As our two-engine speedboat starts the journey back to Port Denarau Marina, a major port on Fiji’s main island, we lurch to an unexpected stop.
A seal on the fuel injector on the engine has loosened, so we sputter back to the mainland at half the usual pace.
But the possibility of such a transit hiccup is the chance you take when visiting a floating pizza bar in the middle of the South Pacific.
Opened in 2013, Cloud 9 bobs above Roro Reef in the Mamanuca archipelago, about 45 minutes off the west coast of Fiji.
“Prior to Cloud 9, Fiji was famous for family getaways and swaying palms, but it was really, really quiet,” Bar’el Wachtel, co-founder of Cloud 9, tells CNN Travel.
“There’s still not a lot to do, but Cloud 9 offers a gathering spot for people to come from all the hotels and experience a different kind of place.”
A ticket to paradise
If a buoyant bar in the middle of the ocean sounds like someone’s pipe dream — that’s not too far off the mark.
An Australian DJ, sailor and avid surfer, Wachtel dreamed up the remote bar with friends during a surfing trip in Fiji.
“I’d always been from a marine background — my father is a yachtie and circumnavigator — and the sea has been my home for a very long time,” recalls Wachtel.
“Surfing brought me to Fiji as a visitor about seven years ago. It’s a really tricky place to surf, because the breaks are so isolated. You really need a boat to access everything. We thought it’d be amazing to have a meeting place, closer to the breaks.”
When scouting locations, Wachtel and his business partner chose the spot carefully.
They finally settled on a crystal-clear lagoon, about nine miles southwest of Fiji’s famous Cloudbreak swell.
Thanks to surrounding islands, the relatively shallow water is generally protected from the strongest winds and waves.
The restaurant has one mooring, so it sways gently in the breeze and, in case of a storm, a boat can tug it to safety in about one day.
Build it and they’ll come
Designed by Fiji-based architect Lisa Philp, the floating restaurant was constructed using three different types of local wood: mahogany, raintree and treated pine.
The two-story structure sits atop two pontoons, while sun shades protect guests from the intense rays and solar panels power the entire operation.
“We wanted people to be able to move easily in and out of the water, to have some dry areas, and also plenty of shade,” says Wachtel.
“The over-water structure allows guests to access the reef in a way that’s not possible if we were to have just set up on land.”
The most complicated part of the process wasn’t in the restaurant’s construction, but in the building of relationships with various local stakeholders.
“Here in Fiji, there is the government and then there are the land owners, the indigenous custodians of any area. Gaining their support is crucial to being able to operate everywhere in Fiji,” explains Wachtel.
The hardest part was about six months after opening.
“We encountered a lot of hurdles,” he adds. “I needed to move to Fiji and take over the operation, because my first business partner, who was the original manager, didn’t get it right.”
A day on Cloud 9
Cloud 9 was mostly a hangout for serious surfers when it first opened, but the guest list has expanded considerably over the years to include young couples, groups of friends and even a few families.
With two daily sessions, Wachtel estimates that the place welcomes roughly 200 visitors a day during peak season.
When guests disembark from the ferry, they tend to find their own little nook.
Each level offers varied seating arrangements, including large day beds, shaded communal tables, bar seating and rows of sun-soaked reclining chairs.
Once settled, you can rent snorkel gear, jump from the top deck and swim around the reef, where you’ll find colorful coral and a smattering of fascinating fish.
“A lot of places offer a party on an island, but I was attracted to this project because it’s unique and it’s authentic,” says Wachtel.
“You get the feeling of being really far out, but you still have a sense of proximity to a lot of important tourist destinations, such as Port Denarau.”
The floating paradise also lures music lovers from all over the world, thanks to a rotating roster of guest DJs, including international DJ Ant J. Steep — an Australian DJ and composer who fills the air with mellow, moody electronic beats.
“Since I was coming from a music background, it was important for me to figure out a way to throw parties out here and provide a cutting-edge music policy,” says Wachtel.
Following each guest DJ performance, Wachtel uploads the set to Cloud 9’s Soundcloud account so visitors can tune in at home.
How’s the pizza like?
Served on thick wood butchers’ boards, thin crust, wood-fired pizza is the order of the day.
There are about six options available, including classic Margherita and Hawaiian (topped with ham and pineapple).
It’s maybe not the best pizza we’ve ever had, but we were impressed with the homemade dough (made fresh every morning) and crispy crust.
“Pizza was an elegant solution, because we have environmental considerations out here,” says Wachtel. “With a full menu, you need to have a full kitchen.”
“Waste is obviously a very important logistical consideration for us — we have to transport everything back to the mainland and we want to preserve the beauty of the area, so we do everything we can to minimize waste.”
At the bar, day drinkers can order tropical cocktails from every shade in the rainbow, a few local beers like Fiji Gold and Fiji Bitter, and a handful of wines and bubbly.
“Obviously having a fully stocked bar was very important,” recalls Wachtel. “We wanted to have the raddest lounge bar in the world — a meeting place in the middle of the ocean.”