Live the Life: Fijian Fairy Tale

Why would a jewish girl from Florida take $75,000 saved from 13 years as a sales manager and, in 1989, buy beachfront property on a Fijian island where she'd live a simple life of huts, water-bucket baths and kerosene-lantern lights? Leave it to her smooth-talking boy- friend, a chef, who suggested they move to the Garden Island of Taveuni and open a restaurant. But why, five years later, would she stay put after he left? Particularly since she couldn't cook? Ronna Goldstein shares with us how Fiji -- and the island women who stood by her side -- stole her heart.

Tell us why you chose to move to Fiji. There's something very magical about this country, something about it that just draws the right people. You may be on a little island, but somehow you become more aware of the world around you and your place in it.

How long did it take you to actually move to Taveuni? Overnight. But it took a year for the container with my stuff to get here. We opened the restaurant, Coconut Grove, on a shoestring. He cooked and I did everything else.

Then he left. What happened? He liked the idea of living in paradise more than he liked the idea of working in paradise. I remember watching him get in the taxi to leave and turning to Bimla, my right-hand girl, and saying, "There goes our cook. Now what are we going to do?" And Bimla smiled and said, "Don't worry, I'll cook." And I had to remind her that she didn't know how to cook and neither did I! But we learned -- both of us.

So things worked out? Not initially. My heart wasn't in it anymore, and I decided to sell Coconut Grove, which at that point was a restaurant and one bure that I rented out. I posted flyers around town saying, "Ready to Give Up the Rat Race?" Before long, an Australian woman came by and made an offer, and I made plans to return to the real world. Then a friend came for a visit and told me I was a damn fool for selling the place. "Just what do you think is waiting for you back in Florida?" he asked me. I said, "Another shot at love?" He said, "Ronna, this is where you belong. You just need to find a different way of giving and receiving love." So I called up the Australian woman and backed out of the deal.

How'd she take that? She was very Zen about it. She said, "Maybe that's the way it's meant to be." So I stayed. And Bimla is still here, cooking for me. Her mom, Madhaia, tended my organic vegetable garden for years until she died last October. I miss her terribly. But I've got the other girls -- Serah, Kata, Lily, Vina, Elenoa. They all work here. I don't know if I adopted them or they adopted me, but we all keep the Coconut Grove going.

What's it like here on a Saturday night? We have a Fiji buffet at the restaurant and the Band Boys -- Petero, Tony, Manasa, and George -- come down from the village with their ukuleles and guitars and sit on the floor and play for anyone who's interested. It's the most beautiful music you'll ever hear in your life. And then I'm in bed by 9 p.m.

What 's been your best discovery after living here for 18 years? It took my boyfriend leaving for me to realize that I ended up here so I could help others. I'm part of a group that funds scholarships for boys and girls on the island. Education on Fiji is free, but it might cost $10 a week to take the bus to school, so if you have five kids, how do you pay for that?

So what is the oddest thing about living on Taveuni? That I can watch Larry King Live every night, which I do, yet we have no electricity on the island. Everybody uses alternative energy and has their own generator as a backup. It's crazy.

What do you think surprises travelers most about Taveuni? That you can't get popcorn here. That and there are no realtors on the island. It's like the guest who asked me where she could get her nails done and I said, "Sydney!"

I hate to bring this up, but how come you're so pale? People think that living on an island means hanging out on the beach every day and going snorkeling whenever you want. Wrong! I work all the time. Who's got time to get a tan?

What 's your favorite island dish? My favorite dish is anything out of the ocean. I think we have the best food on the islands. Our kokoda (Fijian ceviche) is fabulous, and I eat it all the time.

How long did it take you to get used to living on Taveuni? First of all, that's a linear question, and you don't think like that on the island. Personally, I knew that I'd become acclimated to Fiji when one day a guest asked me what day it was and I said, "October?" She thought I was joking. I wasn't.

Tell us something wonderful everyone should experience on Taveuni. If you want to feel what Fiji is really about, you should spend a Sunday morning in the mission church in Wairiki. It's built out of stone and has these beautiful stained glass windows. There are no pews. Everyone just sits cross-legged on the floor and listens to the gospel choir. That alone is worth a trip to this island.

Facts of Life

  • Climate: Tropical
  • Population of island: 14,000
  • House starting price: $135,000
  • Travel from the US: Fly Air Pacific from L.A. to Nadi; Air Fiji and Pacific Sun have connecting flights to Taveuni Airport in Matei.
  • Closest hospital: Taveuni Hospital in Waiyevo
  • Price of local beer: About $1.75 for Fiji Bitter.
  • Languages: English, Fijian, Hindustani
  • Ease of immigration: Somewhat difficult; moves require proper permission.
  • Ease of buying a home: Easy, though there are not too many homes available.
  • Website: puretaveuni.com