Have you ever dreamed of moving to a tropical island?
Maybe you were on a beach vacation, with your toes in the warm sand and palm trees rustling in the ocean breeze, and you thought, I could live here. Or you were hunkered down in your house while an icy winter storm was blowing and the temperature dropped to arctic levels, and you thought, I can’t take another winter.
But then, as soon as you start imagining your house on the beach, a critical voice in your head pops up to crush your dream… don’t be silly, how could you ever do that, you can’t leave your home and your job, what would people think?
While there can be solid reasons for staying put, how many of those thoughts are just a way to avoid making a big and bold change in your life?
Let’s pause for a moment and set those critical thoughts aside. Without those thoughts, what could you do? Who would you be?
I’m delighted to introduce you to Susan Stone.
She and her husband, Jeff Mather, are living the dream. They moved from the desert southwest of Albuquerque all the way to Fiji, which truly is a tropical island paradise. They purchased land, designed and built their house, created beautiful fish ponds surrounded by tropical flowering gardens and added a guest cottage (called Tropic Splendor) right on the beach – which is how we met. My husband and I traveled to Fiji and stayed in their cottage (twice!). It is a magical place.
I interviewed Susan and asked if she would share her story – how two regular people (in their 40s) living a regular life (they didn’t win the lottery, they don’t have a trust fund) made the leap to move to a tropical island paradise.
I began by asking Susan what their life was like before moving to Fiji:
Jeff had been working for the US Army Corps of Engineers for 14 years and decided he’d had enough after they moved him to upper management, which wasn’t as fun as being a hands-on engineer. I had already left my scientific welding job (and an awful five-hour daily commute) at Los Alamos National Laboratory and was doing contract welding out of our own little shop. I wanted to do something more creative, so I started designing decorative cut metal lighting sconces.
I started a lighting business, Stone Mather Designs, and lo-and-behold, we did a few trade shows and started getting really busy. Jeff was more and more having to help me with orders. We did trade shows across the country, and what we did was we’d work like mad to get all the orders out and then we’d take off a few weeks to travel.
We got the idea to go to Fiji and check it out when I was reading the classifieds section in the back of Islands magazine about properties for sale. There was an ad there for a one-acre beachfront property for $16K. (We’d just been driving around Albuquerque with friends who showed us some properties for sale near them, and one acre of desert was $40K.) We like the tropics – we’d been to Tahiti several times and I spent summers in Hawaii when I was growing up because of my father’s work there.
In the same issue was also an ad for a sea kayaking business for sale. Both the sea kayaking business and the beachfront property were in the same town in Fiji. So, Jeff and I were riding our bicycles one Sunday afternoon, feeling burned out from working 24/7 on our business, and I said, why are we working so hard? We thought, let’s go there and check it out. We visited Fiji a few months later and fell in love with our property as soon as we saw it.
Why did you want to make a change?
We needed to move forward. We were at a point with our business that if we really wanted to grow it, we would need more employees which meant instead of working in our workshop on our property, we would have to relocate to a building in an industrial area. Neither of us liked the idea of doing that.
We talked to a few people about selling our business, but they said we’d never be able to sell it because it was our creativity and no one else could do that. Well, it turned out they were wrong! We sold it to a couple who had a machine shop and were doing the laser cutting of our designs for us for the past few years. It was a good match for all of us.
After buying this raw piece of land in Fiji, we got together with a builder from New Zealand and he built our house. When it was finished we couldn’t stay away, we knew it was time to move. Once we were there for six months, we decided to build the cottage out front and started the hospitality business shortly after that.
People who know about our lighting business ask us why we don’t just do it from Fiji? My simple answer is, I didn’t move to Fiji to work that hard!
What was it like to make this big move?
I have this saying I made up: Life is short, have dessert first.
Nothing was carved in stone. We knew if it didn’t work out, we could turn around and sell it and try something else.
People ask us, is it hard to move to Fiji? I say, no it’s not hard to move to Fiji. It’s hard to make the decision to move to Fiji.
We all want to make the right decision, and some people work it over to death to make sure they don’t make a bad decision. We tried to look at things the best we could before moving. We’d always lived frugally and saved money. We also sold our place. We knew if it didn’t work out, we’d have enough to move back. And with my parents, siblings and our many friends in the US, that was our anchor if it didn’t work out.
Our parents were quite unhappy with us because they didn’t want to see us leave and go so far away. In those days, we didn’t have skype. In Fiji we didn’t have a land line, we just had a cell phone which was very expensive. We couldn’t get internet access at our house. We had a friend in town who allowed us to have a telephone line installed in his shop and we hooked up to that phone line. We’d go to town daily and download everything in order to take bookings. It was really basic.
Now we can do practically everything online. Things have changed which has made it so much easier.
Now, after running Tropic Splendor for 14 years, Susan and Jeff have sold their property and find themselves at another crossroad.
We were tired of doing the tourism business. Fiji doesn’t make it easy to have a business – a lot of paperwork every month. I loved meeting people and showing them the real Fiji, but the paperwork was getting to be too much, the houses were getting older and we wanted the freedom to be doing other things and travelling.
Now that we’re free and clear of the business, we’re trying to decide what we want to do when we ‘grow up’ and we’re not sure. We’re taking some time.
We’re excited about deciding what we want to do next. We’re thinking, what do we want to do? It’s both scary and exciting.
They still live in Fiji on a 2-acre hillside property overlooking their old beachfront property and keep busy with other projects. Susan has been making jewelry since she was 12, and she sells her designs made with freshwater and local black pearls in resort gift shops on the island, as well as at the monthly crafts market in town for visiting cruise ship passengers.
Both Susan and Jeff are part of Rotary International, a service organization. Partnering with Fiji’s Ministry of Health, their Rotary Club has been working on increasing access to clean water in local villages using a simple water filtration system designed by Jeff.
We’re very involved in our Rotary projects. Jeff’s safe water stations have been a huge success. We installed them for 300 homes two years ago which provide clean water for over 1,500 villagers. We have another grant for 600 homes this year. We’re very proud of our work that’s making a difference in a lot of people’s lives. We’ve forged deep connections with the local villages with our efforts and made many new friends.
And if simply living in Fiji wasn’t enough…
Did you know that we were filmed for a reality TV show?
A few years ago an article was written in Islands magazine about us because I’d written a letter to the magazine that said, thanks to two ads in the back of your magazine we made the move to Fiji. Then we got a call from someone in NY saying they were doing a TV show and wanted us to be on it.
They came here in April 2015 to film and they called us their ‘Fiji innovators’ because they loved that Jeff was so clever with his tools. I had bought him a mini-excavator and he made really clever attachments – he took a chain saw and a 10-foot long piece of wood and attached them to the arm of the excavator to cut down branches from trees before storms. They loved that, and loved that I had been a scientific welder and we had a shop full of metal and woodworking tools which made us so self-sufficient. We had a great time!
Read the article in Islands magazine about Susan and Jeff.
Learn more about their clean water projects and see pictures on the Rotary Club’s facebook page
Watch Susan and Jeff on Life’s A Beach (season 1, episode 5)