When the concierge admits me into the beachfront villa 10 times the size of a "villa" as I know it, gesturing to light switches made from hundreds of snow-white butterfly cocoons and bathtubs carved from polished slabs of granite, I try to feign a billionaire's nonchalance. Here on Fiji's private Laucala Island, she shows me how the villa -- which took the tradition of the Fijian bure, a wood and thatch hut, to glamorous new heights -- opens theatrically onto my own swimming pool and a quiet golden-sand beach. She reveals a designer wine chiller stocked with complimentary Champagne. Yes, with a capital "C." I remain calm.
Then the moment I'm alone, I let out a whoop of proletarian joy. I pop open the bottle of bubbly, jump into the pool, jump back out of the pool, dash down to the beach and throw myself into my personal piece of the South Pacific. Everything has to be enjoyed at once. I run back to the villa and devour an amuse-bouche of spiced Thai shrimp and fresh cashews, turn on both flat-screen TVs, blast myself with Bach on the iPod sound system and then rush from room to room taking hundreds of photos. At least, I sink in a jet-lagged stupor onto a daybed under coconut trees.
Adjusting my watch to Fiji time, I find it's only 8:30 a.m. Malcolm Forbes once owned this succulent green piece of Fiji, now a new, no-expense-spared luxury resort. But for the new 122 hours and 35 minute, it is mine. And I mean to revel in every second.
Most people might be happy to spend days, even weeks, lounging in their villas on Laucala. But seductive as that is, I know it wouldn't be long before I was itching to explore the 7-mile-long island, which from the air had seemed mysterious and wild, ringed by a halo or pale-blue reef. Laucala isn't just any billionaire's refuge.
If a history of private islands is ever written, Laucala will feature prominently. Forbes, then the planet's richest man, purchased it for $1 million in 1972 and its otherworldly beauty became part of pop mythology. The world watched with envy every winter as he flew his jet to Fiji's main airport, Nadi, then changed to his light plane to reach Laucala's airstrip. Hollywood stars arrived frequently for fabulous beach parties. Forbes grew to love Laucala so much that he asked his family to bury his ashes here. When he died in 1990, Forbes' family did as he wished.
Since then, the island's ownership has passed to another billionaire, Dietrich Mateschitz, creator of Red Bull. Dated buildings were razed. Mateschitz turned Laucala into the ultimate South Pacific retreat: 25 luxury villas, five restaurants, a spa, a horse stable and an 18-hole golf course. The result is a self-contained world, with an organic farm, a working jetty, air hangars and more. Once revived, an old coconut plantation will produce oil and cosmetics. Laucala boasts the biggest swimming pool in the Southern Hemisphere, with a glass, above-ground lap pool that lets passers-by view swimmers gliding back and forth. Crafted from native wood, thatch and twine, Laucala's unique, sometimes mildly eccentric structures echo the surrounding landscape.
One day, I hop on a Jet Ski that belongs in New York's Museum of Modern Art and bob around the island, watching turtles skim the coral alongside me. The next day, I board a dive boat that sports the curved seats of a 1930s pleasure craft on Italy's Lake Como and polished tanks like gleaming bullets. It carries me to an underwater world that seems to have been tended by a celestrial gardener.
Laucala has seduced me. I love this new world in which light aircraft carry guests from Fiji's main island and shiny Land Rovers whisk them to their villas. But surely some relic survives from the wild and crazy 1970s. A drive to the edge of a rainforest reveals a plush double villa with 360-degree views of the island. Far below, the South Pacific seems so clear you can almost see the turtles nosing their way through the reef's coral canyons. "They say it was the view from this spot that convinced Mr. Forbes to buy Laucala," my guide says. The original structure has vanished, but we stroll over to a grove of coconut trees and a cracked marble memorial embedded in the earth. Below the name Malcolm Stevenson Forbes and the dates of his birth and death, it reads: "While Alive He Lived."
I carry that sentiment back down to my villa, where more Champagne is already there on ice.