FIJI: Suva’s white lady sees in a new century

The Grand Pacific Hotel Photo: Belinda Jackson
In search of Suva's old colonial soul, Belinda Jackson pays homage to the centenarian Grand Pacific Hotel, now celebrating a makeover that's 22 years late.

She was dubbed "The Raffles of the South Pacific", and her title, the Grand Pacific Hotel, is suitably eminent. But to the locals, Suva's distinguished colonial hotel is simply the GPH. The GPH has always been here, as far as living memory goes back. It's the dictionary definition of colonial style: deep verandas, nattily dressed doormen and a starring role in the history of a nation. 

When the hotel first opened, on May 23, 1914, Fiji had been a British colony for 40 years, an official cannibal-free zone for 38 years and Suva its capital for just 32 years. The hotel's original layout included an array of extremely specific rooms; for dining, smoking, playing billiards, writing and drinking. There were electric lights and fans, and "the first-floor bedrooms have bathrooms with both hot and cold salt and fresh water baths," early advertisements boasted.

Unfortunately, just a few months after its opening, World War I broke out, stymieing its position as the eminent Pacific hotel during the grand era of steamer-ship travel. But the hotel regrouped and capitalised on its location on the edge of Suva Harbour, the country's premier port.

Queen Elizabeth II has dropped in not once, but three times. The first time, in 1953, she was a dewy-eyed girl, fresh to the demands of the crown, and locals sailed traditional canoes (camakau) into Suva Harbour to meet the royal yacht, Britannia. The Queen stayed in what is now known – unsurprisingly – as the Queen Elizabeth suite. If she was expecting grand ocean views, she'd have been disappointed. Her suite faces Victoria Parade, with a massive, private balcony that juts out over the entrance, just the spot where a beautiful, young queen could wave to her rapturous audience, who, in return, would sing their sweet farewell song, Isa Lei, back to her.

Yes, there is a photo wall where the hotel displays its list of visiting celebrities, who include actor Burt Lancaster and author Somerset Maugham and our own Dame Nellie Melba, who swanned in during World War I. In 1928, aviator Charles Kingsford Smith popped in on his way across the Pacific, flying 36 hours from Hawaii and forcing the locals to cut two rows of trees in Albert Park, adjacent to the hotel, to accommodate his landing. And yes, there's the current prime minister, Frank Bainimarama, in between them all.

GPH personifies the era of travelling with trunks, of Grand Tours and afternoons at leisure. Most of the early managers were retired steamer stewards and its 35 rooms were never enough to satisfy demand. The American author James A Michener wrote in his 1992 memoir that "the barefoot Indians who served the meals had a grace that few hotels in the world could offer and none surpass". Michener had stayed in the hotel as a US soldier during WWII, when it was turned over to the army, and returned after the war.

The Fifties did nothing good for the GPH: it turned an ignoble shade of pink, following the lead of The Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki Beach, also built in in the 1920s and dubbed "the Pink Palace of the Pacific". The period is captured in highly coloured postcards, an aquamarine pool surrounded by groovers and beach umbrellas, male waiters serving in sulus, the Fijian sarong and official uniform.  And the Eighties were even worse: by 1992, the GPH was abandoned even by the army, left to the mercy of scrap metal dealers and a corrosive tropical climate. Having a volatile parliament house didn't help, either.

But, like the Queen, the GPH is a stayer, this year celebrating her centenary. A three-year, $90 million redevelopment has bulldozed any signs of the GPH's ageing, funded by a consortium of superannuation funds from PNG, New Zealand and Fiji.

Once again the gracious hostess, this Friday night, GPH is the place to be seen in Suva. The massive new ballroom is hosting Fiji Fashion Week, and the island's most influential women are trooping through the doors in an array of glamorous gowns.

