June 07, 1999 12:00 PM

If you’re the richest man in America, where do you go to absolutely, positively get away from it all? How about Wakaya, a tiny Fijian island in the South Pacific? The exclusive resort that Canadian-born entrepreneur David Gilmour opened in 1990 promises guests—Bill and Melinda Gates, Michelle Pfeiffer and TV producer David Kelley and Jim Carrey and Lauren Holly have honeymooned there—the ultimate holiday. “When you leave, you cry,” says Celine Dion, who went to Wakaya after her 1994 marriage, “because it is an experience out of the ordinary.”

Gilmour, 67, who has owned the five-mile isle since the early 1970s, takes such devotion in stride. He began creating the resort in 1988 and has built his celebrity guest list mostly by word of mouth. Thanks to the island’s rocky cliffs, azure waters and absence of prying eyes, “Wakaya is the consummate place to retreat,” says Gilmour. He and his New Zealand-born wife of 18 years, Jill, 49, live in their light-filled, three-bedroom Wakaya spread two months of the year; they also have homes in New York City and Palm Beach, Fla.

Guests—including Tim Allen, Pierce Brosnan, Fran Drescher and Patrick Stewart—touch down on Wakaya’s 2,500-foot airstrip in Gilmour’s six-seater private plane and are greeted with a split of Taittinger champagne, tropical fruit and freshly baked ginger cookies. They then spend a luxurious week in one of nine thatched-roof guest villas, each complete with a four-poster rattan bed, a deluxe private bathroom and at least five employees to cater to their needs (cost: $1,200 to $1,400 per night). To enhance a sense of isolation from the outside world, Gilmour keeps the villas TV-and telephone-free. Recreation includes scuba diving amid dramatic coral reefs and hiking on scenic trails. For the less energetic, plenty of hammocks, masseuses and icy drinks await. Said Seattle racehorse breeder Karen Taylor shortly after arriving in April: “I feel like I have landed on Fantasy Island.”

What most Wakaya visitors do not know, however, is that this real-life paradise has tragic associations. In 1983, Gilmour’s daughter Erin, then 21 and a fashion designer at a Toronto shop, was stabbed to death in her apartment. (Her assailant was never found.) Gilmour, who had split with Erin’s mother in 1968 after 10 years of marriage, blamed himself. Erin had loved her lengthy childhood stays with Gilmour on Wakaya, and she “had wanted to teach art and history on Fiji,” he says. “But I sent her home to Toronto to finish her education. I said, ‘You just can’t suddenly become an island girl.’ ”

For two years after Erin’s death, Gilmour licked his wounds in Wakaya. “I felt sorry for myself,” he says. He began to emerge from his grief only after resolving to launch several philanthropic ventures in Erin’s memory. “I saw an inner strength I didn’t know he had,” says Jill of her husband’s turnaround. “Because of Erin’s propensity to care for people less well-off than she, David decided to do something she would have wanted him to do.”

His first move, in 1984, was to raise $500,000 to found a learning center for the blind in the Bahamas. But it seemed only logical to start a venture on Erin’s beloved Wakaya too. In 1990, Gilmour opened the resort, dedicating 100 percent of its profits to improving schools on many of Fiji’s more than 300 islands. (Jill, a former fashion buyer, did everything from designing the island’s buildings to teaching their new Fijian employees how to cook pasta and to iron shirts.) Gilmour built a village on Wakaya for the resort’s staff and pays for the education—through high school or trade school—of their 40 children.

Gilmour had another bright idea when he noticed resort guests bringing in bottled water: He researched several Fiji islands and hired a team to drill on a 50-acre parcel of dry land near a rain forest on the nearby island of Viti Levu. They found high-quality water, and he promptly acquired from the Fiji government a long-term lease of 20 acres on which to build a plant. In 1996, Natural Waters of Viti Ltd. was born—and Wakaya guests, as well as thousands of buyers in North America, began drinking Fiji water (33-oz. bottles sell in U.S. gourmet and grocery stores for $1.40). Eventually, Gilmour says, he will use his water profits to set up educational programs and scholarships in Fiji. His generosity hasn’t gone unnoticed: Fijian President Ratu Sir Kmisese Mara awarded Gilmour an honorary officership (similar to a knighthood) in April.

Gilmour’s father, Harrison Gilmour, an officer in the Canadian army and later a businessman, would have been proud. The youngest of four children born to Harrison and his opera-singer wife, Doris Godson-Godson, in Winnipeg, Man., David Gilmour spent two years studying institutional management at the University of Toronto, then joined a Canadian cavalry regiment. After a one-year military stint, he launched his first business, Scan-Trade, to import wares from Scandinavia—with just $2,300 in savings. In 1958, he joined forces with his old college friend Peter Munk to launch a consumer-electronics company.

By 1969, the duo had put together enough seed money to start the Southern Pacific Hotel Corporation, which would become the largest hotel chain in the South Pacific. Munk and Gilmour sold the chain nearly a decade later and formed the Barrick Gold Corporation, a gold-mining firm that made a $301 million profit in 1998 and in which the two remain partners. In the meantime, Gilmour had bought Wakaya for $1 million. “The minute I flew over it,” he says, “I knew I had to buy it.”

Today, much of Gilmour’s time is devoted to Natural Waters. “It is his life,” says company CEO Doug Carlson. And, Gilmour swears, his lifeline. The water contains antiaging properties, he claims. “The island is so far away from acid rain, overpopulation and pollution that it is a pure ecosystem,” says Gilmour. Michael Bolton will raise a glass to that. “I only drink Fiji water,” says the singer. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to taste the purity.”

Though Gilmour, who had quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 1996, still has interests in businesses outside Wakaya, he says he is through with the rat race. “There is not another material thing I want,” says Gilmour. “There is tremendous energy focused on where priorities in life should be. I am very lucky.”

Jeremy Helligar

Vicki Sheff-Cahan in Wakaya

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