Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Comparative Review: Shangri-La Fijian vs Sheraton Denarau

We've just come back from a much needed "Stop the world, I want to get off" holiday in Fiji. It was awesome, and we've all returned with a therapeutic infusion of bliss which should get us through the next few months at least. This is ipa long winded review for the edification and amusement of anyone with sufficient stamina considering a Fiji holiday, and also for my own reference in 3 or 4 years' time when we can afford another tropical holiday and I'm trying to decide where to go.

We stayed at the Shangri-la Fijian, on the Coral Coast, about an hour south of Nadi for 9 nights. In 2011, we stayed at the Sheraton Villas Denarau, about 20mins from Nadi airport for the same length of time. They both have their pros & cons which I'm going to ramble on about.


The Fijian wins this hands down. Yanuca Island is beautiful. Full water views from pretty much every room - either of the reef and the ocean or of the lagoon between the island and the mainland. All of it is fabulous blue & turquoise, no muddy swamps. (There are muddy swamps cleaning the water, but they are not near the rooms.)
The view from my room

The island is big enough that it doesn't feel crowded. I ran every second day, and could find space to run where I only passed a few staff each time. There is snorkelling right off the beach - not spectacular coral or anything, but a peaceful lagoon with reef rocks, plants and fish. Not great for little kids though, because there's quite a current. It's more disconcerting than dangerous, but it's not like snorkelling off an island further off the coast.

Some of the wee fishies I saw - the snake photo was sadly not in focus
The Sheraton, on the other hand, is built on reclaimed land from a swamp. The water you're looking at
Denarau beach - not ugly, but not Yanuca either.
is dark green with a muddy/sandy bottom. It's been around long enough that the gardens are established, and very well looked after, but there's no snorkelling there and the pools are much more attractive swimming options than the beach. It also feels a lot more crowded, with lots of resorts all in a line, all pretty full most of the time. The two advantages it has are its proximity to Nadi airport & access to reef islands. It's nice not to have travel too far once you've waited in the interminable immigration queue (and possibly had to play hide & seek for your luggage) and finally arrived in Fiji proper. The island day cruises all leave from the marina on Denarau, so if you want to do one of those from the coral coast, you'll have an hour bus trip at both ends of the day.


This one goes to the Sheraton in spades. The Villas were built comparatively recently, and the adjoining rooms are spacious and sensibly arranged. You get a minimalist kitchen and quite big lounge room in one room, with a huge bedroom with king bed and acceptable bathroom (but without a bath tub). The other room has twin doubles and its own bathroom. The beds are super comfortable.There is also an antechamber with a locked door that accesses both rooms, so you only need one key to get in. You can also lock the inner doors, so you can lock your kids out if you want to! There are ceiling fans, and quiet air conditioners. Each room has its own TV with a DVD player. They are light and airy rooms and feel fresh and well maintained.

The Fijian is an old resort, opened in the 70s. It's been renovated, but it's still an old school resort. Adjoining rooms have interconnecting doors, but separate keys that only open one of the two rooms. We got locked out once because the cleaners closed the interconnecting door into the kids' room (which can only be opened from the kids' room) and we had only taken keys to our room. It took an hour to get someone to come and open the door. No ceiling fans, and the air conditioners are old and noisy (although it was possible to muck around with the fan settings to alleviate that a bit - they weren't too bad, but clearly worse than the Sheraton ones). If you book adjoining rooms, they must both have the same bed configuration. You either get two rooms with twin beds, or two rooms with king beds, which is ridiculous. The beds are ok, but not as comfy as the Villas. The bathrooms do have tubs though and are quite spacious. All the rooms have balconies. There are no DVD players, which stunned me for what is billed as a family resort. However, the TVs have HDMI inputs, so if you take a laptop and the appropriate cable, that's a solvable issue.

