Walk or toboggan down the Sigatoka sand dunes, see the historic Tavuni hill fort, and browse the arts village for all things Fijian.
WHERE TO STAY In a two-bedroom deluxe villa at the Myola Plantation Sigatoka (00 679 651 1887; myolafiji. com). These are set in a private estate of tropical gardens with panoramic views of the Pacific. Villas sleeping four cost $1,950 (£1,147) per night with a minimum two-night stay.
8. Beqa Island
Famous for its firewalkers, rugged Beqa is a few miles south of Pacific Harbour on the southern coast of Viti Levu. The island's interior is covered with lush rainforest with high ridges dropping down to the coast. Beqa's coral reef is known for its superb dive sites.
WHERE TO STAY The Royal Davui Island Resort (00 679 330 7090; royaldavui.com) is an island escape offering 16 villas with ocean views and private plunge pools. 'Bures' range from $1,013 (£595) to $1,350 (£794) per night, with a minimum three-night stay.
9. Vanua Levu
Vanua Levu, the second largest island of the archipelago, is known as the 'real' Fiji. It is renowned for its snorkelling, diving, hiking, bird-watching and its unhurried pace of life. You can also visit a local village or explore the market at Savusavu, famous for its thermal hot springs.
WHERE TO STAY Jean-Michel Cousteau's Fiji Resort (00 679 885 0188; fijiresort.com) has 26 'bures' in 15 acres of coconut plantation overlooking Savusavu Bay. 'Bures' sleeping two cost from $535 (£315) to $1,950 (£1,147) per night, for a minimum of three nights.
10. Taveuni Island
Known as the Garden Island for its wet climate and lush vegetation, Taveuni is Fiji's third largest island. Tropical rainforests cover 60 per cent of the island. Walks here include a trail that leads to the Bouma waterfalls.
WHERE TO STAY Matangi Island Resort (00 679 8880 260; matangiisland.com) is a privately owned island off the coast of Taveuni, offering 11 beachfront and three treehouse 'bures'. 'Bures' start at $792 (£459) per night, rising to $1,352 (£795) for a treehouse.Reuse content