But it's really all happening on the terrace, where a local band has set the pace, with a racy sprint through the early evening set before slowing down to flip into Lovesongs-and-Memories mode. Did you know that Lionel Richie has actually been reborn as a Fijian crooner? And the crowd loves it.
It all starts with a bang – well, the ringing of a large bell – at 6pm, when the first of the night's two happy hours kicks off. The first happy hour runs for two hours, then the drinkers and bar staff have a break until the second happy hour kicks the night along from 10pm.

Fashionistas, local movers and shakers, a few tourists and plenty of expats lounge on white cane chairs ordering long, frosty glasses of Fiji Bitter. The general manager, Swiss-born Eugene Diethelm, now on his 16th hotel opening, estimates the crowd at between 500 and 600 people each Friday night.

There's formal dining inside in the air-con, filling bar snacks out by the pool. This being Fiji, where imported wine and red meat come at a premium, the best buy on the menu is excellent local fish, that is wahoo, walu or mahimahi. However, if you came over all traditional, you could call for a saddle of venison with red cabbage and brussels sprouts, or go nouveau-riche with a cut of beef from exclusive Wakaya Island, off Suva's coast. The view from the terrace is of the long infinity pool, lit royal blue against the darkening sky, and swathes of perfect lawn with the backdrop of Laucala Bay. And because this is family-friendly Fiji, that perfect lawn is dotted, without irony, with a set of plastic swings and slides.

The original building has 10 suites, and the pick of the bunch is undoubtedly No. 1, the largest Royal Suite and the only one with ocean views. All the other original suites overlook the gardens and Suva's low-slung skyline, best seen from a rattan chair on the wide, private verandah, cool drink in hand.

The rest of the accommodation is one side in two new wings. There are 103 new rooms ranging from the most economical, the Grand Pacific Deluxe Room rooms in its Kingsford Smith garden wing, up to the Royal Club Rooms, in the New Wing. Yes, all the rooms in the New Wing have views over the pool or ocean, with lush Pure Fiji toiletries, a fruit platter, complimentary neck massage in the little spa and a sweet present from the sparkling new Swiss bakery. However, architecturally, this is the hotel's downfall. From the exterior, the new wing could be any airport hotel in any part of the world. And while the interior is comfortable, it's just not channelling heritage chic.

If your budget can stretch to it – and from $720 a night, it is a stretch – the suites capture the essence of the hotel. If it's an ocean view and modern luxury you're after, you can save a couple hundred dollars and opt for the vast Royal Club rooms, with uninterrupted ocean views.

On a quick drive down Victoria Parade, it's easy to spot the GPH's contemporaries. The Law Court, Government  Buildings and the city's Carnegie Library all show the same hallmarks of the architectural era: once-white facades, gracious arches and date stamps over the entrances.
Many of the city's Grade A heritage buildings are also being renovated, perhaps spiked by the interest in GPH. Already the bridal market has thrown its bouquet into the ring to declare it best the place for a chic, city wedding, which comes with a night in the Queen Elizabeth suite.

Chances are the GPH will become a destination hotel, though it certainly doesn't come cheap. But Suva seems to come without the hard-edged hustle of its western rival, Nadi. Well, at least on the days there's not a cruise ship in town. What is undeniable is the local pride in Suva's gleaming white hotel, which, after a generation of neglect, has made the transition from eyesore to elegance.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION fiji.travel.
GETTING THERE Fiji Airways flies direct to Nadi from Sydney and Melbourne daily, and flies Sydney to Suva twice a week. fijiairways.com
STAYING THERE Rooms cost from $390/deluxe room (garden views) to $500/Royal Club room for (ocean-facing). Heritage suites cost from $720 to $1000 a night. See grandpacifichotel.com.fj
THINGS TO SEE & DO Five minutes' walk will take you to the Museum of Fiji and the Presidential Palace. Other Suva highlights include the local markets, selling tropical flowers and the Pure Fiji natural cosmetics and spa. The hotel also has a small, exclusive collection of shops selling Fijian pearls and fashion. 

The writer was a guest of Fiji Airways

This feature by Belinda Jackson was published in the Sun-Herald newspaper's Traveller section.

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