It's important to note that I am really only talking about the Sheraton Villas here, the main Sheraton resort has rooms not entirely dissimilar to the Fijian, although they are bigger. I'm not discussing that one in detail though, because we stayed there in 2001, and I don't remember the details and it could have changed anyway. However, most of the rest of the info is relevant to both places, because it is all regarded as one resort from the guest's perspective and you can use the facilities from both of them (and another one as well).


Another pretty clear category, the Fijian's food was generally a class well above that of the Sheraton. Food in Fiji is perhaps not as sophisticated as in other places that have Sheraton and Shangri-La resorts, so you'll see a lot of complaining about the food on travel websites for both places. However, I found the food at the Fijian to be consistently what I expected and at the very least at the level of top quality pub food. The Sheraton, however, was pretty ordinary unless you go to one of the super expensive restaurants. For example, the poached eggs at the breakfast buffet were pretty much inedible. The Japanese place was really good, but pricey. I should note, though, that on Denarau there are some non-resort places to eat that are fine, and cheaper than the resort.

The one exception is the booze. The Sheraton has a wider variety available, and different bars & restaurants have some different options. The Fijian has one limited list which is available everywhere, except for the places where even less is available. There is nowhere on Yanuca Island to buy your own, whereas on Denarau there is a general store that sells a good range at only moderately inflated prices. Cocktails are much more expensive than they used to be, because of a tax imposed only on resorts, which is something of the order of FJ$6.00 per drink, or possibly per nip? I can't remember the details and can't find anything online to tell me, but it was announced in the budget that was brought down when we were there in 2011.

Facilities & Service

This one is all a bit murky. Generally speaking, the Sheraton probably wins it, but it really depends on what you care about. The overall feel of the place is better at the Sheraton. As Mr11 put it, there's something about it that feels really special which isn't quite there at the Fijian. It's probably about the gardens and general presentation, but I can't quite put my finger on it either. There are 4 very different swimming pools the kids can use at the Sheraton, which is all of them - they don't have an adults only pool. There are only 2 pools the kids can use at the Fijian, plus a pretty dull adults' pool. There is no swim up bar at the Fijian, and there is one or two at the Sheraton. All of the pools at the Sheraton are better than all of the pools at the Fijian. There is also pool-side service at the Sheraton, but not at the Fijian - you have to get up off your arse and go wait at the bar. For me, that mostly meant I spent a lot less on alcohol, so it's possibly a questionable business decision.

On the other hand, games in and out of the pool are organised by staff morning and afternoon at the Fijian and nothing much like that happens at the Sheraton. Lots of kids and adults join in, including my sport averse family. We played the pool basketball (run every day), but there was also beach volleyball, and softball, soccer and cricket on the grass. It's all extremely relaxed, with minimal rules and generally run in the spirit of everyone having a good time.

The kids' club at the Sheraton is abysmal, and my kids refused to attend. Apparently the one at the Fijian is much better (as reported by other kids to my kids), but scarred by their experience at the Sheraton, they weren't prepared to risk it. This is definitely a win for the Fijian if you have kids of the appropriate age who are prepared to chance it.

Both places have kayaks and hobie cats, but it's easier to work out how to hire them at the Sheraton. The location is probably better for kayaks at the Fijian, but sailing is definitely better at the Sheraton. Bring your own snorkelling gear to the Fijian.

Information is one of the most frustrating aspects of the Fijian. The in-room info is really limited. There are no menus for the restaurants, or daily activities lists, or even accurate information on how to access phone messages. There's good snorkelling right next to the swimming area, that requires only a very short swim, but there is only one sign that tells you this, by way of saying "snorkelling area" on a map. I didn't find this sign for 5 days. I felt like I finally worked out how the place worked the night before we left. I don't remember how the information worked at the Sheraton, but I definitely didn't spend the entire time bewildered.

