Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Laying Claim to a Little Paradise

David Gilmour made Wakaya a posh resort. Now Fijians want it back.

Foreigners have always found it hard to resist the siren song of the Fijian isles. And the locals have always found it just as tough to repel them. Take the island of Wakaya, a 2,200-acre emerald of lush jungle greens and chalk-white beaches that rises from the Koro Sea's shark-rife waters about an hour's flight from Suva, the Fijian capital. It is today wreathed in those same lagoony hues of aqua and turquoise that Captain Bligh, cut loose from the mutinous Bounty in 1789, skimmed when seeking refuge in Wakaya's bay. For Bligh, it was not to be. When native warriors aimed their canoes at his small open boat, the captain surmised their intentions -- as he later wrote in his diary, "not necessarily of the most friendly variety" -- and retreated. Now, David Gilmour, the Canadian financier who has owned Wakaya since 1972, has his own troubles with locals: a group of Fijians who argue the island was fraudulently sold two centuries ago, and are laying claim to it.

Times have changed since the Fijian islanders ate their interlopers. Rather than warriors, Gilmour, who has converted Wakaya into a luxurious five-star refuge for the extraordinarily rich, may soon be confronted by lawyers. And he is not alone. Mel Gibson recently bought yet another disputed island and is contending with similar claims. But Gilmour is not known to shrink from a fight, especially one with so much at stake.

Now in his mid-70s, Gilmour was the long-time partner of Peter Munk, with whom he founded such ventures as Barrick Gold, the mining powerhouse, and real estate giant TrizecHahn. Still, wealth has not always sheltered foreigners in Fiji. A coup attempt in 2000 spread from Suva into the archipelago's far-flung resorts -- including the seizure by insurgents of Laucala Island, then owned by the family of U.S. publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes. And when another group of insurgents raided Turtle Island, they held its American owner and a number of guests hostage for some two months.

Even so, Fiji has remained a mostly tranquil island paradise since it first began to boom as a tourist destination in the 1960s. And few resorts can rival the Wakaya Club's guest list of starlets and millionaires. It is where Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel honeymooned, and where Keith Richards suffered his concussive fall from a tree last spring. Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher have holidayed there -- as have Michelle Pfeiffer, Jim Carrey, Céline Dion, Rupert Murdoch and Renée Zellweger. When Nicole Kidman departed Wakaya with old friend Russell Crowe in 2001, she is reported to have just missed her ex-husband, Tom Cruise, who flew in on the island's own private airline just days later.

Indeed, the island, which accepts just 24 guests at a time -- each of whom enjoys a 12-to-one staff-to-guest ratio -- is perhaps the most exclusive holiday destination in the world. As the resort's slogan says, this sprawling, thatch-roofed Xanadu is where "people who have it all go to get away from it all." Eight well-appointed, 1,650-sq.-foot cottages sit against the sea or the island's idyllic gardens, and set guests back up to $7,600 a night. A ninth cottage -- the Governor's Bure -- boasts 2,400 sq. feet and is staffed with butler, laundry service, chef and chauffeur. Alcohol is unlimited. The food is largely Wakaya-grown, cultivated from island corners teeming with wild boars and deer.

For Gilmour, the resort is just one in a string of business successes. He discovered the island in 1971 during a flight over Fiji, and purchased Wakaya the following year for $1 million. By then, he had already confronted both business zeniths and nadirs alongside his one-time University of Toronto chum Munk. Gilmour -- from Winnipeg, the son of a military man and an opera singer -- was something of an outsider on Bay Street. Clairtone, his first venture with Munk, was a hi-fi manufacturer that by the mid-'60s had turned the pair into the wunderkinds of Canadian business. When it went bust in 1971, the two managed to salvage enough money to start Southern Pacific Hotel Corp., snapping up properties around the world.

Gilmour's swashbuckling over the next three decades helped lead to the founding of Barrick Gold, TrizecHahn, and eventually to another Fiji-based triumph. Gilmour was watching Bill and Melinda Gates -- who honeymooned on Wakaya in 1994 -- playing a round on the island's nine-hole golf course, when he noticed them sipping from bottles of French-imported mineral water. Gilmour realized there was likely a purer source nearby. Within days, he'd been alerted to a recently discovered underground reservoir of 450-year-old rainwater on Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. Gilmour arranged to tap the reserve and established Fiji Water, marketing it through word-of-mouth and savvy product placements in U.S. films and television shows. He sold the company in 2004 -- reportedly for about $60 million.

He has also seen tragedy. In 1983, Munk's son Anthony found Gilmour's daughter Erin -- the two wealthy offspring were said to have been dating at the time -- in a pool of blood, the victim of a still-unsolved knife attack.

Through all the highs and lows, Gilmour's heart always rested with the coral-crested island and his boutique resort for the stars. Though he now spends much of his time in Palm Beach, Fla., and is no longer involved in many of his former businesses, Gilmour continues to operate the Wakaya Club.

Now an indigenous group is preparing a case against the Fijian government in hopes of getting the aging tycoon to cough up his paradise (or at least share its wealth). Francis Waqa Sokonibogi, a Fijian activist who is spearheading the legal case, claims the group has documents proving the group's ancestors were duped out of the island, which was sold by a local chieftain in the 1840s for a single shilling. The government of the day, he says, ignored their protesting forefathers. "We are trying to do this to prevent future coups and unrest," says Sokonibogi, who muses that the Wakayans could one day form a partnership with Gilmour. Yet Doug Carlson, the resort's chief executive, holds that at the time of its original sale Wakaya had not been inhabited since Komai-na-Ua, its ruler in the early 19th century, led its people to commit mass suicide by jumping off a 180-m cliff rather than surrender to approaching enemies.

That version of events is in keeping with what is known of Fiji prior to its becoming a British colony in 1874, when chieftains engaged in internecine battles to evict the inhabitants of neighbouring islands before selling their land to foreigners engaged in the lucrative coconut and sandalwood trades. "There's historical instances of islands being sold for a couple of hundred muskets," says Cheyenne Morrison, an Australian private island broker. Mago Island, purchased by Mel Gibson in late 2004 for a reported US$15 million, is said to have been originally sold for 2,000 coconut plants. On Mago, according to locals now raising money for another court case, is a cave filled with the bones of those slaughtered for the island. Other accounts say Mago's inhabitants were evicted at gunpoint.

Whatever their historical basis, such claims are easily exploited by agitators seeking to fan the rancour of Fijians, many of whom live in Third World conditions even as their neighbours dine on venison. One luxury real estate site now lists Fijian private islands ranging from US$1.25 million to US$38 million. "There's of a lot of resentment in Fiji over the fact that the islands and the resorts are changing hands for astronomical amounts of money -- and the Fijians aren't getting any of it," says Morrison. Yet the legal cases being launched against the Fijian government aren't likely to lead to redress -- particularly when the lands in question belong to two wealthy and connected men. "The court case would be incredibly expensive," says Morrison, "and Gibson and Gilmour have huge amounts of money -- they would just throw money at it."

By: Köhler, Nicholas, Maclean's, 10/2/2006

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