The spa at the Fijian is breathtakingly beautiful, and not too insanely priced. I didn't use the one at the Sheraton because I choked on the prices.
The view from the waiting area at the spa, where herbal tea is served.
There is a games room at the Fijian which has air hockey and various arcade games, but most of them don't work. It would really be better if they just pulled it out, because the kids are keen and are then left disappointed, but they really wouldn't miss it if it wasn't there at all.

The Fijian has a Polynesian Night that is really very expensive but presents extremely good (if fairly short) fire dancing and pretty unimpressive fire walking. The Sheraton has fire dancing regularly outside one of the restaurants at around 7pm for free. It's not as amazing as that at the Fijian, but it's also free.


This gets its own category because it's such a big deal for us. Since we run a business, we simply can't go somewhere without internet access. Both the Sheraton and the Fijian say they have internet, but all interwebs were not created equal. The Sheraton provides wireless in the rooms, which was slow but usable. I can't remember exactly what the issue was we had - something about the number of devices we could connect and I think they helped us a little by allowing one more device, but we still had to kind of take it in turns.

The Fijian was much more of an adventure. The first rooms we were given had no internet, the whole block was down (and had been for weeks/months). It still took them 2 hours to tell us this. It took 3 days to get rooms with internet, but when we finally moved, it didn't work there either. However, it was a much easier fix - the cable was clearly unplugged from the switch. Only 3 hours to fix that. Then the same thing happened the next day. This time the IT manager finally spoke to us and explained they were unplugging everyone trying to chase someone stealing their internet. About 3/4 day to fix it. Then the DHCP server locked up. About 2 hours to fix that. Then on the second last day, unplugged from the switch again. A speedy 1.5hrs this time. The internet in the rooms is wired, so only one laptop at a time, but it is pretty quick most of the time, although even when it's working, it's fairly inconsistent.

I know this doesn't matter to lots of people, but if it's critical to you as it is for us, make sure you include the necessity on your booking so you have a better place to argue from. Also, as with all complaints at any hotel in Fiji, if you really want it fixed, ask to speak to a manager immediately, otherwise it seems to be about a 50/50 chance whether your problem is passed on to anyone who can fix it.

Costs & Billing

This is really, really complicated. At the basic level, the rooms cost more at the Sheraton Villas. There are meal packages for the Fijian, but not the Sheraton, but the meal packages are far from all-inclusive. When we went to the Sheraton, we paid for a Starwood card (about $300 in 2011) that gave us a free meal with every adult meal purchased, which meant we didn't end up spending that much on meals. Both places generally have "kids eat free" deals, and while they sometimes claim this applies only to 2 kids, we've always had all 3 kids covered by it. At the Sheraton, the kids eat free whenever they dine with their parents, at most restaurants, when they eat from the kids' menu. At the Fijian, kids eat free with or without their parents, but only at the buffet.

We bought the full meal plan at the Fijian, but it just gives you an allowance for each meal, which is equivalent to the cost of the buffet (but not the seafood buffet on Friday nights which is more). The prepayment costs about FJ$12 (~10%) per day less than it's worth per person, so you only have to miss a couple of meals before it isn't worth it.

I think, in the end, the Fijian is cheaper, but not by a whole lot, so if the pros outweigh the cons for the Sheraton for you, cost is probably not going to be a deciding factor (at least based on the prices I was comparing for this holiday).

The billing itself is a drama at the Fijian. Opening a tab to buy a few drinks at a bar often confuses the staff, and only some of them seem to get it. However, if you sign off each drink, you're also likely to be scolded by the staff who do know how to run a tab. It's not a big deal, but it's kinda frustrating. There is no running tally on the TV, or anywhere else, to check that it looks ok as you go, and when you finally get the bill, they randomly add separate bills together, and separate out some of the taxes, which makes reconciling your receipts with the bill just about impossible. The bills at the Sheraton are clear and easy to check.

In the end though, it's all about chilling out in a country that values its slow pace, and with sunsets like these, all my whinging seems kind of pathetic.